Illustration: Raewyn Brandon

Escaping the Time-Scarcity Trap

Have you ever felt terrible about missing a deadline, only to find yourself continuing to procrastinate further afterwards, despite the guilt? Next thing you know, you’ve blown a few more milestones, and even though you’re trying like hell to get things back on track, you just can’t seem to make it work. You constantly feel like you’re behind.

Paradoxically, this feeling of being behind is actually what drives us to keep doing reactive work, putting out small fires at the expense of tending to tasks with real long-term benefit, like figuring out a better production schedule for the next stage of your project. 

It turns out that frantically treading water in your worklife just to stay afloat has real cognitive consequences. According to economist Sendhil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Shafir authors of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, once we adopt a mindset of “time scarcity” (i.e. we feel over-busy, overwhelmed, or just plain behind), it induces a kind of shortsightedness that “makes us less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled.” In other words, the actual hours you have available to do your work could remain the same, but just feeling behind is enough to disrupt your productivity.  

The good news is that it’s possible to escape the trap of time-scarcity thinking by reframing how you perceive your lack of time. 

1. Defend your priorities by stating them out loud.

A time-scarcity mindset can cause you to neglect priorities that fall outside what is immediately in front of you. It causes you to ignore tasks that are important but not urgent, like your health, relationships, reading, reflection, or exercise. Those emails and to-do list items feel more pressing than heading to the gym. You perpetually say you’ll “get to it later” but in reality those tasks fade into the background and will likely remain undone.

A time-scarcity mindset can cause you to neglect priorities that fall outside what is immediately in front of you.

To combat this, Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, suggests replacing the phrase “I don’t have time for this” with “this isn’t a priority” to surface those important but not urgent tasks. Instead of saying, “I don’t have time to work on my novel,” try saying, “My writing isn’t a priority” out loud and see how that feels. (Probably not too good at first, but that’s the point.) Rather than coming up with excuses like, “I can’t fit in going to the gym with this big deadline coming up,” say, “My well-being isn’t a priority.”

Doing this prevents you from ignoring the truth and allows you to better prioritize your goals. This shift in perspective can also help you see when you’re borrowing too much time from long-term priorities for short-term deadlines. And if something isn’t ever a priority, consider letting it go.  

2. Schedule tough tasks for high-bandwidth times.

Even thinking about mentally taxing, high-bandwidth tasks can affect your creative output. In another study run by Mullainathan and Shafir, dieters looking for the word “donut” as opposed to the word “picture” in a word search took 30 percent longer than non-dieters to find a subsequent word. Just the simple thought of temptation distracted the dieters enough to disrupt their performance.

A similar phenomenon happens when you’re stuck in a time-scarcity mindset. Your worries about a looming project deadline can linger in your mind when you’re trying to do something else. These nagging background thoughts limit your mental capacity, which in turn causes you to make more errors with the task at hand, which means that the task will take even longer to complete.

These nagging background thoughts limit your mental capacity, which in turn causes you to make more errors with the task at hand, which means that the task will take even longer to complete.

Instead of worrying about when you’ll have time to do something, ask instead when you’ll have the bandwidth. It’s important to handle the important—but not urgent—work when you know you’ll have a higher mental capacity. This frees you from tackling the task at a non-optimal time (when you won’t perform well), and helps you regain a sense of control.

For instance, if you realize that having low energy after work is obstructing your ability to move forward on a side project, then you could try waking up early to work on it. Or if Friday meetings lead nagging work concerns to fill your mind while you’re spending quality time with your family over the weekend, you could try instituting a “no-meeting Friday” and put more effort into tying up loose ends that day to make way for a clearer, calmer mind when you’re at home. You can still have the same amount of meetings, but the positioning will make you feel as if you have more time to fully enjoy your non-work hours. 

3.  Give your time away. 

A scarcity mindset turns you into a time miser. You start doing silly things like counting the minutes you spend waiting in line for your coffee or silently cursing every single commuter who slows you down on your way to work. At this point, giving away time seems like the very last thing that you should do. 

Yet, saying and acting upon this statement—“I have enough time to be generous with it”—is a surprisingly effective antidote to the time-scarcity mindset. Simply giving your time away to others, even as little as ten minutes, creates a sense of “time affluence.”

In one experiment conducted by professors from Yale, Wharton, and Harvard, people who spent 15 minutes helping to edit research essays by local at-risk students reported that they felt like they had more spare time, committed to spending more time on a follow-up task, and then worked longer on that task. In some magical way, this group of givers was both more productive and felt like they had more time.

We can’t control what happens during our days, but we can control how we react. Usually, “busy” is a state of mind—a trap we can, and should, strive to avoid. Reframe your outlook, and your productivity (and mental health) will thank you.

How about you?

How have you dealt with time scarcity?

More insights on: Time Management

Janet Choi

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Janet Choi is the Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis, an incredibly simple way to share your progress with your colleagues at work. She writes about productivity, motivation, and the way people work on the iDoneThis blog. Say hi on Twitter @lethargarian or on Google+.
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