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“I don’t have enough time”

It’s a phrase I hear every day: “I don’t have enough time to do that.”

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the trivial things we say, particularly when a poor choice of words can obscure our meaning.  Conventional wisdom supports “calling it like it is,” but taking an objective view is rarely as easy as that.  Our use of language is inescapably tied to our personal experience of the world, and therefore pure objectivity in speech is virtually absurd.  Perhaps instead we should “call it by its true name,” which is sufficiently mystical and subjective to get to the heart of the matter.

What do we mean when we say that we don’t have time?  If a task would require two hours, but is due in an hour, then we don’t have time to do it.  Who could argue with that?  However, more frequently, we mean “I can’t do that in addition to everything else I’m doing.”  If I have a full week’s work to do, and something new comes in which would require a whole day to complete, I might say that I “can’t” do it this week because “I don’t have the time.”  I clearly have enough time, though, because a day is less than a week.  If the task were important enough, I would do it instead of something else.

This brings us a step closer to what we really mean, which is “that is less important than my other obligations.”  What a difference it makes to consider the situation in this way!  I have shifted from a position of powerlessness (“I can’t”) to one of decisiveness (“I choose not to”).  Nothing about my circumstances has changed, but I’m now communicating a different view of the world, one in which I’m taking responsibility for my choice.  This also opens the way for discussing what your priorities are, and making adjustments if circumstances have changed.

In other news, I’m told that London youth have taken to saying “I have a lot of time for that” to mean that they like something.


Written by Matt Zimmerman

April 13, 2009 at 04:08

Posted in Uncategorized

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13 Responses

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  1. It’s something older people say not the yoof… and it really only applies to people ie

    “I have a lot of time for Mark Shuttleworth”

    Meaning I respect him so I’ll listen to what he has to say


    April 13, 2009 at 06:44

  2. I totally agree with you. Often “I do not have time.” means “I don’t want to to take the time for this.”

    That is why I try to avoid “I do not have time.”

    Dirk Deimeke

    April 13, 2009 at 07:52

  3. haha, that is a great way to express liking something. go go london youths.


    April 13, 2009 at 13:54

  4. I think some people have very poor time management skills and they barely manage to do anything right.

    Dread Knight

    April 13, 2009 at 15:57

    • Some people do have trouble managing their time. The most critical skill in time management, though, is knowing what is the most important task you can work on at a particular moment. If someone is excellent at tracking and completing tasks, but they’re working on the wrong things, then their time is still wasted.

      By considering our priorities thoroughly, we can make better decisions about how to manage our time. I think that making that decision explicit, rather than concealing it behind “time”, is one way to do a better job at prioritization.


      April 14, 2009 at 16:32

      • In my opinion one of the main failures is to think, that anyone is able to manage time. You can fill the time you have in a senseful manner, but time goes by and you can nothing do about this.

        At least I agree, it is all about prioritization. Nothing more or less. Sounds easy, but this is the most difficult thing as others want to dictate _their_ opinion about _your_ priorities.

        Dirk Deimeke

        April 14, 2009 at 19:42

  5. […] pode ler todo post no blog do […]

  6. I’m not sure I agree with the phrasing “that is less important than my other obligations.” Checking RSS feeds is not an obligation, it’s an addiction. Yet for some reason it tends to displace useful tasks such as integrating patches people send me over email.

    Marius Gedminas

    April 14, 2009 at 16:15

    • I suppose I could have been more specific about what I mean by importance. In this instance, I’m referring to the level of importance which is demonstrated by your behavior. That may not match your abstract notion of what is important to you, but if so, that’s a different problem. :-)

      My point is that you’re making a value judgement (this is more important, or this is what I prefer), not a quantitative analysis (this is greater/less than that).


      April 14, 2009 at 16:29

  7. @Marius: That is perfectly true … ;-)

    Dirk Deimeke

    April 14, 2009 at 16:25

  8. You are absolutely correct about what people mean when they say, “I don’t have time for that,” but I disagree with your prescription.

    People say, “I don’t have time for that,” because it is more polite — and often nicer — to the person asking them than saying, “I don’t think that a task is important or valuable enough for me to do it.”

    Your way would be more honest. But, for better or worse, brutal honesty is not how we usually communicate.

    Benjamin Mako Hill

    April 18, 2009 at 23:50

    • I don’t think that being honest is necessarily brutal in this case. I think that depends more on tone than content.

      My point was that “I don’t have the time” is a closed statement, leaving little room for discussion and negotiation. If we are open instead, explaining the judgement I’m making, then we can discuss and seek a third alternative.

      For instance, if I say that I have an urgent task to do, and therefore can’t help you, perhaps you could help me with it and thereby free some of my “time” (priority attention) so that we both benefit.


      April 19, 2009 at 12:24

  9. Do you read Seth Godin at all? I think he’s quite brilliant, I can recommend his feed. He recommends that you make all the choices you can as fast as possible to free up your time for other things:



    April 26, 2009 at 14:15

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