What to Do When You Feel Like You Don’t Have Enough Time

The answer may have more to do with aligning your activities with your values than having more free time.


One of the biggest complaints that I hear in my practice is, “I don’t have enough time.” And if you put a camera in my kitchen, you’d hear me saying the same thing to my husband: I don’t have enough time to go to yoga or to work on the book I want to write.

Some of this is true. We do have time poverty–especially if you have financial challenges, if you’re a single parent, or if you’re working long hours. Free time may be slim.

We think that having more time will make us happier, but that is not necessarily true. Research by Cassie Holmes at the UCLA Anderson School of Management shows that when free time is at either of its extremes—too much time (more than five hours of free time every day), or too little time (less than two hours of free time every day)—we are less happy. And, if you are somewhere in the middle, the research shows no correlation between more happiness and free time. 

What the research does show is that how you use your time matters. 

What is Free Time, Really?

In our technologically driven environment, there is increasingly less differentiation between free time versus time working. For instance, my mom says her favorite time of the week is when she charges her electric car and gets an uninterrupted hour to answer her emails. Is that work or leisure? Free time or scheduled time? I imagine you too have times where the lines between work and leisure are blurred, and that it’s less about free time and more about how you are engaging with your time. 

Not Another Productivity Hack

There are all sorts of podcasts, books, and blog posts out there that will help you better manage your time, and they can be very helpful. As an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy psychologist, I am more interested in the why, what, and how of your values when it comes to time, than in trying to squeeze out more “free time.” 

When you feel like you don’t have enough time you may end up rushing through your life and acting in ways that aren’t truly satisfying.

Why? Because, when you feel like you don’t have enough time you may end up rushing through your life and acting in ways that aren’t truly satisfying. On the flip side, there may be areas of your life where you feel like you have an abundance of time and you are putting off things that really matter to you. You think you have all the time in the world to take that camping trip with your dad, or to have lunch with your best friend…until your dad gets a medical diagnosis or your friend decides to move. We don’t actually know how much time we have.  

Time Is a Perception

Research shows that how you spend your time impacts your perception of how much time you have. For example, research participants were assigned to give 15 minutes of their time to edit essays for at-risk public high school students. Half of the participants were then randomly assigned to end the study early, giving them a windfall of unexpected extra time.

Surprisingly, the participants who got extra time actually felt like they had less spare time than those who spent 15 minutes editing the essays!

When you’re using your time in more meaningful ways (such as helping others), you feel like you have more time. So how can we use our time more wisely? First we must get over the cognitive biases that trick us into using our time unwisely.

3 Cognitive Biases That Waste Our Time

Cognitive biases are patterns of thought that can lead to irrationality or errors in judgment. Often our biases are unconscious and we don’t even notice them. For example, why is it that every time you sit down to work on your taxes you end up answering emails? Or why is it that every time you go to a movie you can’t stop thinking about your taxes? You can blame your mind.

Bias #1: The Mere Urgency Effect

The mere urgency effect is our tendency to prioritize urgent tasks (or what we perceive as urgent) over less urgent ones. Beeping texts or ALL CAPS EMAIL subject lines seem urgent, so we drop what we are doing (even if it is really more important in the long run) to respond. 

For example, imagine you’re having a conversation with your partner about their day and your phone lights up with a text reminder about your dentist appointment the next day. You likely will feel urgency to put it into your calendar and tune out from your loved one. Then later on in the week, you might complain, “I don’t have enough quality time with my partner.” Well, you just lost it to the mere urgency effect. 

In order to overcome the mere urgency effect, you can practice bringing what is important to you front and center in your mind. What is really important here–responding to this text or listening to my loved one?

Bias #2: The Zeigarnik Effect

The Zeigarnik effect is our tendency to remember unfinished tasks better than completed ones. This is why when you’re making dinner you start thinking about all the things you didn’t get done that day, and why the next day when you are trying to get those things done, you can’t stop thinking about the ingredients you need to get for dinner. 

Our minds have a tendency to want to solve problems and complete tasks. In order to overcome the Zeigarnik effect, you can learn how to refocus your attention. Rather than getting caught up in all the incomplete stuff, bring your attention back to the task at hand. This is where mindfulness practice is especially helpful—because you will never get everything off of your list. I bet your list is growing even as you read this.

Bias #3 The Complexity Bias

We have a tendency to give undue credit to complex solutions over simple ones. Oftentimes, the simplest solution to feeling time-poor is just to get present and show up fully in the time that we have. For example, if you value caring for your body, you don’t have to go to the gym at 5pm to act on that value. You can care for your body while driving in the car by aligning your neck and spine, while at your desk by standing up to stretch, or at your kid’s baseball game by walking around the field. No matter where you are, you can engage in your values and it doesn’t have to be so complex. 

Wise Practice: Time Flexing

The practice of Time Flexing can help you overcome all three of these biases. 

Here’s how you can practice Time Flexing. 

Choose a domain of your life where you feel like you don’t have enough time so you are rushing through it, or a domain that you have put off tending to. Examples include:

  • Friendship
  • Health
  • Work
  • Family
  • Parenting
  • Community
  • Recreation
  • Romantic relationship

1. Expand Your Time

Imagine you could wave a magic wand and have all the time in the world. Expanding your imagination in this way gets rid of barriers to spending your time in ways you really want, helping you think more creatively. Imagining you had all the time in the world, answer these three questions:

  • WHY: Why would you want to spend your time here? Why is it important to you? 
  • WHAT: What would you be doing if you had all the time in the world that maybe you’re not doing now? 
  • HOW: How would you be doing it? What would be the qualities that you would bring to life? Would you be creative, spontaneous, friendly, adventurous, present, more understanding? Would you be more at ease? Loving? Playful? How would you be engaging in this domain? 

2: Narrow Your Time

Now imagine that time just shrunk and you only have 15 minutes to engage with this domain—and this is the last 15 minutes that you will ever have. Shrinking time down in this way, making yourself aware of its impermanence, helps you focus your attention on the present and ups the urgency of what really matters. 

  • WHY: Why would you want to spend 15 minutes here? 
  • WHAT: What would you be doing with just 15 minutes left? 
  • HOW: How would you be showing up in those 15 minutes if it were your last 15?

Your answers to the questions above are the Why, What and How of your values. 

The next time you feel like you don’t have enough time, or that you are putting off things that are important to you, practice Time Flexing and shift your focus and behavior toward what matters most to you in the present moment. When you get more engaged with your time, you just might find that it matters less how much “free time” you have, because every moment is an opportunity to live out your values.