On May 23rd, 2018 we learned about

The common and irrational instinct to plan on being unproductive before an appointment

Wednesday afternoons are tense in my household, thanks to a late afternoon dance class for my third grader. She’s become mortified of the prospect of being even a minute late, and thus starts prodding me to prep her hair and pick up her brother nearly an hour before the class starts. The one upside, it seems, is that her insistence has helped be break an irrational habit that most of have concerning appointments. Rather than give up on being productive ten minutes before we even leave, I actually strive to squeeze productivity out of every minute before it’s time to go.

I admit that being productive to spite my daughter’s premature nagging isn’t exactly mature, but I’m hoping that I’ll at least be able to adopt this behavior pattern to calmer moments on other days. Like most people, I’m prone to disengaging from anything useful well before I need to transition to a phone call or other scheduled activity, essentially throwing away ten minutes of the hour before my appointment. Why focus on something important when you need to mentally unwind before heading out to your next task, right?

Wasting time before artificial appointments

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s an incredibly widespread pattern. Researchers have observed people managing their time this way in both real world and experimental conditions. In fact, most us will even plan our time this way- when surveyed about a hypothetical scenario, most people felt like it was necessary to leave a ten minute “buffer” between doing something meaningful and an upcoming appointment, even if they were sitting in a lab with no appointment to actually attend.

Another experiment tracked people’s activity while they waited in a waiting room, and found that a key difference was expectations. In a five-minute period, most folks basically looked at email, websites or social media on their phones, but people who had been told they’d be doing something in five minutes engaged in fewer of these mundane activities during that time. Just knowing that something else was starting soon made it harder to even kill time, showing just how powerful a grip anticipation has on our thought processes.

To really find out much we value the “in-between” time in our schedule, volunteers were asked to participate in a task during the hour before another appointment. If they chose a 30-minute session, they’d be paid $2.50, but if they stayed 15 minutes longer for a 45-minute session, they’d receive $5.00.  While neither option really presented a conflict, earning double the money wasn’t enough of an incentive for most people to pick the 45-minute session.

Suggestions to reclaim lost time

In this context, these patterns start to sound more irrational, although they’re hard to give up. Researchers suspect that building in buffers of essentially wasted time before appointments or meetings contribute to the feeling of wasted time many of us feel after meetings in general. Scheduling meetings back-to-back might help with this, as we won’t have a chance to do nothing before each meeting, hopefully reclaiming that time in a more satisfying way elsewhere in the day. If that’s unappealing, I recommend having someone nag you about your upcoming commitment, hopefully inspiring you to reclaim every minute before it’s time to switch gears.

My third grader said: I think I do this when recess is ending at school. I go to line up before the bell rings, even though the kids who keep playing until the bell don’t end up being late. I just spend more time waiting for our teacher to bring us in.

My five-year-old said: I would do the longer test to get $5.00. Or I think I would.

Source: Why an upcoming appointment makes us less productive by Jeff Grabmeier, Phys.org

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