I like to be on time. I really do. To be on time means leaving on time and that is where it gets difficult. I always leave too late. And then I drive too fast and too furious to make up for the lost time. But it somehow doesn’t seem to help, because I still arrive late. This is all due to the time saving illusion.

Golden Behaviors

– Nudges for a Healthy Lifestyle –

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We usually do not correctly take into account the time it takes to collect our stuff, walk to our car and perform all kinds of small preparations before we can start to drive. So once we get on the road, the navigation system may tell us we might be late. This leads us to speed up and increase the risk of speeding tickets and accidents. We may experience stress about being late. Furthermore, we may also experience stress because we want to drive fast, but are in fact furious because we will still arrive too late. So why drive too fast to be on time, when we could just leave earlier and be on time without any stress?

Rewards of driving fast

We drive too fast to gain the rewards of this behavior. These rewards include saving time and gaining additional minutes to complete small tasks otherwise left open, such as finishing an e-mail. It would be a waste of time to arrive early and just be waiting there. Research has found that waiting can be perceived to be 2-3 times as long as moving for the same length of time. So if we arrive 10 minutes early, that may feel as 20-30 minutes driving our car. In that light, the rewards of leaving later (even if it is just a little bit) can be huge. So the question is whether these rewards of gaining extra time weigh against the risk of being late, getting into an accident or getting a speeding ticket.

Making up for leaving late

Take a moment to consider, which would save you more time:

  1. Increase your speed on a local road from 40km/h to 50km/h or
  2. Increase your speed on the high way from 100km/h to 130km/h

Well, you do not have to get our your calculator. Just decide on how much more time you save increasing your speed on the high way compared to increasing your speed on the local road: do you (1) save as much time, (2) twice as much time, or (3) three times as much time? Take a moment to reflect on your answer before your read on.

If you are like most people, you believe that the savings in time are proportionate to the increase in speed. This is called proportionality bias: time saved is proportional to speed increase. So if the speed increase is three times as much, then the time saved should also be three times as much.

However, in fact you will save less time increasing your speed on the highway with 30 km/h compared with increasing your speed on the local road with 10 km/h; in fact you will save only half the time on the high way compared to the local way. On the local road, a 20 kilometers trip is reduced from 30 minutes to 24 minutes (6 minutes saved), whereas on the high way a 20 kilometers trip is reduced from 12 minutes to 9 minutes (3 minutes saved). Increasing your speed on the high way only minimally impacts your arrival time.

Psychologist Olga Svenson from the University of Stockholm presented participants with pairs of speeds (initial and higher) and asked them to estimate when a higher time saving would occur. She found that time saved is underestimated at low speeds and underestimated at high speeds. Psychologist Ray Fuller and his colleagues from the University of Dublin and the Transport Research Institute in Edinburgh found similar results. These effects are not limited to non-professional drivers. Professional taxi drivers also showed time-estimation bias: making mistakes in estimating time savings. However, overestimations of time savings among taxi drivers were smaller than those made by non-professional car drivers. This shows that time-estimation bias can be reduced by training. So maybe there is hope for us.

You never make up the lost time

The table below shows your speed in kilometers per hour (km/h) and then how many minutes it takes you to drive 10 kilometers (min/ 10 km). This shows again that increasing your speed on the high way only minimally impacts your arrival time. If you increase your speed from 100 km/h to 120 km/h, you only save 1 minute every 10 kilometers. With an average commuting distance in The Netherlands between 15 and 35 kilometers, this would save you 3 minutes at most. This is the reason you will never be able to make up the time you have lost by leaving late.

Km/hmin/ 10 km
Speed and how much time it takes to drive 10 kilometers

Combat the Time Saving Illusion

It is not easy to combat this time saving illusion, but here are a few starters:

  1. Acknowledge that you are not really saving time. You think you can leave late and drive fast to make up for the lost time. But as you have just seen, this is an illusion.
  2. If you are late, accept your fate. When you are running late, you now know that you cannot make up for the lost time, so you should accept your fate. Meanwhile, you can think about small nudges you can apply, so you will leave on time next time.
  3. For example, plan a small task on arrival. You could plan to talk to a colleague or finish an email on arrival. In this way, you do not feel any time is wasted. Instead it is valuable time that can be used to complete small tasks otherwise left open. The trick is to plan these small tasks on arrival and not before departure.

Let me know your hacks and nudges to combat the time saving illusion.

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Niels Vink (1975) is author of Golden Behaviors and behavioral designer. He uses insights from the behavioral sciences to explain why people often act against their own interests. As a behavioral expert, he explores how you can nudge your behavior for a healthy lifestyle. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior.

When you have been inspired to start and maintain your Golden Behaviors, reach out to me.

Source of top image: Photo by Taras Makarenko via Pexels


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