How To Trick Your Brain Into Thinking That You Have More Time

We can’t control how many hours we have in a day, but we can control how we spend them so it seems like the day is longer.

How To Trick Your Brain Into Thinking That You Have More Time
[Photo: Flickr user _CitizenKane_]

“I’m just so busy.”


How many times have you heard a friend or coworker say this? How many times have you said it yourself?

In today’s fast-paced world, we measure our own importance – and the importance of those around us – by how much we can pack into our days. We attempt to outdo, outhustle, and outperform one another. Or appear to anyways.

At this point, most of us turn to time management as a silver bullet for our stressors. If we could only use our time more efficiently, we’d have more of it. We could get everything done and feel less stressed.


There’s just one problem with that theory: we already do have more time than ever before. A lot more. On the whole, people in developed countries are actually working far fewer hours than in past decades. Yet we feel busier than ever.

At Doist, we’re strong proponents of systems that help you spend your time more intentionally. But when it comes to feeling less busy, time management clearly has its limitations. Here are a few good places for recovering busyholics to start instead:

1. Identify The Values You’re Sacrificing To Busyness

If we’re too busy to ask if our values drive our actions, the inertia of busyness can lead us down a very different path than we intended.


Do you value spending time outdoors, but haven’t actually gone for a walk outside in months? Do you value learning, but haven’t taken the time to practice a new skill? Do you value relationships with friends, family, and coworkers, but are too rushed to be fully present when you spend time with them?

It may be worth sacrificing some efficiency to make space for those things that you’ve decided are important.

Related: Why The Most Productive People Do These Things Every Day 


2. Accept That You Can’t Do Everything

Instead of letting dozens of unfinished tasks snowball on your to-do list day after day, just take them off.

If you can’t quite bring yourself to delete a task, give yourself permission to stop actively worrying about it by moving it to a dedicated “Someday/Maybe” project instead. You’ll get the same amount done –you’ll just feel a whole lot better about it.

3. Do One Thing At A Time (Even The Unpleasant Stuff)

With our already overbrimming schedules, it’s tempting to cram more and more into smaller amounts of time. We answer emails while trying to get work done. We browse the internet while we eat. One Harvard study of 2,250 adults found that we spend just over half of our time focusing on one thing. Yet the same study also revealed that we’re most happy when we’re focusing on what we’re doing in the moment.


“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” says Matthew Killingsworth, the study’s lead researcher. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.” In other words, what we’re doing is less important to our happiness than how present our minds are while we’re doing it.

Related: The 6-Step Process To Train Your Brain To Focus

4. Invest In Aimless Acts Of Creativity

When time feels scarce, it’s tempting to fill our days with tasks that feel urgent and immediately useful. But acts of aimless creativity may not be useless after all.


One 13-day study of 658 young adults found that people who engaged in a creative activity on one day were more likely to experience positive emotions and greater “flourishing” – a term researchers use to refer to an overall sense of purpose and engagement in life – the following day.

Take the time to do something creative just for its own sake. Cook something new. Write a letter or journal. Do a puzzle or brain teaser. Anything that gets you out of the serious bustle of the day and into a more creative, curious mind-set.

5. Read An Actual Book

Even booklovers fall prey to the harried distractions of the internet. Writer, entrepreneur, and “literary technologist” Hugh McGuire had built a career around books, but one day he realized that he had read just 12 in the past year.


That’s when he decided he needed a change. Now when he gets home at night, he puts away his phone and laptop. Instead of turning on the TV or opening Netflix or browsing the internet, he reads a book. In an article for Harvard Business Review, he wrote:

“Reading books again has given me more time to reflect, to think, and has increased both my focus and the creative mental space to solve work problems. My stress levels are much lower, and energy levels up.”

6. Spend Time With Friends In Real Life

If you’d like to be reminded of how little you’re doing with your time, check Facebook. Social media feeds are filled with peers who are happier, more successful, more fulfilled, and more worldly. Research backs up what many of us already feel to be true –being on social media is stressful.


On the other hand, numerous studies show that true friendships offer a mental and emotional buffer against the daily pressures in our lives. Feeling supported through our relationships lowers both our cortisol levels and blood pressure – two key physiological indicators of stress. So the next time you get an invitation from a friend and feel too busy to accept, maybe you’re too busy not to accept.

7. Give Your Time Away

Stress and busyness have a way of turning our thoughts and concerns inward – it’s hard to care for others when you feel like you’re barely keeping your own head above water. Yet at least one study shows that people who give time away actually end up feeling like they have more of it, not less. Wharton business professor Cassie Mogilner explains this counterintuitive effect in the Harvard Business Review:

“The explanation that emerged in our results is that people who give time feel more capable, confident, and useful. They feel they’ve accomplished something and, therefore, that they can accomplish more in the future. And this self-efficacy makes them feel that time is more expansive.”


8. Spend 15 Minutes Outdoors

Being outdoors has been shown time and time again to have a uniquely relaxing effect on our nervous systems. One study conducted at Chiba University in Japan found that subjects who spent 15 minutes walking in the woods showed significant decreases in the major physiological signs of stress –a 16% decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2% drop in blood pressure, and a 4% drop in heart rate.

Related: This Is How I Managed To Finally Squeeze Meditation Into My Busy, Distracted Life 

9. Make Space For Stillness And Solitude

In today’s constantly connected world, we never have to spend time with our own thoughts. We walk around with a 24/7, all-you-can-eat buffet of distractions in our pockets. Travel writer Pico Iyer, in his TED talk, suggests an antidote to busyness that few of us consider: Go nowhere. Do nothing.


“I think many of us have the sensation–I certainly do –that we’re standing about two inches away from a huge screen, and it’s noisy and it’s crowded and it’s changing with every second, and that screen is our lives. And it’s only by stepping back and then further back and holding still that we can begin to see what the canvas means and to catch the larger picture…”

Our time is finite. Instead of trying to manage it all the time, let’s give ourselves permission to slow down and savor it.

A version of this article was originally published by Doist and is adapted with permission.