Have you ever decided to take the next hour before you have to go to get something done, and then mysteriously failed to accomplish anything? If so, you’re not alone. This phenomenon, when knowing that the available time has a limit keeps you from using it to its fullest, is the subject of a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research. Through a series of eight different experiments, performed not just in labs but also in an airport’s waiting areas, the researchers found that this is a fairly widespread and consistent behavior. On average, even when people know they have a full hour before they have to move onto something else, they’ll use five to 15 minutes less to work on something than if the hour has nothing scheduled after it.
Gabriela Tonietto, a professor of marketing at Rutgers Business School, began the research while she was working on her Ph.D. “This is the second half of my dissertation,” she says, “which is somewhat inspired by me trying to work on the first half of my dissertation.” Surprised by how unproductive she could sometimes be, she noticed that the situations in which she took the least advantage of her time were when she knew she’d have to leave soon to meet a friend for drinks, for example, or had another activity scheduled. “I tend to do that more when I have something coming up that’s concrete in my mind,” she says.
To see if other people acted similarly, she devised studies in the lab where subjects were asked to predict how much time they would be able to spend on an activity in an hour that had something scheduled immediately after it, versus an hour that had no bound. The answers tended to be shorter for bounded hours. She also asked study participants how much time they should be able to spend in theory on a task in a bounded hour, versus how much they felt they actually would. The latter estimate tended to be shorter. “It ranges, but there is about this five to 15 minutes that vanish in people’s minds … and that’s enough for us to question what we can actually do with the time,” she says.
In another study, a research assistant was given a plane ticket specifically so that he could go through airport security. He went from waiting area to waiting area explaining