Monday, October 31, 2016

You're Not as Busy as You Think You Are

I keep having the same conversation these days, and it bugs me every time I have it. Coworkers, family, and friends keep telling me about how busy they are. In detail.

At happy hours and dinner parties, it's always the same old tropes. Work is crazy. Management just let go of more people and is trying to do more with less. We're burning the candle at both ends.

This sense of busyness boils over to our personal lives, too. We're so buried during the work week that our weekends are spent cleaning the house, doing yard work, and catching up with the kids. When it's all said and done, there's hardly any time left for yourself, your exercise and hobbies, or personal maintenance.

But the research finds that our sense of overwhelming busyness is, sort of, a lie. Compared to your American counterpart from decades ago, you're probably not that busy. You have more leisure time now than people did in the sixties: on average, about four to eight more hours of leisure time per week. While we're working about as much as our parents and grandparents, a lot of this extra leisure is due to the technological wonders seen in modern home life: internet shopping that delivers goods right to your door, machines that wash your clothes and dishes, and food that doesn't take all day to prepare. All these little things add up, and we have a few extra weeks of free time a year.

Still, we genuinely feel like we're busier. If we accept the research's conclusion that we do have more free time (and chances are you're much worse at estimating how many hours you really work than someone in the seventies or eighties would be), why doesn't it feel like we have an abundance of time?

Time Famine, Scarcity, & Value

The self-deception you're running into is "time famine": an excellent concept that Elizabeth Dunn does a much better job of explaining than I can. But I'll try.

We humans tend to think that if something is scarce, it's probably valuable. And that's generally true.

But we also believe the inverse of that: if something is valuable, then it must be scarce. As our incomes have risen over the decades, each one of our twenty four hours is worth more: we get paid more for an hour of our work. And as we earn more per hour than we used to, we grow to see that hour as both more valuable and more scarce than it once was. So when we have to 'spend' that hour, it feels like we're giving more up.

Back when we were sweating out ten hour days, painting houses for six bucks an hour, it seemed like we had all the time in the world. Now that we're managing a team for a hundred grand a year, earning a hell of a lot more in an hour than we did painting clapboards, we look up and seem to have fewer hours, even if we were working for fifty of them a week in each job.

Somewhere along the line, we bought into the idea that time is money. And when we equate the two concepts, we reinforce the idea that both are scarce. We become frugal with our money and our time, despite the fact that we probably have both in greater abundance.

And believing time is money causes some other harmful behaviors to rear their heads. For one, we're less likely to donate our time when we think one of our hours is more valuable. When we could be earning $100, it's harder to convince ourselves to donate that hour to a charity, even though it's a great way to make you happy and, incredibly, will make you feel like you have more time, too.

Additionally, when you start seeing your limited hours in terms of a monetary value, we even become less likely to do things like recycle: it's just not worth our precious time.

But maybe you're the exception. Maybe you really are working longer hours, and are estimating your real levels of free time accurately, and have the timesheets to prove it.

But before you jump to that conclusion, I'd ask you to consider where you're reading this blog post right now. Are you at the office, reading my crumby little blog on a company computer, or on your phone perched on your desk, while you're technically supposed to be doing real work? 

To the average reader, I'd posit that you're probably not quite as rushed as you think you are. If that's the case, maybe the best thing to do is to show the world your time affluence, and give some of it away this week.

Not only will you be helping someone else, you'll be a little happier, and I bet you find you have more time somehow, too.

*Photo is from alexkerhead at Flickr Creative Commons.


  1. Love this! I think technology plays a major role in this, too. I work with social media now (somehow that happened,) so I found myself on my phone. All the time. And I couldn't get the tabs in my brain to shut off. Time was scarce, but it was because I was ALLOWING work to invade my life, not because it had to.

    Now all those notifications are off. And amazingly, I do have a lot more time now. And the world hasn't ended.

    1. I really do need to turn off my notifications as you suggest. That's certainly where a lot of my ample free time is going.

      Technology's impact on our emotions is crazy -- it's nuts how connected (& disconnected) we are as a result.

      But that's a topic for another post. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Very interesting post. I have a slightly different take on our "busyness" epidemic. I think it has more to do with avoiding our emotions than anything else. I mean, we all claim that what we want is more time to ourselves, but the reality is that most people literally cannot stand to spend even 10 minutes alone with their own thoughts.

