Where does the time go? The common time traps that steal your time

time traps May 10, 2024

It’s hard to find a professional woman who doesn’t feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and too-busy most of the time. The phenomenon is prevalent across women, and even more pronounced among women of color and working mothers. Women overwhelmingly carry an invisible workload in their place of employment, and most of the mental load at home.

The chronic stress created by sustained overwhelm affects our physical and mental health. We talked about the harmful effects of overwhelm (and what to do about it) in a recent blog post (if you missed it, be sure to check it out). 

When we speak to the amazing women in our lives about what it feels like to be constantly busy, we hear the same themes over and over again:

  • “I’m so tired” - We experience this constant, unshakeable fatigue that doesn't go away even after sleep. 
  • “I feel like I’m not even getting anything done” - We are in perpetual motion, and it still feels like we aren’t moving the needle on the to-do list (is it actually getting longer?)
  • “I’m not present with my [kids/spouse/friends/self]” - When we spend time with those we care about, we’re still distracted by everything that needs to get done.

The icing on the proverbial poop-cake of these feelings? We often reward ourselves with a bonus helping of guilt for showing up more fully, as our best selves. We are doing all the things. We are carrying all the load. AND we often don’t even feel good about how we are showing up.  

How did we even end up here? Why are we so freaking busy all the time? And what can we do to change it? 

One of the curses of being constantly overloaded is that it can be hard to pause, reflect and reassess. We may not notice the places where we’re giving away our time in ways that we don’t need to. And we don’t know how to reset our commitments to create more space for what matters. 

Our time and our attention are our most precious resources:

  • Time is non-renewable: Once a moment has expired, it will never return
  • Time is finite: We only have a certain amount of time today, this year, and in our life

In this blog post, we’ll talk about a few of the most common “time traps”. Places that are capturing too much of our time, and shouldn’t. 


What’s a time trap?

The word Time Trap comes from Queueing Theory, and refers to non-value-added steps in a process that need to be eliminated for the process to run more efficiently. We’re borrowing this term from Queuing Theory because we think it has really relevant applications to managing our own time, energy, and attention.

When we apply this concept to the idea of being “busy” as professional women, how do we define what it means “adding value”? How can we identify the things that are actually worthwhile, so that we can then be clearer on the things that are NOT. 

Here’s the tentative definition of “value-adding” busy we propose…

An activity is value-adding if:

  • It is aligned with a goal that matters to us 
  • It supports our growth and development, allowing us to build new skills and capacities
  • It provides an experience we value, cherish and is meaningful to us
  • It aligns with our personal values
  • It helps support our physical, mental, or emotional wellbeing 
  • It is expressly necessary for us to exist in society and avoid suboptimal future outcomes (think doing taxes, going to the doctor)

It’s worth noting that this working definition is not meant to be binary (e.g. Yes or No). In many instances, whether something is value-adding has a lot to do with the quantity of that activity, and the appropriateness in the context of everything else we have going on.   

For example:

  • Regularly connecting with coworkers on a project might be necessary to achieve professional goals, so 30 minutes weekly might be value adding. However, an hour of daily meetings and hallway conversations might not be. 
  • Spending a few minutes on social media to check in with friends and loved ones might be supportive of wellbeing and feelings of connection. Spending hours scrolling Instagram or TikTok may not, and may actually leave us feeling worse. 


The most common time traps for busy women

It’s tricky when we are in the thick of things to identify where time is getting away from us in ways that are not helpful or supportive, so we’ve compiled some of the most frequent time traps that might be stealing away energy. 

Defaulting to Yes

We love to be helpful, and often don’t think twice about saying yes to dozens of little (and some big) asks that come our way in any given week. An email that says “hey could you review…”, a fellow parent that asks “would you be able to bring cookies to the bake sale”, a valued cause reaching out to ask for volunteers, being added to a working session by a well meaning colleague, a spouse asking to handle scheduling for the kids doctor’s appointments. The result: our days get cluttered with everyone else’s priorities, because we wanted to be a team player.


