There's still an hour left until the meeting, so you decide to take advantage of it. But time flies and when you finally go to the meeting you realize that you have not made progress. It happens to everyone. Now a study conducted at Ohio State University explains why we are unable to make the most of the time we have available before the next appointment.
Free time seems shorter when we have some unfinished business
In a series of experiments conducted both in the laboratory and in real life, psychologists have found that free time seems shorter when we have other activities planned on our agenda.
198 people participated in one of the experiments. Half of these were asked to imagine that a friend would visit them within an hour and that they had to prepare for the visit. The other half were told to imagine they had no plans for the whole afternoon.
Then they were asked to objectively estimate how many minutes they could spend reading during the next hour. The average was 50 minutes, which reveals that, even if we have a full hour, we always subtract some time, just in case.
The most interesting thing came 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 for 40 minutes.
These results were corroborated in real life.
This time the psychologists asked the participants to give them the actual times of the next day. They had to indicate when they would start each scheduled activity on their agenda and how long it would take before each meeting.
They were later offered the opportunity to participate in a 30- or 45-minute study on the same day. They would be paid double to participate in the 45-minute study, so it was a much more interesting alternative.
But there was a catch. In some cases the psychologists scheduled the study an 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 tended to choose the 30-minute study.
This indicates that we like to have a good amount of time, sometimes much more than necessary, which usually results in a reduction in our productivity. Obviously, it is a purely psychological problem, as the researchers later demonstrated.
Remembering pending things stresses 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 starting the next task. Some were told they "had about five minutes before starting" and others that "they had about five minutes to do what they wanted", without reminding them of pending things.
The different approaches made a major 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 1,86 completed by the people who were reminded of the pending thing.
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 mere fact of having this concern in mind makes us think that we have less time, stresses us and prevents us from taking advantage of the time.
This explains why, when we have a full day of meetings, we are not very productive. We just think that if we have a meeting within two hours, we can't work on any major projects, so we waste more time on activities that aren't productive.
How to escape this trap?
- Remind yourself of the time you really have and ask yourself if you really need that extra 10 or 20 minutes to get ready. It is probably a trick of your mind stressed by what you still need to do.
- Try to group all your meetings or to-dos, so you can have a longer, uninterrupted period of time to do the most important tasks on your agenda.
- Remembering pending things creates more stress than finishing the activity itself. Therefore, the ideal is that you set off an alarm and forget about the next meeting until it rings. This will clear your mind, work more relaxed and be much more productive.