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Time Is “Like-The-Present”

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

There is an old adage, "Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?" And indeed, many of us do just that because time is a precious commodity of which there is never enough.

As a result, we address the issues or tasks that are the most pressing, figuring that we will get to the less pressing ones later when "there is more time." (We have yet to accept the notion that there will never be enough time!)

We are not alone in our thinking. A recent study discussed in the October 3, 2014 edition of The Economist entitled, "Future, imperfect and tense" explains we tend to operate on deadlines. Yanping Tu of the University of Chicago and Dilip Soman of the University of Toronto studied how individuals think about completing a task and then actually doing so. Previous studies showed that we divide this activity into four phrases: pre-decision, post -decision (but pre-action), action and review. (Id.)

The researchers in this study divided time into two parts: "like -the-present" and "unlike- the- present". They found that:

"…the key step in getting things done is to get started." But what drives that? They believe the key that unlocks the implemental mode lies in how people categorise time. They suggest that tasks are more likely to be viewed with an implemental mindset if an imposed deadline is cognitively linked to "now"-a so-called like-the-present scenario. That might be a future date within the same month or calendar year, or pegged to an event with a familiar spot in the mind’s timeline (being given a task at Christmas, say, with a deadline of Easter). Conversely, they suggest, a deadline placed outside such mental constructs (being "unlike-the-present") exists merely as a circle on a calendar, and as such is more likely to be considered deliberatively and then ignored until the last minute. (Id.)

To determine if our minds really do work this way, the researchers conducted five different experiments. In one of them, they offered a group of farmers a sum of money to open a bank account within six months. To part of the group, they made this offer in June so that the bank account would need to be opened by December 31 while to the other part of the group, the researchers made the offer in July meaning the bank account would need to be opened in January of the following year, or "next year".

What the researchers predicted and found to be true was that the group who were told in June to open the account, "… were nearly four times more likely to open the account immediately as those for whom the deadline lay in the following year." (Id.)

Thus, while realistically, time flows continuously, the distinction on a calendar between the end of one year and the beginning of the next makes a difference in the way we view the immediacy of completing a task; we see the former as "like-the-present" and the latter as "unlike-the -present". (Id.)

This appears to be another form of an implicit bias and thus one we should try to actively avoid by viewing all of our tasks as being "like-the-present." As is obvious, waiting until the last moment to do something presents its own set of issues, most of them unpleasant.

What does this have to do with negotiation and mediation? Treat them as "like-the-present" by seeking a resolution "this year" rather than "next year". Chances are doing so will lead to a much better resolution for all concerned.

… Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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