Emory Report
February 28, 2005
Volume 57, Number 21


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February 28, 2005
It's 4:52 p.m.—do you know what your deadline is?

BY diana drake

Studies have shown that the annual one-hour shift in April to Daylight Savings Time is significantly related to an immediate 8 percent increase in traffic accidents.

This phenomenon led Joe Labianca, assistant professor of organization and management in Goizueta Business School, to explore the concept of time that humans have created and how, when altered, it can affect their perception and work performance. The results are detailed in his paper, co-authored with Goizueta organization and management Assistant Professor Henry Moon, "When Is an Hour Not Sixty Minutes? Deadlines, Temporal Schemas, and Individual and Task Group Performance." Publication is pending in the Academy of Management Journal.

"I was reading about the effect of the switch to Daylight Savings Time on traffic accidents," said Labianca, who primarily researches teams, social networks and schemas. "[Another] study that caught my eye was about scientists working with Mars rovers. A Martian day is 37 minutes longer than an Earth day, and this was producing a reaction similar to jet lag among scientists in the lab.

"We sometimes think about time as if it is objective, but the concept of time is a human creation and, thus, subject to all sorts of human biases," he continued. "For example, when I was working a seven-day-a-week job as a consultant, if somebody gave me a project early Friday morning, I wasn't going to touch it until Monday--because it was Friday. I was still organizing my time as if I were punching in to a normal, Monday-to-Friday job."

With Moon's help, Labianca applied this thinking to the concept of deadlines, a natural intersection of his past work on schemas and teams. The two set out to better understand the cognitive underpinnings of how time and deadlines are perceived by both individuals and groups as they attempt to schedule activities in the Western culture's clock time.

In a series of experiments, Labianca and Moon gave teams and individuals the same objective amount of time to complete a task, but they manipulated the starting times between prototypical (3:45 p.m., 4 p.m.) and atypical (3:52 p.m., 4:07 p.m.).

In the first experiment, 20 task groups were charged with writing and rehearsing a 60-second television commercial (for a fictional website that sells textbooks) in exactly one hour, with half the groups beginning at atypical times and the other half at prototypical times. Five of the 10 atypical groups were begun at 52 minutes past the hour, while the other five were begun at seven minutes past the hour. Five of the prototypical groups were begun at 45 minutes past the hour, and the remaining of the five of the prototypical groups were begun on the hour.

The second study measured individuals. Seventy-three participants were told they were taking part in a study related to creative productivity; the experiment would consist of two related tasks that would take a total of 30 minutes to complete. Again, half the participants began their tasks at typical times, the other half at atypical times. They were advised to spend an equal amount of time on each task, using a wall clock to stay on schedule, but they were intentionally provided more scenarios for the first task than would be possible to complete in 15 minutes, forcing them to actively manage their time.

The outcomes, Labianca said, were quite telling of human time perception. Significant differences arose in groups' time pacing and performance, with prototypical groups achieving higher performance. Individuals beginning at atypical times spent significantly longer on the first set of tasks, thus leaving them less time for the second set, increasing perceived time pressure and resulting in poorer performance.

"If somebody tells you his flight comes in at 3:57 p.m., you will most likely store it in your mind as getting in around 4 p.m.," Labianca said. "The same kind of thing is going on in our study; you're telling the team that they've got 60 minutes to complete a project. If you tell them they need to be done at 3:52 p.m., they may not hear or store it in memory as well. They're likely to make more mistakes because it doesn't 'fit' with the way they usually tell time."

Labianca's ultimate goal is to provide team leaders with a better understanding of how starting and ending times influence both individuals and groups. Managers, he said, need to recognize that people are synchronized with "temporal milestones" and therefore should consider the clock in project planning.

"I saw this in my own work behavior," Labianca said. "If somebody said, 'Do this project, and you've got a week,' and I got it at an atypical time, I didn't get to work immediately. That's what you kept seeing with the folks in our experiments. They were lost in time."

The next step in this research, he said, is to inform people that this phenomenon exists. If they know, will struggles with time management and missed deadlines go away? Only time will tell.