Why do we never seem to have enough time?

In today’s Everyday Wellbeing, we explore time pressure. This has become an increasingly common issue in today’s fast-paced world, affecting the wellbeing of many of us. However, the problem may as simple as  just a lack of time, as certain subjective factors can contribute to the feeling of being overwhelmed. Discover the science behind time pressure and some practical tips to help you regain control of your schedule and enjoy your time more fully.

Do we lack time?

Many of us will recognise the feeling of claustrophobic tension and pressure that builds as we feel the squeeze of not having enough time to do what we want to do. With time pressure having a wide-ranging impact on the wellbeing of many of us, Kira M. Newman managing editor of Greater Good and co-editor of The Gratitude Project, explains more:

At first glance, the issue seems straightforward. Time pressure comes down to a lack of time, right? Well, partly. It’s the feeling that we don’t have enough time to do what we want to do—but it turns out that feelings and enough and wants are somewhat subjective.

In one study of more than 7,000 working Australians, researchers declared that time pressure is an ‘illusion’. They estimated how much time is necessary for basic living—hours of paid work, housework, and personal care—and compared it to how much free time people had in their actual schedules. It turns out there was a big discrepancy, which was most extreme for households without children and smallest for single parents.

Other research suggests that rather than fixating on the clock, we can find some roots of the time stress deep in our own psychology. Here are some scientific insights to help you make a distinction between real stopwatch pressure and the unnecessary pressure you might be putting on yourself.

1. Inner Conflict

Why does passion seem to free up our time? The researchers who observed this phenomenon wanted to discover what was really going on.

They found a clue when they asked employees about how conflicted or aligned their goals were. Employees lacking in passion said that their goals were competing with each other, fighting for time and attention; for example, the drive to do well at work might make it hard to get home for dinner with the family. But passionate employees were different: they saw their goals as supporting each other. After all, healthy home cooking and family bonding might give them more energy and motivation tomorrow.

So time pressure isn’t just about how enjoyable our activities are, but also how well they fit together in our heads. One study found that people who simply think about conflicting goals—like saving money vs. buying nice things, or being healthy vs. eating tasty foods – feel more stressed and anxious, and in turn shorter on time.

While we may freely choose some tasks on our plate, others are largely the product of our society or culture, says Australian National University professor Lyndall Strazdins: ‘If you don’t do that, then you feel you’re not living up to one set of norms, but if you don’t do [something else], you’re also not living up to another set of norms,’ says Strazdins. ‘You’ve got 24 hours…and you get to a point where you just can’t expand your day.’ If you feel a lot of inner conflict about a task, then you might consider just letting it go.

2. A sense of control

Often when we’re caught in a time conflict, it’s because of some external obligation: daycare pickup runs up against an important meeting, or your work shift starts at 9, but the bus is late. Time pressure goes hand in hand with feeling you’re not in control of your own schedule.

In a study of low-income working mothers, researchers found that those who had an “active” time-style – meaning they scheduled, managed, and structured their days – felt more in control of their time and less stressed than those with a “reactive” time-style, who felt beholden to the clock and unable to accomplish everything they wanted to.

According to research, rather than experiencing life as masters of their own fate, some people tend to feel like they’re at the mercy of external forces (and thus less resilient to stress and more depressed). If this describes you, it may be harder for you to seize back a sense of control over your schedule.

In that case, try to keep your eyes on the prize and do what you can to gain a sense of control over your time. Take little steps, like optimising your to-do list or practising saying “no” to people who ask for favours.

3. Enjoyment and passion

In a 2004 study of almost 800 working people in Ohio, researchers made a puzzling discovery.

When women did over ten hours of housework a week they felt more depressed and pressed for time when compared to their male counterparts doing the same amount of housework. A similar pattern can be seen with volunteering.

Eventually, the researchers determined that the disparity was that men typically do more enjoyable housework and volunteering, such as cutting the grass or coaching the football team. Whereas women are often occupied with repetitive daily chores. This subjective element of enjoyable activities created a sense of time pressure in women, even if men’s activities equalled or exceeded theirs in hours. Unsurprisingly, a day packed with somewhat engaging activities feels less busy and stressful than a day of drudgery.

The same effect takes place at work, where passionate employees who aspire to do meaningful work experience less time stress. Adding something engaging to your day can help alleviate feelings of being overwhelmed.

4. The value of your time

One last piece of the time-pressure puzzle is money, and that one is complicated. If you work multiple jobs, you’re bound to feel short on time. But some research has found that people with high incomes feel particularly short on time—and people who get richer become even more harried than they were before. Even just feeling rich—when your savings are on the higher end of the scale on a form you’re filling out—can make you feel more rushed.

Why would an abundance of money feel like a scarcity of time? One possibility is that rich people have so many options of what they could do with their money but only a handful of hours outside work to do it, suggest researchers Daniel Hamermesh and Jungmin Lee. So many expensive hobbies to pursue, so little time!

In one experiment, American researchers asked 67 students to engage in some mock consulting work, for which they would ‘charge’ $1.50 or $0.15 per minute. The students who were charging $1.50 felt more pressed for time—even though they weren’t actually going to earn that money! Another experiment found that high earners felt even more time-starved when asked to calculate their hourly wage.

It seems that the perception of time’s value is just as important as the amount of time we have. So while making more money may seem like the answer to our problems, in fact some high earners feel even more time-starved.

Reducing stress

This is a mixture of good news and bad. It means that our efforts to optimise and schedule, plan and streamline, might not be getting to the heart of the problem.

Time pressure is the uncomfortable gap between how we wish we spent our time—and how we think that would make us feel—and how we’re spending it and feeling now.

It is helpful to our wellbeing just to know that we can reduce time stress by:

  • Being aware of how we perceive time
  • Understanding that repetitive and fewer engaging tasks are going to make us feel more time pressured
  • As much as we can decide on tasks to complete rather than being directed by forces out of our control
  • Aligning tasks with our life goals and the things that give us meaning and purpose

By working on some of these, we might just be able to feel better about making more time for ourselves and the things we love to do.


Written by Emma Browning, our pastoral and wellbeing lead at Livability Millie College. Emma has supported people to improve their wellbeing for over 20 years. Emma says: “Wellbeing is something woven through Livability’s work and I’ll be sharing some wellbeing themes and approaches in these blogs. My hope is that you enjoy reading them and they build a strong foundation for your wellbeing”

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