Expert Series: What can you learn from the brain of a planner?

Expert Series: What can you learn from the brain of a planner?

(BPT) – By Luca Cazzanti, director of data science at Zulily

“The early bird catches the worm” is an old adage that implies with proper planning you’ll improve your chances at success, but new research about the brain of the planner found that it’s just as much about what you don’t want as what you do want. In fact, avoiding stress and managing anxiety are key factors in how people choose to tackle their to-do lists and other life responsibilities.

What are the driving factors behind planning versus its antithesis, procrastination? What are the benefits and drawbacks? Can these behaviors change? As a business serving millions of moms daily, what insights about planning can help us create a better experience for our customers?

These questions and the lack of research about planning and its benefits are what inspired our company, online retailer Zulily, to commission a study exploring how people are emotionally, cognitively and interpersonally affected by planning compared to procrastinating. Our focus audience was moms, because as heads of households and primary decision-makers for their families, moms often have the most responsibility for planning.

The Brain of the Planner study

Procrastination as a behavior has been widely researched, but planning has been far less studied. Zulily wanted to take a comprehensive approach to the research, so we commissioned third-party researcher Engine to conduct quantitative and qualitative research into planning.

The study began with an online survey with 2,000 U.S. mothers of children aged 0-17, who were classified as either a Planner or a Procrastinator based on how frequently they reported experiencing procrastination-like tendencies, like how often they put off until tomorrow something they intended to do today.

Following completion of the survey, respondents were elected into a Digital Hive, an online qualitative pop-up community of 100 Planners and 100 Procrastinators. During this phase, participants spent a week engaging in a variety of storytelling and video- and photo-based tasks to understand the motivations and emotions connected to planning and procrastination behaviors. For example, moms were asked to debate the topic and take a pro or con side to the phrase ‘nothing good ever comes from doing something last minute’ – and write out their responses. Another activity included putting themselves in a planning scenario where they were asked to shop for the back-to-school season in June.

Their responses to each activity were written down or recorded on webcam, which allowed researchers to capture content that would be submitted for analysis to understand the emotions behind the responses.

In total, respondents contributed 515,548 words of storytelling, which researchers ran through a linguistic coding platform developed by Relative Insight to uncover the differences in language, words and phrases used by Planners versus Procrastinators.

Then, facial coding was captured using iMotions and Affectiva’s AFFDEX technology, which employs computer vision and deep learning to analyze micro-expressions based on a database of over six million faces from 87 different countries, to tease out how emotional response differs among Planners and Procrastinators.

Key findings: Benefits of planning

Having a planful mindset is consistently associated with positives. From paying bills and scheduling doctor visits to holiday shopping and planning vacations, the survey asked mothers to rate how quickly they tended to address these and other life responsibilities, plus how much stress they felt related to each. The results found that Planners are more likely than Procrastinators to manage these types of responsibilities earlier, and therefore, feel less anxious about them.

Beyond long-term reduced stress, Planners have more positive life outcomes, rating themselves as healthier, happier, more confident and more financially secure compared to their counterparts. This is likely because the ability to plan ahead opens time and headspace for pleasurable pursuits and personal passions, whether that’s exploring a hobby, enjoying time with family or socializing with friends. What’s more, planners also report feeling more respected by those around them.

Linguistic coding of the Hive responses revealed that Planners focused on areas of joy and passion (arts and crafts, travel, cooking, shopping, sports, music and family). Meanwhile, analysis of the words and topics of Procrastinators revealed a tendency towards the sensory and the distractive (eating out, socializing and watching movies), as well as a deep focus on life stresses (work, school, deadlines and money). These topics did not rate for Planners at all.

Despite their perceived differences, the study found evidence that Procrastinators and Planners are driven by a common motivator: anxiety. Both groups use planning and procrastinating behaviors to manage anxiety, but Planners take an active approach to the problem, while Procrastinators use more of an avoidance strategy. For example, researchers found that Procrastinators display anxiety through every stage of a deadline scenario, while Planners self-reported anxiety only toward the last minute.

Occasional procrastination is commonplace and reasonable, so those exhibiting this behavior should not feel stigmatized or shame. We all procrastinate a little bit from time to time. However, habitual procrastination can have adverse effects on one’s life, such as overall higher stress, lower life satisfaction, financial problems and negative impact on sleep, among other things as the study has shown. Understanding how and why one procrastinates and how it makes one feel is an important piece to understanding whether this behavior is negatively impacting one’s personal life and thus can be modified.

Procrastination is a learned behavior, which means it’s a habit that can be modified. The research shows that Procrastinators who want to plan more can use some strategies to adjust their approach and help them develop planning behaviors, so they, too, can reap the benefits. Strategies include making lists, setting reminders, breaking up big tasks into smaller to-do’s, creating superficial deadlines ahead of real deadlines and providing rewards when hitting goals.

What does this mean to businesses?

As a data scientist at Zulily, my work is dedicated to serving our customer, Mom, and her needs. We bring a 1:1 shopping experience to our millions of customers around the world, launching more than 100 sales and thousands of new products every day. My team focuses on understanding how to engage and delight Mom, enabling key functions of her shopping experience through data- and machine learning-based solutions.

With a scale of virtual inventory this sizable, we rely on the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science and cloud computing to deepen personalization and new discovery, serving Mom with a fun shopping experience that takes friction out of exploration and supports her planning needs.

For example, we process billions of clicks from online shoppers every day so we can show customers the products we believe they will be most interested in, helping them discover novel products and brands they may not previously have been aware of. Then we customize the Zulily mobile app and web experience using artificial intelligence-based recommendation models – no two experiences are the same.

As Mom has always been the foundation of our business, we know she understands the importance of saving. Four times as many moms indicate a preference to save $5-$10 per item they buy versus receiving items in two days. They prioritize cost over quickness, because savings are more meaningful to her, her household wallet and the life experiences she can create. The Brain of the Planner study offers a better understanding of how those behaviors impact people emotionally, and confidence that all consumers can adopt planning behaviors and reap real benefits.

This data is key to driving a personalized experience because it impacts almost every experience the customer has with Zulily – and we’re constantly exploring new ways to understand our customers better through rapid experimentation and improvement.

We believe strongly in using data and technology to power our business, and as data scientists and engineers, we strive to use technology to better serve human needs. The Brain of the Planner study is an example of how we are leveraging the latest tools to understand how consumers shop, and the reasons why, which will in turn help us continue to drive data-driven innovation end-to-end in how we engage with our customer.

By revealing the science and benefits of planning through data-driven research, we hope to enable a clearer understanding of human behaviors that may impact retail and consumer trends for years to come.

You can learn more and access the full study at


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