There is an 8 out of 10 chance that you are one of the poorest people in the world. However, when I say you’re poor, I’m not talking about your bank account (although material poverty is indeed a pressing concern for many of us).
Rather, I mean you are time poor: You have too many things to do and not enough time to do them. Time poverty affects all cultures and crosses all economic strata. Most of us feel this way.
If you’re worried that this is some kind of first-world problem and that you should just get on with it, don’t. Time poverty is a serious problem, with serious costs for individuals and society. The data that I and others have amassed show a correlation between time poverty and misery. People who are time poor are less happy, less productive and more stressed out. They exercise less, eat fattier food and have a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease. Time poverty forces us to compromise. Instead of preparing a nutritious dinner, we grab chips and guac and munch mindlessly while staring at our screens.
The most obvious explanation is that we simply spend more time working than previous generations but evidence doesn’t support this theory. Time diaries show that men’s leisure time in the US, for instance, has increased six to nine hours a week in the past 50 years, while women’s has increased four to eight hours a week.
Why, then, do we feel more time poor than ever?
Time poverty doesn’t arise from a mismatch between the hours we have and the hours we need; it results from how we think about and value those hours. It’s as much psychological as it is structural. We are ceaselessly connected. When free time arrives, we are unprepared to use it so we waste it. Or, we tell ourselves we shouldn’t take a break so we work right through it.
The first step to becoming time smart is to identify the time traps in your life.
Time trap #1: Technology interruptions break our hours into confetti
Technology saves us time, but it also takes it away — this is known as the autonomy paradox. We adopt mobile technologies to gain autonomy over when and how long we work, yet ironically we end up working all the time. Long blocks of free time that we used to enjoy are now interrupted constantly by our devices. This situation taxes us cognitively and fragments our leisure time in a way that makes it hard to use.
I and other researchers call this phenomenon “time confetti”, the little bits of seconds and minutes lost to unproductive multitasking. Each bit alone is not very bad, but all that confetti adds up to something more pernicious.
Consider this example. Let’s say you have one hour of leisure at 7PM. During that hour, you receive two emails, check both and respond to one; four Twitter notifications, and you thumb through the replies for one of them; three Slack notifications from colleagues asking you questions or a favor, of which you answer one and ignore two; one alarm reminding you to call your mother tomorrow on her birthday; and four texts from a friend trying to make plans for next weekend, all four of which you reply to.
Each of these events takes only seconds — but collectively they create two negative effects. The first is the sheer volume of time they take away from your hour. A few seemingly harmless interruptions can usurp 10 percent of this leisure time. However, research shows that our estimates of interruptions is conservative, so typically it may be worse than this.
The second and more invasive effect of time confetti is the way it fragments an hour of leisure. Most likely, these interruptions are randomly distributed throughout your hour so the hour of leisure becomes several smaller chunks, sometimes only five or six minutes long. Even if you’re disciplined about not responding or not responding very quickly, the interruptions undermine the quality of those chunks of leisure time by reminding you of all the activities that you could or should be doing.
It also takes time to cognitively recover from shifting our minds from the present to a stress-inducing activity. People end up enjoying their free time less and, when asked to reflect on it, estimate that they had less free time than they actually did. Time confetti makes us feel even more time impoverished than we actually are.
Time trap #2: We focus too much on money
Another trap is a cultural obsession with work and making money. We are taught — incorrectly — that money, not time, will bring greater happiness.
Research shows that money protects against sadness but doesn’t buy joy. Once we make enough money to pay our bills, save for the future and have some fun, making more does little for our happiness.
In data from 1.7 million people in 165 countries, researchers figured out the exact dollar amount at which added money no longer increases happiness. After we make USD$65,000/year — or $60,000 globally — money stops predicting how much we laugh or smile each day. After we make USD$105,000/year ($95,000 globally), money stops predicting how well we think we are doing in life.
If anything, once people make a lot of money — $105,000/year in the United States — they start thinking they are doing worse in life. When we become rich, we begin to compare our lives to people even richer than we are.
Having money definitely shields us from stress. When your car breaks down, money provides a solution. And having cash on hand even provides peace of mind in the absence of a crisis. But staving off negative outcomes is different from creating happier ones.
I will repeat this point, because it’s so important: Money does not buy joy.
A culture obsessed with making more money believes, wrongly, that the way to become more time affluent is to become financially wealthier. We think, “I’ll work hard and make more so that I can afford more leisure time later.” This is the wrong solution. Focusing on chasing wealth leads only to an increased focus on chasing wealth.
Time trap #3: We undervalue our time
Because of a cultural obsession with money, many people protect their money in ways that are counterproductive to time affluence.
In one survey, 52 percent of people who were financially comfortable but extremely time poor — working parents with young kids — said they’d rather have more money than more time. Asked how they would spend a hypothetical $100 prize to increase their happiness, only 2 percent of working parents said they would spend this money to save time, such as by having groceries delivered. People who could clearly afford to value time — people who had an average of $3 million in the bank — still said that they would rather have more money.
It’s hard for us to measure time’s value. Even if we’re making a bad trade-off between time and money — such as driving two miles out of our way to save 10 cents per gallon on gas — it doesn’t feel like a bad choice. That’s because we don’t really know the worth of the time it took.
When you book a trip with connecting flights to get a slightly cheaper price, you are falling into a time trap. Suppose you save $300 on that flight, but it takes 8 hours total out of your vacation time and increases your fatigue and stress because you have to get up early and switch planes. Would you pay $300 for an extra eight hours of vacation — a full workday’s worth — along with less stress and fatigue?
The trap is simple: We reflexively go for the lowest cost when we shouldn’t. Let’s look at the gas example more closely. You consistently drive an extra six minutes to a different station to save 15 cents per gallon, and you go in for a 15-gallon fill-up four times a month. Impulsively it seems worth it — six minutes isn’t that much, and the savings will add up.
