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.