How to Find Time for New Habits

“I’m too busy to exercise.”

Even if it were true, it isn’t a reasonable excuse. Exercise gives you more energy to do work. In many ways, most people are too busy not to exercise. But still, a lot of people feel they don’t have time for starting new habits like exercise, reading or doing extra work. Being able to find time is a big obstacle in starting new habits.

I’d like to make two arguments. These are generalizations, so while they may not be true in specific cases, I’d say they apply to most people, most of the time.

  1. Time is never the most limited resource in your day.
  2. A lack of attention, not time, is what prevents you from adding new habits.

You Have Enough Time

Even when you’re extremely busy, you aren’t using your time with 100% efficiency. There are gaps in everyone’s schedule where they aren’t doing anything important. Even if your schedule has no gaps, there are probably chunks of time where you aren’t working as fast or as effectively as you possibly could.

Why aren’t you completely efficient? It’s because time isn’t the limiting factor. If it were the limiting factor, people could work non-stop without breaks or any unproductive distractions. Instead people, even those who are highly productive, need to take breaks, occasionally procrastinate and slow down on tasks throughout the day.

The real limiting factor for productivity is your energy levels and ability to pay attention. Energy levels limit your productivity because when you’re tired, you can have ample time and still not get everything done. Your attention span is even more limited, because even if there are a million things that need to be done, you can only focus on one or two at a time.

You might not be able to insert another 4-5 hours into your schedule without making some sacrifices. But even extremely busy people can add an hour or two into their schedule without eliminating something. The reason it’s hard to “find time” isn’t a lack of time. It’s because you don’t have the attention span left to focus on something else that needs to fit into your day.

I first suspected time wasn’t the real problem during an extremely busy period in my life over a year ago. I was insanely busy, but at this time I still exercised regularly. I had daily to-do lists with over twenty items, and I still found time to exercise.

However, after a few weeks off, due to illness, I stopped exercising. I was not busy by any standards, in fact, my schedule was incredibly light. Despite this free time, I found it hard to find time to exercise. It seemed to get pushed later and later into my schedule until it was gone. How could I explain this odd experience?

Paying Attention is Expensive

Some studies estimate that there are close to eleven thousand sensory inputs into your brain during any second, but you only process around forty consciously. This means out of everything you could be thinking about, you are reduced to examining less than one percent.

Even when you do think, you’re handicapped. Your short-term memory, or active memory, can only hold about 7 items at a time (why do you think phone numbers are typically 7 digits long?). Your attention is extremely limited, and given the amount of things you do each day, paying attention is very expensive.

I believe this lack of attention is the main culprit in finding time for new habits. You may have very little time, but you have even less attention. Even if you could find an hour or two to spare for exercising, reading or a new activity, it’s mentally costly to keep reminding yourself to do it. New habits have a start-up cost that you pay with attention.

Finding Time for New Habits

There isn’t much you can do to free up more attention. But you can be smart in your usage of it. Forming a habit makes continuing much easier because, after several weeks, you stop thinking about it. My exercise during the busy period in my life was easy because it no longer required thought. When I stopped for a few weeks, I suddenly needed reminders, which made finding time more difficult.

You can reduce the attention needed to start a new habit by writing it down. Write it into your to-do lists, and place it on Post Its around your house. If you allow the environment to remind you of your habit, you can cut down on the amount of internal attention you need to use to remember it.

The best way to find time is to focus on it. If you can focus on a new habit for a few weeks, you can find the attention to make it a habit. Once exercise, reading, studying or whatever you want to do becomes a habit, it won’t cost you anything to keep going. Attention is the currency of productivity, so if you want to find time for anything, find the energy to pay attention first.


  • This was really well-written…It’s true- people will often claim that they don’t have time to workout or do the things that they really enjoy when, in fact, the truth is that they have plenty of “time” to make excuses. If something is really important to you, you make the time for it. For example, I like to workout. I know that if I go to work, by the time the end of the day rolls around, I may be too tired to work out or will have something come up-giving me the perfect excuse not to do it. My solution? I get my butt out of bed most mornings at 6am to go for my 6 mile run, this way it’s done. I not only feel better, but then I can relax and start the day feeling fresh and energized :)

  • I guarantee that at least ninety percent of the people who say they don’t have enough time, also have cable.

