I can feel the squeeze of stress in my stomach. This morning, I got a call from a friend needing support, which prevented me from starting this article. And I’m set to leave my desk early for a dentist appointment, after which I’ll rush home to cook a late dinner.
I’m under time pressure, and I know I’m not alone. If you’re a woman, a single parent or practically anyone living in today’s go-go-go American society, you probably are, too. When researchers surveyed Americans before 2011, about half said they hardly ever had time on their hands, and two-thirds said they sometimes or always felt rushed (though a more recent study suggests things may be improving a bit).
At first glance, the issue seems straightforward: Time pressure comes down to a lack of time, right? Well, partly. Time stress is the feeling that we don’t have enough time to do what we want to do — but it turns out that’s somewhat subjective.
Research suggests a lot of it relates to our attitudes about the ways we spend our time. Rather than always blaming the clock, we can find some roots of the time crunch 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.
Enjoyment and passion
In a 2004 study of nearly 800 working people in Ohio, researchers were confronted with a puzzle.
When women did more than 10 hours of housework a week, they felt more pressed for time and, in turn, more depressed. But when men did the same amount of housework, they didn’t. A similar pattern appeared for volunteering: Men who volunteered more were less depressed, but women got time stressed and didn’t seem to experience as much benefit.
The explanation that the researchers came up with, bolstered by people’s accounts of how they spent their time, was that men tend to do more enjoyable housework and volunteering. They cut the grass and coach soccer teams; they get into a flow and feel a sense of accomplishment. Women, on the other hand, are often occupied with small, repetitive daily chores and service work: less cheering and high-fiving and more trying not to fall asleep at school meetings.
Unsurprisingly, a day packed with somewhat engaging activities feels less busy and stressful than a day of drudgery. If time flies (in a good way) when you’re having fun, it also seems to fly (in a bad way) when you’re not. This subjective element might have created more of a sense of time pressure in women who participated in the study, even if men’s activities equaled or exceeded theirs in hours.
A similar effect takes place at work. In one study, researchers surveyed more than 2,500 employees at a technology company and a financial services company. They found that people who are more passionate, who aspire to do things that matter to them at work, aren’t as rushed and harried as others.
If you feel short on time, you might simply not be enjoying the activities that fill up your schedule. Believe it or not, it might help to add one more thing to your day — something that keeps you engaged.
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 — such as 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, said Australian National University professor Lyndall Strazdins, who has spent the last decade trying to show how time scarcity matters for individual and public health. For example, being a good mom today seems to include chauffeuring your kids around the neighborhood to countless sports and hobbies.
“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,” Strazdins said. “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. But the trick is to resolve not to let it weigh on you.
A sense of control
Often when we’re caught in a time conflict, it’s because of some external obligation: Day-care pickup runs against an important meeting; 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 one 2007 study, researchers interviewed 35 low-income working mothers who were caring for at least one child. They asked the moms to talk about how they spent the previous day and how they manage to feed their families when it’s hectic.
The researchers were able to pinpoint different ways of managing time — some of which were more successful than others.
The least successful was the “reactive” style, where mothers didn’t feel in control of their days. All those mothers felt time-scarce, beholden to the clock, unable to accomplish everything they wanted to.
In contrast, mothers who had an “active” time style had some success at scheduling, managing and structuring their days. They felt slightly more in control of their own time and a bit less time-stressed than the reactive group.
“People often complain of being in a time bind not only because they are objectively busy, but also because they perceive a lack of control over their time,” researcher Ashley V. Whillans and her colleagues wrote.
That perception may be based on our life circumstances — because we have nonnegotiable work hours or babies who aren’t fond of sleeping through the night — but it can also be part of our psychology.
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, such as optimizing your to-do list or practicing saying “no” to people who ask for favors.
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 or can’t pay for a babysitter, 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.
Why would an abundance of money feel like a scarcity of time? One possibility is that rich people have so much they could do with their money but only a handful of hours outside work to do it, suggested researchers Daniel Hamermesh and Jungmin Lee. So many expensive hobbies to pursue, so little time!
But another possibility is that they simply put more value on their time. If each hour they’re not working is $100 they could have earned, they better use that hour well.
“Time pressure is at least partly a result of psychological processes and the perception of time’s value,” wrote researchers Sanford E. DeVoe and Jeffrey Pfeffer.
That means we may have more leverage than we think, even if we can’t manufacture spare hours to call a friend or get to the dentist.
Time pressure is the uncomfortable gap between how we wish we spent our time and how we’re actually spending and feeling about it.
With that in mind, if we can make the choice to fill even part of our days with things we enjoy and manage to not feel conflicted about them, we might just find some room to breathe.
A version of this piece was originally published in Greater Good Magazine, published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. It has been adapted, with permission, for the Inspired Life blog.