How to make the most of time between tasks

Bri Williams /

I thought it was just me. When deciding what to tackle when I find myself with a free hour I invariably pick at bits and pieces rather than getting stuck into a larger, more significant task. It’s not procrastination as such, it’s more, well, a feeling that the looming scheduled task is casting a shadow over the unscheduled time. If you find the same you’ll be as interested as I was in what some behavioural researchers recently discovered about productivity.

We do less with our free time when we have a pending commitment

In “When an Hour Feels Shorter: Future Boundary Tasks Alter Consumption by Contracting Time”, researchers Tonietto, Malkoc and Nowlis (2018) examined how people perceive and consume time when they either have something to do afterwards or do not. In their words, the research was inspired by the following observation:

One of the authors recently had a free hour and decided to use this time to design a study for her dissertation. The next night, she once again had a free hour and another study to design. However, this time her hour had a scheduled endpoint – at the end of the hour, she needed to leave the office to meet a friend for a drink. She had nothing to do to prepare and did not need to leave before the end of the hour, making the full hour objectively available to her. However, unlike the night before, she found herself feeling reluctant to design her study and instead worked on a few small tasks, managing to answer a few quick emails. Both nights, she had objectively the same amount of time to work, yet she consumed each interval very differently.

Rationally, it shouldn’t matter if I have an obligation following a period of free time or not – an hour is an hour. But that’s not how we think about it.

Let’s say, for example, one night you are free from 7pm but have a friend coming over at 8pm. Another night you are also free from 7pm but have no plans. In both cases you have an hour (at least) free. In the first case your time is ‘bounded’ because you have a commitment following, and in the second, it is ‘unbounded’ because your time is not limited.

When the researchers put these scenarios to participants and asked them how long they subjectively thought they would read their book in the next hour, those in the bounded condition estimated they could spend only 39.54 minutes whereas those in the unbounded condition thought they could read for almost 10 minutes more (48.86 mins).

Importantly, when the groups were asked to objectively estimate the amount of time they could spend reading there was no significant difference (49.32 bounded/50.36 unbounded). This tells us that people are actually good at estimating the time they can theoretically allocate a task (i.e. 50 minutes of reading which gives me 10 minutes to get ready or do something else) but this may not be what they actually do, particularly when there’s another task looming (i.e. I know I can spend 50 minutes reading but I’ll actually only spend 39.)

The researchers replicated these findings over a number of studies, finding that when free time is bounded by a scheduled task, people:

  • perceive time to be shorter than those who do not have a scheduled task (so an hour isn’t an hour)
  • contract their subjective estimate of time even though their objective estimate is unaffected (consciously we know we have time but it doesn’t mean we feel it)
  • are less likely to choose longer tasks even when they are feasible, and even when those tasks are more financial rewarding
  • are just as likely to perform a single shorter task as those in an unbounded condition but are likely to undertake fewer shorter tasks

What does this mean for your productivity?

This research is interesting because “prior research…has primarily examined the effect of scheduling on the scheduled tasks. (This research) contributes…by examining how scheduling impacts the perception and ultimate consumption of available time surrounding scheduled tasks.” In other words, productivity is not only about what you do in your scheduled time, but how you spend your free time as well. It’s making the most of the void.

To increase the likelihood of tackling big tasks when you find yourself with time to spare, the researchers suggest breaking the task down into smaller components. They also suggest scheduling back-to-back commitments rather than having intermittent downtime.

For me, that means looking to block similar tasks together. For example, scheduling 45 minute coaching sessions within a 3 hour envelope rather than randomly sprinkled throughout the day, and breaking the development of a presentation into smaller jobs like ‘introduction’, ‘conclusion’ and ‘image sourcing’. What about you? Does this resonate? What will you do differently?

NOW READ: Time management problems? You might be asking the wrong questions


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