Home » All Sections » No Time to be a Good Samaritan?
Silhouette of two hands reaching across a sunset

No Time to be a Good Samaritan?

Over the ages, the parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most popular stories from the Bible. A man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho is attacked by robbers, who leave him for dead on the side of the road. A priest and later a priest’s assistant see the man but do not stop to help him. A Samaritan (a person from Samaria) sees the injured traveler and takes pity on him. The Samaritan stops and cares for the stranger and takes him to an inn where he pays the innkeeper to take care of the man.

Fast forward to the early 1970s. Inspired by the parable of the Good Samaritan, two social psychologists at Princeton University were interested in studying prosocial behavior—why do people do good things for others? They decided to conduct a study using students at the Princeton Theological Seminary; these students were studying to be priests.

The researchers asked half of the students to prepare a lecture about the parable of the Good Samaritan and the other half prepare a lecture about job opportunities for theology students. After completing the lecture, the students were told to walk to a nearby building where they would deliver their lecture.

The researchers then randomly assigned the students to one of two conditions. In the “unhurried” condition, the researchers told the students that they had plenty of time to walk to the building and give their lecture. In the “hurried condition,” the students were told that they were running late and would have to hurry.

Here is when things get interesting. To reach the nearby building, the students had to pass through a narrow alleyway where they encountered a young man writhing in pain on the ground. He was actually an actor re-enacting that familiar scene from the Bible.

Researchers wanted to know who would stop and lend aid to the actor. The results were surprising.

The topic of the students’ assigned lectures had no impact on their decision to stop and help. However, the time pressure conditions did have a significant bearing on helping behavior: 63 percent of participants in the unhurried condition stopped to help the stranger, while only 10 percent of participants in the hurried condition stopped to help the actor.

The decision to care for another person in distress was strictly a function of having time. Most of the students who believed they had enough time stopped to help, while the vast majority of those who thought they were late did not. Simply uttering the word “hurry” resulted in behaviors contradictory to their education and career: the devotion to help others.

The study offers an important lesson in our personal and professional lives. Make no mistake—time is the most valuable thing that we have. We cannot buy more of it; we can only use the time we have more effectively.

Armed with a long laundry list of things to do, we are in a constant state of doing, rushing from one thing to another. For most of us, this is especially true at work. Being in a hurry can impact the quality of our work, our ability to stay focused on strategic priorities, and the way we treat others.

Managing our time well can make all the difference in our work lives, whether it’s increasing productivity, achieving a big promotion, or building better relationships with colleagues.

First, we must distinguish between activities that are important and those that are urgent. Important activities are those that help you achieve your professional and personal goals. Urgent activities demand immediate attention but are usually associated with achieving someone else’s goals.

Our natural tendency is to focus on urgent activities because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate, while important activities are rarely urgent.

We must spend time on the things that are important, not just the ones that are urgent. But how?

Start with a blank sheet of paper. List all the activities and projects you have to do. Try to include everything that takes up your time, however unimportant.

Next, prioritize everything on that list. I’m a fan of the Eisenhower Matrix, a method of evaluating priorities that was popularized by President Eisenhower.

Here’s how it works: every item on your list fits in into one of four categories: important and urgent, important but not urgent, not important but urgent, and not important and not urgent.

Carve out concentrated time in your schedule for the important and urgent items. Activities that are not important but urgent can be rescheduled or delegated to others. Those activities that are not important and not urgent are merely distractions – re-evaluate whether they should be done at all.

There are many time management systems. It really doesn’t matter what system or approach you use, only that it’s something that you buy into and keep up with. With the right system, you’ll be able to work in a focused, effective way and the quality of your work life will improve.

John Shaw, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Management
Davis College of Business

The preceding column appeared in the The Florida Times-Union. Questions may be directed to Dr. Shaw at jshaw5@ju.edu. For more information about the Davis College of Business, please visit ju.edu/dcob.