You look at your calendar and realize that you have 60 minutes left before an upcoming meeting. Good, you think, you still have time to get some work in beforehand.
Well think again.
New research recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that the time right before a meeting is unproductive because people expect something to come up and interrupt them, which in response makes them do nothing until the meeting starts.
"We seem to take a mental tax out of our time right before an appointment," said the study’s co-author, Selin Malkoc, from Ohio State University.
"We figure something might come up, we might need some extra time, even when there's no need to do that. As a result, we do less with the available time."
In other words, we get extremely unproductive when a meeting is on the horizon even if there is no real-world reason for it.
To come to this conclusion, the team started with an online study of 198 people where they told half of them that they had a friend coming over in and hour and they were fully prepared and they told the other half that they had no plans.
The team then asked each of the groups how many minutes they could spend objectively and subjectively reading over the course of the hour.
The funny thing is that both of the groups said they had about 50 minutes of reading time. This is strange because they should, in theory, have the full hour, especially the group that was told that they had no plans.
The team says that this is because we automatically put a 10-minute just in case window of time for interruptions even if there isn’t one.
"Regardless of whether they had a friend coming by or not, participants said that they objectively had about 50 minutes available to read," Malkoc said.
"That's an amazing finding right there. Most people didn't think even objectively they had a full hour to read. People are putting a little 'just-in-case' time into their schedules when there is no real reason to do that."
The group that had friends coming over also reported that they had 10 less minutes than the group who had no plans, meaning that out of the hour they only felt like they could read 40 minutes. That’s 20 minutes lost for basically no reason at all.
The next study involved the team paying participants to meet before an already scheduled appointment. The team offered two meeting types: one 30-minute meeting that paid $2.50 and one 45-minute meeting that paid $5.00.
The team found that the group that had an appointment at the top of the hour after the start time of the meeting were far more likely to choose the 30-minute meeting over the 45-minute meeting despite them having enough time and getting paid more for their effort.
"It was clear they would have plenty of time to finish and have extra time before their next appointment, but they still were more likely to choose the 30-minute study—even when they had a clear financial incentive to choose the longer study.”
In yet another study, the team had 158 college students brought into a lab study session where the researcher told the students that they had five minutes before a task started.
However, they phrased this differently to half of the students. For one half, they said they had five minutes before they get started with the task and the other half they simply said that they could do whatever they wanted for five minutes.
This made a huge difference.
The students that were reminded that they had a task coming up reportedly did more tasks, like checking their email and social accounts, than the half that were reminded of the task.
This is because time seems to feel shorter when an upcoming task is looming.
The big takeaway here is when it comes to the workplace. If you think you have 60 minutes until a meeting, you will probably only give yourself 40 minutes to do work and the other 20 will be lost because you perceive needing that time for something.
Because of this, Malkoc says, “"we feel that if we have a meeting in two hours, we shouldn't work on any big projects. So we may spend time just answering emails or doing things that aren't as productive.”
The findings support the notion that when we have multiple meetings spread out throughout the day we always feel like we get nothing done and that the day was wasted, a common feeling for anyone who works in an office setting.
The solution it would seem is to lump meetings into huge blocks with no gaps in between. That way, you are prepared to be in them for a long time and then when they are over you can actually get back to fully productive work.
The study was published in the Journal of Consumer Research. Read the full report here.