The Time-Pressure Paradox Explains Why You Never Have Enough Time

Short bursts of stress can be good for you — but being perpetually late all the time probably isn't the best way to accomplish that feeling. (Photo: Stokke/Shutterstock)

Blame the industrial revolution. Prior to that, most work had been subject to the seasons and our health. Mechanization and urbanization changed how we work. Now, we're beholden to "time discipline" — punching in and out on a time clock. "Time is money," Benjamin Franklin wrote in his 1746 essay, “Advice to a Young Tradesman," and it was both a prognostication and a bellwether of the industrial revolution. In fact, it began a decade or so after Franklin put those words to paper.

Since Franklin's time, worker productivity has only gone up for American workers (though it's slowed down in the last few years) — which is great for businesses keen to make more money. That productivity has come from improvements in technology that have reduced or eliminated entire classes of workers — typists, switchboard operators, ice cutters, and others whose work is no longer needed.

That has also led to what experts call the "time-pressure paradox." We're all doing more than ever, but feel we aren't accomplishing as much as we would like to, or should. We have more time, which has been freed up by technology, yet we feel we have less. There never seems to be enough time for anything (cooking meals, vacations, hobbies, reading), but yet according to studies on work hours, we have more extra time than we think.

There are a few reasons for this paradox.

The first is that because everyone is doing more, it's easy to forget that we're doing as much as we are. We are all highly influenced by what's "normal" in the people around us and expectations that evolve over time. For instance, I'm my own administrative assistant, an unpaid but assumed part of my job, and that's true for most people. I send and receive emails, write pitches, set up interviews and meetings, take random phone calls, sign and return tax documents and contracts, coordinate books and movies to review, and keep my files reasonably up-to-date.

I'm also my own accountant. I send invoices, keep track of payments in and out, and balance no fewer than three separate bank accounts. I'm also my own tax preparer and lawyer. I have technology and/or apps do much of the specialized aspect of this work for me, but I still put the details together and am responsible for ensuring their accuracy. So it is for plenty of modern workers, whose assumed skill set includes what you often see detailed in job descriptions: a high degree of organization, communication skills, tech know-how and comfort with new systems.

With new technology comes new responsibilities

Technology has made, say, invoicing someone or sending a W9 much, much faster, but it's still work, and it's easy to forget that in the past we would have someone else do that work for us. The idea that now I'm doing the jobs of several people—and that I don't think much about it is attributed to what the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls "social acceleration" in the video above.

"Examining the causal relations between the three spheres of social acceleration reveals a surprising feedback loop: technological acceleration, which is frequently connected to the introduction of new technologies (like the steam engine, the railway, the automobile, the telegraph, the computer, the Internet) almost inevitably brings about a whole range of changes in social practices, communication structures, and corresponding forms of life. For example, the Internet has not only increased the speed of communicative exchange and the virtualization of economic and productive processes; it has also established new occupational, economic, and communicative structures, opening up new patterns of social interaction and even new forms of social identity."

The second reason for the time-pressure paradox is that we're still measuring productivity in the same ways we did during the industrial revolution, while more of us than ever are working in the creative work-world. It's harder to measure productivity when you aren't making a widget, something that can be tracked and measured. It also calls into question what we are measuring — and why. Studies have shown that beyond a certain level, more money doesn't equal more happiness; quality of life matters to both individuals and (hopefully) our governments. So when we talk productivity, what is it that we really want to measure?

Saving seconds

When then-president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, organized the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, it found that, "the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well–being." The idea that productivity could take into account mental and physical health as well as number of cars, computers, or chairs produced is "... part of a wider recognition in economics that people do not necessarily become happier when they become richer," as Judy Wajcman wrote in the book "Pressed for Time" and discusses in the video above.

Finally, there are limits to productivity, no matter how great the technology — especially when it comes to more creative, ideas-based work. It can take half a decade to write a bestselling book (like the first Harry Potter novel), months or years to do good investigative journalism, and days or weeks to come up with just the right slogan for an ad campaign. "Don't leave home without them" — the slogan created for American Express Traveler's Cheques and used for decades, even when the focus turned to credit cards — took close to a month, according to my adman father, who was part of the team who finally hit upon that key phrase at Ogilvy & Mather in the 1970s.

All of this argues for us to think of our time in different ways than we have in the past, including how we may have been raised to think about it.

It's time for a new way of looking at the problem

But, what are you supposed to do about this paradox exactly? On one hand, it's worth acknowledging that some of the expectations of the modern work world are impossible to meet. We're in the midst of a transition and we are all still figuring out how "working" in the modern sense works. That 's something that individually, none of us can do much about — though we can certainly advocate for new ways of working that might be more effective. After all, we'll never get anywhere if we keep on doing the same-old-same-old.

But, there are certainly some ways you can investigate your own work life to determine if you're using your time well. Nobody knows your work as well as you do, so taking a good, hard look at it can probably bring down the stress level somewhat. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

1. Reduce your multitasking as much as possible; it feels like you are getting more done, but you're not. It also hurts your brain over time and it stresses you out. So stop it.

2. While you're eliminating multitasking, reduce distractions using handy online tools like KeepMeOut, SelfControl or Cold Turkey.

3. Prioritize: "Do not start and plug through every task until you’ve asked this question: 'Do I really need to do this now?'" writes entrepreneur David K. William. "If you don't need to do it now, don't do it. Tackle high priority tasks first and then turn to the other things. Prioritizing ensures that you make the most efficient use of your time."

Now that you're more focused on one task at a time, think about these concepts.

4. Instead of managing your time, you may want to think about managing your attention, instead.

5. Plan a daily routine that takes into account both your work, your friends and/or family, and your health. That means setting time for work, time to see or speak with those you love, and time to prepare and eat healthy meals, time away from screens, and time to sleep.

Start with those five ideas above, then consider adding a mindfulness practice to your routine, which may make you less productive but will likely make you more happy and relaxed. And realize you don't have control over everything; yes, you can consciously cut back on your control-freak tendencies. You can get the 24 hours we all have in a day back, and you may even get to the point where you're OK with doing "nothing."