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The Psychological Quirk That Causes Leaders to Overfill Their Schedules

It's not just that you're super busy, it's also that your brain is playing tricks on you, according to a new study.
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You have good intentions, a detailed calendar, an office full of timekeeping devices, and maybe even an ace assistant whose job it is to look after your schedule, and yet you continuously manage to book more stuff into your day than you can actually manage to get done. What's going on?

Is the answer to this riddle that you're just incredibly busy? That's no doubt part of it. But according to fascinating new research from the University of California, Berkeley, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, your brain may not be helping you out when it comes to making realistic decisions about how much to schedule.

The series of studies conducted by psychologists Alice Moon and Serena Chen looked at the relationship between feelings of power and our perceptions of time. Participants were made to feel either powerful or powerless, then asked how much time they thought they had available and whether they were in control of their schedules. In another test, students were assigned the roles of "boss" (which even came with a fancy, elevated chair) and "employee," and then tested to see how their place in the hierarchy affected their sense of time.

The results of these experiments were clear, Chen told The Wall Street Journal. "People who feel generally more powerful feel they have more time. The effect is very easy to find over and over again," she said. Bosses, in other words, subjectively feel they have more control over their time and more minutes at their disposal, even though the clock ticks through the same number of minutes for all of us.

And no, it's not just the fact that those at the top actually do have more say over their schedules. "It isn't simply the case that powerful people actually have more control over their time," the authors write, "but that powerful people also perceive having control over time, even when they don't."

Result 1: Overwhelmed Bosses

That sounds pleasant enough--who wouldn't want a leisurely sense of time passing? But according to the researchers, this psychological quirk can actually have some harmful effects on leaders. To start with, it often causes bosses to overcommit themselves. "High-powered people are less stressed, but it also may be why they are overcommitted," Chen explained.

So next time you get to the end of the day and find yourself way behind in what you planned to accomplish, spare a second to consider that this may be not be simply a result of the realities of being the boss, but a trick your brain is playing on you--one you can probably correct for, if you're aware of it.

Result 2: Overburdened Employees

The other result of this wrinkle in how we perceive time messes up the schedules of frontline employees rather than those of bosses. Because leaders tend to feel time is expansive, they often underestimate how long it will take to complete tasks, which leads them to assign an unrealistic amount of work to subordinates.

"Business executives, policy makers, engineers, and others in power are far more likely to underestimate the time required to complete work, ignoring past experience, according to four recent behavioral experiments by researchers at the University of Kent at Canterbury, in the UK," the WSJ piece reports.

Are your jam-packed schedule and harried employees signs that you need to rein in your over-optimistic sense of time?

Last updated: Aug 1, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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