THE BLOG
08/07/2014 08:56 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2014

You Have More Time Than You Think: How to Beat the Scarcity Trap

"If only I had more time..." How often do you say this to yourself in the course of one day? I'd wager more than once. In our recent survey, "What Does Stress Look Like to You?" 40 percent of respondents said they would feel less stressed if they had more time. And 30 percent said they haven't addressed their stress because they don't have the time. Talk about a catch-22.

What you're experiencing here, of course, is a scarcity of time. Partly this is a simple fact of life -- there are only 24 hours in the day. The rub is that you can fall into a difficult and draining mental trap when you experience prolonged scarcity.

For example, when you feel like you don't have enough time, you focus on managing urgent problems (today's childcare pick-up, the pressing deadline, tonight's dinner). As psychologist Eldar Shafir and economist Sendhil Mullainathan, co-authors of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, put it, you now have little or no "cognitive bandwidth" to take on important but non-urgent long-term changes that could increase your productive time. A long-term change might be addressing your stress with lifestyle changes, like sleeping more, eating well, or reconnecting with your spouse or friends.

What this means is that you're in the "scarcity trap." Your experience of scarcity prompts you to think and behave in a way that all but guarantees you'll experience more scarcity. What's worse, say Shafir and Maillainathan, you're also more likely to use up what leftover mental energy you do have to obsess over the fact that you don't have enough time.

You now have less energy, focus, and resilience, which makes time even scarcer. And such a stressed state creates even more urgent fires to put out. And so on, until you're chronically stressed and scarcity-trapped. (Read more on the effects of stress.)

How to Spring Free of the Scarcity Trap

When you're stuck in a scarcity mindset, it might seem like revamping your life from top to bottom is the only way to get free. I love a good makeover, but the truth is, small, simple schedule changes can help you loosen the deadlock on your time. Here are two to try:

1. Block off time as simply "unavailable"

Eldar Shafir recommends penciling in a block of time in your calendar just to think about long-term and long-neglected things. If people asked to schedule an appointment then, tell them that you have a meeting. No need to explain that it's with yourself.

Part of what makes you overwhelmed is that you never feel you have time to iron out all the little administrative and household tasks that are easy to dismiss -- until there's a crisis. Stay ahead of the game and on schedule by making sure you have time blocked off that's your business and no one else's to tend to the gears and springs of your life.

2. Invest in something non-urgent

On the television show Parks and Recreation, two characters, Tom and Donna, have an annual, guilt-free, utterly indulgent spa and shopping tradition they call "Treat Yo' Self." While a full-on, mani-pedi-facial-massage might not be in your budget, Tom and Donna are onto something good.

Don't underestimate what a little R&R can do. You may think that treating yourself is a luxury, but it isn't. Taking time to play with your kid, enjoy a nice cup of espresso, read a magazine, or get your nails done all send a message to your mind that all is well. It can ease off scarcity mode. You free up cognitive bandwidth to manage and improve with your packed life by giving yourself these little gifts of time.

3. Give a little time away

Yes, this seems to contradict numbers one and two above. The interesting thing is that what you do with your time has a huge effect on how you feel about it and yourself. University of Pennsylvania professor Cassie Mogilner has found that "giving your time to others can make you feel more 'time affluent' and less time-constrained than wasting your time, spending it on yourself, or even getting a windfall of free time." Not only that, Mogilner says, people who help others feel more capable, confident, and useful -- and more in control of their time.

Even better, the quality of your giving has a bigger positive effect on your than the quantity of it. Give of yourself to a cause or a project or person that has meaning for you, and you'll reap the benefits whether you can spend a lot or a little time.

None of this is to say that your calendar will get less complicated. Our lives are complicated, and we've never figured out how to add more hours to the day. But when you take the time, you'll have the strength of mind to find a path toward health and abundance.

Jan Bruce is CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, the new digital coaching system for stress, which helps both individuals and corporations achieve measurable results in stress management and wellness.

For more by meQuilibrium, click here.

For more on stress, click here.

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