    The thing is, if you're busy... even if the stuff you're busy with is meaningless crap like cruising FaceBook or playing Candy Crush, it allows you to keep a certain amount of control over the thoughts and feelings that you allow into your consciousness. When we're quiet, it all rises to the surface and we're thrown face to face with our own humanity - not a place that most of us are comfortable being.

    Add on top of that the cultural bias that work = righteousness, and it all makes us all highly motivated to maintain the illusion that we "work all the time." Of course, pointing out this reality is likely to get you a face full of self-righteous indignation.

    I don't say this to try to project an image of superiority or anything like that. For me the reality hit when I finally quit my job... but the feeling of being busy all the time didn't actually go away. At that point I had to confront the reality that it was really coming from me, not from my circumstances. It's still something I struggle with.

    1. I'm reading Deep Work right now, which centers on this notion that we've conditioned ourselves to have difficulty really digging into a single task or topic for very long. Our concentration for that kind of activity sucks now, even as that skill has become more valuable.

      And I totally agree that one of the main drivers for telling everyone how busy we are is to convince others (colleagues, leaders, friends) that we're the sort of people who are getting a lot done and are working so hard, blah blah blah.

      I am honestly worried by your observation about the sense of busyness not going away in early retirement. As always, the root problem's probably in between our ears.

    2. Sounds like an interesting read. I'm thinking there are probably a whole variety of things that feed into this phenomenon - both cultural and technological. I'm old enough to pre-date most of the technology so my sense of what's a "normal" number of distractions is probably much different than that of someone 20 years younger than me.

      I do feel like it's a bit of an advantage - taking for granted that all of the techno-distractions are just that... distractions. I honestly can't imagine how people who are tethered to their smartphones get anything done! I can't even stand to leave email or FB up on my computer when I'm working.

      Still... even before all that - in a world without computers or cell phones or social media (or answering machines or VCRs for that matter) I managed to find a way to be busy all the time. Perhaps each generation simply crafts its own set of distractions based on the technology available. :-)

    3. My new trick is StayFocusd's chrome extension, which can turn off my ability to browse the internet for however many hours I tell it to. This allows me to do actual work without the constant distractions of the internet. :)

      I like your theory about each generation being distracted by the technology of the day. Probably true. Though today's distractions are so well engineered to keep our attention. Hard for radio or the VCR to compete with that.

  3. I remember when I was a kid, people would ask "how many hours do you spend on the internet." With smartphones, I think that question no longer make sense. Thanks to smartphones, laptops, and other gadgets, it's easier to access our emails anytime and (almost) anywhere. I think this is a major contributor to people thinking they're "busy."

    It is also easier to pretend that you're busy ( Appears the whole society expect people to be busy. If you're not busy you're doing something wrong.

    1. I'll go out and check out your post, Tawcan. Thanks for sharing.

      And yeah: there's a general expectation that we should all be busy. Hence the slow movement.

      But that movement, attractive as it is, is based on a lie. We're not as busy as we were in the past. It's an illusion.

      And totally agree with the notion of our connectedness making it so hard to tell how much we're even online. Always?

  4. I've tried to eliminate the word "busy" from my vocabulary. I actually hate that word because it means nothing really. It's a canned answer. I do like what you said that if you're reading this you probably might not be using your time as efficiently as possible (I'm on my lunch break, so hey!). :) I think we all tend to waste a little time doing non-essential tasks, not that your blog is non-essential. :)

    1. My blog, like Leslie Knope during the government shutdown, is totally non-essential.

      I only mentioned that point about where people are when reading the blob because I anticipated that most readers would say, "But I really AM that busy." We tend to think we're the exception to these biases and quirks. I wrote about credit card hacking increasing spending, and every blogger who commented was like, "Well, I spend LESS with credit cards than I would with cash".

      Cognitive biases are interesting...when they happen to other people. :)

    2. It's so easy to assume we *must* be the exception!

      I was tempted to think I was different in this area too but I have to spell it out to see that I'm probably not.

