Do you wake up feeling like you’re already behind?
Hi. Yes. Me, too.
Time scarcity—the feeling that you’re racing against a clock that somehow ticks faster every day—can feel like it’s motivating you, but actually, it can be sneakily sabotaging your progress.
As Josh Spector writes over at For the Interested: “We all feel we don’t have enough time in the day to get things done, but that’s the wrong way to frame the issue. Your real issue may be that you have too much you want to get done.”
I have a theory that time scarcity is also linked to something I’ll call time scatteredness. This happens when you really have no idea how long it takes us to complete tasks, and this skews how much time you think you have or need.
This can work in two ways:
1. You think something takes less time than it actually does
Anyone who’s perpetually late for work or school or events understands this one—you think, “Oh, it’ll only take 30 minutes to get there!”
Inevitably, 30 minutes before you’re due somewhere, you say, “I should probably leave now”— yet the problem is that you didn’t factor in that it probably takes you 5-10 minutes to get out of the door (drink a glass of water, one last mirror check, wait gotta find my shoes, what’s the address again?), and boom, you’re already 10 minutes late before you’ve set out the door.
The same thing can happen if you have meetings planned during your day. A half-hour meeting isn’t actually a half-hour—you might have to prep some work beforehand, find your meeting space, dial into a conference call, write a recap or follow-up questions, and so on.
All of these things are totally fine and normal—if you factor them into your time estimate, or, better yet, decide what doesn’t need to be done after all.
2. You think something takes more time than it actually does
I’ve found this to be true mostly with work-related tasks. How long does it really take you to write an email? Do you know? I swear that most, if not all, can be written in under five minutes. But they balloon into half-hour tasks when you check Twitter, or have to convert a document file, or ask someone a question on Slack.
Taken another way, how long does it take to make real progress on one of your passion projects?
You might think you need an uninterrupted weeklong retreat in the mountains, or three solid hours every day. And that sounds really nice! But is it realistic? How long does it l-i-t-e-r-a-l-l-y take to do your work?
You might be able to write a solid paragraph in a half hour—that’s progress!
Both of these mindsets of overestimating and underestimating our time seem to work in tandem all the time. We crave more time and yet don’t know where to find it . . . or do we?
Fix 1: Audit your day to figure out how long things take
No one likes to hear the word “audit,” but this clinical, dry-sounding practice is CRUCIAL to figuring out where your time is going.
Nerd alert: Next to every task on my to-do list, I write down the time I start in on it and the time I finish it.
Take yesterday, for instance. Here’s one task: Finish editing Paul’s story 10:56-11:22
Alright, so now I know that finalizing his story (rereading it, adding photos, doing headlines, etc.) took me 26 minutes. But the funny thing is: I’ve done this long enough to see the patterns. This last “finish editing” step almost always takes around 30 minutes.
Before I started keeping track, I literally had no idea how long certain tasks take me. Now, I have a better sense of what I can accomplish in a half hour or an hour. Because not knowing how long things take is like trying to put together a puzzle with pieces that don’t match.
Try this trick for the things you do most often, and you’ll see patterns, too.
Fix 2: Resist doing so much stuff
Of course, you can analyze your schedule to death and shave a few minutes off here and there, but do you know what saves you the most amount of time as quickly as possible?
You can say no! You can skip things! You can’t do everything!
As Spector writes: “It sounds cliche, but your time management goal shouldn’t be to figure out how to do more, but instead to figure out how to want less.”
Think about how many hours you will spend this week on optional tasks that you actually don’t want to do.
Now get rid of all of them. I’m serious! (Don’t shirk your actual obligations, just the optional ones.)
I like the wise perspective of Zen Habits, where Leo Babauta considers every person’s identical 24-hour day. Instead of wanting more, he says, “It’s the exact right amount of time, because it’s all there is.”
Rather than cramming our days with more, more, more, he says to slow down and appreciate what we are able to do.
“We can do one thing and be incredibly grateful that we are able to do that one thing,” he writes.
So don’t go to that drinks thing if your heart is telling you that you need a night in to rest. Don’t say yes to “jumping on the phone” to discuss an opportunity that you already know is irrelevant to your life. Don’t do anything or go anywhere that you already know you’re going to resent in the moment because you wish you were somewhere else.
You can’t do everything—and once you accept that truth, you’ll find yourself regaining more minutes in your day.
All that time you’re seeking? Time to think and plot and plan and rest and create? You will find it in the moments you were filling up with those optional tasks. You deserve time and space for more things that light you up—so go get what is yours.