Overcoming time famine: How to maximize our time and happiness

photo of a clock
Earls37a/Creative Commons
PhotoEarls37a under CC BY 2.0

Related Posts

We are full of things which propel us outwards. Our instinct leads us to believe we must seek our happiness outside ourselves.

— Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings 


“Time is money.” “A race against time.” “Time flies…”

In today’s time-obsessed culture where our lives are dictated by calendars, to-do lists and the fast-paced, high-stress demands of society, it’s become more common than ever to experience time famine — the feeling of having too much to do and not enough hours in the day to do it all. 

It’s easy to feel torn in every direction — consumed with school, work or family responsibilities — and desperate to reclaim personal time while also acutely aware of the finite nature of time itself. There’s only so much you can do in a day, and the trade-offs are everywhere. Spend a little longer chatting with a friend or finish a draft of that term paper? 

But it can be exhausting and overwhelming to contemplate the long-term implications of every little decision we make about how to spend our time. The uncertainty surrounding the big question of what would be the best use of our time is one of the reasons why we tend to procrastinate on tasks and why it triggers an avoidance reaction in us. 

Another explanation for why we put off work is because we (mistakenly) believe we have more time than we do. In 1955, British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote an essay in The Economist introducing the phenomenon — now known as Parkinson’s Law — that says “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In the essay, Parkinson shares a humorous anecdote of an elderly woman who drags out the simple task of sending a postcard to her niece. The hours and minutes of her day are taken up by searching for the card, hunting for her glasses, composing a message, deciding whether to bring an umbrella with her before walking to the mailbox on the next street and so on until the sun sets. 

But as any skilled procrastinator knows, it’s not possible to escape from our responsibilities forever. There is an accompanying sense of time “wasted” and guilt with the knowledge that we have not taken full advantage of the 24 hours afforded to us. The guilt is often compounded by the fact that modern American culture values productivity to the extent that time is treated as a precious commodity and wasting time would be seen as a personal affront. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with valuing and being mindful of our use of time. But it is concerning when productivity becomes a measure of our worth as human beings and, as such, we worship work as one of the most significant things in our lives. 

The romanticization of work can be traced back to sociologist Max Weber’s conception of the Protestant work ethic— the idea that work had a moral basis and religious justification. Weber argued that this work ethic served as the foundation of Western capitalism and has persisted to this day. Even with the decline of traditional faith and rise in new technologies to enhance productivity, Americans have continued to work long hours. 

The Atlantic staff writer Derek Thompson coined the term workism to describe the way modern work has become “a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community.” Many of us, especially among younger generations, have internalized this idea. In a 2019 Pew Research report, 95% of teens surveyed said that having a career they enjoyed would be “extremely important” (63%) or “very important” (32%) to them as an adult. Attaining meaning at work was ranked higher than any other priority in this survey, including “helping other people who are in need” (81%), “having a lot of money” (51%) or “getting married” (47%).

Portrayals of busyness all across social media have made it so that productivity — or at least some semblance of productivity — has become a status symbol in society. People accumulate work hours, complain about how much they have to do or how little sleep they’re getting as if being a victim of time famine makes them more respectable in the eyes of coworkers, family and friends. And they’re not always wrong for believing that’s the case. As a result, the religion of work has become a kind of pluralistic ignorance in which we devote more time to work because we see others doing the same. 

But our intense culture of overwork comes with its own set of consequences, most importantly being our personal wellbeing. Burnout is on the rise, as is anxiety and depression among people of all ages. The pandemic has only exacerbated these effects, with more reported instances of substance abuse, disruptions in sleeping patterns and suicidal thoughts. Given how the pandemic has blurred the lines between work and leisure time, more news outlets and researchers have been advocating for a clearer demarcation between the two to improve mental health. 

While the value of increasing leisure time to socialize or invest in hobbies is undeniable, researchers have found a potential trade-off in having too much time on our hands. In a 2018 study of about 13,000 working Americans, researchers came to the conclusion that two hours a day would be the optimal amount of free time that would predict greater life satisfaction. Any more would bring about a “lacking sense of productivity and purpose.”

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing what we do — our work, our majors, etc. — is intrinsic to who we are. The meaning we ascribe to our activities is largely the reason why we struggle to effectively manage our time. There’s no single answer as to how we can best solve this problem, but an alternative path we can consider is that of setting time aside for idleness. 

The meaning we ascribe to our activities is largely the reason why we struggle to effectively manage our time.

“All of man’s unhappiness comes from his inability to stay peacefully alone in his room.” This quote from the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal speaks to his postulation that the pursuit of happiness is at once an illusory and elusive endeavor. After all, it’s not the quantity, but the quality of time spent that makes a difference. So often in life, we go out into the world actively seeking purpose and meaning in work, people and things, but what we most struggle with — and what Pascal claims could be key to finding happiness — is boredom. 

To sit alone with our thoughts and be content with neither actively working or maximizing leisure time. Perhaps embracing idleness for its own sake could provide us with a new perspective on how we can best make use of the limited hours of our day. 

Contact Stella Ho at [email protected].