One Surprising Reason You Never Have Enough Time

New data suggests we’re biased against ever knowing how much time we really have.

One Surprising Reason You Never Have Enough Time
[Image: Flickr user Shannon Bell-Carney]

Craig Jarrow is a time management ninja and he knows that we say stupid little white lies about time, all the time: I’ll be right there. Just a minute. I’ll get back to you today. Just a second. It’ll be done in a few. I’m leaving in five minutes.


These sentiments can get to be pathologically optimistic, especially if you’re promising your boss or your colleague something that you can’t deliver–or deliver at the expense of other parts of your work, creating downstream debt.

The problem, Jarrow says, is that we underestimate the time we need and over-promise the time we have.

There’s even a law for time-binding bias. The mathematician-author Douglas Hofstadter coined it, so appropriately enough it’s called Hofstadter’s Law:

any task you’re planning to complete will always take longer than expected–even when Hofstadter’s law is taken into account.

Why we suck at telling time

As researchers Jennifer T. Coull, Ruey-Kuang Cheng, and Warren H. Meck find, we can’t see time in the way we see color, shape, or location. “There are no sensory receptors specifically dedicated for perceiving time,” they write. “It is an almost uniquely intangible sensation.” But that intangibility has intensely tangible effects.

Like, for instance, we constantly underestimate the time it takes to complete a task, as per Mr. Hofstadter’s above law. They tend to take much longer than we expect, especially if we’re at the bottom of the learning curve. As well, if things are taking long, they might take way longer, in the way that if your flight arrives early, in might be 10 minutes early, but if it’s delayed, it could be for 10 hours–a trend that intellectual-antagonist Nassim Taleb calls convexity.

More time, more problems

We do rather ridiculous things with our (conception of) time. Jarrow counts the ways, like:


We take back-to-back meetings, which almost guarantees we’ll be late for subsequent appointments.

We don’t take deadlines seriously, which leaves everybody disappointed.

We double (or triple!) book, imagining, hopelessly, that we can be in three places at the same time–which, again, leaves everybody bummed.

We give time we don’t really have. Instead of leaning into your focus, you lean out into a discussion. Jarrow gives a hypothetical:

Someone asks, “Can I have a minute?” You agree even though you are in the middle of something or supposed to be somewhere. You can’t give them your full attention because it is somewhere else. It is better to reschedule when you can be fully present.

Fewer problems, more time

We can correct for our time blindness. Instead of having distractions come whenever someone has a problem, we can block out parts of our days for welcoming interruptions. And when we make a commitment, we can immediately add it to our to-do list–or, better yet, our schedule.

Hat tip: Time Management Ninja


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.