Get, share, and use information well

Tag: Time perception

Filling in the Blanks

How can it be that it’s been nearly 18 months since my last blog entry?  Well, I could wax philosophic, and point out that the path to such an outcome is like the path to other, more positive outcomes.  It’s an accumulation of daily habits, and a series of perhaps small, but sometimes very distinct, decisions.  So, a bit of a review of what’s been happening, and what lessons can be drawn from both the period of silence and what has filled that silence.


I’m a big fan of waiting for a big, dramatic highlight to emphasize in an announcement.  Back in November, 2014, I was applying for a campus-level directorship position; I was pretty excited about the opportunity, and the ways that I could use my skills to connect research, and STEM engagement, and educational improvements at K-12 and university levels.  I thought I was going to get the position.  I didn’t.  In retrospect, it’s not necessarily that I was a bad candidate for the job, but a bad match for the view (by others) of what the job needed.  This is actually an important distinction, and I am convinced that I had never actually seen the idea of not being selected for a position in that light before.   Well, a few weeks of anticipation were followed by days of anger and frustration, which in turned into a more circumspect view of job searches and candidate interviews no longer just being about showing that someone is “good enough” to be considered.  Imagine that all of the finalists may be “good enough,” in some generic sense, but every complex job is a combination of factors on a very large vector of possible criteria (utility), where different people involved in the selection (stakeholders) have different ideas of the importance (weights) of the criteria, and decide what “best” looks like (stakeholders maximizing their objective function according to their multi-attribute utility weighting).  I was a really good candidate for one version of the job.  I wasn’t the best candidate for another version of the job.  That doesn’t make me a good or bad candidate overall, and certainly not a bad person.  An important lesson to learn, but not one I was ready to write about in Spring 2015.


The lab was going through a significant shift in 2014-15, both conceptually and physically.  We spent the first half of calendar 2015 in Wang Hall, learning how to conduct a different type of meeting with a different configuration of students (three new, first year grad students with only four or five continuing students).  We’re back in Grissom Hall as of August 2015, but the only thing about the building that’s stayed the same on the inside is the walls and bricks and windows framing the building’s outer boundary.  And we’ve had to learn an even more interesting set of dynamics: we are now at a point where much of the lab’s activity officially qualifies as a distributed enterprise.  Dissertation-writing students are working in industry, and other doctoral students are doing co-ops, internships, and other work in multiple time zones.  Lab meetings and 1:1 individual interactions are more likely to occur in Google Hangouts than Grissom 335 (my new office) or the GROUPER dedicated lab space (which doesn’t exist).  So, we have had to learn new lessons about information alignment and distributed knowledge sharing.  That’s a topic for another entry, coming soon.


Believe it or not, the lesson learned about being a good candidate vs. a matching candidate for the job had to be taught to me again in 2015.  This time, the position was a campus administrative post, and again, I thought I was a very good match for a visionary leadership role in a broadly influential and interdisciplinary approach to the future of the campus.  Great, right?  Except that this objective function was apparently not aligned with the utility vector of critical stakeholders.    This is neither good nor bad, in itself.  (Remember what you just told them, Barrett.)  I do believe that the transition from anger to acknowledgement happened faster this time, and to be honest, it’s a lesson that does need a very strong reinforcement over multiple administrations for me to actually learn the meaning well.


Oh, there’s some outcome productivity in terms of field visits, and journal papers, and GROUPER degree completions.  However, I wouldn’t suggest scheduling MS thesis defenses by multiple students on consecutive days.  We succeeded last summer, and now the number of GROUPER MS thesis grads exceeds 30.  But I’m not likely to try that again soon—it’s a lot of reading, and a MS thesis is often as much a test and oral exam for the advisor as for the student.


In the end, I’m better off for it, and I think we in the lab have learned a number of very important and valuable lessons.  It can be dangerous if someone gets too much in the habit of doing without considering, or acting without accepting that both “success” and “failure” can be a benefit or blessing.  One of the challenging, and yet extremely beneficial, outcomes is that the two interviews required me to very explicitly consider the question of how to manage the lab, and in essence, examine what was an appropriate “carrying capacity” of GROUPER at this stage of my career.  (I’m probably more active than ever before, with GROUPER work and GROUPERs in 2015 supported by five federal agencies—AHRQ, FAA, NASA, NSF, VA; it’s not yet the “riding into the sunset” that I had previously considered.)  We’ve been practicing skills that I see in increasing frequency in industry, but not as much in academia—how to become easy and fluent with a team operating across geography, knowledge domain, and a variety of external constraints to be focused and robust to a variety of communication channel capabilities.


More coming soon.  I’m expecting a big announcement in a week or so.  No, really.


Timing is Everything

Although it doesn’t always feel like it here in the lab, things are actually going very well.  The work calendar is quite full, and the project to-do lists continue to grow—not just in the number of items, but in the number of projects which require to-do items.  Three different Institutional Review Board (IRB) applications, with three different students.  Four research projects active, with two or three more coming on line.  The “March Madness” travel schedule I had last year is even worse: the lab has now officially declared it “Winter Madness” (from January 24 until March 14, there is only one week where I am not in an airport on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday of that weekend—and on March 21-24, I will be driving back from Chicago on Friday, and flying again on Monday).


