The psychology behind why we never have enough time

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Often we take on too much work and leave ourselves stretched too thin. Photo: Getty

It often seems like there aren’t enough hours in the day. As soon as our alarms go off in the morning, it can feel like you’re constantly rushing to get things done before the end of the day. There are deadlines to hit, meetings to organise, emails to respond to and more. And despite our best efforts to be organised and conscientious, things can slip through the net.

Some reasons why we never seem to have enough time are obvious. In a bid to impress our bosses or to live up to our own high standards, for example, we may take on too much work and leave ourselves stretched too thin.

We also tend to underestimate our workload because of a phenomenon called the planning fallacy, a type of cognitive bias in which we fail to accurately predict how much time we need to complete a task. In one study from the 1990s, students working on a project estimated they would be finished 30 days earlier than they actually did.

But whether we tend to feel pressed for time also depends on a number of psychological factors too.

“Our sense of time is subjective and based on a lot of internal and external factors,” explains organisational psychologist Dr Myra Altman, the head of clinical care at Modern Health.

“Therefore, a lot of our sense of being pressed for time will depend on our emotional reaction to the things that we are doing. We are going to be more excited to make time for things we love doing and induce a sense of flow, versus tasks that we are dreading.”

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Whether we feel we have enough time also depends on how many things we are juggling during the day – and whether we are trying to multitask. “It also depends on how much we’re context switching, how many things we feel like we have to get through in a day, and how ruthless we are in prioritising things,” Altman says.

“If we think of everything as ‘necessary’ and that we have to do it all ‘perfectly’ we will likely feel more pressed for time and it’s an unrealistic expectation that will set us up for distress. If we have an amorphous list of things we have to do in our heads that will likely make it more stressful than if we write the list down and know what we have to do and when. It can all become overwhelming and we can feel like there’s not enough time.”

Whether we feel rushed also depends on our personalities and individual mindsets too, explains psychologist Stuart Duff, head of development, Pearn Kandola, a business psychology consultancy.

Time is definitely relative. The one thing that I have noticed is that time affects us all differently,” he says. “As a coach of managers and leaders, the most common challenge is managing time: prioritising their time, managing pressure or procrastinating.”

According to Duff, optimists who are always positive tend to underestimate how much time is available or how long something will take. “They invariably over-commit and put pressure on themselves by having to deal with many competing demands simultaneously,” he says.

Meanwhile, others may feel anxious and cautious about the amount of time that they have to give to something. This means they may magnify the size or scale of a task in their mind – to such an extent that they find it difficult to get started.

“Perfectionists who get far too involved in doing one thing in detail at the expense of looking up and seeing the fifty other things they should be doing,” Duff adds. “Deferists is a term that I’ve coined through my own work in this area to describe people who tend to thrive on deadline pressures, and so leave everything to the last minute.”

All of these mindsets result in leaving tasks unresolved for long periods, which inevitably creates pressure further down the line. “The solution is to see time as a fixed commodity rather than something that varies depending on how much pressure we feel,” explains Duff. Without the emotion – or fear – attached, time becomes a fixed commodity where an hour is always an hour.”

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Whether we feel time pressure during the day can be outside of our control, though. Often, there is simply more work than someone can do in a reasonable workday which contributes to a reality of time pressure. And always being “switched on” – answering emails late at night, replying to messages from your boss – can make it more difficult to organise your own time.

“The lines between work and non-work are increasingly blurred so I believe that it’s becoming harder to manage time and feel like we have ‘time off’ or time to focus on non-work things which leads to an overall sense of time pressure,” Altman says. “Having clear hours when people don’t need to respond, etc can all be helpful in mitigating this.”


One way to tackle feeling constantly pressed for time is to work on prioritising what you want to get done. Think about how long a task actually takes, bearing in mind any interruptions or breaks you want to take. “We should consider getting a better understanding of what isn’t critical, what doesn’t have to be done now, and what only needs to be done ‘well enough’,” Altman says.

It’s also important to think about what you really value in life. “Evaluate whether how you spend their time is in line with what you care about, and if not, what changes you want to make to have the time you spend more aligned with your values,” Altman adds. “Importantly, the things we value aren’t always the things we find enjoyable.”

And at the end of the day, there is always going to be more to do. But it’s more important to look after your mind and to try and let go of the stress of what you haven’t managed to achieve.