Fragmented time

Our energy gets swindled away by constant and never ending interruptions. "On average, Americans check their phones 262 times per day—that's once every 5.5 minutes!". These constant distractions have a big impact: on average, it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the original task after the interruption. And phones aren’t the only thing splintering our focus: we get email notifications, social media notifications, coworkers walking up to ask questions, Slack or Chat disruptions. All these mean it takes longer to deliver tasks, and we feel more crunched to get everything done. 

So. Many. Meetings.

According to research on meetings, “time spent in meetings has more than tripled since February 2020”. Whoa. Has anyone’s time tripled since Feb 2020? Where is this time coming from? The research continues that “employees spend about 18 hours a week on average in meetings, and only decline 14% of invites even though they’d prefer to back out of 31% of them.” We show up to these meetings even if we know our time would be better used elsewhere. Questioning these commitments can free up a lot of time. 

High expectations for the “right way” to do things

We can be our own worst enemy by holding ourselves to an impossible standard for how things should be done. Like thinking our kids birthday party *must* have a homemade cake and carefully curated favor bags. Or feeling like it’s only a quality meal if everything is from scratch. It makes it hard to take shortcuts that cut our time obligations, and accept help where it would be valuable. Where might we be taking more time than needed to because our standards are unrelenting? 

We can also do this at work, by sprinting towards artificially aggressive timelines, or producing way too much, simply because we didn’t clarify what’s being asked. We’ve seen it often: a well meaning employee working all night because they thought the report needed to be in tomorrow, when next week would have been fine. Or creating a robust analysis from scratch to provide high accuracy, when an estimate would have been just fine. 

Ambiguous Priorities

When we’re overwhelmed and overloaded, we can slip into a reactive mode, letting our calendar and to-do list manage us. We then default to what’s urgent, or what’s right in front of us, rather than what’s really important. According to one study, people are spending more than half their day doing busy work. The important stuff then doesn’t get done, and stays hanging over our head. 


The silver lining

The good news is that awareness is the first step. Just by building our understanding of the multiple things gobbling up our time, we can start to shift our relationship with these demands and become more intentional about our choices. If time traps are rampant in your life, it means there’s lots of opportunity for you to create space, and bring back some space and ease to your days. 

TODAY (literally right now) you can start implementing some of the Time Trap Fixes we’ve laid out in our downloadable guide (it’s zero bucks, so make sure you snag it, we PROMISE it’s worth your time): 7 common time traps that keep career women feeling overwhelmed, and 7 easy actions to start defeating them today! In this guide, we lay out some specific, actionable strategies that will help you free up time in your day. Small interventions can make a big difference.  

Here’s an example: We talked about the Time Trap of Defaulting to Yes (it’s a common one folks!). How do you overcome this reflexive helpfulness? You build skills to defer giving an answer. The goal is not to immediately start saying no to every request, but to break the habit of immediately saying yes. You can do that by saying things like:

  • “Thanks for thinking of me, let me check my calendar and get back to you”
  • “I’m working on a big project, let me take a look at my capacity and circle back tomorrow”

Does this mean you’re saying no? Not necessarily. What you are doing is giving yourself the space to really consider whether “Yes” is the right call at this moment. You are interrupting the habit of being generous with your time with everyone but yourself.

The guide has six more time traps, and some easy interventions that would help. If you struggle with time (like basically everyone we know), we know you’ll find these really helpful. Let us know what you think!


If you could benefit from a bigger reset…

This stuff is hard. It’s hard to make interventions and modifications to life when you are IN IT. When everything and everyone is demanding your attention, your energy, your gifts and your time. That is exactly why we created the Mindfulness Incubator Resilience Immersion. This is a 4 day, 3 night retreat hosted at the absolutely gorgeous KitFox Luxury Glamping Resort in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This experience is curated for busy, overworked, overwhelmed women who are craving the space, support and community to reset, build their resilience, and create a more sustainable and rewarding path for themselves. We are opening registration to this incredible, intimate, unforgettable experience. You can learn more about the retreat here.

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