Doing Business | Management

July 11, 2013

How Your Brain Perceives Time (and How to Use It to Your Advantage)

We might not be able to create more time when we need it most—like when a deadline is approaching—but we can use the understanding of how we perceive time to our advantage.

Image by Lifehacker

For example, author Joshua Foer thinks it might be possible to make it seem like we live longer by inserting more memories between two temporal points. It's not the fountain of youth, but it's an odd brain quirk that makes us feel like we've lived longer. How we perceive time can also affect our satisfaction with decisions, relationships with others, and levels of productivity.

Let's start with why it seems like we never have enough time to meet deadlines.

Why Things Always Take Longer Than We Plan

Think back to your student days—remember those all-nighters? Even if you were a top-notch scholar, you probably pulled at least one or two all-night cram sessions because of what appeared to be bad time management. (I speak from "fond" personal experience.)

Researchers Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross explore what's known as "The Planning Fallacy" in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This study shows that subjects had a tendency to focus on optimistic scenarios when they planned, which caused problems when unforeseen circumstances arose. Perhaps one solution is to prime ourselves to be more pessimistic (or "realistic") as we're scoping out timelines. You might not need to plan for the worst case scenario, but you should definitely consider it.

Alternatively, both the study and the community blog Less Wrong suggest adopting a different perspective to time. Rather than looking at the unique features of your project in order to estimate how long it might take, look into the past and see how long it took others to complete a similar project. That's an accurate indicator of how long it will take you to finish yours.

With that said, not every single task can be compared to a previous one. Professor of cognitive science Douglas Hofstadter humorously coined "Hofstadter's Law." A column in The Guardian explains it best: "Any task you're planning to complete will always take longer than expected—even when Hofstadter's Law is taken into account." It's an inevitable, cyclic property of our minds: no matter how we plan, tasks susceptible to Hofstadter's Law will always take longer than we plan—even if we attempt to account for this delay. So don't be too surprised if that project extends beyond the fallback time you set up.

How to Increase or Decrease Urgency

A study from the University of Belgium showed that we imagine more details about an immediately approaching event than something farther in the future (and also recall more details about recent past events). Therefore, if we focus on the details of a future projection, we can make it feel much closer and more urgent.

A way to curb procrastination early on would be to take a few minutes and simply lay the groundwork for a project. This process naturally starts putting more details in your head, and you can get over the procrastination hump. In other words, just start somewhere. This is why self-development advisors like Tony Robbins suggest making goals extremely concrete and detailed—it emphasizes the urgency of the goal and makes the milestone feel less distant.

Move Fast and Make Mistakes

"Ask forgiveness, not permission" is a piece of traditional entrepreneurial advice. As bestselling author Tim Ferriss says, "Most people are fast to stop you before you get started, but hesitant to get in the way if you're moving." Experiments support this. This study from the University of Chicago shows that experiment participants were far more upset about bad things that were going to happen, rather than bad things that had already occured. This may be because of our perceived ability to change the future and inability to change the past, as well as our emotional dampening and rationalization of past events. The prospect of an unpleasant event happening in the future feels much worse than the actual event. Our emotions are naturally regulated and become less extreme as the past fades.
If you're planning to make a change, such as presenting a new initiative at work, and you want to minimize the problems and maximize the support, choose to make moves first and ask for "forgiveness" if something goes awry. In any case, taking a step forward in any direction is more conducive to your goals than doing nothing. Again, just start somewhere.

How to Change the Value of Time

Another study from the University of Chicago observed that people place significantly higher value on the near future than on the near past. Experimenters observed that the emotional impact of a future event increases as it approaches, but once the event has occured, its emotional impact significantly decreases.

The study points out an implication that's significant for successful negotiation: pay later as a buyer, and charge earlier as a seller. This means that, theoretically, you'll be more likely to charge someone less if you, for example, send the bill to your client after you perform a service. Conversely, you'll be more likely to pay less if you negotiate after the service has been performed. Of course, if you're a service provider, you would want to charge upfront to maximize your profit. Don't let yourself succumb to a post-job negotiation (AKA a "lowball").
While we still don't have a DeLorean to hop into, knowing how time changes the way we perceive things can help us to plan and deal with unforeseen circumstances. Simple awareness of these heuristics can make a huge difference in coping, decision making, and understanding why we behave and react in certain ways.

Text by Lifehacker

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