February 16, 2005
Human Brain Overestimates Available Time Weeks In Advance

People overestimate the amount of extra time they will have in the future to do additional tasks. (same article here)

If your appointment book runneth over, it could mean one of two things: Either you are enviably popular or you make the same faulty assumptions about the future as everyone else. Psychological research points to the latter explanation. Research by two business-school professors reveals that people over-commit because we expect to have more time in the future than we have in the present. Of course, when tomorrow turns into today, we discover that we are too busy to do everything we promised.

The study appears in the February issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology (JEP): General, which is published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Gal Zauberman, PhD, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and John Lynch Jr., PhD, of Duke University, also learned from paper-and-pencil questionnaires (respondents to seven different surveys numbered 95, 68, 241, 61, 264, 48 and 130) that this expectation of more time “slack,” a surplus of a given resource available to complete a task, is more pronounced for time than money.

The authors suspect that’s because every day’s a little different: The nature of time fools us and we “forget” about how things fill our days. Money is more “fungible,” freely exchanged for something of like kind -- such as four quarters for a dollar bill. Write Zauberman and Lynch, “Barring some change in employment or family status, supply and demand of money are relatively constant over time, and people are aware of that. Compared with demands on one’s time, money needs in the future are relatively predictable from money needs today.”

Participants believed that both time and money would be more available in “a month” than “today,” and believed it more strongly for time than for money. A deeper investigation of a psychological phenomenon called “delay discounting,” in which people tend to lessen the importance of future rewards, showed that people also discounted future time more than both gains and losses in future money.

Take home lesson: If you are going to ask someone for a time-consuming favor ask them several weeks before you need the favor done.

The best time to ask someone for a favour is at least several weeks in advance, a new study suggests. The research finds that people consistently over-commit because they expect to have more time in the future than they do right now.

Yes, I believe I do this. Most of the time the future of one's life a couple of months from now looks simpler than the future of one's life tomorrow. More of the detailed clutter of tasks for tomorrow are clear in one's mind than is the case for days further out in the future.

Is this tendency to underestimate the number of more distant future tasks simply a result of having longer lists of tasks to do tomorrow versus a month from now? Or is something deeper at work? The ability to think of all the tasks one has to do a month from now may have been maladaptive. The ability to think in detail about the many detailed tasks one might do weeks into the future was probably a counter-productive distraction from concentration on more immediate needs.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 February 16 12:20 AM  Brain Economics

corbel said at February 16, 2005 1:40 PM:

I'm just wondering if the overestimation for "tomorrow" is (or is not) correlated with "today's" actual burden (time stress) ; the heavier today is, the more I'm biaised towards thinking that tomorrow will be easier (or other not exclusive hypothesis : the heavier today, the less time I have to do a realistic prevision about tomorrow). That's probably why we get in "cercles vicieux". Apologize for my poor english.

Randall Parker said at February 16, 2005 2:18 PM:

Patrick Corbel,

I am guessing that "cercles vicieux" is "vicious circles" in English. We typically use the term "vicious cycle". But that is close enough to get the meaning across. No need to apologize. Your English is way better than my French.

As for "today's" actual burden: It could be that having a heavy burden today makes a person feel more burdened about the future and therefore more prone to not want to take on more obligations in the future. We need research to measure the correlation between expected future free time as a function of how busy people are in the present. Is the correlation negative or positive?

Also, does the nature of today's burden effect future perceptions of time availability? How does the need to do a series of small tasks today compare to the need to do one big task today? Suppose the small tasks and the big task take the same amount of time. Does the big task weigh more or less heavily?

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