Duke - The Fuqua School of Business

Feature Story

When Goals Seem At Odds, You Might Have More Time Than You Think

Professor Jordan Etkin’s research finds conflicting goals prompt feelings of time pressure

Conflicting goals lead to feelings of time pressure
January 08, 2015

Busy? Long to-do list? Feeling pressure to make choices? Maybe time isn't as short as you think.

Duke University Fuqua School of Business professor Jordan Etkin found in recent research that perceiving goals as being in conflict with one another leads to anxiety that makes us feel short on time—even when time isn't a factor.

"Conflict is not literal and objective all the time," she said. "Often it's just how we feel about it."

Etkin and her colleagues looked at what makes us feel pressed for time, how that affects our behavior as consumers, and what can be done to minimize the resulting stress.

When we perceive our goals to be in conflict—if getting exercise feels like it's keeping us from family time—the anxiety makes us feel short on time, the researchers found. That affects how we spend that time, as well as how much we will pay to save it.

But the researchers also found ways to reduce that stress. Breathing slowly and learning to recast anxiety as something positive, like excitement, both had measurable effects.

Etkin said understanding how people see, spend, and value their time when they feel pulled in different directions can benefit consumers and marketers.

The paper—"Pressed for Time? Goal Conflict Shapes How Time is Perceived, Spent and Valued"—by Etkin, plus Jennifer Aaker of Stanford's Graduate Business School and Dutch researcher Ioannis Evangelidis, is published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

Etkin and her colleagues conducted experiments in which consumers who saw their goals as competing experienced greater anxiety—and felt more pressed for time—than those who saw little conflict.

In the first experiment, subjects were asked to list two goals that were "in conflict with one another," while a control group listed two goals with no mention of conflict. Then the researchers recorded their perceptions of available time. Participants who considered conflicting goals felt they had less time. This held true regardless of whether the conflict involved money or time.

Another experiment asked participants to choose between two cars, drawing on prior research that identified safety and pollution as two big consumer concerns. Participants told the car with the worst survival rate was the most eco-friendly—putting two valued goals in conflict—reported feeling more stress and having less time than those offered a car that was clearly superior in both categories.

The researchers also found the stress of competing goals made consumers less willing to wait and more inclined to pay to save time. In a twist on the car experiment, participants were told their chosen car was not ready and were asked how long they'd be prepared to wait. Those in the high-conflict group were willing to wait fewer days than those with less conflict. In another scenario, subjects with goal conflicts were willing to pay 30 percent more for expedited shipping of a DVD.

Etkin and her colleagues focused on breathing as a means of restoring people's sense of time. Half of participants asked to list two conflicting goals were told to take 11 seconds over a breath, while the other half were told simply to count to 11. The slow breathers reported less anxiety and a longer view of time than the counting group. Similarly, conflicted subjects told to repeat aloud, "I am excited!"—reported the same perception of time available as participants with low goal conflict.

"Goal conflict is often about perception," Etkin said. "In many situations, we don't have to feel that conflict. The simple tactics identified in my research can help manage that experience."