Why We Never Have Enough Time

  • By:  Leo Babauta

How can we develop appreciation for the time that we have?

Everyone I know has this problem: there never seems to be enough time in the day for everything we need or want to do. We have a pile of tasks and projects to do, endless messages and emails to respond to, and even if we work with focus and no distractions—that’s a huge “if”—there’s not enough time.

Let’s say you happen to find time after work and on weekends to do non-work stuff, like reading and exercise and meditating and learning new things and taking up a hobby. Then you find that the time you create for this stuff is never enough. You have too much that you want to do and there’s still not enough time.

And that’s just the big things. In addition to all of that, there’s eating and sleeping and driving and showering. There’s using the bathroom and watching TV shows and keeping up with the news. There’s cleaning and other chores, washing the car and paying bills, grocery shopping and cooking, doing your taxes and registering your car. How does all of this get shoehorned into the small amount of time that we have for work and non-work tasks and activities?

There’s never enough time, and it freaking stresses us all out. Why is this? What’s going on? And what the hell can we do about it?

The Cause of Not Enough Time?

Our Expectations Are Unattainable

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There is a fixed amount of time. It’s neither “enough” or “not enough”—it’s only our expectations that make it one way or another.

If we want to get more done than is possible in this fixed amount of time, we think it’s not enough because it didn’t meet our expectation. If we are satisfied with how much we can do in the fixed amount of time, it’s enough time.

So it’s our expectations of how much we should get done in a day. Where do these expectations come from? Our managers? Society? Our parents? Ourselves? The answer is all of the above. We’ve all created these agreements about how much we’re supposed to do, and the agreements are impossible to fulfill in the limited amount of time we have.

So the practice is to let go of the flawed agreements of how much we should get done and instead learn to appreciate the time we actually do have and appreciate each act we’re able to do within that time.

You might object: the endless list of things to get done still needs to be tackled! Absolutely. Try this experiment for a week: make this list of things to do, prioritize them, block off time in your calendar for them. 

Now be absolutely disciplined and focused in each block, doing exactly what you planned. Adjust the blocks as you learn that you have forgotten eating and grocery shopping and the like. But after a week, you’ll have a much better idea of how much you can actually get done.

You will see that it’s much less than you hope you can do. We are overly optimistic about how much we can do in a day, in a week.

So if we get realistic, the actual amount of things we can do in a week is greatly reduced. We need to start with that realistic recognition. Let’s see how to use that to actually do stuff.

How to Get Stuff Done

Identify Non-Negotiable Work Tasks

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Now we can work within that reality of fixed time and limited amount of things that can get done.

First recognize the things that must get done. What on your list are things that have to get done no matter what? For example, you might list things like: showering, eating, sleeping, buying groceries, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, driving to work, taking the kids to school, etc. 

You might also have some non-negotiable work things: Monday meetings, daily calls, etc. How much time do these take? Calculate it the best you can. A good estimate is 8 hours of sleep, and then 4-7 hours of non-work things (depending on if you have family or other increased non-work obligations). Now how many non-negotiable work things do you have?

The next step is to recognize how much time you have left. Let’s say you have 8 hours of sleep, 4 hours of non-work non-negotiables, and 1.5 hours of work non-negotiables. That leaves you with 10.5 hours to allot each day. For some of you with more non-negotiables (both work & non-work), you might be down to 6 hours. Just find the number.

Now ask, how can I best use that time? With the time you have to allot to your big pile of tasks and things you want to do and read and watch—how will you best use this time? There’s no right answer, but ask the question. 

For me, I spend a chunk of it writing, a chunk responding to people, a chunk working on one project, and a chunk taking care of admin tasks. Then I allocate time for meditating, walking, exercise, reading and studying, connecting with loved ones. Those are my priorities.

With this list of priorities, block off your time. You can get by without this, but it’s a way to budget your limited time. And protect the things you believe are most important. This is all you get, and you get to use it the best you can. That’s all you can do in that time!

Now work and act with appreciation and focus. In each block, pour yourself into the act. Really be there with that task because you’ve chosen to include it in your limited time, so it must be important. Appreciate this task and appreciate the space you’ve cleared for it. 

All of the above will be done imperfectly, of course. We’ll still try to fit in too much. But at least it will be more realistic, and over time, you can stop trying to cram so much into your time blocks. You’ll learn that you can’t get as much done in those blocks as you hope. But with practice, we can accept that this is enough.

Working with Appreciation and Focus

Devote Yourself Fully To Each Task 

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You’ll still want to cram more into the limited time you have. It’s our nature. But it’s good to recognize that this stems from a lack of appreciation for the time we do have. It is enough. The time we have is a precious gift, and we can appreciate it just as it is, without needing it to be more.

The secret is to work and act with appreciation and focus. Appreciate the spaces of time we have. We don’t have have many of these spaces. They’re precious and beautiful. Can you love them as they are?

Be fully with the task without letting ourselves get sidetracked. It’s important enough to include in our limited day, so it’s important enough to give our full attention and devotion to.

Relax into each space, each task, each act, learning to love it just as it is. Not worrying about all we’re not doing, but instead appreciating what we are doing.

What a gift this task, this act, this moment is! I will devote myself to it fully, out of love. 

Leo Babauta is a simplicity blogger and author. He created Zen Habits, a Top 25 blog with two million readers. He’s also a best-selling author, a husband, father of six children, and a vegan. In 2010 Leo moved from Guam to San Francisco, where he leads a simple life.

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