Why have there been so few studies of what happens to time demands after we create them? In this post, I go hunting for some answers.
This week, I uncovered a great article written by Judith Ouellette and Wendy Wood. It’s entitled “Habit and intention in everyday life: The multiple processes by which past behavior predicts future behavior.”
Like many other academic articles, it has an inimidating title that seems obscure but the text is quite readable once the new terms it uses are understood. The most important, for the post, is what the authors refer to as a “conscious intention.” For all intents and purposes, it’s the same as a time demand.
Their article confirms one of the ideas I include in my book: that our daily actions can be divided into two types.
Type 1) Habits we perform with a level of automaticity that requires little energy.
Type 2) Conscious intentions that require explicit thought (i.e. time demands.)
In a follow-up diary study led by Dr. Wood, approximately 33-50% of all daily behaviors are habits. The rest are conscious intentions.
I did a quick search to see how many articles mentioned the original paper and the number came to over 1600 since it was published in 1998. By academic standards, it’s quite popular.
However, it’s interesting to see that very little research has been conducted on conscious intentions, while there has been a great deal of research on habits. That strikes me as odd.
It appears that the average working professional cares more about conscious intentions than habits. By their very nature, habits take care of themselves without much explicit effort. For example, we brush our teeth without thinking about it, day and day out. What we care about are the tasks we must complete each day and the amount of time we have to do them in. We are concerned about these conscious intentions because they are a primary and essential step we take to fulfil every single one of our goals.
This concern may be translated into a question that uses the language of the paper: “How can I effectively convert a high percentage of conscious intentions into positive actions?”
In answering this question, academics seem to have dropped the ball. My research shows that when it comes to conscious intentions, they seem to be more interested in peripheral questions such as “What are the factors that go into creating conscious intentions?”, “Why do people form the goals they do?” and “What are the obstacles people face in fulfilling their goals?”
These questions are important, but there are more basic questions that are not being researched, such as: “How do people process conscious intentions? How do they navigate time limits and due dates?” These are questions that are closer to our concern for converting intentions into action.
Why aren’t these questions being asked and answered by researcher?
1. Academics aren’t learning from other fields
A light reading of recent research in fields such as quantum physics and philosophy reveal that there is a growing concern that without human involvement, there is no such thing as time. When the existence of time itself is being questioned, it’s a bit strange to continue exploring “time management” or (even worse) “time control.” Yet, that’s what researchers in the field of time-based productivity have done for years (including yours truly.) Without adequate input of knowledge of other fields, a discussion about “time management” (if taken literally) is actually a bit of a fool’s errand.
2. Academic funding is skewed
The academy’s preoccupation with habits and behaviors isn’t echoed by the public, who only think about changing habits or behaviors now and then – hardly as often as they think about conscious intentions and time limits.
This vast difference of interests has meant that little academic research has made its way to the adult learner, who picks up a book, listens to a webinar and sits in a classroom in order to learn how to navigate an unyielding increase in conscious intentions. The majority of time-based productivity learning makes no reference or use of recent academic research. Most of the content used is based on the experience of one person, plus those who follow his/her advice. This falls far short of research standards: it’s all “anecdata” a term for stories taken as fact mentioned on the Harvard Business Review blog.
The reason for this mismatch between the academy and daily reality may be that there is a lot of funding flowing to habit research due to the high cost of destructive practices like smoking and drug addiction. Getting rid of bad habits actually saves lives, so a breakthrough in this area has high stakes, which attracts society’s attention. Boosting one’s time-based productivity isn’t as fraught with health risks.
3. Academics Aren’t Skilled Enough (as Individuals)
Another possible explanation is that academics who study time management (mostly psychologists), are simply not equipped to answer the common questions people have. As I show in Perfect Time-Based Productivity, in the moments after a conscious intention/time demand is created, humans follow a defined process, without exception. Although these processes are similar in design, they are also idiosyncratic and unique.
The uniqueness derives from the fact that these processes are self-created. Their effectiveness varies widely between individuals in ways that are barely understood at this time – the research that should give us basic answers just isn’t being performed.
The skills these researchers are lacking do exist, but they are to be found in management or engineering schools in fields such as simulation, Business Process Management (BPM) or Total Quality Management (TQM). They all study the flow of tangible objects in processes and systems – but they don’t routinely study psychological objects like time demands. As far as I can tell, psychologists aren’t taking these classes to learn these skills which are essential to analyzing the flow of time demands in human affairs. By the same token, engineers aren’t flocking to Psych 101 so that they can learn how to model ways in which psychological objects are processed.
Only a multiskilled approach would work. Unfortunately, these are the studies that are the toughest to perform well, often posing huge obstacles to graduate students who must pick a field of study. This is just not the shortest or simplest path to take.
Hopefully, this state of affairs will change and we aren’t completely stuck. The stresses on professionals around the world are increasing, and we need to do more to help them attain the level of productivity they desire.