How To Escape the Time-Scarcity Trap

If you’re a working human being in the modern world, you’re keenly, maybe even obsessively, aware of time, often thinking: “There’s never enough time.” “This is taking too long.” “I’m falling behind.” For sure, it’s hard not to come from a place of scarcity around time when our success seems to revolve around it.

But before you read another article about time management or productivity hacks, you need to understand this: Your brain perceives lack of time as an actual survival threat. Which means every time you imagine an unwanted consequence related to time, you’re likely triggering a “fight or flight” response.

You think: “How are we going to get this bug fixed before the client meeting tomorrow morning?” (Your brain registers: Death is imminent!) You think: “We’re not going to make our quota this month.” (Your brain registers: Death is imminent!)

Now, think about the hundred other ways you can be triggered by time scarcity during a typical work day: you need to hire that rock star salesperson before your competitor does, put together the financials for the call with the board, get to a meeting in time, finish a meeting in time, get home in time to see your kids before they go to bed, and the list goes on.…

The thing is, there’s a bandwidth tax associated with this “time scarcity” mindset. According to economist Sendhil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Shafir, authors of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, our perception of being overwhelmed or feeling behind induces a kind of shortsightedness that makes us “less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled.” Not exactly the recipe for good decision-making.

What’s more, each fight-or-flight reaction produces a rush of stress hormones like adrenaline or cortisol and, over time, we can become as addicted to this state of scarcity as we do to caffeine, alcohol or other chemical substance. So even though you may think you want to feel less stressed and more calm, your body has other ideas — it’s craving its adrenaline fix and is not going to easily let you change your habits.

So while you can’t eliminate the fight or flight response, you can train yourself to interrupt and neutralize it. Here’s how:

Step 1: Recognize the false alarms. Because so much of our behavior is automatic and deeply conditioned, most of the time we’re not even conscious of what sets us off.

But you can start to notice your signature “fight or flight” triggers: Do you feel a pit in your stomach when you see the CEO walking toward you? Panic a little when a certain name comes up on your phone? Each time, check whether your survival is literally, actually, in danger: “Am I being chased by a sabertoothed tiger?” “Is my hair on fire?” If not, you can tell yourself: “False alarm! My life is not in danger.”

Step 2: Get back to the present moment. For most of our waking hours, we’re in our heads, reliving the past or transposing the past into the future. When we’re in a meeting, we’re thinking about getting back to work; while writing an email to the team, we’re rehashing what someone said in the meeting; in a call with the client we’re wondering what to eat for lunch…we’re never really fully present in the moment that’s right here, right now.

And yet, all our power to solve our perceived problems is in the present moment: “It’s easy to miss a potential piece to your innovation puzzle when it’s right under your nose if you aren’t there,” says Angela Benton, founder of NewME Accelerator. As I’ve said before, a ridiculously simple but effective way to bring your attention back to the moment is to simply narrate the facts of what you’re doing (leaving out the emotional content): “I am listening to the conference call…” “I am calling the client…”

Step 3: See time as a tool not a threat. “Time and space are not conditions in which we live but modes in which we think,” said Albert Einstein. That’s the difference between being in survival mode and working well under pressure. If you see time as a condition that you can manage, you will feel out of control when you perceive that you can’t.

Instead, use time as a tool to manage something that is in your control: your attention. Answer emails for 15 minutes, work on the financials for 30 minutes. (I use the Pomodoro app for segmenting my attention.) You’ll have the same amount of time as before, but you’ll feel more in control, less in survival mode.

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