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

by the editorial team at Citi | February 01, 2021

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.

Technology has only skyrocketed over the past two decades and changed the pace of everyday lives — the struggle with time famine is real. So is the resulting burnout from an always-on culture.

“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 feels like it is happening 24/7 — you never know when the day is done.”

In an always-on culture there is also a tendency to ascribe to the idea of being busy for the sake of being busy. “People love to talk about being busy,” says Laura Vanderkam, time management, productivity expert and 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 believes it leads to some people creating unnecessary work for themselves or giving themselves tasks that they could probably delegate to others.

So, what can you do to handle demands to always be connected? Below, the experts and masters of the schedule share how they have taken back their time and gained ownership of a healthier work-life balance.

Make a time diary

Much like with a budget, you need a solid grasp of the hours in your day and how you're spending them. This is why the first thing Vanderkam advises her harried clients to do is to make a time diary for the week. You can dip a toe in by setting up a routine to start and end your day. Then work your way up to a week.

“I usually ask clients to track [their time] for a week, but a couple of days would do just as well,” she says. “Check-in three to four times a day to log what you’ve been doing,” recommends Vanderkam. She has her clients do this in a notebook or on the note-taking app on their mobile phone.

She reports that people are often shocked to learn that they don’t work as many hours as they thought they did — that many of the hours they considered work time were actually being used for other tasks. Some of those were essential, such as setting up childcare, while others were more insignificant, such as browsing social media.

“It can be life-changing to look at time as a week,” Vanderkam says. Planning by the week gives a more balanced picture of work and personal priorities. Plus, it may 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.

In order to find the most productive balance with these tasks, it’s important to evaluate your schedule and review the areas in your life where you are spending too much time and energy without return. From there, you can decide how to restructure the way you allocate your time.

father and daughter laughing in bedroom

Limit screen time

As much as devices create shortcuts, their dinging and buzzing are also a distraction, so it's important to limit screen time. Much like creating a time diary, setting digital boundaries is also key to combating time famine.

“If you respond to emails at all times of night and day, people will expect responses,” says Morgenstern. So, define the hours you’ll respond to emails by creating standardized email responses and limiting access to social media on your devices.

Losing minutes (or hours) by scrolling through social media feeds and falling down the rabbit hole of a news thread are common time-suck traps, too. One quick solve for this is to delete or hide apps that pose a distraction — out of sight, out of mind.

Or use technology to your advantage and set daily limit alerts. Randy Ginsburg, a product development assistant in New York and the author of a newsletter covering entrepreneurship and emerging technology, uses this strategy for his most frequently used apps.

“Automated notifications help curb excessive social media use but still allow a quick break to catch up on recent posts and news. The time-limit notification provides an additional reminder to stay away from mindless scrolling,” shares Ginsburg.

Set time limits with tools like StayFocusd, an app that allows users to set time limits on social media or other internet sites that become inaccessible once set daily limits are reached. Another tool, SelfControl, lets users completely restrict access to internet resources of their choosing through time blocks of up to 24 hours.

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Use technology to your advantage and set daily limit alerts.
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Outsource and delegate

Vanderkam asks clients to think about where their daily time-saving investments are most worth it — like outsourcing a task by hiring home cleaning services, a dog-walking service or lawn maintenance professionals.

“If you have the money, use tools to buy yourself time. With this technique, you can make more money and save more time," Vanderkam says. For example, if you're a freelance consultant, you might be able to use this time to pick up a new client instead of going to the grocery store each week.

Of course, there are also more budget-friendly (free, even) solves for gaining back time. For Jacinda Boneau — a Dallas, TX-based mother of three, artist and editor of the website Pretty Prudent — that meant delegating dinnertime tasks. As schedules shifted during the pandemic, Boneau decided the only way to make this work was 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? Boneau orders her groceries in advance for curbside pickup, which saves her time otherwise spent grocery shopping and waiting on the checkout line at the store.

Try resource sharing

Resource sharing among housemates or within a community is another way to recover precious time. Last July, Sam Guilbeaux, a writer and photographer, and their husband relocated 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 — him: shelter and food and stability, us: consistent meals and support as we drive our business forward,” says Guilbeaux.

“The concept of resource sharing has trickled into my consciousness thanks to organizing communities and activists over the last few years,” Guilbeaux says. And, beyond meeting immediate needs, they hope to replicate this experience in other ways, too.

“We are trying to buy a house — a real fixer upper — and create opportunities for work-trades and living arrangements. It's all an experiment, but I love brainstorming on the ways to live out this value of redistributing resources and wealth and creating a more communal, sustainable existence that relies less on cash and honors humans for all the ways they are valuable in a society."

Building community and finding more time? That could be the ultimate win-win situation.

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Building community and finding more time? That could be the ultimate win-win situation.
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Learning how to address time famine in your everyday life is a process of figuring out what works best for you and your budget, so be patient as you work on solutions. By taking a step back and seeing where your time is really spent and where you can save, you might just gain back some precious hours — and new creative approaches to how you live and spend time — in the process.