With more people now than ever working from home, traditional office hours are becoming a thing of the past for some: it is not uncommon to hear those who have kept their jobs say they work longer hours now than they did before the lockdown. Evidence supports this.
LinkedIn research alongside the Mental Health Foundation found that those working from home during the pandemic are racking up an extra 28 hours of monthly overtime since lockdown began. This amounts to almost an additional four days’ work per month. For those working from home, managing their time can be difficult because it is scarce. And precisely because it is scarce, they may not manage their time well.
It is important to recognise that scarcity is not simply an accounting concept. It is an emotional response. People exposed to scarcity feel they are rushed even if they may not be. As a result, they narrow their thought processes leading to a tunnelling process that focuses on one objective while ignoring wider effects. The feeling of scarcity means that they have little mental bandwidth to concentrate in a way that allows either rational or slow and deliberate thought.
There is plenty of scarcity
Scarcity affects almost everyone. Various experiments show that when people are placed into an environment where a particular item is scarce, their decisions differ from those who are placed into the same environment but with a relative abundance of the same item. This is irrespective of their background. Typically, the items that can be controlled in these experiments are money and time. Interestingly, those who have plenty of money but are so busy that time becomes scarce, appear to make decisions when it comes to time that echo the monetary decisions of those for whom money is limited.
Many of us would have seen it or experienced it. When time is tight, meetings may be booked back-to-back throughout the day or week. Unfinished work is pushed to the end of the day, creating long working hours and exhaustion. You turn up late to the restaurant for dinner with friends despite guaranteeing them that you would be on time.
These time allocation problems are similar to the monetary allocation problems seen for those for whom money is tight. Bills are not paid on time so they are delayed, risking late payment fees or default. You may have borrowed money from a friend or family member just to tide you over until pay day but an unexpected bill arrives and you pay your friend back late.
The easy answer to managing scarcity is to have more of what is scarce. But that is tautology. The required item would not be scarce if there was more of it. Therefore, the scarce item must be identified and managed. When it comes to time, having external factors force a change in how time is used might help. Like a day each week deliberately set aside to meet with family and others, such as followed by some religions.
It can be more difficult with money. Using auto payments to ensue bills are paid on time and budgeting expenditure to ensure it is spread evenly so you do not run out of money before you are next paid can help. But when money is very tight, this may not be possible. Difficult choices may be unavoidable and persistent.
You could dismiss those complaining about the pressures of working from home as people who are poor at managing their time. For some, they may truly have less time because working from home allows others to place an extra call on their time. Parents with children may face this problem. For others, the pressures of working from home and the difficulty of allocating their time may have changed the way they think about it. An external intervention allowing them to change the way they make decisions may be necessary.
And as experiments have suggested, nobody is immune to the effects of scarcity.
This piece is based on an article originally published on think.ing.com.