When thinking about the future, it’s very easy to think about our decisions—both major ones, such as a job change or a new home, and small, everyday ones such as where to fill up your gas tank—in terms of dollars and cents, yet it is very hard to think about what it costs to give up our time to have that money. This money-focused mind-set can have seriously negative consequences for our happiness. Research shows that being willing to give up money to have more leisure time is a predictor of greater happiness, better relationships, less stress, even being more physically fit.
Researchers define “time poverty” as the feeling of having too many things to do—both professional and personal—and not enough time to do them. An astonishing 80% of working Americans report feeling time-poor. My research shows that the emotional impact of being time-poor can be greater than the emotional impact of being unemployed. We all should strive toward greater time-affluence, which is the opposite of time-poverty. Another way of thinking about time-affluence is that if you could write out the time spent in your ideal day in terms of social, work and leisure, your ideal day and your actual day would be congruent with one another.
Here are a few of my favorite tips for bringing more time-affluence into your life…
ACCOUNT FOR YOUR TIME
It’s critical to account for your time because it easily goes missing. Try this: At the end of next Tuesday (I suggest a Tuesday because Tuesdays tend to be average workdays), fill out a time diary to observe how you spend your time. What activities did you do? How positive did you feel those activities were? How meaningful? If you find that you’re stuck in frustrating meetings or other activities that zap your energy 80% of every day, is that really how you want to spend your life?
Then think consciously about choosing time over money. We know very well, from decades of research, that a $10,000 raise will give you a half-point bump on a 10-point happiness scale. But there are many other things we can do that will give us a similar happiness boost. So think about each tiny decision you make in a day as having an income equivalent in terms of happiness. For example, just shifting your mind-set from valuing money to valuing time—in the absence of changing your behavior at all—is worth the income equivalent (in terms of happiness) of making $2,200 more personal income a year. Spending 30 minutes exercising every day will give you a mood bump that our research shows is equivalent to earning an additional $1,800 a year. For people who tend toward valuing money over time, being mindful of these dollar equivalents on activities helps improve life balance.
AVOID THESE “TIME TRAPS”
A time trap is something that makes you time-poor but that you might not even be aware you’re doing. Learning to recognize and correct for these traps can ratchet up your time-affluence…
Technology trap. The reason we’re all so time-poor isn’t necessarily because we’re working more hours. We actually have more leisure time than we used to. The problem is that our leisure time gets broken into small, unsavory moments of free time that are easily lost because our technology is constantly pinging us. Our brains are sucked out of the present moment and thrown into the online environment, which undermines our enjoyment of the present. (I call these shredded-up bits of freedom “time confetti.”) The solution is simple—when it’s time for leisure, turn off your phone and choose to focus on something you really want to do rather than piddling it away on social media.
“Yes…Damn!” effect. As part of human nature, we believe that we’ll have more time in the future than we do in the present, so we overcommit our tomorrow even though we’re very busy today (“Yes, I’ll help you move next Saturday…Damn! I didn’t know I’d be this busy.”). To avoid this trap, ask yourself, If I couldn’t do it in the next two hours, should I really be saying yes to doing it next week?
Undervalued time. People who value money over time often will spend hours researching a purchase for days in order to save 50 bucks or will choose a flight with lots of connections in order to save $75 in airfare. It’s easy to understand why we make such choices—we readily comprehend the value of $50 or $75 but have a harder time valuing the time lost. Yet such decisions do have a cost.
For example, I’ve calculated that habitually driving six minutes farther to save five cents per gallon of gas will, in a year, have saved $108 and cost nearly five hours of time. That puts a price on your time of $22 per hour and does not account for the opportunity cost of the happiness-inducing activities you might have spent your five hours on.
Solution: Train yourself to recognize the moments when you’re making “cheaper” decisions, and weigh that savings against the time it will cost you and what else you might do with the extra time.
Idleness aversion. Humans are hard-wired to not enjoy the feeling of doing nothing, sitting alone with only our thoughts. When we have an important, thinking-heavy task before us, we’ll often focus instead on smaller tasks, such as reading e-mail. Responding to a message makes us feel like we’re doing something proactive. It gives us a sense of self-efficacy and of being in control of our lives—even though it’s not moving the needle on truly important activities.
Solution: Put “focus blocks” into your calendar, and don’t let anything else in there. Thinking time is thinking time. No mail, no distractions, only heads-down stuff. The secret to doing this successfully: Create three such blocks for your week. Set aside the first of them (say, 15 to 30 minutes on Monday morning) exclusively for planning what you’ll do in the other two. Treat that time like it’s the most important doctor’s appointment in the world.
Merely urgent. Any possible use of your time can be assessed along two axes—urgency, requiring immediate attention…and importance, contributing to your long-term goals. Ask yourself, If I had to classify this activity, in which quadrant is it located? Is it urgent but not important? Urgent and important? Not important? Not urgent? Being mindful of those two measures helps us avoid a lifetime of chasing after things that are urgent but ultimately unimportant, while the things that we care about but don’t require immediate attention are put off forever. To make sure you get to those important-but-not-urgent tasks (writing that novel, revamping your budget, setting up your kid’s college savings plan), you have to schedule them in to what I call “proactive time.” Maybe they go into the focus blocks described above or maybe they’re their own category, but they must be sacrosanct and inviolable.
If you find that a task is not important and not urgent, why are you doing it? Such tasks—home repairs, for example—are great candidates for delegating or outsourcing. If you’re hesitant about spending money on such a “luxury,” it might help you to know that outsourcing your most unpleasant tasks is worth the happiness equivalent of an $18,000 salary increase.