15 cents × 15 gallons = $2.25 saved per trip
$2.25 × 4 visits per month = $9.00 saved per month
$9.00 per month over 12 months = $108 saved per year
But someone aware of time traps would see it differently:
6 minutes per trip × 4 visits per month = 24 minutes lost per month
24 minutes per month × 12 months = 4.8 hours lost per year
Looking at it this way, you’ve spent almost five hours to save $108. This doesn’t take into account the opportunity cost of what you could have done with that five hours instead of driving out of your way to save money.
You might still feel that this trade-off is worth it. But doing these calculations puts a different lens on time value, which we tend to grossly underestimate.
Time trap #4: We regard busyness as a status symbol
More than ever, our identities are tied to work. The best data show that people living in the US increasingly look toward work — not friends, families or hobbies — to find purpose. In a 2017 survey, 95 percent of young adults said that having an “enjoyable and meaningful career” was “extremely important” to them.
Given the importance that we place on work, busyness at work carries status. We wear it like a badge of honor. We want to be seen as the employee who works the longest hours, even when these hours aren’t productive.
Financial insecurity also drives workism, and it’s on the rise. As society becomes more unequal, people feel increasingly insecure about their financial future, regardless of their current stature. Those doing well worry about how far they could fall. Those struggling to make ends meet fear falling farther behind.
With our self-identity so wrapped up in work and productivity, the social appearance of being busy makes us feel good about ourselves. In contrast, focusing our attention on something other than work can threaten our livelihood and status. We worry we won’t be valued, and, in part, we are right.
Turns out employers are mostly rewarding the cult of busyness. Research shows that employees who boast about working nonstop and being extremely busy are seen by others as better workers who have more money and prestige, even if they don’t. They’re even thought to be more physically attractive.
Even if it feels good in the moment for someone to see the email you sent on Saturday at 8:30PM, this behavior contributes to an unhealthy, unhappy life.
Time trap #5: We have an aversion to idleness
Even if we lived in a perfectly equal society, we would still create time stress for ourselves because human beings are not built for idleness.
Researchers call this idleness aversion, and it makes us do some strange things. Dan Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, placed some college students in an empty room and gave them nothing to do. Many preferred giving themselves mild electric shocks to being left alone with their thoughts. Another study showed that working parents felt “bored” and “stressed” during leisure activities, signaling that even the most time poor among us don’t know how to relax.
Technology may help us avoid being alone with our thoughts, but it is a trap that contributes to stress and time poverty. Being constantly connected to our devices prevents the brain from recovering, keeps our stress levels elevated and takes us out of the present.
In fact, idleness has been shown to be a valuable form of leisure and can increase time affluence. The physical and mental benefits of disengaging the brain are far more valuable than the stress created by keeping the mind engaged at all times.
Time trap #6: We think we have more time tomorrow than we actually do
Most of us are overly optimistic about our future time. We mistakenly believe that we will have more time tomorrow than we do today. This is sometimes referred to as the “planning fallacy” I call it the “Yes … damn!” effect. Let me explain.
Last Monday, a friend asked if I could help her move on Saturday. No problem. On Tuesday, a colleague asked me to look over her report by Saturday. I said yes. On Wednesday, another friend invited me out for dinner on Saturday at a new restaurant that I wanted to try. I said yes. I said yes over and over and over until Saturday morning, when I woke up and thought, “Damn! What was I thinking!”
Actually, as a happiness researcher, I know what I was thinking: “Even though I’m too busy now, Saturday is a ways off, and I’ll have time to do these things.”
Statistically, the best predictor of how busy we are going to be next week is how busy we are right now. Our minds frequently forget this important point and trick us into believing we’ll have more time later than we do now. This overoptimism means that we’re cavalier with our yeses, even for small stuff we don’t want to do. We also want to say yes; we see it as a way to overcome idleness and feel productive, connected, valued, respected and loved.
But where does the time to fulfill these yeses come from? From the leisure time that we could be using to feel more time affluent, of course. Ironically, perpetual busyness undermines the goals that we set out to achieve with all our busyness in the first place.
While these are the six most common time traps, of course there are many other reasons that we fail to prioritize time. For now, your goal should be to recognize and document the time traps that you fall into most often.
Keep in mind: Your time traps won’t be the same as other people’s. What makes it a trap for you is that it makes you unhappy and steals time that you would otherwise use in a way that makes you happy.
We all have the power to overcome the time traps we have fallen victim to. Like getting fit, increasing your time affluence requires taking small, deliberate steps each day to have more free time and enjoy it. And like getting fit, it’s not easy at first. Both our society and our psychology make these time traps extremely appealing.
Keeping the exercise metaphor going, just as you shouldn’t punish yourself for not being perfect in your workout habits, don’t ever beat yourself up about being bad at prioritizing time. Multiple forces are making it difficult. We don’t naturally respond to time poverty in a way that controls it. In fact, when we feel busy, studies show that we take on small, easy-to-complete tasks because they help us feel more control over our time. In this case, it’s a false sense of control that doesn’t alleviate the root cause of our busyness.
Even though time poverty feels the same for everyone, time affluence looks different for everyone. It could mean spending 15 more minutes strumming the guitar instead of scrolling through your phone, or it could be 10 minutes of meditation or a Saturday morning learning how to invest your savings instead of Slacking about work gossip.
No matter what time affluence looks like for you, the happiest and most time affluent among us are deliberate with their free time. Working toward time affluence is about recognizing and overcoming the time traps in our lives and intentionally carving out happier and more meaningful moments each day.
Excerpted from the new book Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life by Ashley Whillans. Copyright © 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. All rights reserved.
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