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Getting things done: How we view time changes when we start working on things

By Dilip Soman

One of the most popular courses at the Rotman School is an MBA elective called "Getting It Done." This course is not a course about any business discipline. It is simply a course that teaches students how to get things done. Why is it so popular?  In the words of its instructor, "Because life is a series of getting things done."

Whether or not we like the philosophy underlying it, most of us will admit that they do pragmatically think of life as a series of check-marks on to-do lists. Articles need to be written, bills need to be paid, home repairs need to be done, tickets need to be purchased for winter vacations, kids need to be picked up and dropped off – the list is endless. How do people cope and, in particular, how do they decide what tasks they should work on first?

Yanping Tu and I argue that while time passes continuously, most people think about it categorically. For instance, we organize our calendars by the week and we categorize projects as being due this week or next. Similarly, farmers might categorize time by the harvesting season, fashion designers do so by fashion cycles and students by academic semesters. Categorization is easy to do, it helps us organize information easily and with little effort. And the moment we categorize things into different boxes or buckets, then everything in a given box is treated similar to other things in the same box, and everything in different boxes is considered to be different from each other.

Think of the following thought example – imagine two fictitious states in a country, Yaha and Waha. Let's imagine that you live in the city Sheher marked with a star. You just read about an outbreak of a viral disease in another city and think that you might be concerned about that outbreak spreading to Sheher. Now, let's imagine that the outbreak you read about has happened in a city called Nagar (in Waha), or Gaon (in Yaha, but further away in terms of distance). The question that researchers Arul Mishra and Himanshu Mishra asked in an earlier paper was – in which case would you be more concerned?

Now as most readers will recognize, distance between two cities is perhaps a big predictor of the spread of an infection. However, The Mishras found that people reported being more concerned when the outbreak was on Gaon – in the same state as they were even when Gaon was further away and knowing that viruses do not respect state borders! The explanation for this phenomenon is simple. People use state membership to create categories and subsequently members within a category seem to be more similar to each other. If it can happen in another city in Yaha, it could happen here. But Waha seems more distant.

Yanping and I believe that people think about future time in the same way. We categorize events and treat them as a function of which category they belong to – now or later. If things belong to the later category, they are put on the back burner and left to simmer. Otherwise, they are right up front and are paid full attention.

Imagine that you have just been handed an assignment that is due two months from now. The assignment does require a fair bit of work, but – after all – it is not due this month or the next. Plus, you have a number of other things to work on. Chances ae high that you will put it on the proverbial back burner and leave it there to simmer while you devote attention to the more pressing matters at hand – the things that are due this week or this month!

We said that people treat all "now" events similarly and all "later" events similarly. In particular, we draw upon a distinction between an implemental mindset (a state of mind in which a person is more interested in finishing tasks and achieving closure) and a deliberative mindset (in which the individual is planning the task – thinking about what needs to be done and by whom). Events in the "now" category are all viewed with an implemental mindset. They are the events that people strive to put check marks against on their to-do lists!

How do events get into the "now" category? The first way is by actually being close by in terms of time. Jobs that are due today, jobs that must be started now in order to make the deadline are obviously in the "now" category. But a second way in which events could be categorized as now or later might have to do with how time periods are sliced up. People tend to use important landmarks to slice up time and create categories. In addition to the standard calendar slices of years, months or weeks, we could slice up time at birthdays, festivals, and days of personal relevance. Think about Harry Potter, and the Goblet of Fire. Harry will be competing in the Tri Wizard Cup in search of eternal glory, and the Cup is scheduled for February. It had remained on Harry's back burner for a while until right after Christmas – to quote from the book "February twenty fourth looked a lot closer from this side of Christmas." Apparently Harry Potter used Christmas as a slicing tool to categorize future time. Before Christmas, the Cup was in the future. But right after Christmas, it was in the "now" category and he suddenly felt a greater sense of urgency in preparing for the TriWizard Cup, although the objective temporal distance did not change much overnight.

Across a series of several studies, we studied people who had a fixed quantity of objective time to accomplish a task. For some of these people, the deadline was in the "now" category while for others it was in the "later" category. There were a number of ways in which we could change categorization. Consider a task that is due in 20 days – if it is handed out on the 5th of the month, the due date is this month but if it is handed out on the 25th, it is next month. Or consider a task handed out on Monday that is due in 6 days on Saturday. We created two versions of a calendar to influence categorization – in one version each week was coloured separately (so now the deadline was this week) while in a second version all weekdays were the same colour and all weekends were a different colour (so now it appeared to belong to a separate category). Across multiple studies, we found the same basic result – busy people were more likely to start work on a task whose deadline was perceived to be "now" than when it was perceived to be "later." Clearly, the manner in which we think about the future changes the way we work on things and perhaps even whether we get them done!


Dilip Soman holds the Corus Chair in Communication Strategy and is a Professor of Marketing at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. Excerpted from The Last Mile: Creating Social and Economic Value from Behavioral Insights. Rotman-UTP Publishing https://utorontopress.com/ca/the-last-mile-4

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GettingItDone®: Achieve Organizational and Team Success Through Better Execution

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