WORKPLACE / SEP. 01, 2014
version 2, draft 2

Are Perceptions The Key To Deadline Success?

Productivity is something that we all strive for in the workplace, whether we’re working independently or managing a team.  Alas, it seems much of the modern way of working doesn’t seem to support this desire a great deal.  Open plan offices are a hive of disruption and interruption.  We spend huge chunks of time answering emails or sitting in rather useless meetings.  Even the lure of social media often proves a distraction from the work we have to do.

It’s far from ideal.  I wrote previously about some tools that bring a bit of science to the humble ’to do list’, with apps developed that use algorithms to assign tasks to the best slots in our day depending upon our usual energy levels and the importance of each task.

A new study suggests that there may be a slightly more low technology approach to improving our productivity however, and it all revolves around the way we perceive the deadlines we have for the tasks at hand.

"Our research shows that the way consumers think about the future influences whether they get started on tasks. In particular, if the deadline for a task is categorized as being similar to the present, they are more likely to initiate the task," the researchers say.

Re-imagining the deadline

Let’s explore in a bit more detail.  In one experiment, participants were told that they should open a savings account.  What’s more, they were told that if they opened it in the next six months they’d get a bonus.  One group were told to do this in June, with their deadline being December of the same year, whilst the second group were approached in July, with their deadline being January the following year.

Interestingly, despite both groups having the same amount of time to perform this relatively simple task, it emerged that a lot more from the first group opened the account than those with the January deadline.

The reasoning behind this is all to do with how we categorise deadlines in our mind.  The researchers suggest that both groups used the calendar year to place the deadlines into particular categories, hence why the first group did better at opening the account.  The first group had the advantage of seeing their deadline in the same frame as the present, hence they treated it with greater urgency.

Cross-over into the workplace

"While time elapses continuously, it appears that consumers think of time categorically. When thinking of a deadline as being in the same category as the present, consumers are more likely to start working toward their goals sooner," the researchers conclude.

Suffice to say, the research is very much framed in the consumer sphere, with its exploration of how we perceive time when buying something.  Could it have some implications for how we work in the office however?  After all, we have deadlines in our work all the time.  Could we have mental categorisations for tasks in the same way, such that deadlines into the next week or the next month, maybe even the next day are treated in a different way?

Let us know what you think in the comment section below.

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