I spent a few hours today working on my taxes. Actually, I spent 2.5 hours, and I’m about 95 percent finished. In my mind it was an all-day activity. I knew, rationally, this wasn’t true; I timed myself 2 years ago and found it took 5 hours as an upper bound. And yet because it seemed like a huge and awful thing it still loomed large in my mental accounting.
In my post last week on overestimating vs. underestimating time, I found that even people who underestimate time tend to overestimate things they don’t want to do. This is likely one reason that people think they spend 5 hours a week doing dishes. Few people like to do dishes, and since we do them for a few minutes at a time, multiple times through the week, it becomes this large thing we feel like we are always doing.
This can happen at work too. A difficult conversation becomes a full day undertaking — except it may take a few minutes at most. I once set a goal to get a certain public figure on the phone, figuring the hassle might take much of the week. When I talked to him on Monday morning, that kind of let the air out of the sails for the next 168 hours.
Psychic time is a funny thing. We assign additional weight to dreaded tasks until they seem to take longer than they actually do. Then, because they seem to require a lot of time, we don’t fit them in, waiting until a large (and likely mythical) opening appears in the schedule.
So how can we fight this?
One reason I tell people to keep track of their time is that I really do think the truth sets us free. If I know I spend a mere hour per week doing dishes, this keeps me from telling myself some sad story that I’m always loading and unloading the dishwasher. The fact that I knew my taxes took me 5 hours a few years ago gave me the courage to schedule it in amidst various calls and such today. Even if I could only find 2.5 hours, it would be half done. And as it turned out, it’s now pretty much all done.
What dreaded task do you think takes the most time?
Photo: A task you don’t want to do becomes a lion in your schedule — seeming to take more space than it actually does. Or maybe I’m reaching for metaphors in my iPhone camera roll.