Are We Less Reliable When Time is Scarce?

Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan’s widely read book, “Scarcity,” analyzes a unique psychological phenomenon occurring among busy professionals today. Mullainathan argues that just as scarcity in economics forces people to act in specific ways, a scarcity of time in one’s daily routine can cause people to make less effective time-management decisions. Just as economically struggling people find themselves focusing on short-term objectives at the expense of long-term financial benefits, people struggling with a lack of time tend to focus on short-term necessities at the expense of important obligations. In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Mullainathan related his tendency to procrastinate on renewing his license plates for months after they expired as an example of this phenomenon at work. Each decision to procrastinate generated short-term benefits of additional time, while simply renewing the plates would have resulted in a net gain of time saved over the long term.

The research in “Scarcity” is one of many new works proving just how influential our natural brain wiring can be in the decisions we make in our daily lives. A good amount of the decisions we make each day stem purely from habit, including the ways in which we manage our time. According to the American Time Use Survey published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people in the United States spend an average of 8.7 hours per day working and only 2.6 hours in leisure, proving that busy professionals are already squeezing every hour of work they can out of a weekday. With such limited time and each minute of the day already claimed by responsibilities, the key to getting things done is learning to make room within a busy schedule to address our to-do lists. This kind of change must be habitual to truly be effective over the long term. We need to change both intellectually and physiologically, the way we think about time and tasks at a subconscious level by increasing our Social Intelligence skills, including the ability to intentionally build new habits.

The research in “Scarcity” also reinforces what neuroscientists already know about the “lazy brain.” As the most energy-intensive organ in the body, the brain is constantly looking for ways to conserve energy by putting things on autopilot, so to speak. Our tendency to procrastinate on important, time-consuming tasks is yet another example of our minds trying to simplify our lives, in this case by essentially throwing out tasks that are not absolutely critical in the short term.

Conscientiousness, a core element of TRACOM’s Behavioral EQ model, is an indicator of one’s reliability and ability to meet commitments. Time management techniques are an essential part of being able to consistently fulfill one’s commitments, and the research behind “Scarcity” proves that a scarcity of time can actually cause us to become less dependable to those who rely on us in the workplace. The Behavioral EQ Tip of the Week covers time-management techniques extensively to help people overcome the natural barriers to getting things done. One technique that can prove especially effective is to schedule “meetings” with oneself to set aside time for planning and addressing smaller tasks, just as Mullainathan recommends. Prioritizing daily tasks according to deadline or importance has also proven an effective way to ensure that to-do lists do not leave important tasks behind. When it comes to work commitments, sometimes delegating less critical tasks or simply turning down a new project or responsibility can be an effective way to ensure that we do not leave things unfinished, as well. These and a wide range of other strategies to increase conscientiousness are covered in the Behavioral EQ course and guides.

Despite the distinct challenge of managing our limited time effectively, research shows that people can make positive changes in their habits and behavior, even in this area. Through intentional action, each of us has the ability to change the way we manage our time and the stressors that lead us to cut corners or procrastinate on our commitments. The result is greater productivity, greater trust among colleagues and lower stress in all areas of life.