Boost Willpower and Stop Procrastination By Thinking Abstract or Concrete
thinking concrete versus abstract

How to Fine-tune Your Thinking to Instantly Boost Willpower, Curb Temptations, and Stop Procrastination Dead In Its Tracks

Any goal you pursue or action you take can be thought about in a number of different ways.

Brushing the teeth can be called “moving the brush back and forth across the teeth” or “keeping the teeth clean and healthy”. Exercising can be thought of as “trying to lose weight”, “becoming more fit”, or “running on the treadmill”. Learning for a French test can be about wanting to “learn and master a foreign language” or “getting most answers right”.

We usually don’t consciously decide in what way to think about a goal or action. It just happens unconsciously without us being aware of it.

But research has found compelling evidence showing that being able to change our thinking voluntarily and choosing the right type of thinking in the right time can reap tremendous rewards. Learning to adjust our thinking style can help us become more self-disciplined, resist the allure of temptations, and even stop us from procrastinating.

In today’s article, I’m going to show you exactly how it all works. Sometimes it may sound a bit complicated, but bear with me and you’ll realize just how beneficial this can be.

Two Ways of Thinking about the Things You Do

There are two primary ways in which we think about the goals and actions we engage in. Put differently, there are two primary ways in which we interpret or construe the world around us. These two modes are called ‘high level construal’ and ‘low level construal’.

1) High level construal is when we’re thinking abstractly. It’s when we focus on the bigger picture, not the details. We focus on the ‘why’ behind our actions. We connect small, everyday actions to something larger and more important, to long-term goals. It’s like we’re literally high up in the sky, seeing the whole forest and not just the trees.

As a result, this type of thinking helps us be more patient, less impulsive, less vulnerable to temptations, and more self-disciplined. We’ll talk more about these benefits and when to use abstract thinking later in this article.

If you consider exercise, for example, abstract thinking could include wanting to improve your health, becoming fitter, being able to play with your grandchildren, having more energy, feeling better about yourself, boosting self-esteem, and so on. These are all fairly abstract and tell us why we want to exercise.

abstract high level construal thinking

High level construal, abstract thinking is like seeing the world from a bird's perspective. Very objective, allows you to see the whole forest, easy to connect short-term actions with long-term goals, sees temptations for what they are.

2) Low level construal is when we’re thinking concretely. We’re much more focused on the nitty-gritty, on the specifics of the present. We focus on the ‘what’ behind our actions. We think about how to get something done, not why we should get it done in the first place. It’s like we’re literally on the ground – in the forest, seeing the trees, but not seeing the forest.

This type of thinking tends to make us more impulsive, but also helps us take action and get into doing mode. Again, we’ll talk more about this later in the article.

If you consider exercise, concrete thinking could include picking up the dumbbell and doing bicep curls, getting on the treadmill and start running, putting on the workout clothes, starting the workout playlist, start working out. These are all concrete and specific and tell us exactly what to do and how to exercise.

concrete low level construal thinking

Low level construal, concrete thinking is like seeing the world from a frog's perspective. Can't see the forest for the trees, short-term oriented, vulnerable to temptations, impulsive.

Here's a short summary of the two types of thinking and what they're all about:

High Level Construal,
Abstract Thinking

Low Level Construal,
Concrete Thinking

  • Abstract thinking
  • Asks ‘why’ we do things
  • Focuses on ends rather than means
  • Focuses on the big picture
  • Concrete thinking
  • Asks ‘what’ we do specifically and ‘how’ we do it
  • Focuses on means rather than ends
  • Focuses on the nitty-gritty

And here are a bunch of examples showing the differences between the two types of thinking:

Action or Goal

High Level Construal,
Abstract Thinking

Low Level Construal,
Concrete Thinking

Making a list

Getting organized

Writing things down

Cleaning the house

Creating a healthy atmosphere

Vacuuming the floor

Greeting someone

Being friendly

Nodding the head and saying hello

Mowing the lawn

Beautifying the surroundings

Moving the lawn mower over the grass

Going on vacation

Relaxation and fun

Booking the flight

Children playing frisbee

Children enjoying themselves

Two children throwing a yellow frisbee

Exercising

Improving health and fitness

Running on a treadmill

A cookie

A sugary, unhealthy, overweight-producing food

A delicious, mouthwatering treat

Note that both types of thinking are accurate. “Getting organized” and “writing things down” are both correct ways of describing making a list. But that’s not the point here. The point is that the two types of thinking can lead to different results. They both have their own merits and advantages and can, under the right circumstances, lead to greater achievement. The trick is to adjust your thinking according to your situation – something we’re learning to do later in this article.