      I spend the same with credit cards vs cash on everything but food since I trained myself 20 years ago to write down every purchase and consider its impact on the budget and then consider whether or not I truly still needed it. I've been sitting on a $12 purchase for 2 days now even though I'd be buying with "free" money (gift card), because that's still money that could be spent on something more essential.

      Without that training, though, and ten years of famine budgeting, I'd probably spend twice as much using credit cards just because it's easier.

      For food I intentionally spend freely because I have a terrible habit of over-economizing and going hungry when we don't have enough. Using cash only made this problem worse! Going from three to one meal a day wasn't any good for me and certainly wouldn't be good for the family. We avoid food waste as much as possible but it makes no sense to economize on good healthy food when we cook so much.

    3. I stumbled on a study a while back that explicitly looked at the impact of credit card rewards on spending. The study was unique in that it got around many of the typical pitfalls (e.g. - liquidity constraints which necessitate larger purchases being put on plastic rather than cash).

      The study basically found two types of credit card spenders, and two impacts on spending. Those who carried a balance on their cards spent less...but those who paid off their balances spent more.

      I've been wanting to write a follow up specific to how travel hacking might actually be a net loss in our PF community, since we're almost all the kind of folks who pay off their balances each month.

      Anyway, your excellent comment got me thinking about it again. And I totally agree with the idea of not scrimping on food in's the one area we should surely avoid being 'penny-wise'.

  5. Awesomeness! Being I like to study the Great Depression, I think a lot about how much easier things are nowadays. I think about my great grandma, hand-washing and line-drying clothes for twelve kids. No microwave, dishwasher or power lawn mower. That helps me realize real quick just how "not busy" I really am. That, and the amount of time I spend in front of the TV. :-)

    1. Right? I can't even imagine washing clothes by hand. That would be my weekend. That, or I'd just wear the same t-shirt and undies all week.

      TV (and the internet) are great barometers of how much free time we really do have. It's sad how much we watch sometimes, but at least I can't claim I'm so rushed.

  6. Interesting article. Not to completely counter your point, but I wonder if by busy, what people really mean is "lacking energy to do anything more". In my case, I have a lot of free time, but lack the energy to do anything meaningful with it. I come home from work and want nothing more than to take a nap. I'm sure diet and exercise (lack thereof) has something to do with it as well. But eating food that's good for you just takes more time to prepare, and going to the gym everyday for an hour.. by the time you're done.. you've eaten away half of your free time at the end of the day. Despite all of the modern conveniences we have that save us time, the stress these modern devices cause us (associated bills, maintenance, social isolation, etc) probably negates whatever benefits they give us in terms of "more free time". It's just a thought.

    1. Yeah, the research says we have more free time, but doesn't really account for how tired you might be.

      The obvious question is, if someone has more free time, why not use it to exercise or cook (i.e. - to improve diet)?

      It's all symbiotic, of course.

  7. Very interesting way of looking at it! I do think that technology contributes to this "time famine". Now that we have the internet and cell phones, employers feel like we should constantly be available and on call to work (I worked in IT, so this may not be true for other fields.). As a result, even when we're not working, we're thinking about work and wasting our time checking our phones and computers.

    Another contributor maybe the higher standards of life, higher expectations, and new style of child rearing. In the past, it was totally fine to let your kids run around and eat whatever they want. Now, other parents will judge you for giving them "non organic foods" or not using organic shampoos. Blah blah blah. So now child rearing has way more difficult, as a result of having these unrealistic standards.

    And on top of all that, there's been so many products created for shit we DON'T need. Like Nest or ChromeCast. Does anyone really need any of those things? No. And do they take up a ton of time to maintain and fix when they break down? Yes!

    So we really are creating products to solve problems we don't even have, and then using up precious time fix those gadgets.

    Sorry that totally turned into a rant. It's just that now that I've travelled and seen how other people live, I can see the benefits of being happy on bare essentials and letting your kids run around without helicoptering them to death. Life is so much easier. Whenever we come back to North America, I get stressed out because it seems like everyone's purposely creating problems and wasting time solving them when they weren't even problems to begin with.

    1. While the research indicates the time famine is a result of earning more, I have no doubt that high earners also have more access to technology.

      However, countries with higher average incomes also encounter time famines. So this is not a uniquely North American problem.

