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 Marketing Manager at Customer.io. She writes about motivation, psychology, how people work, and how to communicate like a human being. Lover of ice cream and words. Say hi @lethargarian or on Google+.
load comments (27)
  • Royan Kamyar, MD/MBA

    I think this article addresses an important yet under-appreciated problem faced by many young, successful professionals. Especially as it relates to health, time management and prioritization of important versus urgent matters is an ongoing challenge. I personally find it helpful to have a fun, visual platform with which to design my day, called Owaves (www.owaves.com). Hope this is helpful a relevant audience.

  • http://www.BudBilanich.com Bud Bilanich

    Great article Janet.
    I have found that starting big projects at the end of the day is a great time management tool. I am best in the morning and late in the afternoon. Whenever I have a really big project, I start it late in the afternoon. This gives me two advantages. First, I get started, sometimes that’s the hard part. Second, I feel as if I have some momentum when I get back to the project in the morning.

    • http://blog.idonethis.com/ Janet Choi

      Thank you Bud! That’s a great technique to keep the momentum going and you’re smartly harnessing your best times to act. I tend to get bogged down in research and ruminating at the start of big projects so my reasoning is a little different. If I start later, I can cut that time a bit and realize if I’m spending too much time going down rabbit holes. Plus the whole momentum thing — so important!

  • Daniel Galovan

    Brilliant article! Love the idea of redefining what it really means when your “Not having enough time”. I though believe that one BIG problem could be that many people don’t even know their values.

    1. Know your values 2. Live your values (As easy as that)

    Furthermore I would like to mention that there is a biological and anthropological explanation to the fact that generous people who give of their time and energy in some “magical way” get more productive and content with the amount of time.
    I strongly recommend the book “Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Sinek or simply look at his brilliant talk at: http://vimeo.com/79899786 to know more.

    • http://blog.idonethis.com/ Janet Choi

      Thanks Daniel! Great point – I think knowing your values and bringing them consciously into how you spend your time is tougher than it seems. Thanks for the link to Sinek’s talk & book! Giving gives!

  • One Woman Shop

    Love this! We talk a lot about time management over on One Woman Shop and have chatted about the first two points quite a bit, but I’m looking forward to sharing the 3rd concept with the community! It reminds me of something Marie Forleo says: “If you set up an adversarial relationship with time, you are always going to struggle against it.”

    • http://blog.idonethis.com/ Janet Choi

      Thank you! I like that quote too – it reminds me of some martial art (I forget which!) where you use your adversary’s force against them.

  • IvaDPerry

    Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail………

    JOBJOBS.COM

  • http://www.american-technology.net Rachel

    Helped me personaly alot – http://www.american-technology.net

  • CareyBTrimble

    Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail….

    ——————–:>>>>.WWW.WOℛKS5.US

  • Gimemon

    Thank you for this article. I’m dealing with this constantly right now and really appreciate finding some tools to help.

    • http://blog.idonethis.com/ Janet Choi

      It’s a common problem we all struggle with! Thanks for reading!

  • Sue

    This former bookworm never seems to have time for reading anymore. I’m one of those people counting the minutes spent in line-ups! Thanks for the tips on shifting perspective!

    • http://blog.idonethis.com/ Janet Choi

      Thanks Sue! I hope the tips are helpful to get you back into bookworm mode. (Maybe you can read when you’re in long lines!)

  • Lidija Paradinovic Nagulov

    Every word is true!!! Thanks for a great article, it makes me reconsider my daily schedule.

    • http://blog.idonethis.com/ Janet Choi

      Thanks!

  • alice20c

    These are good suggestions to help stop psyching yourself out, but they ignore a crucial issue. Many people are reactive/time-scarce because employers have spent 40 years bolstering investor profits by laying off employees and increasing the workloads of those that remain.

    Many people spend their workday doing the job of two people, so that the investor class can expand their economic advantage. Corporate management likes perpetually skittish, stressed employees, because it lowers the expectations, and therefore expenses, of the staff. Which is how pensions disappeared, health insurance was gutted to uselessness, and gave us mandatory-volunteered overtime.

    If escaping the time-scarcity trap is important, campaign to push back against a corporate culture that sees people as grist.

    • http://blog.idonethis.com/ Janet Choi

      I wholeheartedly agree! Managers and employers have a responsibility (and incentive, really) to manage this feeling of time scarcity in their people instead of squeezing them dry.

  • http://www.authorspromoter.com/ CJ Deguara

    Whilst i understand the advice you are giving and like most I often fall into this trap. The little pearl of wisdom I have come across is: Be apathetic towards anything that has low impact and be enthusiastic about high return on time investment activities.

    • http://blog.idonethis.com/ Janet Choi

      Totally great but challenging pearl of wisdom. After you determine what’s low and high impact, it can still be really hard to “walk the walk”! So I hoped to make thinking about that a little easier. Thanks for the comment CJ!

      • http://www.authorspromoter.com/ CJ Deguara

        :)

  • http://www.mightytravels.com/ MightyTravels

    Wow, never thought about giving my time away as creating a sense of time affluence. What a great way to think about it!

    Torsten @ http://www.mightytravels.com

    • http://blog.idonethis.com/ Janet Choi

      Thanks!

  • http://seekerparadiso.wordpress.com/ Seeker Paradiso

    It has always been my habit to spend some of my time helping others help themselves or for for those with true limitations, facilitating activities and experiences that might be impossible for them without a little practical aid. I only mention it here because of the 2 basic rewards. Not only do I always learn something, but giving away my time is indeed empowering as both parties are bolstered by the reality that I am in enough control of my own time that I can give it away. When people tell me that they want this and that in their lives, but that they don’t have time, my response is always that they do have the time and that it is up to them to take better control over prioritizing how they use their time. I have often suggested helping others as a way to develop skills, knowledge, and contacts. You have called my attention to another benefit.

    • http://blog.idonethis.com/ Janet Choi

      That’s wonderful! Giving keeps giving right? Have you read Adam Grant’s Give and Take? There’s some great research and tips in there regarding the benefits of giving.

  • http://yourauthenticweb.com iangarlic

    I really like the “Time Affluence” mindset. Mind is I quote you on my “mindset monday” blog?

  • NoNames

    i needed just this, but sadly those 7 yrs of that phase ended just a month before

  • jztime

    I don’t really have the time to comment.

    • qusdis

      Perhaps you mean commenting is not a priority for you. :-)

  • AudriusR

    one of the best time management articles i have read in years! love it!

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