This is Why You Really Feel So Busy (and How to Fix It)

If you think you need more than 24 hours in a day, try two simple strategies to reclaim your schedule.

Photo by Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Feeling busy or frantic might be part of your everyday life—whether you’re constantly rushing from place to place, or feeling weighed-down by your to-do list, it’s easy to think that you don’t have enough hours in the day. It turns out, though, you probably do have plenty of hours in the day, and that feeling of overwhelming busyness might be all in your head.

A new study published in the Journal of Marketing Research revealed that emotional conflict made people feel like they were seriously crunched for time, specifically feelings of guilt or fear. Either people felt guilty for spending time on one task instead of another or felt stress and fear over loss of income.

To illustrate the effect, researchers asked study participants to envision completing a certain set of tasks. Then, they were asked to imagine that the tasks conflicted with each other—either overlapping in time or competing for emotional or financial reasons. Participants felt anxious no matter what the conflict was—even if they had enough physical time to do the tasks, emotional conflict still made them feel stressed.

If this internal tug-of-war sounds familiar, there are ways to de-stress so you can tackle your to-do list sans anxiety. The first strategy is easy—just breathe. Stanford graduate student Melanie Rudd found in her research that this technique was most successful in de-stressing people when it came to busyness. When the researchers asked participants to take deep, slow breaths, they felt more relaxed. Focus on meditative, cleansing breathing—that means counting to five as you inhale, letting your diaphragm expand, and counting to six as you exhale.

The other simple trick is to reframe feelings of nervousness and anxiety into positive emotions—like excitement. How can you turn your thoughts around? According to Jennifer Aaker, one of the authors on the new Journal of Marketing Research study, just saying “I am excited!” when looking at your tasks can reduce levels of stress and help you take control of your schedule.

“Although we can’t control what actually consumes our time, we can control how we feel about it,” Aaker said in an email.