THIS TIME OF YEAR is deadline season for many people. It seems that wherever we look, there is a clock or a calendar pressuring us to move faster and stop dawdling. For some it is the end-of-semester crush, with papers to write and books to digest and comprehend, whereas others are rushing to tidy up a hundred loose ends before that big family vacation. Whatever the precise reason, the lament is the same: so much to do, so little time!

But do we really have too little time? Are these deadlines really looming, or do we in fact have more leisure than we imagine? It is always tricky to think about time, and new research now suggests that deadline pressure might contribute to our distorted view of how much time we really need to get everything done.

Psychological scientist Gabriela M.Jiga-Boy of Swansea University in Wales studies the complex relation between effort and time perception. She and her colleagues—Anna E. Clark of the international research institute INSEAD and Gn R. Semin of Utrecht University in the Netherlands—wanted to see if the perceived difficulty and deadline pressure of a task might distort our perception of time. They were inspired by another line of research, which has shown that spatial perception is shaped by how effortful a task is: for example, we will perceive a hill as steeper than it really is if we are tired, old or burdened by a heavy weight. Jiga-Boy and her colleagues wondered if the same perceptual bias might skew the way we think about the near future, and they ran a series of experiments to explore this idea.

The experiments are fairly straightforward. In one, for instance, they asked a group of student volunteers to imagine that 28 events would occur at certain points in the future, without pinning the events to any exact dates. Some of these events were fairly effortless, such as getting tickets for a concert, whereas others were complex and effortful, such as planning a wedding. The volunteers were then asked to estimate how much work each of these activities would require of them. They were also asked: How far away does the day of the event feel to you?

The idea was to see if the difficulty of the task affected perception of time, either stretching or compressing it. And it did, clearly. The tasks that the students judged complex and difficult—planning a wedding or an elaborate vacation—seemed more distant than did less demanding activities. In other words, our minds translate complexity and effort into time: a demanding task requires more time to complete, so its completion must be farther off.

The Clock Is Ticking
This logic is not sound, of course. It is the primitive mind simplistically equating effort and time. Just as anticipated exertion makes us see hills as steeper than they really are, so, too, do we perceive demanding tasks as stretching out farther into the future. But the mind learned to make these basic connections long before the modern world came up with things such as clocks and calendars—and final exams and vacation schedules and other deadlines. Jiga-Boy and her colleagues thought the imposition of such modern deadlines might alter this kind of time perception, a notion that they tested in a different set of experiments.

These experiments were similar to the ones described earlier, this time with deadlines added. For example, volunteers again visualized tasks of varying complexity, but some were given a deadline two months away, and others were given one eight months down the road. And again, all the volunteers were asked how far away the event felt to them.

The results, described in the December 2010 issue of the journal Psychological Science, were intriguing. In contrast to the earlier findings, now the more effortful events felt closer in time—not farther away. Simply imposing a deadline—whether it was two or eight months away—reversed the mind’s relation between work and time. Faced with a deadline, volunteers saw difficult and complex tasks as looming all too close.

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.