10. Why We Overestimate Time Spent on Unpleasant Activities

Laura Vanderkam is a time management expert who looks at the rhythms of our days, and finds shortcuts, "hacks" and time savers beyond the obvious to help busy people carve out more time for "other things." Laura studies how people use their time and, in particular, maps how people "say" they use their time (self reported studies) with how they "actually" use their time (American Time Use Study (ATUS) and other studies that capture actual activity. I was fortunate enough to spend time with Laura at a recent gathering of entrepreneurs where she and I were both speakers. Laura recently wrote a fascinating article for Fast Company titled, "Why Do We Think We Don't Sleep Enough?" with the implicit suggestion that we underestimate how much we sleep. She was nice enough to ask me to contibute.


In retrospect it seems we are both studying aspects of cognitive bias with regards to time: Laura is focused on biases around quantitative measurements of time whereas I'm focused on biases around qualitative measurements of time. Both are important.

Here's a bit of our dialog via email:

Question: John, I'm working on a short piece for Fast Company's website on sleep. Serious measurements find that Americans get plenty -- more than 8 hours a night, even for busy demographic groups (working parents of small kids). Yet no one seems to think that. Why is that?

My theory, which I was hoping to get a quote from you on, is that we think unpleasant things consume more time than they do, and pleasant things (read: sleep) consume less time than they do.Also, since pain is more memorable than pleasure, we remember bad nights more than good nights. What do you think? Do you have any thoughts on this you'd be willing to share for the piece?

-------------- Answer 1: (technical)

Your theory is right: we overestimate the time spent on unpleasant tasks and underestimate the time spent in pleasant activities (including sleep) thanks to cognitive bias. Our brains can be divided into two basic systems (Kahneman) - system 1 is automatic, intuitive, and "fast" meaning it operates quickly with little perceived effort. System 2 is rational, computational and effortful.

Thanks to the constant requirement for attention, focus and self control, system 2 activities like work and taking care of kids tend to drag on thanks to the constant awareness of the ticking of the clock. Conversely sleeping, reading an engaging book, or catching up with old friends are predominantly system 1 activities and often result in the perception time racing by.

Add'l thought: self reported studies of this nature include a recency effect that exaggerate these biases. However a longitudinal view of "what's actually remembered" (experiential time) will prove out that sleep and work will be quickly forgotten and only those special moments with kids, traumatic events, and amazing high points will occupy the temporal space of the rear view mirror..

(Example - do you think its true we remember bad nights more than good nights? - I would assert we remember unusually great nights or unusually terrible nights more than "decent" or "not great" nights: that "decent" vs. "not great" nights are a bit of wash - we remember the extremes)

Answer 2: (practical)    

Americans are an achievement oriented society and tend to answer questions in a way that leads to positioning themselves in idealistic terms as hardworking, sacrificing, family oriented members of society. Self reporting sloth, or even "taking good care of one's self" is somewhat anathema to the social accepted viewpoint described above. However, a more realistic question would be, "how much sleep do you thing your neighbor / co workers get? How much TV do they watch? How much time do they spend actually cleaning / taking care of the house or yard?"

There's a good body of evidence that suggests that people who confabulate to produce socially accepted answers will be reasonably realistic about estimates for "other people" very much like themselves.

My opinion is that its actually a mix of both: people do experience a dilation or contraction of time in certain types of activities, and then further bias their answers to fit the mold of social norms.