Why A “Time-Crunched” Mindset Backfires—and How Leaders Avoid It

Scarcity wreaks havoc on our minds—and our success at work. In this excerpt from Work Better Together, Jen Fisher and Anh Phillips explore what’s really behind a sense of time scarcity, and how intentional micro-habits can interrupt it.

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In 2016 Deloitte published an article on scarcity mindset: “Does Scarcity Make You Dumb?” Behavioral science research suggests humans have a finite capacity for making good decisions, and scarcity of resources can diminish that capacity. The scarce resource in decision making is often time, that is, a sense that time is running out to make a decision, or that too many decisions have to be made in a limited amount of time. When this happens, an exaggerated sense of urgency can cause people to block out critical information in the rush to decide.

Management experts like Stephen Covey and President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke of the need to distinguish between the urgent but unimportant task and the important but not urgent task. A familiar example of our mental “urgency trap” is the momentary impulse to check email, interrupting more significant work. Such mental interruptions typically waste 20 minutes of productive work time. Physical interruptions, such as a coworker stopping by to ask a question, have a similar effect, and this constant start-and-stop feeds a sense of scarcity. There’s never enough time because our sense of urgency spends downtime on less important work.

What is the Scarcity Mindset?

The scarcity article noted, “Nearly everyone suffers time crunches, but time is only one source of scarcity—attention deficits may come from a lack of money, collaboration, food, companionship, or any other valuable resource. Scarcity can be a hidden distractor that constantly pulls cognition away from other important but less urgent needs. Scarcity compromises a person’s decision-making capabilities by depleting [our] finite capacity for self-control and intelligence. When [we make] bad choices, it doesn’t necessarily indicate incompetence. Rather, circumstances may have exhausted [our] overall capability, creating a nearly impossible setting for making rational choices.”

Scarcity wreaks havoc on our minds by constantly interrupting our thinking, by creating an intense focus on an unmet (and possibly unimportant) need, and by exhausting the mind with constant trade-off decisions.

That third effect—constant trade-offs—is a significant barrier to well-being. If you do not distinguish between the momentary gratification of answering an urgent-but-unimportant email and the longer task of drafting an important-but-not-urgent proposal, your mind undergoes a kind of temporary burnout and you become incapable of focusing on the work that matters. We’ve observed other kinds of self-deception such as the “planning fallacy” in which we convince ourselves that a particular task will take less time in the future than it does now (a management version of wishful thinking that might be quite unconscious). Or the “confirmation bias” in which we pay more attention to evidence that confirms our beliefs and ignore evidence that contradicts them. These are subtle ways of trying to cram more tasks into less time rather than giving the thoughtful tasks most of our mental energy.

When you can ask, “Is this the most important thing I can be doing at this moment?” and answer yes, you interrupt that unconscious sense of urgency and can take a moment to refocus on what matters most.

The antidote for a scarcity mindset is found in building both mindfulness and slack into the workday. Mindfulness in this context means catching time-wasting habits (like checking email) and channeling those tasks into focused or regularly scheduled times. When you can ask, “Is this the most important thing I can be doing at this moment?” and answer yes, you interrupt that unconscious sense of urgency and can take a moment to refocus on what matters most.

“Slack” might carry negative connotations to some (“He’s such a slacker”), but here it means planned breaks from intense work into the day. Time positioned as a buffer between demanding tasks renews the mind’s ability to engage a new task.

Small changes to a schedule can add up to create a big impact, and our study suggested five ways to create slack in your day.

5 Simple Strategies to Create More Space in Your Day

  1. Start your day off right. Take the time to define and prioritize your daily goals and refer to those goals throughout the day to ensure alignment.
  2. Create meeting buffers. Reduce meeting times to 25 or 50 minutes to create time to reset before moving onto the next meeting or task.
  3. Schedule focused work time. During this time, turn off your email and your phone so that you can give your full attention to the task at hand.
  4. Take breaks. Schedule time to mentally recover. This means stepping away from your work to get up and move around or practice deep breathing to center yourself.
  5. Schedule quiet time. Regular pauses for quiet meditation or breathing exercises can provide a wide array of mental and physical benefits.

You can’t control every minute at work. There will be times when interruptions are both urgent and important, and periods when work-life integration includes more work than life. But learning to be mindful, deliberate, and realistic about work, and building in slack to your overall schedule, builds your capacity to thrive even through the most stressful times, and gives you the resilience to reestablish an equilibrium between work and life quickly.

Excerpt from Work Better Together: How to Cultivate Strong Relationships to Maximize Well-Being and Boost Bottom Lines by Jen Fisher & Anh Phillips, pp. 133-136 (McGraw Hill, June 2021).