Analysis: we tend to overestimate how much time we will have in the future and overcommit as a result so how can we avoid this time trap?

It's Monday morning and you receive a text from a friend inviting you to dinner on Saturday. You immediately say "yes!", excited to have something to look forward to at the end of the week. That afternoon, a colleague asks if you could review some project materials for her by Saturday. You say, "Yes." Later in the week, a family member calls and asks if you could pop in on Saturday to help them tidy up their back garden. "Yes," you say. You carry on with your week.

Saturday arrives, you look at your schedule and go "damn!". Your day is now packed to the brim with commitments.

Research shows we can be pretty bad at making decisions for our future selves. We tend to overestimate how much time we will have in the future, which leads to time traps such as the one described above. This is referred to as the Yes…Damn! Effect. We say yes to future commitments in the moment, only for future us to curse our overzealous past selves.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, a brief history of time management

We may be especially susceptible to this time trap as we move from summer into autumn. If summer has been relaxing, we may feel resourced and motivated to take on more commitments as we shift into an autumn routine. However, schedules fill up quickly, and that extra project that sounded like a great idea in early September might have our mid-October selves groaning.

As a coaching psychologist, I often see my clients, workshop participants and students fall into this time trap. I recently wrote about some of the time awareness approaches I use to support people to become more aware of their time habits. I often encourage the following practices to help people be more intentional and avoid common time traps such as the Yes…Damn! Effect.

Recognise your time habits

First and foremost, we need to start by building an awareness of our time habits. When and how often do we fall into the Yes…Damn! time trap? Are there certain people or requests in our personal and professional lives that we have a hard time saying no to?

From RTÉ Radio 1, time management tips from executive coach Margaret Dorgan

As we pay attention to our habits, what commitments consistently feel like they steal our time away from what would truly make us feel productive and fulfilled?

One way to become more aware of our time habits is to track our time using a reflective time journal. This can help us to record and reflect on our time use patterns and identify our common time traps.

If we can recognise and document these patterns, we will become more aware when we are on the precipice of a time trap. And when we are aware that the time trap is occurring, we can use the following practices to maneuver intentionally.

Don't be so optimistic

This might be a strange message coming from a researcher and practitioner who specialises in wellbeing. However, in order to counteract the cognitive biases that make us believe we will have more time in the future, we need to match our optimism with some pragmatism.

We are often overly optimistic about how long it will take to complete a task or activity, which leads to us underestimating time durations. This is called the planning fallacy, and we can combat this cognitive bias by factoring buffer time into our schedules.

It often feels good to say yes and to plan things to look forward to

If we think a task will take two hours, it may be realistic to add an extra 15-30 minutes of buffer. If we think we could squeeze one more thing onto our to-do list, we might catch ourselves before optimistically committing that extra thing to the calendar.

Again, tracking our time can be useful here as it draws our attention to how much time tasks and events actually take up.

Pause before saying yes

In the present moment, there is a low cost to saying yes to a future commitment. In fact, it often feels good to say yes and to plan things to look forward to. However, a habit of saying yes without thinking twice has costs for our future selves and perpetuates the Yes…Damn! Effect.

Instead, we can build a habit of pausing before we commit to anything. During this pause, we can consider the following: Would I say yes if I was being asked to do this this week? Or: would I say yes if I was being asked to do this today?

There are a slew of reasons we say yes to requests, and it is not always be a simple job to pause and decline.

Ashley Whillans, the author of Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life suggests, "Statistically, the best predictor of how busy we are going to be next week is how busy we are right now". If it feels overwhelming to consider adding another commitment to today's schedule or this week’s schedule, chances are our future selves would also feel overwhelmed trying to fit it in.

Weigh up commitments against values and priorities

When we pause before committing to something, we can evaluate the request against our values and priorities. Even if we could fit this request into our schedules, we can also consider why we would do so.

Perhaps the commitment aligns well with our values. Helping a family member or spending meaningful time with a friend feels important and connects us to a sense of purpose and belonging. Maybe the request involves a work project that will support our professional growth.

However, we may also consider whether saying no best supports our values and priorities. Saying no to the extra social outing might prioritise our need to catch up on sleep. Setting boundaries with our work commitments might allow us to prioritise spending quality time with our family.

Here, we can begin by reflecting on what is most important to us right now. What are our core values and priorities? If we are clear on our priorities, we can use these as guiding factors to inform our decisions.

Now, there are a slew of reasons we say yes to requests, and it is not always be a simple job to pause and decline. However, if we cultivate awareness of our time habits, we can begin to recognise our common time traps and act more intentionally. Our future selves might just thank us.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