Why You Are Often Less Productive In The Hour Before An Appointment

An hour seems shorter when you have another task looming and has important implications for getting things done.

Jude King, PhD
Dec 20, 2019 · 4 min read
Photo by Dmitry Nucky Thompson on Unsplash

Sally had a free hour and decided to use the time to design a study for her dissertation. The next evening, 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 and meet a friend for a drink. She had the full hour before the meeting available and had nothing to do to prepare for the meeting.

However, unlike the evening before, she found herself reluctant to design her study and instead worked on a few small tasks, and answered a few quick emails.

Both evenings she had the same task to complete, and objectively the same amount of time to work on them, but she used both hours differently.

Maybe you can relate?

You have a free hour that could be used to get some writing done, you figure out you can’t get the whole article done in such a short timeframe and therefore don’t take the chance at all, using the time unproductively instead.

Sometimes you berate yourself for putting off a task, but in this instance — which is quite common — it’s not because you’re a chronic procrastinator, the real culprit is how we perceive time.

Our Inconsistent Perception of Time

Our perception of time is inconsistent. For instance, we perceive an hour differently depending on whether it leads into a scheduled hour or another free one. An hour before a scheduled meeting (bounded) feels shorter than an hour that doesn’t have any scheduled task following it (unbounded).

This was the finding of researchers, Gabriela Tonietto, Selin Malkoc and Stephen Nowlis of Ohio State University in their study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

In a series of eight studies, researchers found that free time seems shorter to people when it comes before a task or appointment on their calendar.

In one of the studies, the researchers asked people recruited online to provide their actual schedules for the next day. Participants indicated when each scheduled task on their calendar would begin and how much time they would need before each task to prepare.

Participants were then offered the opportunity to take part in either a 30-minute or a 45-minute study on that day. The 30-minute study paid $2.50 and the 45-minute study paid twice as much: $5.

For some participants, the study was scheduled in the one hour before they said they had to start getting ready for their next appointment. The others were not scheduled up against another of their appointments.

Even though they had plenty of time to finish the 45-minute study, participants who had an appointment in an hour were significantly more likely than the others to choose the 30-minute study instead of the 45-minute version.

“It was clear they would have plenty of time to finish and have extra time before their next appointment, but they still were more likely to choose the 30-minute study — even when they had a clear financial incentive to choose the longer study,” Malkoc said.

People also seem to get more done when they don’t have a scheduled task hanging over their heads, the researchers found.

How To Get More Done When Another Task Looms

This study uncovers a quirk of our psychology: when we have a task coming up soon, we tend you use the preceding hour less productively. The time seems shorter and we don’t feel like we can get as much done.

When you know you have a meeting coming up in an hour or two, you’re reluctant to work on big projects, because the time feels short and you’re not sure you’ll be able to complete anything meaningful in such sort time. So more often than not, the time gets frittered away answering emails or doing things that aren’t as productive.

Give Long Uninterrupted Time to Important Tasks

One solution is to give uninterrupted stretch of time, say 2–4 hours to important tasks in your day. That way you can deal with the nagging feeling that you won’t be able to complete the task, which often makes you avoid starting in the first place.

Also, try to stack activities like meetings together. That way, you can free up uninterrupted times for the bigger tasks in your agenda.

Set A Low Bar For Success

You can get some writing done in that hour that precedes a meeting, but the nagging feeling that you won’t be able to complete it prevents you from starting in the first place. What can you do?

A solution is to set a really low bar for what counts as success in that “pocket” of time that you have. Decide that you’ll use that hour to empty your brain on the page. Don’t bother editing your words. Don’t bother to make it good, just write. You can edit later.

If that feels too daunting, you can set an even lower bar for what counts as success for that hour: coming up with a good outline for your article, or just writing an introduction, or just doing research for the article.

Set the bar low enough that it won’t seem as daunting, and that way you can complete an important subtask of your larger task or goal.

In Conclusion

A free hour before an appointment or another task feels shorter. Therefore, you can eliminate unproductive time and get more done when important task looms by giving long stretch of uninterrupted time to important tasks, batching meetings together, and setting a really low bar for what counts as success in those small pockets of time, to help you get started.

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Jude King, PhD

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Research Scientist | Entrepreneur | Teacher | Engineer driven by a deep curiosity about everything.

The Startup

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