If you’ve ever felt that you had too much to do and not enough time to do it, you’ve experienced time-crunch stress–that overwhelming feeling that you’re running a race that you can’t finish.
But your stress might not be due to the number of hours in your day–it might be coming from the drama that’s playing out on your to-do list, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Marketing Research.
“At any given moment, most of us experience the feeling of not having enough time, but it’s not always true,” says Jordan Etkin, assistant professor of marketing at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and one of the authors of the study.
To determine the underlying causes of time-crunch pressure, Etkin and her colleagues conducted an experiment asking participants to list tasks that took a certain amount of time, and then envision themselves completing those tasks. Participants were then asked to imagine tasks that were in conflict with one another.
In some cases, the tasks actually competed for time, such as scheduling two things in the same time slot; in other cases, the tasks were in competition for emotional or financial reasons, such as saving for retirement or buying a nicer house now. When the participants perceived activities as being in conflict with achieving competitive goals, they experienced an increase in anxiety and felt even more pressed for time.
“It’s not always that you have more to do, but if those things seem like they’re in conflict–even when the source of the conflict is unrelated to time–you can still get the feeling of being time-constrained,” says Etkin.
But she says there are four things you can do to reduce this false sense of anxiety:
Research shows a link between slow breathing and stress reduction, says Etkin.
“Some people call it yoga breathing or meditative breathing,” she says. “Breathe slowly, with five counts in and six counts out. This can reduce the feelings of anxiety and make you feel like you have more time.”
Anxiety is a negative emotion, but it’s also activating: When you’re anxious, you want to do something, says Etkin.
Excitement is also an activating emotion, but it’s a positive form. Anxiety and excitement have a lot in common, and Etkin says when you experience anxiety, you can reframe it in your brain as being excitement.
“Repeat to yourself, ‘I’m excited. I’m excited,’” she says. “Saying this will reinforce the feelings and help you to reframe what you’re experiencing more positively.”
When you have too much on your plate, Etkin says you can overcome stress by establishing priorities.
“Sometimes part of the conflict is not having a clear idea of what you should be doing first, and this makes you feel like you’re being pulled into a different direction,” she says.
Take time to make a list of your objectives, such as being healthy, having a good job, and creating good relationships with a spouse and friends. Having a written list can alleviate the problem when it comes to deciding between goals.
Too many of us seek out busyness for the sake of being busy, says Etkin.
“As a culture, we hate being idle and we value productivity, but there is a growing movement toward mindfulness and savoring,” she says. “You have a lot to gain from not being busy all the time. Step back and be peaceful. It doesn’t have to be scary, and it can be enjoyable.”
Etkin says her most important takeaway from the study is that we’re in control of our sense of time: “We sense a feeling that we’re time-constrained, yet we’re more time-affluent than we think we are,” she says. “If we can manage our experience of time through interventions and conflict reduction, we can start to see that.”