Productivity Time Famine Is Real. Here’s How to Conquer It.

by the editorial team at Citi | March 30, 2023

Do the minutes seem to go by like seconds and the days fly by? If so, you may be experiencing time famine.

The term was coined by economist Leslie A. Perlow in 1999 at the advent of email and cell phones, which gave way to a new world of instant communication and heightened demands to be continuously connected. And even though, post-pandemic, we’ve collectively pulled back a bit, burnout from an always-on culture is still common.  

“I think there is this lack of edges that creates a feeling of time famine,” explains Julie Morgenstern, a time management expert and author of “Time Management from the Inside Out” and “Never Check Email in the Morning.” Work can feel like it is happening 24/7, she adds, so “you never know when the day is done.”

In an always-on culture there is also a tendency to stay busy for the sake of being busy. “People love to talk about being busy,” says time management and productivity expert Laura Vanderkam, author of “Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done.”

“We live in a competitive world, and no one wants to be the one who is seen as having plenty of time on their hands," Vanderkam says, and this leads to some people creating unnecessary work for themselves or giving themselves tasks they could probably delegate to others.

The good news is there are solutions. Below, experts share clever ways to take back your time and establish a healthier work-life balance.

Keep a time diary

Just as a budget helps you get a handle on your money, a time diary can give you a solid grasp of the hours in your day and how you're spending them, helping you make better time-management decisions. Vanderkam advises her clients to make a time diary for the week, but if you prefer to start slow, “a couple of days would do just as well,” she says. Using a notebook or a note-taking app on your mobile phone, “check in three to four times a day to log what you’ve been doing,” Vanderkam suggests.

People are often shocked to learn that they don’t work as many hours as they thought they did, she says, finding that many of the hours they considered work time were actually being used for other tasks, such as setting up childcare or browsing social media. “It can be life-changing to look at time as a week,” Vanderkam adds, because it gives a more balanced picture of work and personal priorities. Plus, planning by the week can lessen feelings of panic or guilt about completing the to-do list in a day. With a week to check things off, you can create a more flexible schedule, whether it’s shifting a few things from weeknights to weekends or vice versa.

Note the areas in your life where you are spending too much time and energy without return. From there, you can decide how to re-allocate that time.

father and daughter laughing in bedroom

Cut back on digital distractions

As much as devices create shortcuts, their dinging and buzzing are also interruptions, so it's a good idea to limit screen time and set clear digital boundaries. If you respond to texts and emails at all times of night and day, “people will expect responses,” says Morgenstern. Instead, you can define the hours you’ll respond by creating standardized email responses or delaying your replies.

To avoid the time-suck trap of social media scrolling too, consider deleting or hiding the apps that pose the biggest distractions. You can also use technology to set limits, says Randy Ginsburg, a product development assistant in New York and the author of a newsletter covering entrepreneurship and emerging technology. “Automated notifications help curb excessive social media use but still allow a quick break to catch up on recent posts and news,” he says. And apps like SelfControl let users completely restrict access to specific sites for time blocks of up to 24 hours.

You can also use technology to set limits.
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Outsource and delegate

Evaluating your typical week can reveal opportunities for freeing up time by hiring, say, a home cleaning service, a dog walker or lawn maintenance professionals. This could even allow you to make money, suggests Vanderkam; if you're a freelance consultant, for example, you might be able to use that time to pick up a new client instead of walking the dog.

Of course, there are also more budget-friendly (free, even) solves — like delegating dinnertime tasks, which is how Jacinda Boneau, a Dallas, TX-based mother of three, artist and editor of the website Pretty Prudent, gains back time. As schedules shifted during the pandemic, Boneau found it helpful to create a schedule and tap her family to help with dinner planning and prep.

"There are five of us in our family, so everyone picks a meal they want to prepare each week,” says Boneau. “We get takeout another night and eat leftovers on the final night. It’s a lot of cooking and cleaning, but meal planning in general has been a great way to save resources.”

The kids also pitch in with other family chores at dinnertime, such as setting the table and emptying the dishwasher. Another game changer is ordering her groceries in advance for curbside pickup, she says.

Try resource sharing

A give-and-take arrangement among housemates or within a community is another way to recover precious time, according to writer and photographer Sam Guilbeaux, who, along with their husband, decided to relocate from a studio apartment in Brooklyn to a house in a small town in upstate New York.

The upside was that the couple had more space, but they were fresh into launching a new business and short on time for anything other than work. So when a friend, who happens to be a trained chef, called and mentioned he was out of work and needed a place to live, it sparked an idea for a resource swap. “It was a clear opportunity for us to both get the things we need,” says Guilbeaux. “Him: shelter and food and stability, us: consistent meals and support as we drive our business forward.”

It can take some patience to figure out the time-famine fixes that work best for you and your budget, but the payoff for taking a step back to reassess can be big. There’s a good chance you’ll gain back some hours, and possibly even some helpful new approaches to how you work and live.


— With additional reporting from Life and Money by Citi editors