Busy + Guilty = Stress

Remove emotion from the equation, and you’re likely to find you aren’t as time-crunched as you think

Everybody knows the feeling: Lunch is barely over and you can see today's to-do list spilling over into tomorrow. Your weekend calendar is almost as cluttered as your workdays. The stress that comes from that kind of overscheduling is toxic, linked to everything from lousy moods to cancer and heart disease.

Some intriguing new research sheds light on this too-busy-to-breathe phenomenon, showing that we're probably not as time pressed as we feel. "All of us have multiple identities and multiple goals that come with them," says Jordan Etkin, Ph.D., an assistant marketing professor at Duke University. "We're professionals, colleagues, parents, siblings, children and spouses." And while these goals can compete with one another for time—you can't be in a 4:00 staff meeting and still make your daughter's 4:00 field hockey game—there are plenty of times when it just feels like they do. That can result in guilt, and the feeling we are giving at least one of these roles short shrift. Sometimes feeling oversubscribed sparks fear, including worries that all these time constraints will affect how much money we're able to earn.

So Etkin, along with Ioannis Evangelidis, a marketing professor at Erasmus University, and Jennifer Aaker, a marketing professor at Stanford University, devised a series of experiments to figure out why we feel that goals interfere with one another, even when they don't.

Participants envisioned themselves completing tasks that took a set amount of time. When people thought the tasks conflicted with each other, "they felt even more pressed for time due to a feeling of increased anxiety over the conflict," Etkin says, "regardless of whether the conflict was physical, or simply emotional."

Aging parents, work, kids, career changes—they all pull at us. "The more you ruminate about it and see those goals as in competition, the more conflict you're going to feel." The stress from these perceived time constraints led people to make poor financial decisions, too, such as overpaying for shipping.

Etkin speculates that this level of stress likely increases as we move through midlife, particularly if we are in the midst of life change. "As we get older, there are more goals," she says. "We assume more identities and our lives are more complex."

Luckily for us, the researchers also found two effective ways to break up the emotional logjams: simply pause and take a few deep breaths when the stress feels powerful; or "reframe the anxiety into excitement, which is a more positive emotion." (Etkin swears by both tactics when she's feeling crunched for time, "which is pretty often.")

The upshot, she says, "is that we have more control over our time than we think. And when we feel stressed, anything we can do to feel more empowered and in charge of our time, the better off we are."