My niece and nephew are playing “office.” They walk to a pretend office — really, just a table with iPads and toy laptops — clutching old cell phones to the ears.
“I’m running late! Traffic was a nightmare,” seven-year-old Mimi says.
“I need coffee,” five-year-old nephew Dasan groans.
Then, they sit down at the table and pretend to “e-mail” each other. Sometimes, they have “meetings” that consist of them bickering over who gets to use the iPad. And when they’re done, they march out, complaining about how their boss is “a moron who doesn’t know anything.”
“How was your day?” I ask when they get “home” — an old couch they flop themselves upon.
“Over,” Mimi sighs.
“Do you want to go out to play? It’s nice out, maybe we can play on the swing set or ride bikes,” I say, trying to entice them. “It might be a nice break.”
“I can’t,” Dasan says. “I’ve got too much to do.”
“We’re too busy to play,” Mimi tells me. “We don’t have time!”
Mimi and Dasan are just playing grown-ups, but their imitations of adult ennui, exhaustion and overwork are scarily accurate. Even at their young age, they’ve made a sharp observation: we have too much to do and just not enough time to do it.
And it’s true — we are plagued with a sense of “time famine,” as psychologists call it. We look at our to-do lists and schedules, and think there’s just no way we can get it all done. But we do have a solution: it’s not what we do with our time, but how we feel about it that matters.
The idea of time famine recently has become a “cause celebre” among digital intellectuals. Arianna Huffington, media publisher and mogul, made her own headlines when she discussed the phenomenon in her recent book “Thrive.”
“Time famine,” though a trendy concept, is actually an old idea. University of Michigan sociology professor Leslie Perlow, who coined the phrase in 1999, studied a software engineering team for nine months and noted the group’s collective sense of “having too much to do and not enough time to do it.”
Yet the sense of time famine was entirely the company’s doing. The engineers constantly interrupted one another, which disrupted focus and led to work crises that required herculean efforts to overcome. This dynamic was rewarded with praise and admiration, perpetuating the dysfunction within the group.
Perlow’s study was limited to a close observation of software engineers, but the results apply to all of us: we’re interrupted not just by our co-workers, but by e-mail, social media pings and any number of tech-related distractions. We also choose to check e-mail constantly and respond to every ping on smartphones we don’t silence.
And we also perpetuate time famine by taking it on as a badge of honor. Think about how many times a day you say “I’m so busy”? Though it drives us nuts, busyness is an excuse, a way of telling others of our important status. If you’re not busy, no one takes you seriously as an adult.
Time famine seems to be a successful person’s problem. In fact, the more money or education you have, the less likely you feel you have enough time in your day, according to Gallup. “The more cash-rich working Americans are,” the report concluded, “the more time-poor they feel.” Working women, particularly those with children, say they have the least amount of time.
In other words, time famine is very much what the Instagram generation calls a “First World problem.” The more successful we are, or want to be, the more likely we feel pressed for time. Our own quest for success and fulfillment leads to our own sense of famine.
But is time famine real? Are we really working more than ever?
As it turns out, being time-poor is actually a matter of perception. The truth is, more of us have more free time than ever in our lives, as least compared to generations past, according to Inc Magazine. University of Maryland sociologist John P. Robinson studied time-use diaries over the years and discovered average work hours have held steady or actually declined over the past 40 years, giving everyone more leisure time all around.
While statistics show we work about the same or less, emotionally it doesn’t feel that way, since work has a way of seeping into our personal lives. We check job-related e-mail at home or watching the kids at soccer practice. We bring our laptops and tablets during vacation and fit a few hours of work in.
This process of fragmentation, enabled by technology and our own attachments to it, makes it feel like we do more work than ever — only at a faster speed and higher expectations. We can never really enjoy a nice, uninterrupted chunk of free time, and that leads us to feel “time-poor.”
Yet the more time-poor we feel, the more likely we’ll be unable to enjoy the success we worked so hard for. The Gallup poll also found, unsurprisingly, that time-strapped people experienced more stress. They also felt more dissatisfied with their relationships and personal lives, and felt lower levels of overall well-being.
Time famine also causes us to lose our ability to see what’s good about life. “When we’re living a life of perpetual time famine, we rob ourselves of our ability to experience another key element of the Third Metric: wonder, our sense of delight in the mysteries of the universe, as well as the everyday occurrences and small miracles that fill our lives,” Huffington wrote in “Thrive.”
Furthermore, feeling overwhelmed and busy can alter our brain, according to Brigid Schulte, author of “Overwhelmed.” Neuroscientists discovered something alarming happens to the prefrontal cortex — an area of the brain that controls reason — when we feel rushed, overwhelmed and too busy: it shrinks.
Feeling like we have enough time, though, is crucial to our happiness and well-being, and when pressed to admit it, people eventually prioritize it. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, 7-in-10 Americans said having free time was very important — more important, in fact, than having children, a successful career, getting married or becoming wealthy.
Clearly, there’s a tight relationship between our personal happiness, our health and our experience of time — and it’s our best interest to fill our hours well.
How do we combat this perpetual sense of never having enough hours in the day? We could take a top-down approach and try to manage your time more efficiently — conduct a “time audit” and see where all those lost minutes go.
