The psychology behind the poor excuse, “I don’t have time.”

How many times have you complained in utter exasperation, I just don’t have time? For most of us, that phrase embodies an automatic response, one used hastily when inquired about leisure activities or self-indulgence.

Time, in essence, is a meticulous socially-constructed force, one designed to create boundaries, convenience, and structure. Without time, our modern world would be nonexistent, and rather we would live in a chaotic mess characterized by prehistoric times, where people rose when the sun came up and slept when it came down. Back then, time was marked by the external factors of the day, by the lightness in the sky, by the chill in the night.

Today, we arguably live in a 24-hour time zone. Thanks to the invention of lights and technology, we can perform tasks and work in a “round-the-clock” fashion, whether they are done at three in the afternoon or three in the morning. With the ability to conduct business at all hours of the day, we have essentially undermined the rigidity of universal travel lines. Yet, this virtue comes at a heavy cost, one that presents us with an even more perplexing dilemma. Despite the increased options for merging time at our convenience, we are also living in an exponentially fast-paced, high-volume lifestyle. In fact, society seems to encourage the notion of multitasking and overworking; for some, it has become habitual to respond busy when others ask how we are.

Still, I challenge this disposition. Yes, one cannot deny that we are often pressed to the core, existing on a schedule marked by deadlines and dates. But, in a number-crunching sense, each day provides us with 24 hours. We receive 168 per week and approximately 5,048 per month. Over the course of one year, we enjoy 1,842,520 hours. That’s almost two million. Naturally, we do not live in a utopian society. Within the realm of our unwritten code of human behavior, we are expected to live with some degree of structure. For instance, we all need to sleep, eat, and use the restroom at some point. Consider that biological, evolutionary needs. In a secondary sense, we also spend a large portion of mandatory time in school or working. Most of us, fortunately, are blessed with leftover spare time after all these essential requirements are met.

When people reflect on how they spend spare time, they do it poorly, just as a dieter reflects on his food habits or an impulsive shopper reflects on her recent purchases.  Sure, they’ll remember the big events (eight hours spent working, one hour in a meeting, one hour at the gym, etc., etc.). But, what about all those in-between minutes, all those stolen licks and bites, that three-dollar drive-thru coffee? What about the details?

We are masters at wasting time; slaves to doing things we don’t necessarily like or dislike doing. This is not a rant against spending time on frivolity. We all benefit from leisure; however, when we are actually granted with true leisure, few of us actually enjoy it. We instead fill the gap with sub-par activities; maybe flipping the channels or surfing the web. Interesting how much of us use the phrases, I don’t have time and I’m just killing time in the same day.

This may have to do with the human drive towards short-term gratification. Instead of viewing seven spare hours a week, we may only see one hour a day. Instead of using each one to do a small chunk of a task we enjoy, we see it as “too little of time” to do anything we like. We fail to see our allotted time in the big picture. We live by excuses; rationalizing our flaws using skewed logic to make ourselves more socially desirable and generate a higher sense of self-satisfaction.

While time may be pressed, we all know those people who seem able to “do it all.” These are the super freaks who can juggle full-time work, family life, romance, and hobbies. Oh, and they also seem to find time to travel the world or train for marathons. Their agendas, whether tangible or not, are often color-coded, scratched-out, written all over, and jam-packed. We think they are different from us; special and entitled. Yet, they share the same twenty-four hours as the rest of the world. They still eat and sleep and use the restroom, and most of them went or go to school and work.


How do they do it?

Simple. Instead of wasting time on things that don’t matter to them, they “waste” time on things that do. Rather than seeing an hour as just an hour, they see it as a chance to get started on something, without feeling that rushed sense of anxiety to finish it. They see one hour as a yoga class, walk with their spouse, cooking time for a lavish dinner, or a manicure with a friend. For bigger passions and life goals, they may view that hour as time to write one page of a novel, practice a new chord on the guitar, or learn a few phrases in a different language. These people realize progress is a bit-by-bit process, and while it seems they can do everything in one day, what is really happening is that these people understand that very little can be done in one day. Moreover, they do not berate themselves for spending weeks or months in pursuit of a passion or goal.

They know their priorities, and they live in a way that moves from top priority to bottom priority, whereas so many others work in the opposite direction. They shift their lives in ways that maximize their passions and goals, rather than dismissing them. They channel their spare minutes into activities that provide an energy surplus. Thus, they feel more fulfilled and ambitious, because they perceive spare time as a means to improve mood, rather than just stabilize or diminish it.  


1. For one week, track down everything you do in the day, from waking up to going to sleep. Yes, it’s tedious and difficult, but it will be an incredible eye-opener to see how much time you are likely wasting on things that don’t serve any purpose in your life. These priorities are not a one-size-fits-all; how we choose to spend our time largely defines our personalities and lifestyles, and is a strong predictor in the types of relationships, careers, and passions we choose to pursue. If an activity provides you with positive energy and pleasure, do not second-guess its virtues, despite criticism from others.

2. Notice how much spare time you have in a day; notice what you do during that time. Notice the differences between using that time ineffectively and using it effectively.

3. Set a one-day goal, one-week goal, one-month goal, and one-year goal that can be achieved within your allotted spare time. Nothing work or school-related. These goals will provide a sense of direction, and the satisfaction generated from achieving them will be tremendous.