First, though, we have to understand which factors lead us to either think abstractly or concretely…

What Determines or Influences Our Mode of Thinking?

If we want to create the right balance between our modes of thinking, it helps to first understand when we might be unconsciously biased towards one kind or the other.

There are many different factors influencing our mode of thinking. For our discussion, however, only three are of real importance: are we thinking about the future or the present? Are we thinking about ourselves or other people? Are we thinking about an easy or a difficult task?

Let’s run through all three of them real quick.

Are you thinking about the present or the future?

One major influence on whether you think of an action or goal abstractly or concretely is time – to be more specific, how long it’s going to be before you actually do whatever it is you are planning to do. Are you going to move to a new city tomorrow or a year from now? Are you eating that cookie today or in three weeks?

Research shows that most of us are biased to think about near future plans in more concrete and specific ways, while we think about distant future plans in more abstract, big picture ways.

One study asked participants to describe a set of everyday activities. One half of the people were asked to imagine doing each activity in the near future (“tomorrow”), while the other half was asked to imagine each activity in the more distant future (“next month”). The researchers found that participants described tomorrow’s activities in concrete, nitty-gritty ways, but described next month’s activities in abstract, big picture ways. Moving into a new apartment tomorrow is all about “packing and carrying boxes”, while moving into a new apartment a month from now is more about “starting a new life”.

The further away an event is, the more likely we are to think in abstract, ‘why’, big picture ways. The closer to the present it is, the more likely we are to think of it in concrete, ‘what’, nitty-gritty ways.

If you’ve ever wondered why you sometimes commit yourself to something in the future that seems like a great idea at the time but becomes more and more uncomfortable as the day approaches… this is why. We think about future events in terms of why we want to do them (“Is XYZ a good idea? Will it benefit me in the future? Will it be pleasant, rewarding, fun?”), while neglecting how we’re actually going to get it done (“How am I actually going to make this happen? Is it even possible? What are potential obstacles? What do I need to keep in mind?”). We commit to goals and plans that are good for us and offer potentially rich rewards, but that are also hard to pull off.

Anyway, the point is: When we’re thinking about the distant future, we are biased to think in abstract, big picture, ‘why’ terms. When we’re thinking about the near future, we are biased to think in concrete, nitty-gritty, ‘what’ terms.

Action or Goal

Distant Future (High Level Construal)

Near Future (Low Level Construal)

Moving into a new apartment

Starting a new life, meeting new people, accommodating to a new environment, excitement

Packing and carrying boxes, renting an appropriate car, asking friends to help, stressful

Going on vacation

​Having fun, enjoying oneself, relaxation, having a great time

​Booking the flight, reserving the hotel, getting a VISA if necessary, packing everything

Are you thinking about an easy or difficult task?

Another influence on our mode of thinking is the complexity of a task – the more complex and difficult something is, the more likely we are to think in concrete, specific terms. And vice versa.

One study asked participants to eat Cheerios either with their hands (easy) or with chopsticks (difficult). People who had to use chopsticks described their actions as “moving my hands” or “putting food in my mouth” rather than “getting energy” or “reducing hunger”. In order to eat with the chopsticks, they had to get focused on the ‘what’ or the ‘how’ of what they were doing (e.g. grasping the chopstick, pinching food between them, moving it towards the mouth). They needed to think about the real, nitty-gritty mechanics of eating with chopsticks.

The more complicated, difficult, or unfamiliar a goal or action is, the more biased we are to think in terms of concrete, nitty-gritty mechanics. The easier the task or the better we become at it, the more biased we are to think in of abstract, big picture terms.

Action or Goal

Easy or familiar task (High Level Construal)

Complicated, difficult, unfamiliar task (Low Level Construal)

Eating with or without chopsticks

Getting nutrition, reducing hunger, enjoying a meal

Grasping the chopstick, pinching food, moving the hands

Playing ping-pong for the first time or with lots of experience

​Having fun, competing with another player, doing sports

​Holding the racket, moving it through the air, hitting the ball

Are you thinking about yourself or someone else?

The last influence we need to consider is whether you’re thinking about a goal or an action concerning yourself or someone else. Making decisions on behalf of other people puts us more into an abstract, big picture mode, whereas making decisions on our own behalf puts us more into a concrete, nitty-gritty mode.

It’s easy to say about a friend, “He really should work out more often. I don’t know why he’s eating so unhealthy. He’s really kind of destroying his health. He’d better start eating healthy.” If it’s a friend or a kid, we tend to forget about the ‘how’, the mechanics, the obstacles, the difficulties of a situation. We think in big picture terms – what would be best for him or her?

