People see their time issues today working out better in the future, study found.
It may be hard to believe in a society full of indebted consumers, but a new study concludes that people have more realistic expectations about how much money they will have in the future than how much time they'll have.
Research by two North Carolina business professors shows that people overcommit because they expect to have more time in the future than they do today.
The nature of time fools us, and we tend to forget how things fill up our days, say Gal Zauberman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and John Lynch Jr. of Duke University. When asked to commit time in advance, "we imagine that we will be less busy in the future," they say.
Money, being a more tangible and convertible resource, is easier to calculate.
"Barring some change in employment or family status, the supply and demand of money are relatively constant over time, and people are aware of that," the researchers write in the February issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
"Compared with demands on one's time, money needs in the future are relatively predictable from money needs today."
The researchers probed people's expectations with a series of seven questionnaire-style experiments involving groups of graduate and undergraduate students at the University of North Carolina and Duke. They found that respondents generally had more expectation of time "slack" to complete a task down the road than an expectation of money.
Participants believed that both time and money would be more available "in a month" than "today," but believed this more strongly for time than money. Further probing a psychological phenomenon called "delay discounting," in which people tend to lessen the importance of rewards in the future, the researchers found that people discounted future time more than both gains and losses in the money they had in the future.
"People are consistently surprised to be so busy today," the researchers say. "Lacking knowledge of what specific tasks will compete for their time in the future, they act as if new demands will not inevitably arise that are as pressing as those faced today."
In other words, people optimistically see their time pressures working out better tomorrow or next week than they have today, no matter what the demands that might intrude on their time later on.
Even with a constant stream of evidence that overly optimistic schedules won't work, "it is difficult to learn from feedback that time will not be more abundant in the future," Zauberman and Lynch write.
"Although many people may perceive themselves to be quite busy every day of their lives, the specific activities vary from day to day. Consequently, they do not learn from feedback that ... total demands are similar."
The researchers noted that people's tendency to overcommit time rather than money may not be universal -- time may not be discounted more than money by people with jobs that have irregular wages, such as salespeople on commission or street performers, for instance.
And, of course, some pledges of future time, like taking a night class or agreeing to coach a child's sports team, may be regretted when the time comes due, but viewed positively in the long run, Lynch and Zauberman concede.
"Our intuition, though, is that we are really making a mistake to agree to so many activities far in advance that we would decline if they were close in time," they say.