Why We’re All So Worried About Having Too Little Time

In the 2010s, we worried about too much stuff. A growing awareness of consumerism’s effect on the environment and a desire to broadcast our lives on social media led us to prioritize experience over things, and millions turned to Marie Kondo and minimalism. Now we’ve started to worry about something new: too little time.

Psychologists have found that experiences are more likely than material goods to deliver happiness–another reason we were content to shed anything that didn’t spark joy–but of course we must make choices about which experiences to pursue. The fear of making the wrong one, and therefore wasting valuable time, is something many of us feel deeply.

There’s some irony to this predicament: We have more free time now than we have had in decades. But for a number of reasons, it doesn’t feel that way.

In his 2019 book Spending Time, Daniel S. Hamermesh explains that while our life spans have gotten a bit longer–13% since 1960–our spending power has surged by 198%. “It makes it difficult to stuff all the things that we want and can now afford into the growing, but increasingly relatively much more limited, time that we have available to purchase and to enjoy them over our lifetimes,” he writes.

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Next, there’s our cell-phone addiction. American adults spend around 3½ hours on their devices each day, trying to keep up with the volume of emails, texts, social-media updates and 24/7 news. And much of our time is “contaminated time”–when we’re doing one thing but thinking about something else. Trying to get more miles out of every minute–scanning Twitter while watching TV, for example–makes us think we’re being productive, but really it just makes us feel more frazzled.

Add to this the ever expanding options in today’s experience economy. Think of all the pop-ups, plays, talks, workshops and escape rooms you could go to tonight.

No wonder many of us suffer from what psychologists call “time famine.” No wonder we’re seeing books about reclaiming our time, like Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed and Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, and about loosening the grip of cell phones, like Adam Alter’s Irresistible, Nir Eyal’s Indistractable and Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism.

There have been calls to rein in the attention economy, like Tristan Harris’ Time Well Spent movement, but the factors that make us feel time-poor aren’t going away anytime soon. Tech companies, for instance, may have built apps to tell you how much time you spend on your device, but their business models rely on your continued use.

People who feel strapped for time are more likely to be anxious or depressed. They are less likely to exercise or eat healthy foods. And they’re less productive at work. It makes sense then that there’s been growing interest from psychologists in the best ways to spend our time. (Current Opinion in Psychology’s April 2019 edition was simply called “Time.”)

In my own writing on the topic, I have come to characterize experiences as “junk food” or “superfood.” Junk? Spending too much time indoors, alone, scrolling Facebook or watching TV. Superfood? Getting offline and outside and, as UCLA associate professor of marketing Cassie Mogilner Holmes notes in her 2019 paper “It’s Time for Happiness,” doing things for or with others and staying active.

Of course, these experiences require that we actually take time off–not easy in a culture obsessed with productivity. After all, 55% of Americans don’t use all their paid vacation time. But researchers say sometimes it’s about reframing how we think about leisure activities. Columbia’s Silvia Bellezza, Harvard’s Anat Keinan and Georgetown’s Neeru Paharia have found that a “functional alibi” can be helpful: we’re more likely to go camping if we acknowledge it will be good for our productivity at work. Similarly, Keinan and Columbia’s Ran Kivetz have observed that we often opt for “collectible experiences” that give us a story to tell and help build our “experiential CV,” as we like to feel we’re accomplishing something. They have also argued that while we often think we’re being virtuous by choosing work over leisure, in the long term we’re likely to regret this and feel as if we’ve missed out on “the pleasures of life.”

Time is our least renewable resource. Despite the stress our fixation on it may cause, it’s good for us to consider if we’re using it wisely.

Wallman is the author of Time and How to Spend It: The 7 Rules for Richer, Happier Days

This appears in the February 10, 2020 issue of TIME.

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