How to Reclaim Your Time and Happiness

Behavioural Scientist Dr. Ashley Whillans shares scientific backed tools to achieve time affluence and increase life satisfaction.

Dr. Ashley Whillans is a Harvard Business School Professor, twice named Rising Star of Behavioral Science, TEDx speaker, and author of the book ‘Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life’. Her research has been published in top academic journals and popular media outlets including Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. She’s also a member of the UN Global Happiness Council, advancing the global scientific study of wellbeing and a Senior Advisor for the Gallup Organization. 

Can you explain the concept of time poverty, why it’s so pervasive and the effect that it has on us? 

Time poverty is the feeling of having too many things to do and not enough time to do them. In a dataset with 3 million Americans, over 80% reported feeling like they didn’t have enough time to do all the things that they wanted, or had to do. These feelings of time poverty had a stronger negative effect on happiness than being unemployed. Our brains are wired to maximize measured mediums, meaning that we go after tangible goals. However, the goal of becoming more time affluent and happier, or having more leisure time, is harder to track and quantify. From data, we know that in times of uncertainty, we focus more on money as opposed to time. Organizational factors like the need to be constantly responsive can also make us feel time-poor. 

Why is it that we undervalue our time so much and how can we shift our mindset to begin to value our time more? 

We often ask research participants ‘Do you value time more than money or money more than time?’. From a large sample of working adults, the results showed a slight preference for time, and people who prioritized time reported greater happiness than people who prioritized money. People who cultivate a time first mindset, regardless of how much money they have in the bank, spend slightly more time each day socializing and are more likely to engage in volunteering. They also make major life decisions more in line with their values which helps them feel happier on a daily basis. 

Despite all the benefits of valuing time, there are barriers to it. Work culture often leads us to focus on money. We’re taught to believe that money is a proxy for success, that professional success equals personal fulfilment and achievement. In many countries, people have a myth that leisure equals laziness. That means that we feel the need to be constantly working, even in our free time. 

First, we need to recognize when we focus more on money than time. Being aware of when you find yourself working on the weekend, through a lunch break, or simply spending too much time trying to find the best deal, offers the opportunity to make changes that will make you more time affluent. 

You’ve spoken about this always-on work culture. How is this affecting us and what are some of the time traps that are being exacerbated by this environment? 

One key factor that makes people feel time-poor is what researchers call time confetti. Our digital communication devices get in the way of us having uninterrupted time to focus on work or to enjoy our leisure. Pre-pandemic data shows that we actually have more discretionary time available to us than in previous decades because of technology, but we feel more pressed for time than ever. This is driven in part by the fact that we’re being constantly distracted and disrupted through our email, Slack, and phone calls. These disruptions undermine our ability to be present in the moment, truly enjoy our leisure or get deep work done. 

During COVID-19, objective Microsoft data has shown the workday has expanded by about 50 minutes, or about the amount of time that we used to spend commuting to the office. Because the virtual environment requires more collaboration, we no longer have clear breaks, boundaries and transitions between work and home. This creates a more always on culture than we had before. 

So while technology helps us feel more productive and manage when and how we work, sometimes the opposite ends up happening? 

This constant distraction doesn’t just undermine the satisfaction that we get from our leisure but it can also make us unproductive at work. My colleagues have gathered data showing that simply having your phone out on the desk produces cognitive decreases that are similar to having not slept enough the night before. This is why it’s so important for teams to try to set clear norms around the use of email and Slack so that we can be effective in the hours that we’re working and actually enjoy our leisure time when we’re not. 

Can you share any other examples of time-traps? 

When we’re feeling busy and overwhelmed, we often gravitate toward completing tasks that are urgent but not important, this is known as the mere urgency effect. This can help to explain why our inbox is empty when we’re working under an important project deadline. Answering every email can give us a sense of satisfaction without actually affecting our long term goals. 

In terms of time affluence, what are some of the most important science-backed strategies for freeing up our time? 

I want to underscore the importance of consistently making small decisions daily. I talk about how becoming more time affluent is akin to becoming more physically fit. It’s about making small decisions each day that help us feel more present in the moment and spending more time doing things that we want to do, in addition to things that we have to do. Spending 10 – 30 minutes engaged in leisure is often enough to create a positive mood, but where do we find these 30 minutes each day? 

The first thing we can do is what’s called a time audit. Find out what activities you do daily and how you feel during these activities. If you are engaging in unproductive, unpleasant activities, ask yourself if you can outsource that activity or not do it at all. If you can’t get rid of it by outsourcing it, saying no to it in the future or delegating the task, maybe you can re-frame it or bundle it with something else – for example by listening to some background music you enjoy. 

Setting clear norms within your teams is another strategy. This involves breaks, boundaries and transitions. In interconnected teams, having a conversation at the beginning of the week about norms that you want to try, for example no email communication between 12-1. Once you’ve set these norms, check-in at the end of the day or week to hold your teams accountable. Discuss whether you were able to achieve your personal goals and if not, why? Work together to try to make sure you’re all getting the breaks and boundaries that are so important. 

Scheduling proactive time in your calendar is another strategy. These are 1-2 hour blocks working on your most important tasks. Turn off all distractions and tell your team that you’re going to be scheduling this one hour block with yourself. Make sure they know if something is urgent they can call you, but you won’t be available over email during that time. 

You speak about doing a time audit and outsourcing some activities. What are quantifiable benefits of doing this and prioritizing time more? 

Putting time first is hard because this is an abstract concept and money is easier to measure – more is better, and we can see how much we have in the bank. To help people overcome the psychological hurdle of putting time first, in my research I have calculated the happiness benefits of making time-first choices and translated those happiness benefits into income earned. In one analysis, people who spent money to outsource disliked tasks each month experienced life satisfaction gains equivalent to making $12,000 more of household income per year. Even just shifting your mindset from prioritising money to prioritising time produces the happiness equivalent of making $4,400 more of household income per year. 

What should organizations and leaders be doing to support people to balance their time and manage it more effectively? 

We have new research analysing workplace behavior in burnout and time stress. We look at employees’ willingness to ask for more time on adjustable deadlines at work. We saw that employees often hesitate to ask for more time, even when deadlines are explicitly adjustable,  because they worry about seeming incompetent. When people feel more comfortable asking for time on adjustable deadlines, they report less stress, less burnout. Managers see employees who proactively asked for more time as more committed and more motivated because ultimately managers care about quality over speed. To help people feel more comfortable asking for more time, set formal policies for extension requests. It’s important for leaders to not only set clear norms but also to model the behavior they would like to see in their teams. 

Would you agree that right now feels like an especially important time for organizations to be reassessing what’s important for people and how they can support them? 

A few months ago we published a study in HBR where we surveyed a group of employees and identified what the top three predictors of employee engagement were right before the winter holidays. We observed that within organizations that are helping employees have flexibility and control over their time, time affluence is one of the top three predictors of employee engagement. We need to be thinking about how we can all help each other and empower ourselves to put time first and work in a more flexible and enjoyable way. 

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