Deadline Pressure Distorts Our Sense of Time

The difficulty of a task stretches out our perception of time

Finally, to check that the results indeed apply to real-world scenarios, Jiga-Boy and her colleagues recruited a new group of volunteers for one last test. The volunteers were told they were part of a health study and would be monitoring their food intake and reporting back to the researchers in a month. Some of the subjects were instructed to record what they ate on any two days and submit a half-page report, whereas others were asked to record their meals for two weeks and submit a 10-page report. When asked how far away the deadline seemed, those who had the more effortful task reported that the end of the month felt much closer than the other subjects reported.

Now imagine several deadlines all at once—final exams, graduation ceremonies, perhaps a wedding or a European vacation—not to mention all of your regular commitments, which do not go away. No wonder you are feeling quite overwhelmed. But Jiga-Boy and her co-workers believe there may be a silver lining in these findings. These distorted perceptions of deadline pressure may serve a good purpose. That is, rigid deadlines for complex and effortful tasks may loom frighteningly close for a reason—so we will pay enough attention to them.

So back to all those looming spring deadlines. Simply knowing just how hard it will be to get everything done is itself the cognitive cue that helps us to prepare and plan and keeps us conscientious so we can respond to the challenges that lie ahead. Thanks to the mind’s tricks, all those term papers will get written and the vacation will get planned—just as they do every year.


(Further Reading)
  • So Much to Do and So Little Time: Effort and Perceived Temporal Distance. Gabriela M. Jiga-Boy, Anna E. Clark and Gün R. Semin in Psychological Science, Vol. 21, No. 12, pages 1811–1817; December 2010.

This article was originally published with the title "We're Only Human: Looming Deadlines."

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