A few years ago I was so busy at work that I sometimes had to choose between eating and using the restroom.
I was teaching full-time at a local college and had a busy private practice — and I would often schedule therapy clients one right after the other, leaving myself virtually no time to eat.
But then I learned a kind of gross way to multitask: I would put a handful of nuts in my mouth on my way to the restroom. That way I had time for both quieting my growling stomach and also relieving my bladder.
Even though it solved my dilemma at the time, it only added to the stress I felt about having too much to do and too little time.
If you feel like you never have enough time, you’re certainly not alone. Countless individuals suffer from “time poverty,” which is the feeling of having too little time to spend on the things you want to do, as defined in a review article published in Nature Human Behaviour in October 2020.
Where does our sense of time poverty come from, given that everyone has 24 hours in a day?
Why You Feel Like You Never Have Enough Time
There are three major factors that contribute to feeling short on time.
1. You’re Trying to Do Too Much
This one might sound obvious, but don’t discount it. The more you try to fit into your day, the busier you’re going to feel and the less time you’re going to have. It’s a simple idea, but one that can be easy to overlook.
While it might seem like the easy fix is just to do less, that’s much easier said than done. Most of us have a lot of responsibilities, so it’s understandable if we try to pack as much as we can into our finite time. With so much to do, it can feel like a waste of time if you’re not being super-productive.
What’s more, being busy and having little leisure time has become a kind of status symbol, according to a series of studies published in the June 2017 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.
In one of the studies, participants were asked to read letters and imagine they were written by a friend, and then to rate this imagined friend on variables such as status and personality. The study participants rated “friends” who indicated (in the letters) that they were too busy for rest and relaxation as having positive characteristics, especially competence and drive.
I’ve met many people who seem to embody this idea that being busy is a virtue — and I’ve often fallen prey to it myself.
And it can be a punishing experience to reach the end of each day feeling exhausted, and then have to get up and do it all again.
Remember: Getting things done isn’t the only value that time offers. Your experience also matters. There is value at times in just being, without anything specific to show for it.
2. You’re Thinking About Time as the ‘Enemy’
We often tell ourselves stories that make us feel even shorter on time. Maybe we believe the problem is that we don’t have enough time, and that we would feel more relaxed with 25 or 26 hours in a day. But the truth is that we would feel just as pressured with a longer day because we would try to fit more into it!
Or perhaps you tell yourself that you should be able to do everything you want to, or everything that’s worthwhile. Or maybe you think everything is taking too long, and that all would be well if only things would hurry up.
I’ve often caught myself thinking this way. It was especially obvious one time when I was setting the digital thermostat on my oven to 450 degrees. Every push of the button raises the setting by 5 degrees. “This is taking too long!” I thought, exasperated.
But then I asked myself — how long did it really take? I timed it at seven seconds.
I realized at that moment that the problem was not how long it took to do things, but my assumption that they should go faster. There was no inherent problem with the time it took to set the oven, but I was making myself miserable over those few seconds.
When we make time the enemy, we’re bound to lose, because things take as long as they take, and time never slows down. Fortunately, we can change our relationship with time so we’re no longer struggling against it (more on this below).
3. Your Mind Is in the Future
When you’re really busy and your mind is telling you that you need to do more, you wind up rushing to get to the next thing. Your body is present, but your mind is in the future. I need to get dressed so I can have breakfast so I can get to work. I need to finish my work so I can get home so I can have dinner so I can get up in the morning and go to work. We’re never truly doing what we’re doing when each activity is seen as a way of getting to the next one — as if the real thing is always a bit further down the road.
This habit creates more time stress because it magnifies everything else we have to do that we can’t do right now. It also gets in the way of any enjoyment we could find in what’s happening right in this moment.
But this is it. Life is a continuous series of moments that we can be more or less a part of. What you’re doing right now — reading this article — is your life, as much as anything else is.
The Case for Striving to Do Less
If you can relate to the discomfort of always running out of time, you probably already know that the feeling of being “time poor” is worth doing something about.
But it’s important to note that it also may be making us less productive, and it can have serious consequences for our health. The aforementioned Nature Human Behaviour review concluded that time poverty can have serious effects on your health, from increased stress, depression, and emotional exhaustion to worse sleep and higher blood pressure.
This fallout makes sense, considering that other research has found that time pressure often is linked to people putting off self-care, including tending to mental health, according to a study in the July 2020 issue of Work.
And not surprisingly, people generally feel more satisfied with their lives when they have less time pressure, according to a study published in July 2017 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
How to Feel Less Rushed
If you’re looking for ways to relieve a sense of time poverty, you don’t have to make dramatic changes in your life or change everything all at once. Consider experimenting with these simple practices to find a friendlier relationship with time.
- Give yourself a buffer between activities, rather than trying to squeeze in one more thing. I’ve taken this practice to heart, so I’m no longer eating snacks in the bathroom. Notice what it’s like to offer yourself a bit more room to think and breathe.
- Reduce the number of activities on your daily to-do list to those that are truly essential, and focus on doing them well. For example, pick your top three priorities for the day, and consider anything extra you accomplish a “bonus.”
- Look for opportunities to hand off tasks that you don’t need to do yourself. This can be challenging, of course, because it requires giving up a bit of control (and it often comes with a financial cost). But the payoff in time saved may more than make up for the initial discomfort.
- Notice the stories you tell yourself about time — that you don’t have enough of it, for example, or that you have to get more done. Consider how these thoughts affect you. Then, gently begin to question them. Are they entirely true? Or is there a more helpful way of seeing things?
- Be aware of your own assumptions when it comes to productivity and your self-worth. Remind yourself that your value is not based on the sum total of what you accomplish each day.
- Practice fully participating in at least one activity every day, whether it’s walking up the stairs, unloading the dishwasher, or addressing an envelope. Let it take as long as it takes, rather than rushing through to the end. Just be in the experience for as long as it lasts, and notice what it feels like.
Seth Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist who has been practicing evidence-based psychotherapy for over 20 years. His book Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Simple Path to Healing, Hope, and Peace is about how to retrain our minds to better manage negative thoughts, and thus become more present and at peace. He is also a medical reviewer for Everyday Health.