But that’ll likely show what Robinson and researchers suspect: we fragment our time by spending much of it on the Internet or our gadgets.
According to Robinson, the best way to stop time famine to actually stop telling ourselves and others we’re so busy — and stop perpetuating the culture and machismo of busyness. It’s the culture of busyness that leads to the toxic emotions of guilt, stress and bad decision-making that come from an over-full schedule.
Another major change we can make? Stop multi-tasking. According to Schulte, our brains can’t do two things at once with 100 percent ability, making multi-tasking less effective than doing one thing at a time with full attention and skill. And we also dampen our brain’s “spam filter” and ability to parse relevant and irrelevant information. In short: multitasking makes us dumber.
Another way to fight that stressful, pinched feeling of time famine is to approach it from the inside-out — we can change our perception of time. Though time is an inflexible constant — we only have 24 hours a day, no matter who we are or what we do — our experiences of time are highly subjective. We can take steps to create “time affluence” — that feeling of having more than enough time in the day to get everything done, and possibly savor our experiences as well. Many studies show our perception of time is under our control much more than you’d think.
In the past, we’ve created time affluence by making big changes in our lives: we quit or changed our jobs, moved from big cities, or made other major lifestyle alterations. But we don’t have to take drastic actions to create time affluence.
We might have to make some counter-intuitive changes, though. According to the Wall Street Journal, one of the best ways to alleviate the sense of never having enough time to do anything is to actually give some of it away. Students at an elite East Coast university were asked by the researchers to do something altruistic for someone else: volunteering, for example, or even just helping a friend with looking over an essay.
Overall, the students that donated their time the most felt the least amount of time famine. “Spending time on another,” the paper concludes, “seemingly expanded the future.”
It doesn’t have to be a big act of volunteering, researchers noted. Doing a small favor for someone — watching a child, bringing their mail inside, shoveling a neighbor’s sidewalk — had just as big of an effect as a bigger volunteer effort. Doing something for someone else, the researchers theorized, increased people’s feelings of usefulness and effectiveness — and this satisfaction translated into time well-spent.
Another way to create time affluence is to boost our sense of awe and wonder in the world. A group of researchers wondered if positive emotions would expand people’s perception of time, according to the Boston Globe.
Study participants were exposed to awe-inspiring footage of beautiful places in nature or in the world, asked to write about a personal experience of wonderment, or read stories about peak experiences. The result? Participants got a momentary boost in life satisfaction, and a feeling they had more time available to them. Stimulating higher-level emotions like wonderment and awe, researchers believe, grounds people in the present, instead of fretting about the past or future.
That’s all well and good, but how can we do this for ourselves? Not everyone can travel to the great wonders of the world to experience them in person. But we can at least ground ourselves in the present through meditation, which is designed to literally slow our minds down and bring focus to the moment.
Meditation isn’t just sitting on a cushion and saying “Om.” We can meditate on a walk, bringing all our attention to our movements or surroundings. We can bring mindfulness to the first sip of coffee of the day, fully experiencing its flavor and warmth. We can lose ourselves in work and even create what psychologists call a “flow” experience, where we lose our sense of time completely and become pleasurably lost in the process. In other words, fully experiencing a moment actually boosts our sense of having more moments to fill.
Other tactics increase our sense of wonder, as well. Many psychologists advise keeping gratitude lists, which boosts an appreciation of what we have in life. So often, we’re plagued by a sense of a never-ending to-do list, but keeping a list of things we’re grateful for also allows us to see how all our efforts add up.
Like researchers noted, reading about others’ experiences of wonder, awe and triumph can also boost our sense of time affluence. It might be one of the reasons why stories like Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” and Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” became bestsellers. They give us a bigger perspective and an appreciation of the time we do have, and a renewed desire to make the best of our allotment.
You can also reframe your understanding of time itself. Shows like Fox’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” offer an appreciation of the universe. When we realize how many billions of years the universe has existed — and how long it will exist well after we are gone — we see that time is both much larger and smaller than we can imagine. Becoming aware of the elastic nature of our experience of time itself is an experience of wonder and awe — and it’s up to us to shape that experience, and have a hand in our happiness.
Though the idea of time famine has been around for some time, time affluence is a relatively new concept, ripe for study. Maybe in the future, employers will rethink the round-the-clock connectivity in vogue now, especially as we question that model’s sustainability in the long-term and understand the relationship between time, happiness and the necessity of gadget-free leisure.
According to the Boston Globe, in 2009, a study tied time affluence to increased happiness, argued that “ethical” businesses should try to make this sort of affluence more possible for employees and change company policies on family leave, vacations and overtime.
But changing current corporate policies won’t come easy. Hopefully, though, by the time my niece and nephew enter the workforce, workers and companies do understand the precarious relationship between time and happiness.
Right now, though, my niece and nephew can play at being at work for hours. They don’t feel the press of the next task on their To-Do list. They don’t feel the need to maximize their time by multi-tasking. They lose themselves in the game, fully engaged and in the moment, even as they poke fun at the idea of adults having no time to do anything.
They’ve already found the secret to having all the time in the world. Let’s just hope they remember it as they get older and their responsibilities and to-do lists get bigger. ♦