Last Thursday, though, I was able to appreciate what some good timing could achieve.  A day earlier, I had escaped from the ice and snow storm that paralyzed the Southeast US: leaving out of western Virginia early Wednesday morning, on a rebooked flight through Detroit (all flights through Atlanta had been cancelled as of Monday evening).  I was only a few hours later arriving home than originally scheduled, even with delays and flight diversions (let’s hear it for multiple daily nonstops from Detroit to Indianapolis!).  Thursday was bright, clear, and even relatively “warm” (about 5F that morning, with a high temperature of approximately 30F) for a drive down to Bloomington, IN for a research meeting.  That research meeting was in support of one of our new grants, a project with the Purdue Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS) to look at sensemaking, distributed expertise, and information presentation in cyberinfrastructure network operations centers.  The meeting was unexpectedly effective in highlighting both people to talk to and additional directions for the research to pursue.  A positive attitude to go down on the one nice day where my schedule permitted the trip was better than putting the trip off for later (given “Winter Madness” and the frequency of airspace-paralyzing storms, I am not thrilled about trying to create new one-day visits anytime before April).  At the end of the day, I even received one more treat derived from an awareness of good timing.  As I left the office, the nearly full moon was visible to the east, while the International Space Station was a fast-moving evening star traveling from northwest to northeast.  (No, I don’t have the orbital tracks memorized, but there are NASA websites and software apps for that.)  Yeah, that was some good timing.


Timing is a fairly popular subject of GROUPER research, even if there’s only been a couple of blog entries highlighting time pressure (and only one on time perception).  But the topic is never far from our mind.  In our direct research investigations, we talk about the sense of time pressure as the ratio of time required to complete a task to the time available to complete it (TR / TA), with time pressure increasing as you run out of time to finish faster than you run out of task to complete.  We worry about the challenge of the age and “freshness” of data when making decisions about the current state of a dynamic world (and what you need to do based on that state).  We consider how experts trade other resources for time, including the decision to create an interim solution (“safe mode”) to stabilize a degrading system to allow for more time to consider a better, more stable recovery and repair.  But how does that play out in the lab’s daily activities, other than a posting an ongoing (and continuing growing) list of deadlines?


Fortunately, we have been working on a set of very promising solutions (processes, really).  As I go through my travel schedule, the students get a strong sense of the “windows of opportunity” (time periods of available work capacity) where I can respond to a task request or help them make progress towards an external deadline.  A few months ago, I described some of my thought process in working in a distributed way on these tasks; I think in terms of a set of scaled answers to the student’s question.  In essence, my thought process and general formulation goes like this:


Student:  Dr. C., I need you to do xyz by time TD.


(If (TD – Now) is under 12 hours, I tend to get really upset.  Don’t do that.)


BSC:  What do I need in order to do xyz?


Student:  You need A, B, and Q.


(If I don’t have A, B, or Q, and the student doesn’t provide it at the time of the request, I tend to get really upset, Don’t do that.)


Then I usually try to provide one of a set of answers, ranging from:


  1. NO.
  2. Not by TD; the best I can do is Talt.
  3. I can do xyz’ by TD.
  4. I can do that, but can’t start until TS.
  5. Yes, working
  6. DONE.


What I didn’t expect was how providing this type of information to the students could actually change the style of interactions in lab.  It’s not that I declared some specific required email format, or that I would refuse to read emails that did not conform to that format.  But, within a week or two, I started noticing emails with subject lines including the words:





The body of the emails would specify details like:


Estimated time to complete: xxx

Date / time needed:  dd mmm yy hh:mm


So, rather than simply complying with a command, the students now understand my motivations, and my constraints, and my strategies for organizing my time.  I also pointed out that I try to set aside windows of time in advance for everyone—not just in the weekly 1:1 meetings (which, I confess, is much harder to achieve during the Winter Madness travel), but when I expect tasks towards external deadlines.  Knowing in advance how much time to set aside helps me with schedules, and allows for slipping in new tasks on an emergency or opportunistic basis.  It’s all part of a goal of “Better Information Now” that we have worked with in our projects with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the United Space Alliance.  Sometimes, it works very well, and sometimes it still needs adjustment and improvement.  But at least, we’re making progress.


It’s about time.



What are we waiting for?

Prof. Caldwell (BC) here….

One potential value of a blog like this is its grain size.  Ideas that are too small for a journal paper or full grant proposal, but still of some potential interest for later use, can be just the right size for a 1100 word blog entry.  Just a couple of references, the outline of a project or concept for further development, and a tease for those who might find GROUPER an appealing place to study, collaborate, or support.  Here’s the first of those items.

Last Monday, I was in Chicago (after a weekend of graduation parties for two new PhDs, Ashley and Karim) to submit a visa request for a trip to China.  When I arrive at the Chinese Consulate at about 9:45, there is a room full of people sitting and waiting, a line of people standing and waiting, and five windows of clerks.  Since I’m there for a visa, rather than something else, I select a ticket for that type of service, and sit down.  How long am I going to have to wait, and will it matter that the Consulate closes at 12 noon for lunch?

