When people talk about their more frustrating work-related problems, quite often the issue of time, or the lack of it, comes up. For many people, there is not enough time to get everything done and this can be a serious and chronic source of stress. It seems as though fixing this one problem might make a huge difference in many people’s lives and in their ability to enjoy their work and their leisure.
There have been various theories about why people in general seem to feel busier these days. The alternative explanations include an expanded workday, increasing family responsibilities, more options for so-called leisure time, and even the 24/7 nature of cell phone connectivity. From the data, it is not clear to me that there is any single explanation for this increased feeling of busyness among the population as a whole. But it is clear that certain demographic cohorts in particular are much more likely to experience it. Among these are working parents with children, business owners, and mid-career professionals.
Professor of Psychology Alex Szollos has put forward a very insightful and I believe useful idea. He suggests that chronic time pressure, that feeling of always being short of time, should be seen as an overarching concept that incorporates two related but distinct elements: 1) an objective element, in other words, an actual shortage of time relative to the demands placed on the individual; and 2) a subjective element, in other words, the subjective experience of being harried and rushed pretty much all of the time.
There are probably tens of thousands of time management books, consultants, techniques, and apps designed to help us manage the objective shortage of time; I do not have anything particularly useful to add to these.
It might, however, be worthwhile to discuss the subjective element.
The feeling of chronic time pressure can be that feeling of being harried and rushed and of never having enough time. It is not merely episodic – it does not go away after a critical deadline has been met or particularly busy week has passed. It seems to always be there; in other words, it is chronic.
This subjective feeling can be quite harmful. It prevents us from enjoying our leisure time. It seems to stand between us and our friends and family by keeping us from being fully present in our relationships. And it can be a serious distraction from our work and can keep us from performing well. It can also keep us from using our time efficiently and thereby make our objective lack of time worse.
This chronic time pressure is closely related to stress and, in fact, some people would say it is a subset of stress. In any case, many stressors are made worse by time pressure. And the dynamics of chronic time pressure can be similar to other forms of stress. This suggests that the tools that have been developed for handling high levels of stress may also be effective, in some cases, for dealing with it.
What Can Be Done?
First, like stress in general, the feeling that we do not have the resources needed to deal with a particularly stressful situation can send our stress levels sky high. In the case of time pressure, then, our sense of self-efficacy can be especially important. People who are short of time but nevertheless think of themselves as competent individuals who can handle challenges efficaciously are much more likely to handle the time pressure without the harmful subjective effects that others might experience.
Each of us has particular strengths and weaknesses, and we have each developed particular skills and competencies as we have gone through life to this point. One would expect that bringing these to the forefront of our consciousness, rather than keeping them submerged in self-doubt, would be quite helpful.
As with stress more generally, leisure time, and how we use it, can play and essential role. It can be rejuvenating to have periods of time when we can get away from our work, and our workplace identity, and experience some relaxation and psychic refreshment. This seems to restore our sense of balance and increase our resilience.
The problem with leisure, however, is that when we are oppressed by chronic time pressure, not only is it hard to find time for leisure but even when we do make the time we are likely to spend it ruminating about whatever it is that we have not gotten done. Similarly, if our leisure time is filled with non-work obligations then the so-called leisure time itself might become a source of time pressure and may not do us much good.
Different people handle leisure in different ways. For some of us, if we slow down and just try to relax, our thoughts can run away with us and we can spend our time ruminating about our lack of time. One approach that seems to help some people is to find a leisure activity that fully engages them and requires their full attention. This might help stop the useless rumination.
This mindless rumination about our lack of time or our unfinished obligations can be a key problem and can make matters worse. So can experiencing a chronic background anxiety that keeps us from being fully engaged. We need to develop the ability, perhaps with frequent practice, to learn to direct our attention more fully and deliberately. Being aware of when we are caught in a rumination loop can help. So can forms of prayer and meditation that encourage us to focus our attention in one direction.
Prayer and other spiritual practices can also help us put things into a proper perspective and remind us that life, and eternity, goes on whether we complete all of our tasks or not.
No matter what the objective circumstances, no matter how short of time we actually are, being able to reduce the burden imposed by feeling harried and rushed can go a long way to helping us enjoy our leisure, deepen our human relationships, and work more effectively.
 Alex Szollos, “Toward a Psychology of Chronic Time Pressure: Conceptual and Methodological Review”, Time & Society, Vol. 18, No. 2/3 (2009), pp. 332–350.