What I Mean When I Say “I Don’t Have Time”

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I have three habits I’m focused on right now – reading, meditating, and stretching.

I’ve been knocking it out of the park on the first two (roughly 85% or higher completion rate). The stretching? Well, I’ve done that once in 24 days for an abysmal 4% completion rate.

The actual habit isn’t that difficult. Every night I want to spend five minutes total stretching my hip flexors and upper back. I can do it while watching TV and even drink wine in between (or during!). Still, I fail every single night. If you were to ask me about it, I would probably create some excuse centered around not having enough time and being so busy with chores, which would be a lie.

“I don’t have time” is never the real reason.

If I think a bit deeper, I’m normally saying one of the following.

I’m not interested. (or its close cousin — I don’t really want to.)

The most important takeaway from Stumbling on Happiness is that we’re terrible predictors of our future happiness. We think we have a good idea of how much enjoyment we’ll get out of a task or project, but in reality, we have no idea. We anticipate the future will look much like the present. Running a marathon in four months sounds like a great idea. Waking up at 6 AM on Sunday mornings for long runs? Not so much.

Historically, I’ve been pretty terrible about conflating my feelings about the finish line with the long road between here and there. I agree to things and then catch myself thinking “Hey, wait a minute…” a week later.

I haven’t found a perfect solution, but two strategies have worked relatively well so far. First, I create a mental picture of what this thing will look like two weeks in the future. I try to create a complete idea of what that time period will look like. Then, I ask myself, “Are you going to feel as excited about __ as you do right now?” If not, I say “No.” Second, I just default to “No.” To quote Derek Sivers, “it’s either Hell Yeah! or no.”

The next steps are fuzzy.

In Deep Work, author Cal Newport describes the principle of least resistance, which he defines as the following:

In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend towards behaviors that are easiest in the moment.

I’m addicted to crossing items off of my to-do list. If the item is fuzzy (i.e. “Start ___ project”) leaving me unsure of how to proceed, I’m less likely to take that first step. I’ll just do something else that’s definitive and clear instead.

My workaround thus far has been to breakdown goals into the simplest steps imaginable. Part of the process I use is in this post on setting goals and avoiding overwhelm. I tear down a goal or project into the most basic components that are actionable. For “Start __ project,” the first step might be “Create a GitHub repo.” If I don’t break a goal down into steps that highlight specific actions on my part, I’ll find myself pushing the project off altogether for something easier.

Time to impact is too far away.

The Information Age we live in has drastically reduced the “time to impact.” If I send out a tweet, I can get a response (or track metrics and likes) instantly. If I post something on Facebook, “Likes” light up my notification bar. The impact is seen immediately. Over time, I start to crave this instant feedback loop and push off projects that don’t provide the same, clear indication of success.

I’ll refer to this as the “Long Feedback Horizon” hypothesis although I’m sure someone else has described it better under a different name. The takeaway is simple:

Longer lags between action and direct feedback lead to a decrease in motivation.

If you’re set on starting a workout routine but fail to see any kind of improvement after a month, you’re less likely to continue.

When I was a teenager, I took guitar lessons at a local music store. Every Saturday, I would show up guitar in hand and play in a room alongside my teacher for an hour before being sent home with homework. Most of our work focused on learning how to read music and memorizing music scales. My favorite part of the session though: playing actual music. He would bring a specific song to every session (like “Seven Nation Army” by the The White Stripes), and we would jam out for the last ten minutes or so.

This is the hardest speed bump to circumvent. The biggest accomplishments often have the longest feedback horizon meaning our motivation lags on the most important stuff.

It’s hard.

This is tangentially related to long feedback horizons. If there’s a choice between doing something difficult and another task that’s easy, our natural inclination is to choose the path of least resistance particularly when willpower has been spent elsewhere. Case in point, I wait to complete stretching until 8pm at night when I’m two glasses of wine down and feeling lazy. Stretching might not be hard, but compared to sitting on the couch and reading, it requires effort.

I’ve found two strategies to be particularly helpful.

First, block out significant chunks of time to work on hard things. If you leave those hard efforts up to chance, you’ll always push them off.

Second, commit to a hard deadline publicly. At 8AM on Thursday mornings, I have a blog post set to get posted. I’m editing this post at 7:48AM. In my case, the desire for perfection pushes me away from working on hard things. Setting a firm deadline puts an end in sight. No matter how hard it might be, I know there will eventually be an end. In this case, it’s in 11 minutes now.


Obviously, there are a few occasions where I really don’t have time for XYZ, but if I’m being honest with myself, I secretly mean one of the following. A big goal of mine in 2016 is to make time for the things that really matter. Being honest with why I say “I don’t have time” (both to myself and others) is a descendant of that goal.

H/T to Simon for bringing this to my attention during our conversations.

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