Other IE researchers sitting in this waiting room might start thinking about queueing models and arrival distributions, but my friend and I began to discuss the perception of waiting and the sense of time pressure.  This field of human perception research dates back to the laboratories of Wilhelm Wundt and William James (not to be confused with author brother Henry James) in the 19th Century, and the concept of the “perceptual now”.   In this model, one’s sense of time passage is tied to two processes—a sampling of an internal clock, and processing of one’s own task activities (physical or mental).  The more you are doing during a period of external (“objective”), the fewer samples of the internal clock one takes, and the larger the list of things done between sampling cycles.  The theory suggests that the sense of having the time “filled” leads to a lower sense of boredom, and less perceived time passage.  Conversely, with less to do, there are more opportunities to sample the internal clock, and less activity that is perceived as filling that period between samples.

Prior work in the lab has studied not only the issue of time perception, but of time pressure.  Instead of conceiving time pressure as just the amount of time until a deadline arrives, we have considered pressure as a ratio of time required for a task (Tr) to the time available (Ta) to complete it.  Waiting is a challenge, though, because there is both the time required to do the thing you came to do (file the visa paperwork), and the time waiting to get to the window to do the thing you came to do.  Thus, we have a compound task of passive waiting and active doing, both with their own Tr / Ta ratio and a composite ratio.

So, while I am working this out, I notice that time has passed, and the number called is closer to my number.  OK, the queueing folks have something to say here—I’m trying to estimate the average service time for my type of service.  But, I’m also noticing that by having something else to do, one source of stress (time perception) is reduced.  Because this is a Chinese Consulate, I also think about tai chi and meditation activities.  This leads to a consideration of four different ways that one could deal with the wait, and four different experiences of the passage of time:

  • Pause:  a quiet state, without attending to time (sleep or meditation)
  • Hold:  passive waiting, low activity / limited attention to other tasks (“watching the clock”)
  • Distract:  using the waiting time to do other tasks, not attending to time
  • Do:  Active involvement in the task one intended to do.

Time pressure, in terms of the Tr / Ta ratio, now looks like the sum of wait time (which is an estimate of the average service time * the number of people in front of me) + my service time, divided by the time from now until noon.  (Yes, I’m skipping over a lot.  If you want more, get in touch with us.)  It’s looking better, because some people are not there, and average service time is going down—but it’s getting closer to noon.

The sense of time pressure is another element of the psychological effect of the Tr / Ta ratio, but this has multiple factors including individual personality, cost of missing the deadline, “hardness” of the deadline (is 12:00 really 12:00:00, or a few minutes after 12, or something else?) , and prior experience.  There seem to be four stages of this sense of time pressure affecting the experience of waiting (especially when it’s hard to attend to something else):

  • Comfortable
  • Pressured
  • Panicked
  • Resigned

The lab has done some work in determining where the transitions are between these stages, but there is a lot tied to the complex interaction of person, situation, context, and experience.  There are different strategies to help the experience of a user dealing with pressure-laden delays.  I tend to like the distraction and pause responses, as well as ensuring that backup plans and additional flexibility keep pressured from morphing into panicked.  That’s for me, though, from the user’s perspective.  Some of our papers also discuss strategies from the provider’s perspective.

In the end, I got to the visa window at about 11:50, and only took about four minutes to provide the required forms.  I could talk more about the nature of service quality, but that’s for another time and venue (I will be working on a contribution to an edited volume on intercultural service systems later this spring).   I got a pickup slip indicating when I should return for the passport and visa—that Friday—and what to do—stand in the pickup line.  If I had gotten to the window with the documents by 11:00, I could possibly have gotten rush service and picked up the visa by 2:00 that afternoon.  However, there was no sense of pressure there, since I didn’t know about that earlier deadline and thus made no effort to arrive at the consulate early enough to meet that deadline.  (Hmmm… there’s no pressure from a deadline you’re not aware exists; one can create artificial internal deadlines where no external deadline or performance impact exists.)  All in all, a pretty good morning’s experience.

Oh, and why am I going to China?  Giving lectures on human factors and systems engineering for the development of a university program in industrial engineering.  How fitting.

For further reading:

Caldwell, B. S., and Wang, E. (2009). Delays and User Performance in Human-Computer-Network Interaction Tasks.  Human Factors, 51 (6), pp 813-830.

Caldwell, B. S., and Garrett, S.K.  (2010).  Coordination of Event Detection and Task Management in Time-Critical Settings.  In Mosier, K., and Fischer, U. (Eds.,) Informed by Knowledge: Expert Behavior in Complex Settings, ch. 22.  Florence, KY: Psychology Press / Taylor & Francis.

James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: H. Holt and Co.

Svenson, O., & Maule, A. J. (Eds.). (1993). Time Pressure and Stress in Human Judgment and Decision Making. New York: Plenum Press.