I did something shameful Monday morning because I felt pressed for time, but if I had just taken 11 seconds to breathe I could've avoided the whole mishegas.
In a rush to get my workday going, I shelled out $3.75 for a cup of coffee. Drip coffee. A 16-ounce cup. If you think this was a good decision, you can stop reading.
Still with me? Now, we can all agree spending that much on plain coffee was a bad decision. The coffee came from the new fancy stand in our office lobby that sells buttered toast for $2.50. It’s fast and convenient -- and just stupid expensive -- to grab something there on the way to the elevators. You can grab a cup from a street cart in New York for $1.25 or get a basic grande coffee at Starbucks around the corner for $2.45.
I wasn’t late for a meeting. I truly had time to go elsewhere. I could’ve even gotten a cup of free coffee in our offices. But I was feeling impatient, like I didn’t have time. That feeling -- like you have no time to spare -- is increasingly common, particularly among working parents.
If I had just slowed down and taken a few deep breaths, I could’ve saved myself the money, according to a new paper forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing Research that looks at how our conflicting goals in life affect our perception of how much time we have to spare.
As a mother who works outside the home, I am constantly trying to keep sight of two seemingly oppositional goals: Spend time with family and get work done at the office. The apparent conflict between these goals often makes people like me believe we have no time -- even when we do.
And that kind of stress typically leads you to make bad decisions in order to save time -- like paying more for pricey coffee. It also makes you impatient, according to this new study. People who feel stressed over what they perceive to be conflicting goals are less likely to have the patience to, say, wait on hold with customer service, or wait for an item to be shipped by Amazon. We wind up shelling out for convenience: expedited shipment, delivery food, taking a taxi instead of waiting for the subway.
For this study, researchers from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, Erasmus University Rotterdam and Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business put participants through a series of experiments. In one, they asked people to list the goals they were pursuing -- things like “do well at work” and “spend time with loved ones." Then, they asked the participants if they felt their goals to be in conflict with each other. Participants who felt like their goals conflicted were more likely to report feeling like they didn't have enough time.
The feeling that you're being squeezed for time can hit you even when your goals don't actually have anything to do with time. For example, participants who were conflicted about their money goals -- they said they wanted to "save for a down payment" on a house, but also "spend money on nice things" -- reported having less time. Just the stress and anxiety associated with the different goals created the sense of not having enough hours in the day.
The researchers then examined the kinds of decisions participants made when they were feeling pressed for time. In one experimental scenario, the subjects were asked how much extra they’d be willing to pay to speed up the delivery of a hypothetical DVD they’d ordered online. The participants who felt the most conflict between their goals were willing to pay 30 percent more for the faster service.
Feeling conflicted about your goals “makes you over-value your time, at the expense of your money,” said Jordan Etkin, the Duke business professor who co-authored the paper. The problem, she said, is that most of us don’t have the luxury of overspending when we feel stressed. And those feelings of stress and time pressure lead to other problems: Your health suffers, too.
The good news is that you may have more time than you think.
Here’s a classic example: You turn down a night out with friends because you have “too much to do.” Yet you spend that night just lying around binge-watching “The West Wing” on Netflix.
So the trick may simply be to change your perspective on time.
"We can’t control what actually consumes our time," Etkin told me. "But we can control how we feel about it."
She offered an extremely simple solution to reduce the stress brought about by goal conflict: breathing. Prior research by Melanie Rudd showed that simply taking deep, slow breaths can make people feel less pressed for time. So, Etkin and her fellow researchers had some of the participants simply take deep, slow breaths -- five counts on the inhale and six counts on the exhale. The goal conflicted people who did the breathing reported feeling less stressed, and like they had more time.
But I breathe all the time, you may be thinking. I'm breathing right now.
Not that kind of breathing.
Taking a page from meditation and yoga, Etkin and her fellow researchers had some of the participants simply take deep, slow breaths -- five counts on the inhale and six counts on the exhale. The people who did the breathing reported feeling less stressed, and like they had more time.
“It eliminated the negative effects of feeling more conflict,” said Etkin, who also told me that she often takes a few deep breaths at moments of conflict to bring herself back to equilibrium.
I tried the breathing thing this morning on my way into the office. And it worked! I did not spend any portion of my children’s college savings account on a hot drink. Maybe it was just shame holding me back. Or the need for an ending to this article. Either way, it’s a simple enough tactic that Etkin and her fellow researchers have proven works.
If you’re feeling like you have no time, take the 11 seconds and try it yourself.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to add more detail from the researchers about the breathing experiment.