The illusion of feeling pressed for time

Running out of time

Psychologist Elizabeth Dunn has a fascinating take on why we feel increasingly pressed for time.

The pace of life is increasing; people are working more and relaxing less than they did 50 years ago. At least that’s the impression I got from the popular media. But as a social psychologist, I wanted to see the data. As it turns out, there is very little evidence that people are now working more and relaxing less than they did in earlier decades. In fact, some of the best studies suggest just the opposite. So, why do people report feeling so pressed for time?

A beautiful explanation for this puzzling phenomenon was recently offered by Sanford DeVoe, at the University of Toronto and Jeffrey Pfeffer, at Stanford. They argue that as time becomes worth more money, time is seen as scarcer. Scarcity and value are perceived as conjoined twins; when a resource—from diamonds to drinking water—is scarce, it is more valuable, and vice versa. So, when our time becomes more valuable, we feel like we have less of it. Indeed, surveys from around the world have shown that people with higher incomes report feeling more pressed for time.

Over the past 50 years, feelings of time pressure have risen dramatically in North America, despite the fact that weekly hours of work have stayed fairly level and weekly hours of leisure have climbed. This apparent paradox may be explained, in no small part, by the fact that incomes have increased substantially during the same period. This causal effect may also help to explain why people walk faster in wealthy cities like Tokyo and Toronto than in cities like Nairobi and Jakarta.

Her full essay is here. She goes into more detail of a clever study that found that people felt more time pressure when they merely perceived themselves as being wealthy.

This explanation rings true to me. When I was younger, I could get lost in an art project or book for days and not feel like there was anything better that I should be doing. But now that I think of all the projects I could and should be doing, I get stressed just thinking about it. People I could be meeting, projects I could be starting, investments I should be considering, blog posts that I should be writing.

Maybe convincing yourself that your time isn’t so valuable is a good way to relax. Or rather, remembering that feeling un-hurried is more valuable than anything you could be doing with your time.


3 thoughts on “The illusion of feeling pressed for time”

  1. Thanks for sharing, excellent examination of the subject. Been feeling the same way more and more. Does this factor in pre-kids vs post-kids?

  2. I’ve read her full essay… I can confirm that it is true that it depends on the cultural background. I travel a lot and I see that in different countries people act differently. We can see it for example at lunch time. In some countries people walk slowly to the restaurant or fast food without stress… in other places people are in a hurry at such extent that eat in the workplace in front of the computer or during a meeting. ehh

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