  • Not having time is one of a myriad of excuses people will use. The bottom line is, if you want to do something bad enough, you will find time to do it. To me, exercise is a top priority if you want to live a healthy life.

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  • I agree with Pete, if you want to do something – or it is important enough to you – You will find the time.
    Don’t you always make time for your favorite tv show?
    Don’t you always make time to pick up the kids from school?
    Don’t you make time to visit your friends?

    Don’t you think it’s time to get your priorities straight and make the time to develop more positive habits that will enhance your life?

  • I think your point about attention is vital. I do think we can learn to direct our attention more effectively. It is astonishing just how diffuse we are. You;re right – we do have time.

  • Very good. One key that helps in ensuring that you make time for important goals like exercise is to put them down as written goals.

    I use a weekly planning system (found here: in order to set goals for the important areas of my life.

    By following a system which requires that I write down my goals and schedule the big goals, I’m able to better ensure that I use the time I have wisely.

  • “The real limiting factor for productivity is your energy levels and ability to pay attention”

    That is a great insight.

    You have to start the day making your body strong first, with some exercise and some healthy meal. You’ll find the work becomes much easier to do and you’ll be mush productive.

    Then remove or minimize the distractions and interruptions. The most valuable time and attention spent is focused time and attention.

  • Its a nice article which gives us lots of information on how to take out time for new habits.

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  • What you’re talking about, Scott, is what I call resource management. These resources not only include time and attention, but also available energy, effort, motivation, systems and processes (of various kinds), environmental structure, support, money, and more.

    Ironically, most of us sacrifice on sleep in order to focus on more “productive tasks” but lack of sleep only reduces our ability to focus and our available energy levels to get through each day.

    There’s a new concept I call “procrastivity” – significantly enhanced productivity achieved through intelligently and creatively applying intentional procrastination. More about the concept and application of procrastivity can be found at

    Thanks, Scott, for a more holistic perspective on productivity and resource management!

  • It is a good point you made that the attention required to develop a new habit makes the habit difficult to acquire. It is easy to forget to do your habit one day, and that just makes it easier to forget the next day, and before you know it you’re back to square one again. Since it takes 21 consequetive repetitions of a habit for it to be securely established, it often takes a very long time to happen.

    I have found that one thing that sometimes helps me is to attach the new habit to another habit that is already established. Doing the established habit will remind me to do the new one too.

  • very nice post. its that old story about our ability to find time to do things that we really enjoy.

    i suspect, however, that attention is not like money or time. i mean that it doesnt get less when we pay it. when i am attentive in even small things, i seem to enhance my ability to give attention, not reduce it.

  • RaAr

    Some more points like to add. Every one have lot of to do list till his life ends, these keep on going. Some of the activity realy need to do present & regular, some we can postpond which can be done on later stage which depends upon our urgency, so you have to plan about which need to give priority & do that first or regular. Sometime some can be shifted have close look on your todo list. Its true that reminding todo activity regular that leads us towards to do that activity.

  • I found this a very cool article. Well done!

    It reminds me of yet another benefit of mindfulness meditation in which one learns to increase the power of focused attention.

    It also points out how being physically unhealthy can be a hole very hard to crawl out of. If you have no energy it is hard to start the upwards spiral so you can have energy to do the things that will give you energy.


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  • Excellent information here.

  • If you have no energy it is really hard to start upwards spiral

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  • The biggest mistake people make (as I used to) is trying to do too much at a time. They start thinking about changing a habit and all the other habits that they want to change rise up in their minds, causing confusion, overwhelm and lowering their motivation…

    The solution is simple – pick just ONE habit, on simple shift in behavior, and focus all your energy on breaking or creating it (for at least 3 weeks).

    Maybe later, once you’re “trained” in the process and your self esteem got stronger, you can advance to creating more than one change at time…

    • frank carter

      but remember during down times that  you are a human being not a human doing        grasshopper

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