Why We Overcommit
We Think We'll Have More Time in the Future, Say Researchers
Feb. 10, 2005 -- Packed calendars and ceaseless schedules are sure signs of a tendency to overcommit. But what makes us cram so much onto our to-do lists? Why do we consistently push to maintain a pace more appropriate for the round-the-world reality show The Amazing Race than for normal, daily life?
Apparently, we believe we'll have more free time in the future, say researchers. It rarely happens, but we hardly ever learn from the experience. Instead, we keep piling on commitments, and then we stress out trying to keep our word.
Sound familiar? Don't feel bad. Even top-notch university professors make the same mistake.
"Many of us have accepted invitations weeks or months in advance to do a review for journal ... serve on some committee ... or travel to give a talk, only to regret our decision when the time arrived," admit Gal Zauberman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and John Lynch Jr. of Duke University.
"'Yes' was often followed eventually by 'Damn!'" write the two business school professors in February's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
"If the same invitations had required more immediate action, we would have said, 'No, I'm too busy.' But when asked in advance, we imagine that we will be less busy in the future. Why do we fall prey to the same mistakes again and again?"
Time vs. Money
To find out, the pair led seven experiments with college undergraduates and MBA students. Each test presented fictional scenarios tempting the students to commit time and/or money for future projects.
For instance, UNC undergraduate students weighed a hypothetical request to donate time or money to a charity. In some cases, the requests were made for the next day; others gave two weeks' notice.
The students were less realistic about time than money. They overcommitted their time when no action was needed for a couple of weeks. But they were less likely to blow their budgets on upcoming events.
We're better at predicting our finances than time, say the researchers. For instance, people know how much they'll need for rent and how much they'll earn, unless their situation changes suddenly. If worse comes to worst, money can be borrowed.