Clock time is regular and unrelenting. But, as we all know from personal experience, subjective time is an entirely different matter.
A year when you're 8 years old feels 10 times longer than a year when you're 38. An hour spent at the DMV feels like an eternity, while an hour with friends can pass in a flash. And the anxious trip out to a destination always feels far longer than the relaxed trip back.
Our sense of time shifts radically depending on our mood and mindset. And that's not just true of vacations that pass in an instant or the acceleration of time as we age. It's also true when it comes to our perceptions of time at work. New science shows that how we schedule tasks has a large effect on how much time we feel we have to complete them, leading to a very unexpected bit of advice on how to get more done with less stress.
The more you try to tame your schedule, the busier you feel
As someone who writes for the internet, I can tell you that productivity porn is hugely popular. Stories on how business icons like Bill Gates and Elon Musk minutely schedule their days down to five-minute increments attract huge interest. Entrepreneurs and other professionals are clearly desperate to squeeze more productivity out of every hour, and assiduous scheduling seems like a sensible way to accomplish this.
Obsessive scheduling might be necessary if you're simultaneously running Tesla and SpaceX, but for the rest of us there's one big problem with meticulously calendaring every aspect of your days. A new study shows that it makes you feel more frantic but get less done.
Ohio State University business professor Selin Malkoc described the research in detail on The Conversation (hat tip to Quartz), but it boils down to having research participants either schedule a commitment or not and then observing how having a looming entry in their diary affects their state of mind and productivity before the event.
The researchers found again and again that having an upcoming event in your calendar makes you feel more rushed, which discourages you from filling all your available time with useful tasks.
For instance, when the research team told participants in the study that they would get started in five minutes, most milled around and did nothing productive. When the researchers instead just left participants alone for those five minutes, many did something useful like answer emails or read a book. Looming commitments make time feel shorter so that people are less likely to use the time in the run-up to events effectively.
"We know that when something is scarce, people consider it more valuable and are less willing to part with it. The same is true for time. If time feels limited, people are less likely to use it -- even when it's in their best interest," Malkoc explains.
Give your calendar a rest
This makes me feel better about my tendency to wander around aimlessly making tea I probably won't drink prior to scheduled interviews. It also explains why, as others have observed, an obsession with time management can actually harm your productivity. The more you fill your calendar, the less time you feel like you have, and the more time you waste stressing about it.
Of course some activities, particularly those that involve coordination with others, have to be scheduled. So how can you put this insight to use in the real world? Malkoc suggests those committed to their calendars try to "schedule events or tasks back-to-back, which leaves you with larger chunks of unscheduled time. Several uninterrupted hours of unscheduled time will feel longer, especially if there's nothing scheduled looming."
This is a version of the popular, research-validated productivity hack of grouping all meetings together on some days and banning them on others.
An even more effective if somewhat radical takeaway might be to simply schedule a whole lot less. Instead of obsessively entering every obligation into your calendar, you could use something like author Oliver Burkeman's 3-3-3 system to define a manageable number of priorities for your days and weeks and let your time unfold more organically.
For devotees of productivity porn, that might sound like heresy. But science suggests you'll actually get more done if you schedule less.