Yet, when we think about ourselves, we are instantly reminded of the ‘how’, the mechanics, the obstacles, the difficulties of a situation, “Well, I have to first do this, and then I’ll have to plan this, and overcome that obstacle, etc…” We realize that eating healthy or exercising regularly isn’t as easy as it sounds. In other words, we think about the nitty-gritty – exactly how am I going to make this happen?

Action or Goal

Thinking about someone else (High Level Construal)

Thinking about oneself (Low Level Construal)

Exercising regularly

Getting fit, doing something good for his or her health, staying healthy, feeling great afterwards

Hard work, driving to the gym, getting dressed, lifting weights, showering, getting back home, feeling exhausted

Studying for a test

​Getting good grades, becoming smarter, getting a good degree, laying the path to a great future, the right thing to do

​Sitting down, reading, resisting temptations, self-testing, struggle, excitement

Alright, now that we’re aware of these biases, let’s turn to the more interesting part: the science behind the two modes of thinking. Which mode offers which benefits? Which should you use when? And does it even make a difference?

Merits and Flaws of Each Mode of Thinking

To understand some of the nuanced advantages and disadvantages of the different modes of thinking, we’re going to look at three important studies together. Only in the next part will we discuss which mode to use under which circumstance.

The first study we’re looking at was designed to test whether one type of thinking is better for willpower than the other. To find out, researchers brought participants into a lab and measured how long they could hold on to a handgrip (an often-used measure for self-control) – this was the baseline measurement.

Then, participants were asked to fill out a fake student survey designed to put people either in high level construal or low level construal mode of thinking. They accomplished this by getting participants to think about their level of physical health. Half of the people were encouraged to think about why they maintain good physical health (e.g. “to stay healthy and do well in school” – this got them thinking in abstract, big picture terms. The other half were encouraged to think about how they maintained their physical health (e.g. “do some pushups after waking up and go running”) – this got them thinking in concrete, nitty-gritty terms.

After taking this survey, participants were again asked to hold on to the handgrip.

Remarkably, participants in the low construal mode of thinking held on to the handgrip for, on average, 4.9 seconds less than they had during their baseline measurement. In other words, self-control decreased. Participants in the high construal mode of thinking held on to the handgrip, on average, 11.1 seconds longer than during their baseline measurement. In other words, they showed significantly more self-control.

Similar results were achieved in other studies, making a strong argument that we have more self-control when engaging in big picture, abstract, and ‘why’ type of thinking.

Next up, a study looking at modes of thinking and our ability to resist temptations. Female students were presented with a number of different objects, like a car. Half of them were asked to generate a superordinate category for the object (e.g. “a transportation vehicle”) – priming them into thinking more abstractly. Whereas the other half were asked to generate a subordinate example of the object (e.g. “a Ford”) – priming them into thinking more concretely.

After this task, participants were asked to evaluate two objects, a tempting candy bar and a healthy apple. Which would they rather have? Students primed into abstract thinking rated the candy cars more negatively and opted for the apple more often. Again, showing that thinking more abstractly improves self-control.

Last but not least, a series of three studies examined whether the two types of construal had a different impact on procrastination. To find out, researchers asked students to complete a survey and return it to them via e-mail within three weeks in order to earn a cash prize. Before receiving the survey, participants were put into either an abstract or concrete way of thinking – across the three studies, different methods to accomplish that were used.

In one study, for example, participants were asked to take a list of ten activities such as ‘opening a bank account’ or ‘writing in a diary’. Half of the people were asked to come up with reasons why someone might do these things (to put them in the abstract, big picture mode of thinking. The other half received the same list, but were asked to describe how they would actually go about doing each activity (to put them in the concrete, nitty-gritty mode of thinking).

Another version of the study simply showed one half of the participants an image priming them into abstract thinking, while the other half were shown an image priming them into concrete thinking.

study low level versus high level construal

Image 1 primes people into abstract thinking; image 2 primes people into concrete thinking

The researchers then recorded how long each student took to return the survey and win the money – this was the measure of procrastination. The results were remarkable. Across all three studies, the concrete construal people returned their surveys ten to fourteen days earlier than the abstract construal people.

Simply priming people into more concrete, actionable, and nitty-gritty type of thinking reduced procrastination significantly.

Oddly enough, though, that seems to contradict what we just learned earlier. Didn’t higher level construals increase self-control? Shouldn’t more self-control equal less procrastination? In general, yes. So, what’s the deal here? I’ll share my thoughts and recommendations in the next part…

Key Takeaways

Throughout our day-to-day lives, we switch between those two modes of thinking. Sometimes we are biased into thinking more abstractly – e.g. when thinking about the future, other people, or easy tasks – and sometimes we are biased into thinking more concretely – e.g. when thinking about today, ourselves, or difficult tasks.

