Two Easy Ways to Feel Like You Have More Time

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Businessman juggling with alarm clocks.
Photo: Anthony David Bradshaw/Corbis

One reason it feels like there are too many things on your to do list is … well, maybe there are too many things on your to do list. But another intriguing reason, according to a new paper published online this week in the Journal of Marketing, could be that some of those to-do items are in conflict with one another, which makes you feel more pressed for time, argue the authors, led by Jordan Etkin of Duke University. 

For example: You’d like to get ahead at work, but you’d also very much like to have a social life outside the office, or to spend more time at home with your family. Pursuing each of these goals has a potentially different impact on, say, how you spend the early hours of the evening. Stay late at the office? Or leave right at six to be home for dinner? And that perceived feeling of goal conflict can make you feel rushed and more pressed for time, the authors write.

But the research team also reports two things that seem to change the way people feel about how much time they have on their hands. In one experiment, the researchers asked people to think about two competing goals, and then instructed one group to do the following:

[P]lease uncross your arms and legs. Make sure you are sitting in a comfortable up-right position. Now, please breathe so that each complete breath (inhale plus exhale) lasts 11 counts. The inhale should last 5 counts (i.e., 1-2-3-4-5) and the exhale should last 6 counts (6-7-8-9-10-11). Please complete 10 of these 11 count breaths now. 

They then asked the study volunteers to take a survey designed to measure their perception of time, rating on a scale of one to seven whether they felt their time was “boundless” or “constricted,” for example. The breathing exercise appeared to (slightly) increase the study volunteers’ subjective sense of time when compared to the answers from those who didn’t do the breathing exercise. 

A separate experiment involved a technique we’ve explored before: reframing the way you think about the things that are making you anxious. Again, the study volunteers were asked to think about two goals that were competing for their time; next, one group received these instructions:

Please read the following statement out loud: “I AM EXCITED!” Repeat the statement three times before moving on to the next page. Try to believe what you are saying. 

The rest of the participants were instructed to state their name three times aloud instead. When both groups next took the same time-perception questionnaire as in the breathing exercise experiment, the group that had been made to shout their excitement after thinking about their conflicting goals reported an increased sense of time when compared to the answers from the group told to repeat their names out loud. (Previous research, led by Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School, has shown that telling yourself to get excited is a better way to deal with public speaking nerves than telling yourself to calm down.) As it happens, I am feeling especially pressed for time this morning, and so I’ll just be over here, breathing deeply and muttering I am excited to myself until I feel like I have enough hours to accomplish my own conflicting goals.