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Time scarcity: what it is, how to hack it

Last updated on
September 6, 2021

Do you feel like you’re continually racing against a ticking clock – and that no matter how hard you work, or how early you get up, there just isn’t enough time to get everything done? Do you use the phrase “I don’t have time” a lot? If yes, you’re probably familiar with the concept of time scarcity, even if you’ve never heard of the term before.

Time scarcity is essentially a mindset, but it can be harmful to our wellbeing, as well as to the ways we work. But if we view it in the right way, we can use time scarcity to work smarter—and get more value from our time. Here’s everything you need to know about time scarcity.

What is time scarcity?

Time scarcity has its roots in the economic concept of scarcity, which is the gap between limited resources and theoretically limitless wants. Scarcity is when the resources to achieve your objectives are limited and expensive—meaning that you have to make carefully considered decisions about how to allocate these resources. Time scarcity simply applies that concept specifically to time. Time scarcity is an awareness that time is one of the “scarce” human resources—one that can’t be restored, unlike money.

Time scarcity is often experienced negatively. It’s the anxiety behind the constant, low-level sense of dread that we’ll never finish all our tasks. It leads us to believe that there just aren’t enough hours in the day, leaving us stressed and overwhelmed. Yet time scarcity can also give us a sense of agency—applied well, it can help us engage with the value of our time and feel more in control of it.

The dangers of time scarcity

The problem with time scarcity is that even just feeling as though you’re behind can make your work suffer—even if in reality you do have enough time to get it done. It breeds a sense of urgency where we decide we must prioritize the tasks that shout the loudest—but prioritizing tasks that are urgent yet not important is an ineffective way of working, and can make us feel unfulfilled.

Time scarcity can cause us to have a short-sighted approach to our personal lives. We all have things we want to do in our leisure time, whether it’s exercising, cooking, reading, travelling, seeing friends, or simply being able to enjoy some quiet solitude. But how can we even think of doing these things when we can barely finish our work? As a result, we don’t do these things. We say we “don’t have time”, and we feel perpetually harried, or like we’re not really achieving anything meaningful. We spend our days racing against a ticking clock, unable to enjoy being in the present moment.

But what if we’re thinking about time scarcity in the wrong way? What if it isn’t really the case that we don’t have enough time, but that we don’t know how to use it in the right way—or that we’re simply trying to do too much in the time we have?

The benefits of time scarcity

If we try to view time scarcity as a tool to give us agency, we can see that it can actually have many benefits. There’s nothing wrong with viewing time as a limited resource; it is a limited resource. Our time is precious, and because it’s precious, we need to learn how to protect it. Learning to treat our time as a scarce resource can be one of the most beneficial things we can do when it comes to work/life balance.

Once we become aware that we need to protect our time, we can start prioritizing the things that really matter. We can start saying “no” to things we don’t really want to do, and start protecting space to see our loved ones or follow our passions. We can begin managing our time better, so we’re not always checking our phones or feeling like we have to be “always on”.

Applying time scarcity to boost our productivity

There are a ton of simple ways to reclaim time scarcity and applying it in a way that actually boosts our productivity—where we can focus on the task in hand when we need to, and then have time and space to step back once it’s done. Here are some of the best ways to hack your own time scarcity anxieties to get more from your time:

Time blocking

Time blocking is one of the most popular time management techniques, and for good reason. It involves allocating finite blocks of time to specific tasks, so you can work without interruption, and ensure you have enough time to dedicate to each task. Time blocking is ideal for protecting space for the cognitively testing deep work that gives us a sense of achievement and limiting how much time we spend on low-value tasks like email. You can also use it to schedule regular deep breaks throughout the day.

Deadlines

The idea of a deadline might conjure up images of that dreaded ticking clock, but just like time scarcity itself, when used correctly deadlines can motivate and inspire. Deadlines are a counter to the logic of Parkinson’s Law, which suggests that work expands to fit the time we have to do it. By limiting our available time to work on a task, we can control that expansion by locking our focus and improving productivity.

Using timers

Using timers is a great way to combine the benefits of time blocking and deadlines. Simple timers, like the pomodoro technique, provide structure and pressure to encourage us to complete our work, allowing us to instantly lock focus on tasks, take proper breaks at the right time, and actually appreciate what we’ve achieved. More sophisticated timers, like Timely, help us understand how long different tasks take and assess the quality of our focus, which allows us to make smarter decisions in the future.

Day theming

If you feel like you have too many responsibilities jostling for attention in your mind, day theming might be for you. Day theming is where you devote a whole day to working on one particular initiative—and while this may sound simple, it can allow you to build day-long flow states where you can stay focused on your work. It also allows us to prioritize the work that’s genuinely important, and remove the drain of context switching. We always know what we’re working on each day and know what we’re trying to achieve.

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