We're Only Human

So much to do! And so little time!

The Christmas season is a hectic time for many people. There are all those cards to write and mail, presents to buy and wrap and deliver, perhaps a tree to haul home and trim, plus extra baking and cooking for family and friends. Few of these are leisure activities. Indeed, most holiday tasks are extremely time-pressured, with rigid deadlines. It always seems that time is way too short to get it all done.

But is this perception true? Are these deadlines really looming, or do we in fact have more time than we imagine? It’s always tricky to think about time, and new research is now suggesting that deadline pressure might contribute to our distorted view of how much time we really need to get everything done.

Psychological scientist Gabriela Jiga-Boy of Swansea University, in Wales, studies the complex relationship between effort and time perception. She was inspired by another line of research, which has shown that spatial perception is shaped by how effortful a task is: For example, we will see a hill as steeper than it is if we must carry something heavy up the hill. Jiga-Boy wondered if the same kind of distortion might shape perceptions of time, and she ran a series of experiments to explore this idea.

The experiments are fairly straightforward. In one, for instance, she asked volunteers to imagine that each of 28 events would occur at a certain point in the future. Some of these events were fairly effortless, like getting tickets for a concert, while others were complex and effortful, like planning a wedding. The volunteers were then asked to estimate how much effort each of these activities would require of them. They were also asked: How far away does the day of the event feel?

The idea was to see if the difficulty of the task affected perception of time, either stretching time out or compressing it. And it did, clearly. More effortful tasks — planning a wedding or an elaborate Christmas feast — seemed more distant than did less demanding activities. In other words, our minds translate complexity and effort into time: A difficult task requires more time to complete, so its completion must be further off.

This is the primitive mind talking, of course. Just as anticipated effort makes us see hills as steeper, so too we perceive demanding tasks as stretching further into the future. But the mind learned to make these basic connections long before the modern world came up with things like clocks, calendars, contracts and deadlines. Jiga-Boy wondered if the imposition of deadlines might alter this kind of time perception, and she ran some more experiments to test this notion.

These experiments were similar to the first, but with deadlines added. So, for example, volunteers again visualized tasks of varying complexity, but some were given a deadline two months away, while others were given a deadline eight months down the road. And again they were asked how far away the event felt to them.

The results, described in the online version of the journal Psychological Science, were intriguing. In contrast to the earlier findings, now the more effortful events felt closer in time, not farther away. Simply imposing a deadline (it didn’t matter whether it was two or eight months away) reversed the mind’s relationship between work and time. Faced with a deadline, volunteers saw difficult and complex tasks as looming close.

So imagine several deadlines all at once: Christmas cards, shopping list, wreaths and ornaments, not to mention all your regular work deadlines, which don’t go away. No wonder you’re feeling overwhelmed. But there may be a silver lining here. These distorted perceptions may serve a good purpose. That is, deadlines for complex and effortful tasks may loom frighteningly close for a reason — so that we’ll pay attention to them.

In holiday terms, this means knowing just how hard it will be to get everything done — that knowledge is the cognitive cue that helps us to prepare, and to respond to the challenges that lie ahead. Thanks to the mind’s tricks, all those gifts will be wrapped and adorned by Christmas morning, just as they are every year.

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