      On the whole, I think technology likely gives us more time than it takes. Objectively, we have a lot more free time than people in prior generations. The feeling of time scarcity is a problem of perception. Maybe it's the technology contributing to that, sure. But we actually DO have more free time. The very notion of being more rushed is, often, simply not based in reality.

  8. I often say that I'm busy but after listening to Paula's podcast (Afford Anything) about this...I realized I'm probably wasting a lot of time. "There are 168 hours in a week.

    If you work 40 hours per week and sleep 8 hours per night (56 hours per week), you’ve accounted for 96 hours. You have an additional 72 waking hours per week." I don't know where that time goes. I'd like to blame my kids but my parents worked much longer I really shouldn't complain.

    1. Love Paula's podcast. Started reading Deep Work last week thanks to her show.

      I think Paula did a great job of explaining that our feelings of time scarcity don't match up with an objective observation or charting of our time. Our reality is a lot more time abundant than we think.

  9. Hmm, interesting! I always try and stop myself from saying, "I'm busy" when someone asks me how things are going. Who *isn't* busy (or doesn't feel busy) these days? It doesn't make me special. I'm "busy" by choice. I don't know that I feel busier because I earn more than I did a few years ago, but I actually do work more hours (I also work on the weekend), so I have less free time. Again, that's my choice, so I own that.

    However, the point of comparing how valuable your time is to something that doesn't seem as valuable is intriguing. I've caught myself doing that to justify outsourcing things and brushing other things off, and I'm not entirely sure I like that perspective. I sometimes frame things in my mind as, "Well, I could either spend that hour working and earn money, or I could go out and spend it doing X, Y, and Z." But that's missing the point, especially if I'm spending money on an experience that I value (or not spending at all).

    I also think being connected constantly is a cause of feeling short on time. Wasting time is much easier to do these days than it was 20 years ago. There are so many time sucks and ways to get distracted online!

    Overall, I think it comes down to being mindful about how we spend our time, just like how we should be mindful of how we spend money if we feel short on it. There's likely some sort of oversight happening.

    1. Hi Erin,

      Yeah, freelancers in particular may be susceptible to treating time as money (i.e. - I could be hustling and making $50 this hour). That perception of time as money has some well documented downsides.

      Totally agree with your point of mindfulness. The more we can be thoughtful, the more likely we are to see our spending of time/money accurately.

  10. I've spent a lot of time contemplating efficiency and effectiveness and have come to realize that with some structure in my day, I can choose the brand of "busy" (harried, productive, happily clicking away) I'd like to maintain so that it's not about how full my hours seem but whether I can complete a good day of work, walk & feed the dog twice, cook dinner, clean some part of the house and feel not drained at the end of it. Clearly, I did a pretty decent job of it since I'm still up past midnight commenting here :)

    I have fewer leisure hours, that's true, but I would bet a nickel that I have the same leisure minutes. I just take them at different times and more sporadically. It helps to have blogging and making money as my hobbies and not mountain climbing ;) mine are easier to do when you've gotta get the kid in bed by 8 pm.

    1. Love that approach: if you hit your daily goals (working out, specific work goals, time with kids and pets, etc.) then you're going to feel like you used your 24 hours well. As you noted, effectiveness trumps efficiency.

      Leisure minutes is a pretty neat idea, too. Would be interested to see if you could chart something like that.

  11. I apologize if this repeats something commented above; I didn't have time to read through all the comments (ha ha).

    My take on this — specifically "too busy" now versus 50 years ago — is that "too busy" is also a perception based on how much there is to do. What we have now versus 50 years ago is an endless array of options to spend our time. So, our to-do lists continue to grow, making us feel, of course, constantly behind — which only makes time feel more scarce.

    I have a slew of shows on DVR to be watched, online articles bookmarked and waiting to be read, and physical books gathering dust on a shelf unopened. This would either be unlikely or impossible 50 years ago when so much content was either unavailable, less practical to obtain, or too costly.

    Essentially, it's a hoarding problem as it relates to evolutionary psychology. Because we as humans lacked so much for so long, we haven't adapted to a world in which we have so much abundance. (And I'm speaking, of course, mostly of humans in the developed world.) We instinctively grab all that's available around us without any discernment as to its actual and realistic usefulness, leaving us with a massive pile of physical and virtual things to do, which further keeps a lot of loops open in our mental computers. This, in turn, creates a feeling of energy depletion, as one commenter mentioned above; it's not that we're physically taxed so much, as our great-grandparents likely were, but rather mental overwhelm.

