elizabeth_dunn's picture
Social Psychologist, University of British Columbia; Co-author, Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending

Why We Feel Pressed for Time

Recently, I found myself on the side of the road, picking gravel out of my knee and wondering how I’d ended up there. I had been biking from work to meet a friend at the gym, pedalling frantically to make up for being a few minutes behind schedule. I knew I was going too fast, and when I hit a patch of loose gravel while careening through a turn, my bike slid out from under me. How had I gotten myself in this position? Why was I in such a rush? 

I thought I knew the answer. 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. But there are lots of plausible reasons for this, including the fact that more affluent people often work longer hours, leaving them with objectively less free time.

DeVoe and Pfeffer proposed, however, that simply perceiving oneself as affluent might be sufficient to generate feelings of time pressure. Going beyond past correlational analyses, they used controlled experiments to put this causal explanation to the test. In one experiment, DeVoe and Pfeffer asked 128 undergraduates to report the total amount of money they had in the bank. All the students answered the question using an 11-point scale, but for half the students, the scale was divided into $50 increments, ranging from $0-$50 (1) to over $500 (11), whereas for the others, the scale was divided into much larger increments, ranging from $0-$500 (1) to over $400,000 (11). When the scale was divided into $50 increments, most undergraduates circled a number near the top of the scale, leaving them with the sense that they were relatively well-off. And this seemingly trivial manipulation led participants to feel that they were rushed, pressed for time, and stressed out. In other words, just feeling affluent led students to experience the same sense of time pressure reported by genuinely affluent individuals. Other studies confirmed that increasing the perceived economic value of time increases its perceived scarcity.

If feelings of time scarcity stem in part from the sense that time is incredibly valuable, then ironically, one of the best things we can do to reduce this sense of pressure may be to give our time away. Indeed, new research suggests that giving time away to help others can actually alleviate feelings of time pressure. Companies like Home Depot provide their employees with opportunities to volunteer their time to help others, potentially reducing feelings of time stress and burnout. And Google encourages employees to use 20% of their time on their own pet project, which may or may not payoff. Although some of these projects have resulted in economically valuable products like Gmail, the greatest value of this program might lie in reducing employees’ sense that their time is scarce.

As well as pointing to innovative solutions to feelings of time pressure, DeVoe and Pfeffer’s work can help to account for important cultural trends. 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. And at the level of the individual, this explanation suggests that as incomes grow over the life course, time seems increasingly scarce. Which means that, as my career develops, I might have to force myself to take those turns a little slower.