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Feeling Overwhelmed? Science Has a Word for That: ‘Time Famine’

by Alex Bresler May 21, 2020

Some days, our to-do lists feel more like trick candles: Huff and puff as we might to get everything done, our daily tasks just seem plain inextinguishable. Other days, two more chores seem to crop up in the time it takes to complete one, like some beastly Greek mythological joke that we’re the unfortunate, overwhelmed butt of.

We’ve all been there. The feeling of having more to do than you have time to do it is a universal phenomenon. And it even has a name: time famine.

What is time famine, exactly?

Time famine is the feeling that there are not enough hours in a day to tackle everything we have to get done. Though the sentiment has likely existed longer than a few decades, ethnographer Leslie Perlow coined the term in an article entitled “The Time Famine: Toward a Sociology of Work Time,” published in Administrative Science Quarterly in 1999.

Perlow studied the work habits of a group of software engineers whose job demands and office environment created a shared time famine. According to the article, the overwhelming feeling of having perpetually impending deadlines eased when the engineers adjusted their time management, providing insights into office-related sociological trends.

It’s not just engineers who experience time famine, however. Nor is the phenomenon limited to the workplace. Even in our daily lives, it’s easy to feel as if we’re juggling one too many tasks at a time. We work, work out, cook, clean, chip away at long-term projects, and handle any number of other day-to-day demands. And we do it all again the next day.

Too often, managing the ins and outs of our schedules leaves us feeling stressed, not productive. Though the term may sound more dramatic than the phenomenon actually is, time famine can have serious consequences. It can beget exhaustion, anxiety, panic, and insomnia, all of which have harmful effects not only on our happiness but also our health.

According to a 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), obesity is one of the most dangerous side effects of time famine. When our agendas overwhelm us, the first things we tend to sacrifice are eating well and exercising, ultimately causing problems that last longer than any to-do list.

So, what can we do about time famine?

Research shows that the easiest way to reclaim our time is to buy it. Literally. We may not be able to Postmates a few extra hours in a day, but there are apps and other helpers that can make our to-do lists more manageable and improve our quality of life in the process.

Time-saving services like food delivery and housekeeping can make a surprising difference. Getting groceries through Instacart or ordering dinner through Uber Eats when we’re perfectly capable of going to the store and cooking our own meals may seem like a needless expense. It might even make us feel lazy. But if time is money, then ponying up that $5.99 delivery fee or shelling out $100 a week for a cleaning service might not be such a splurge. The same goes for other tasks we can farm out to ensure we’re not constantly overwhelmed.

According to the PNAS study, budgeting time is crucial for everyone, regardless of where they’re from or what tax bracket they belong to. Looking at subjects from the United States, Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands, it revealed that those who spent a little extra on time-saving services felt more fulfilled than those whose money went toward material goods. That, however, leads one to wonder if tackling time famine is something only the financially privileged are able to do.

Not everyone has the wiggle room to cover extraneous costs. But if you are reworking your budget, consider both your bank account and time bank to decide what is most important or feasible for you. Buying back time could lead to fewer expenses and a greater sense of well-being in the long run. And in the short term, it might just keep us from drowning in our neverending to-do lists.

Even if you can’t do anything about time famine right now, at the very least you should take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Be kinder to yourself and know that you’re doing your best with the short 24 hours we have in the day.

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