    So, we really *are* short on time... when we measure it against all that we'd like to spend our time on. And because we're short on time, this naturally translates in our minds to "I'm busy, busy, busy."

    The solution, as I see it and I'm aiming for, is to say "no" far more often. "No" to stuff, "no" to invitations, "no" to options, "no" to subscriptions, "no" to so-called free content, "no" to games, and so on. As Derek Sivers wisely advises, and I paraphrase: "If you don't have a total 'Hell yeah!' feeling about an option or opportunity presented to you, just say no to it."

    1. Incidentally, the other factor contributing to what I described is the ever-lowering cost of engagement. Just as content has gotten less and less costly to obtain, our ability to engage in the world (events, communication, activities, etc.) has dropped to free in so many cases. Long-distance communications is free; MeetUps can be arranged for free; selling stuff via classified ads is free; hanging out on Facebook is free. So, the inverse to our time seeming more valuable due to our increase in incomes is that the cost of acquisition (spending our time) has gotten lower and lower for much of what we do in life.

    2. That's a fantastic insight, Andrew. As always, the best content comes in the comment section. :)

    3. Thanks. Unfortunately, my lengthy prior comment that I was referencing somehow disappeared (after it had been showing for a while). Brief recap:

      I think we feel busy because we measure our time against what we have to do, and our to-do lists have become practically infinite... full of saved stuff on DVR, queued shows on Netflix, unread books on our shelves, unread emails, etc. As our affluence has increased over the decades, so have our options for things to do and buy. Unfortunately, this leads to literal or figurative hoarding; our evolutionary psychology (built on scarcity) has not adapted to our world of abundance. So, the answer is to override it (thanks, frontal lobe!) by saying "no" more often to buying options, free subscriptions, upgrade offers, new data plans, invitations, events, etc. Many thanks to Derek Sivers for driving this point home in his audiobook "Anything You Want."

    4. Sorry about that Andrew. The blog's spam filter got overzeaolous, but I went in and marked it clearly as "not spam" since it's such a thoughful comment.

      I like your take on us potentially actually being scarce on time as it relates to the abundance of choices and content available. There are undoubtedly more shows to watch, more books to read, etc.

      As always, everything's relative.

      In an absolute sense, we probably have more hours than we used to. They still might not be "enough".

      That's the rub. We probably need to recalibrate our notion of how much content we ought to, or "need to" consume.

  12. Sure others have mentioned it above but it doesn't matter how much leisure time you have because most people just fill that with stuff to do anyway even if that is just watching a box set marathon of game of thrones etc...

    I am working about 25% less than i was 2 years ago but feel no less busy. I'm guessing true FI will make a dent in that but on the other hand I'm pretty adept at filling my schedule up as you can tell.

    The key thing for me Is: are you good busy or bad busy? Most of the time I'm off work I'm good busy, as in doing things i want whether that be catching up with friends or doing some DIY in the house or garden, technically work but I wanted to do it.


    1. Yeah, the number of leisure hours doesn't matter if you're filling them with crap. (Though I'd argue that rewatching Game of Thrones counts as a good use of one's time. Winter really is coming, and there's less to do outside when it's cold.)

      As you noted, how busy we feel isn't necessarily tied to how much free time we really have.

      FI may prove to be a time gainer not just because of all the hours you get back, but because our income drops to the floor.

  13. It is interesting to see this happens in all developed countries around the world. I agree with your reasoning but I think there must me more to that.
    People feel more connected to each other when they have similar complains. Do you know that people are actually happier when sharing sadness together, i.e., when they share the same reason for being sad? Happiness is social connection and unfortunately people nowadays have nothing else in common, because they actually do not have time to have hobbies or perform other activities apart from work, and instead of sharing happy moments we are bound to fell connected by sharing sadness.

  14. Guilty as charged! I am in fact reading this at work on my company computer :)

    This a great article. I think talking about how busy is a bit like the weather - when there's nothing to talk about, you can always talk about how busy you are, even if it's not true.