You still have one hour left for the meeting, so you decide to take advantage of it. However, that time flies and when you finally go to the meeting, you realize that you could not overtake much. It happens to all of us. And now a study conducted at the Ohio State University explains why we are not able to make the most of the time we have available before our next appointment.
Free time seems shorter when we have a pending task
In a series of experiments conducted both in laboratory and in real life, psychologists discovered that free time seems shorter when we have another task planned in our agenda.
198 people participated in one of the experiments. Half of them were asked to imagine that a friend was going to visit them in an hour and they should be ready for that visit. The other half were told to imagine that they would not have any plans for the whole afternoon.
They were then asked to objectively estimate how many minutes they could spend reading during the next hour. The average was 50 minutes, which reveals that, although we have an entire hour, we always subtract a little time, just in case.
However, the most interesting thing happened when they were asked how many minutes they felt they could read, a question that included the subjective variable. Then people waiting for a friend said they could only read about 40 minutes.
These results are corroborated in real life.
This time, the psychologists asked the participants to provide their actual schedules for the next day. They should indicate when each scheduled task would begin in their agenda and how much time they would need before each meeting.
Then they were offered the opportunity to participate in a 30 or 45 minute study that same day. For participating in the 45-minute study they would be paid double, so it was a much more interesting alternative.
However, there was a trick. In some cases, the psychologists scheduled the study one hour before the next meeting on people’s agenda. What happened?
Although they had plenty of time to finish the 45-minute study, people who had a meeting pending in the next hour used to choose the 30-minute one.
This indicates that we like to have a good margin of time, sometimes much more than necessary, which usually means a reduction in our productivity. Obviously, it is a purely psychological problem, as the researchers later found out.
Remembering the pending task overwhelms us and further reduces the perception of time
In another experiment, these psychologists recruited 158 college students and told them they would have to wait 5 minutes before beginning the next test. Some were told that “they had approximately five minutes before starting” and the others that “they had approximately five minutes to do what they wanted”, without reminding them of the pending task.
The different approaches made an important difference in productivity. People who were not reminded of the pending task were much more productive. They performed an average of 2.38 tasks, compared to the 1.86 developed by those who were reminded of the next task.
This means that when a pending task is activated in our mind, we feel that we cannot do many things in the time we have at our disposal. The simple fact of having that concern hanging around in our mind makes us think that we have less time, it overwhelms us and prevent us from taking advantage of time better.
That explains why, when we have a day full of meetings, we are not productive. We just think that, if we have a meeting in two hours, we cannot work on any important project, so we lose more time on tasks that are not productive.
How to escape from this trap?
- Remember the time you really have available and ask yourself if you really need those extra 10 or 20 minutes to prepare. It is probably a trick of your mind overwhelmed by what you still have to do.
- Try to gather all the meetings or tasks, so that you can have a longer uninterrupted period of time to carry out the most important activities of your agenda.
- Remembering the pending tasks generates more stress than completing the task itself. Therefore, it would be better to activate an alarm and forget the next meeting until it sounds. This will free your mind, you will work more relaxed and will be much more productive.
Malkoc, S. et. Al. (2018) When an Hour Feels Shorter: Future Boundary Tasks Alter Consumption by Contracting Time. Journal of Consumer Research.