What the studies show, however, is that we can easily influence our thinking and consciously choose in which mode we’d like to temporarily operate. For example, by asking ourselves ‘why’ we want to engage in some action, we put ourselves in the abstract mode of thinking, whereas asking ‘how’ to do the action will put us in the concrete mode of thinking.

Both modes have their advantages and disadvantages and it doesn’t seem to matter how or why we enter a mode – whether it’s by looking at an image or by thinking about something. But once we’re in a certain mode, we’re more likely to act in certain ways.

High level construal, abstract, big picture, ‘why’ thinking is shown in the studies to boost our self-control and help us overcome the allure of temptations. In this mode, we’re able to see the big picture. We can put things in perspective. We can connect the dots. We literally see how our small actions influence our bigger, long-term goals. We can zoom out, and look at things from a distance, allowing us to objectively decide what’s best for us.

It’s almost like we’re rising up to the clouds, which allows us to consider and take into account every little thing we see. Oh, there’s my long-term financial goal. There’s my future family. There’s my health goal. Oh, and there’s that cookie, a kind of food that gets in the way of me achieving the other goals. And there’s Facebook, some website that can suck up time and distract me.

It’s easy to see how this mode enables us to act more rationally, think things through, make healthier decisions, and act in a more controlled and self-disciplined manner.

Low level construal, concrete, nitty-gritty, ‘what’ thinking seems to lower self-control and make us more vulnerable to temptations. We tend to act more impulsively. It’s almost like we’re pushing our long-term goals out of our awareness. We get fully concentrated on the present, while forgetting the bigger picture. We may forget why we want to eat healthy, exercise, or watch less TV. Our focus is narrowed down. We see the trees, but not the forest. We see the cookie, but not our health goals.

But we’re also more likely to take action and stop procrastinating. We’re on the ground, in the dirt, hustling, working, grinding. What needs to get done? Where do I start? Let’s do this!

And so, clearly, both modes of thinking have their advantages and disadvantages. Like I said in the beginning, the trick is to use the right mode in the right situation.

When to Pick Which Style

Generally, I would argue, it’s best to put yourself in the big picture, ‘why’ mode of thinking as often as possible. This allows you to keep your future goals in mind, get a healthy perspective, make more rational decisions, objectively decide what’s best for you, and of course it helps you fight temptations and be more self-disciplined.

TIP: Use Abstract, big picture, ‘why’ thinking to improve self-control and curb temptations:

Goal

Helpful thinking

Not eating crappy good, e.g. a cookie

“This is simply a piece of food filled with sugar, artificial sweeteners, unhealthy fats, and other crap. It will cause inflammation, suck my energy, cause cravings, make me fat, give me diabetes, and it’ll make me feel like a loser five minutes later.”

You can also use this mode to get excited about your future. Let’s say you want to create motivation for healthy habits such as exercising or meditating regularly. In that case, reminding yourself of ‘why’ you want to do these things is a great way of getting fired up about it.

The same goes for any bad habits you may be struggling with. Reminding yourself of ‘why’ they’re so terrible helps you put them in a negative light. For example, you can think of your smartphone as a way to text friends, play games, and surf the web (concrete construal). Or you can see it as a study killer – something that will distract you from studying, that gets in the way of achieving your long-term goals. You can see a piece of candy as a delicious, mouth-watering treat or as a piece of food that makes you sick, fat, and unhealthy. It’s obvious which way of thinking is more beneficial, isn’t it?

That’s actually something I do quite often. If I, for example, lost my motivation to meditate, then I’ll take a piece of paper, write ‘Why I value meditation’ at the top of it, and then start listing all the reasons why I choose to meditate regularly. This creates motivation and discipline that usually lasts for a couple of days or even weeks. In this way, we could say that this type of thinking also helps us persevere and stick to our long-term plans.

TIP: Use Abstract, big picture, ‘why’ thinking to get excited and motivated

Goal

Helpful thinking

Getting started on a regular exercise regimen

“Why should I even bother exercising regularly? Because exercising always feels great afterwards. It gives me energy, boosts my concentration, increases my confidence, and makes me feel like a champ. It’s well worth it. I actually love it once I get started.”

TIP: Use Abstract, big picture, ‘why’ thinking to persevere

Goal

Helpful thinking

Sticking to your daily meditation schedule

“Why did I commit to daily meditation? Oh, right. It helps me improve concentration and focus. It makes me more compassionate, loving, grateful, and positive. It helps me enjoy mundane tasks a lot more. It makes me happy, proud, and grounded.”

