Success requires making
accurate estimates of the time needed to complete prerequisite tasks,
remembering to carry out these tasks at the appropriate time and
avoiding distractions that could prevent you from staying on schedule.
A song is just a song, but as time goes by, something as random as a
song's length could be the difference in whether you miss an important
deadline or arrive late for an appointment, suggests time-management
research from Washington University in St. Louis.
‘Time estimates of tasks that we need to incorporate into our later plans, like a drive to an appointment, are often based on our memory of how long it took us to perform that same drive previously.’
The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology
General, shows that people rely heavily on time estimates of past
experiences to plan for future tasks and that outside influences, such
as background music, can skew our perception of time, causing even the
best-laid plans to go awry.
"Our results suggest time estimates of
tasks that we need to incorporate into our later plans, like a drive to
an appointment, are often based on our memory of how long it took us to
perform that same drive previously," said Emily Waldum, principal
author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher in psychological and
brain sciences in Arts & Sciences.
"Even if you think you
estimated the duration of events accurately, external factors unrelated
to that event can bias time estimates," she said. "Something as simple
as the number of songs you heard play on your phone during a run can
influence whether you over- or under-estimate the duration of the run."
a complicated modern world where multitasking is the norm, it's easy
for our game plans to fall apart due to breakdowns in "prospective
memory," a term psychologists use to describe the process of remembering
to do something in the future.
Waldum and co-author Mark
McDaniel, a professor of psychological and brain sciences, designed this
study to tease out differences in how people young and old approach a
challenge that requires them to plan ahead and complete a series of
time-based tasks by a specific deadline.
The research included 36
college undergraduates and 34 healthy older adults in their 60s, 70s and
80s. It aimed to simulate the complicated time-based prospective memory
(TBPM) challenges that people old and young experience in everyday
In the first part of the study, participants were asked to
keep track of how long it took to complete a trivia quiz. The quiz
always ran 11 minutes, but participants had to make their own time
estimates without access to a clock. Some completed the quiz with no
background noise, while others heard either two long songs or four short
Later, the participants were challenged to put together as
many pieces of a puzzle as possible while leaving enough time to
complete the same quiz before a 20-minute deadline.
previous research, this study found that seniors managed to complete
future tasks on time at about the same rate as college undergraduates,
although each age group used surprisingly different strategies to
estimate how much time they would need to repeat the quiz and finish the
next phase of the experiment on deadline.
Older adults reported
ignoring songs heard in the background, relying instead on an internal
clock to estimate how long it took them to complete the first quiz.
Consistent with other research on internal clocks and time perception,
seniors in this experiment tended to underestimate time taken on the
first quiz. This led them to spend a little too much time on the puzzle
and to finish the second quiz a bit beyond deadline.
adults heard two long songs during the first quiz, they performed a lot
like older adults, underestimating the quiz duration and winding up a
bit late," Waldum said. "When they heard four short songs, younger
adults overestimated how much time they would need to repeat the quiz
leading them to finish it too early."
Thus, older adults performed
about the same, regardless of whether they heard songs or not. For
young people though, background music played a big role in whether they
were too early or too late, Waldum said.
While the challenges of
being on time may remain largely the same throughout a lifetime, this
study suggests that the tricks we use to stay on schedule may evolve as
For college students with young, agile minds and no fear
of multitasking, using songs to estimate the passage of time may be a
plausible approach when no clock is available.
"In a scenario
where the duration of a background event is set, such as a 30-minute
television show, this is a very good strategy because it provides useful
duration information whether you're paying attention to the show or
not," Waldum said. "However, when background events are less
predictable, as in the case with songs and many other events, basing a
time estimate on them can be risky."
Older adults, who generally
see declines in memory and the speed at which they process information,
tended to avoid multitasking throughout the study.
first quiz, they ignored songs and relied more on an internal clock to
make time estimates. In the second phase of the study when a clock was
made available, they were less likely to pause working on the puzzle and
quiz to check the clock.
These findings suggest that older adults
may actually over-rely on their internal clocks that give us a feeling
of elapsed time. Checking a clock when it is available is a much better
strategy than relying on a feeling of elapsed time, and indeed increased
clock-checking predicts better time-based prospective memory
performance in this and many other previous studies.
Therefore, even if checking the clock requires some multitasking, it is worth your time, Waldum said.
matter what challenges the future brings — getting out the door and to
work, finishing walking the dog before the cookies are done or
purchasing popcorn before a movie starts — the fundamentals of being on
time still apply.
study provides some good news for older adults," Waldum said. "Our
results, while preliminary, suggest that time-management ability and the
ability to perform some types of complex time-based tasks in real life
may largely be preserved with age."