Research on reducing time-related stress

 |  By: Steve Johnson

People often feel pressed for time. But why, exactly? Is it simply that they have too many demands on the hours they have? Or is there another factor at work?

New research by the Journal of Marketing Research provides a novel answer to this question. A 60-page report, which we summarise for you here in a one-minute read, shows that perceptions are more important than reality. It reveals that time-related stress is more to do with people struggling between conflicting goals rather than simply wrestling to fit all the work into limited time.

The research also comes up with two amazingly simple ways to reduce that stress.

The results have implications for any agency having to manage time-stressed teams (surely every agency in the land…)

The research

The researchers carried out five experiments. The results show that when people feel that they have goals that conflict – whether related to demands on time or not – it leads to heightened stress and anxiety, which makes people feel more time-constrained.

Goal conflict uniquely affects subjective time perceptions. The researchers tested for other ways in which goal conflict might create problems, but time perceptions showed the biggest effect.

By showing that greater goal conflict make people feel more time constrained, the research sheds light on why people often find it difficult to achieve what they want to achieve. Conflicts over goals make people feel more pressed for time than they actually are.

The degree of this effect is striking. The following diagram shows the amount that goal conflict can reduce subjective time perception:

Goal conflict 1

The following diagram shows how much goal conflict increases stress and anxiety:

Goal conflict 2

How might this be interpreted in the agency or consultancy? Picture this. Imagine that someone has three urgent tasks that need resolving, and they only have three hours in which everything needs to be completed. Familiar picture? The result is stress and the feeling that a great deal more time is needed to do all these difficult things.

What’s the alternative? Tell the person to ignore two of the tasks entirely, and concentrate on just one. Help them to clear their mind of everything else. Give them the luxury of focusing simply on one thing. And say that they have an entire hour to immerse themselves in it. No conflict at all – just 100% focus. It’s amazing what can be achieved in an hour of undiluted attention. Then, when that's done, they move onto the next task.

The experiments also demonstrate the consequences of this effect on how consumers spend and value their time. Experiencing more conflict between goals decreased how long consumers were willing to wait for a chosen product to arrive, and increase their willingness to pay for faster delivery. Goal conflict, by influencing how time constrained consumers feel, thus affects how much money consumers are willing to spend to save time.

However, of course, increased stress is also likely to reduce the amount of time consumers spend browsing in the first place, and reduce the clarity of their search.

Finally, the researchers identified two simple interventions that reduce the negative effects of perceived goal conflicts, by targeting the underlying stress and anxiety itself.

They investigated a well-proven way to reduce stress – breathing slowly and deeply – and researched the effect it might have on time perception when someone’s goal conflict was high. The results were remarkable. Perceptions of available time did indeed increase after a few moments of deep, slow breathing:

Goal conflict 3

In their final experiment, they tried another approach. They noted that prior research found reappraising anxiety to be a more effective means to reduce its negative effects than trying to suppress it. Trying to turn anxiety into calmness is not very easy. But reappraising it as excitement is particularly impactful. So they reasoned that encouraging participants to reappraise their goal conflict-induced anxiety as excitement might restore their sense of time available. And this is exactly what the results showed:

Goal conflict 4

In summary, people often feel pressed for time. Prior research sheds light on the negative consequences of this, but until now little work has examined what drives people’s sense of time in the first place. Now, we can see that greater goal conflicts make people feel more pressed for time.

Luckily, when goal conflict is high, the simple act of breathing deeply and slowly makes participants feel they have as much time as when goal conflict is low. And presenting something as exciting shifts the thinking and galvanises the ability to harness time far more effectively.

So, the next time someone in your workplace is stressed due to time pressures, you now have two magic tricks to help them try. They are quick to apply, and they're proven. And they're free.

If it works, that's tremendous. Tell a friend. And then get back to work. Breathe deeply...


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