So yeah, my general recommendation is to put yourself in that mode as often as possible. The good news is that it doesn’t seem to matter how you do it. You can try any of the following tricks:

Ask yourself, what would you recommend a good friend or your kid do? (Should she eat that cookie? Should she waste hours of her time on Facebook? Should she meditate and exercise regularly? What’s best for her?)

Ask yourself, why do I want to do __________ ? (Why do you want to clean your room more often? Why do you want to exercise, meditate? Why do you want to study for the next test?)

Ask yourself, why do I NOT want to do __________ ? (Why do you not want to eat that cookie? What do you not want to check Facebook? Why do you not want to stay up late?)

Ask yourself, five years from now… what would you do? (Five years from now, would you eat that cookie? Five years from now, would you spend hours of your day watching TV? Five years from now, would you spend an hour on social media? Or would you rather study for a test?

These are all simple ways of putting yourself in the big picture, abstract, ‘why’ thinking mode, making your more disciplined, rational, and less impulsive.

So, what about the nitty-gritty, concrete, ‘what’ thinking mode? The only time it seems to make sense to use this type of thinking is when you need to overcome procrastination, when you need to get into action.

When you’re overwhelmed facing a huge writing task. Or when you don’t feel like vacuuming the floor, but you know you’ll have to do it eventually… certainly before your wife gets home. Those are examples, in which you want to think about the specifics, about how to do it. (“OK, I need to get the vacuum cleaner out of the closet, plug it in, and start vacuuming. Simple enough. Let’s get it over with.”)

I use it quite often when I can’t get myself to just get started. “OK, all I need to do is sit down, start playing the guided meditation, and follow the instructions. I can do that.” “OK, I just sit down, load a word doc, and start typing. Easy enough.” This works surprisingly well and it does help me overcome procrastination.

TIP: Use Concrete, nitty-gritty, ‘what’ thinking to overcome procrastination

Goal

Helpful thinking

Start writing on your dissertation

“OK, I need to walk to my room, open up the laptop, press the start button, load a word document, and start typing.”

Overall, I think you just need to play with this a bit and find out what works for you. Are you finding yourself tempted by distractions? Are you in need of some motivation? Do you need to persevere? Try to put yourself in big picture, ‘why’ thinking. Are you procrastinating on an uncomfortable task? Try to put yourself in nitty-gritty, action thinking.

Conclusion

Today, we looked at two distinct ways of construing or interpreting our goals and actions.

High level construal thinking is almost like being high up in the sky. Up there, we are able to see the bigger picture, we see how small actions are connected to bigger goals, and we see temptations for what they are – obstacles standing between us and our goals. We connect the dots. As a result, we’re more objective, rational, and self-disciplined in this mode of thinking.

Low level construal thinking, on the other hand, is like being down on the ground. Down here, we’re in the dirt, we’re hustling, we’re working, we’re getting things down, we’re in action mode. But we also tend to act more impulsively and are more likely to succumb to temptations and distractions. We forget about the bigger picture, about why we’re doing what we do, about why we shouldn’t eat that cookie or check Facebook right now. As a result, we’re less disciplined, but more likely to take action and overcome procrastination.

Both interpretations or construals are accurate and none is better than the other. The trick is to choose the right mode of thinking under the right circumstances – that leads to more self-control, less procrastination, and ultimately higher achievement.

In general, it’s a good idea to put yourself in high level construal thinking as often as possible, because that enables you to think long-term, avoid temptations, make rational decisions, and lead a more disciplined life. This mode of thinking is also especially helpful if you need motivation to get started or motivation to keep going with a healthy habit, or when you need self-control to resist temptations.

To put yourself in that mode, ask yourself ‘why’ you’re doing whatever you intend to do. Also, ask yourself how you would behave in 5 years from now or what you would recommend a friend do in a similar situation.

And when should you use low level construal thinking? Either when you’re facing a difficult, unfamiliar, or overwhelming task or when you’re procrastinating. In these cases, put yourself in that mode by asking yourself ‘what’ exactly you have to do. What are the exact, practical, specific steps you need to engage in right now?

And there you have it. That’s how to adjust your thinking to instantly boost willpower, curb temptations, and stop procrastination dead in its tracts.

I know, the topic can seem a bit complicated. But once you try it out, you’ll find it’s actually pretty easy to execute and works surprisingly well.

Thanks for reading. Give this a try. And let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Thanks for Reading

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Nils Salzgeber

Recovering online gaming addict. Recovering procrastinator. Recovering perfectionist. Meditator. Book author. Online teacher. Personal coach. Arsenal FC Fan.

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