Thursday, January 17, 2013

Deadline I

Roman Ondák, Untitled (Post-it), 2005 (Private Collection, courtesy: the artist & Johnen Galerie; Photograph: Jens Ziehe

Imagine you are asked to write these lines for a respected art magazine, ten days from now. How will this deadline look? Burdensome? Threatening? Will it be a gentle reminder that work must be done, or will it be a stressful monster crawling out of your diary and making your nights sleepless? And most important: What exactly will you do to finish on time?
Well, I didn’t. Deadlines are mixed blessings. They are indicated objectively by our watches, diaries or bosses asking for completed work. Respecting deadlines initially involves keeping them in mind, for example by writing them down in bold red characters … But such tactics don’t seem to be enough. Research by psychologists as well as our everyday lives show us that we tend to miss deadlines or, as in my case, extend them.
When people estimate the distance they must traverse to reach an object, they take into account the effort required to reach it. Objects that require more effort will appear even farther away in our minds. I believe we think about deadlines in a similar way: feeling that they are closer or farther from now depends on how much we need to do to meet them, not just on how objectively close or far they are with respect to the present. Even the very same deadline – say, ten days from now – can feel different, depending upon the task.
I asked 74 participants from VU University Amsterdam to imagine they would complete a list of tasks (such as going to a concert or organizing a wedding) by a certain date in the future. First, they estimated the effort needed to complete these tasks and then how far away in time these events felt to them. I made the following observation: The more effort involved in the task, the closer in time the deadline felt. Perhaps more effort means preparing earlier, working faster or being more organized up until the deadline. If little effort is required, deadlines may appear farther away because there is little chance of missing them.
When 25 other participants thought about the same tasks with no deadlines attached to them, the ones involving more effort felt farther away. They became ‘stretched out’ in time because when there is no deadline, effort is not a meaningful cue for taking on tasks. Yet this perception of effort and time could arise from other factors. Due to this possibility, I conducted two other experiments with 108 participants where I deliberately changed the amount of effort they needed to invest in a task, and then I measured how close or far the task’s deadline felt. Again, the more effort one needed to complete the task, the closer in time the deadline felt.
However quantitative, deadlines are not just objective, static measures of time, but also subjective, malleable estimations of when future events will happen. Their double nature helps us to adapt our resources and probably be more efficient.
Text by  Gabriela Jiga-Boy
Source:     Issue 7, winter 12.