When we say we wish we had more hours in the day, what we really mean is that we wish knew how to spend them more wisely.
Can you think of a time where your to-do list said something to the effect of ‘do nothing today’?
No? Me neither. We’re often not respectful of our own time. We pack our days to the brim with work, family and social obligations, often at the expense of the things that really matter. At the day’s end, we pile into bed, exhausted, giving ourselves a small window of stillness before we start over again.
This is what time famine looks like. It’s a by-product of the hyper-productive, stressed-out, overworked society that we’re living in and it’s time we did our best to break away from it.
Reclaiming our time
Two in three respondents in AHRI’s recent wellbeing survey said they wish they had more hours in the day – a feeling most of us can relate to.
If I asked what you’d do with an extra hour, you’d likely dream up an ideal scenario – more time with the kids, a leisurely walk before work, a morning meditation to calm your mind for the day ahead – but the truth is, if this magical extra hour of the day did exist you probably wouldn’t even notice it. Think about it: how many times have you looked up at the clock for the first time all day only to notice six hours have passed and you’ve been too buried in your work to even notice?
In an episode of the podcast The Happiness Lab, produced and hosted by Yale professor Dr Laurie Santos, Ashley Whillans, professor Harvard Business School and author of Time Smart: how to reclaim your time and live a happier life talks about the concept of time affluence and time famine.
“Instead of looking at whether we have objectively enough hours in a day, we’re looking at subjectively whether people feel like they have enough time,” she says.
“What’s interesting is that there’s data suggesting that we objectively have more time than we used. So subjective feelings of time stress are going up and the objective amount of time that we have is going up too.”
The problem is that we tend to prioritise money over time, she says. If we did the opposite, her research suggests we’d be far happier. In fact, separate research suggests our happiness and income are only aligned up to $75,000 USD. Even if you were to triple this salary, it would not improve your overall happiness, as you’d still be chasing more and falling into ‘I’ll be happy when’ syndrome.
“We think that prioritising money and working a lot is a status symbol – we think if we seem really busy that’s going to confer us higher status. And that’s one of the reasons that we don’t focus on time and take paid vacation. Instead, we focus a lot on working,” says Whillians.
“The general prioritisation of money over time means we spend 18 per cent less time interacting [with a peer]. And we know that these small, social moments can be some of the happiest in our day.”
Whillans says one of the reasons we don’t notice the free time at our disposal – or fail to feel replenished by the windows of free time we are afforded – is due to what she calls ‘time confetti’, meaning these days our leisure time being broken into tiny pieces throughout the day, rather than experienced in large chunks.
Think of the 15 minutes between a meeting or the half an hour in the evenings after the kids are asleep before you fall into bed yourself – what are you actually doing with those moments?
“[Our] leisure time is sporadic. It’s scattered because we’re constantly connected to our phones. We’re trying to do many, many, many tasks and our attention is being pulled in many directions.
“These feelings of time stress… come at a cost to our happiness. In some Gallup world poll data that we analysed with 2.5 million Americans, we found that this feeling of time famine had a worse impact on happiness than being unemployed. So it seems to have dramatic consequences to our subjective wellbeing.”
When being time-poor makes us worse people
Not only does feeling constantly busy have dramatic impacts on our mental health, Santos also refers to fascinating research from the 1970s which suggests it can turn us into kind of crappy people.
The research was conducted by John Darley and Daniel Batson, formerly of Princeton University, and looked into whether kindness was an innate quality held by certain individuals or if it was situational.
To test this, they studied a group of people who most would consider to be particularly kind – students studying to be priests at the Princeton Theological Seminary. The test was simple; they were asked to deliver a sermon about Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the story of a man who is beaten up and left unconscious on the side of the road. Passers by ignore him and only one person stops to help – the Good Samaritan.
In the experiment, the priests were told they had to deliver the sermon on the other side of campus. Some were given ample time to get there, others told they’d have to hurry to make it in time, the last group was told they were already late.
Darley and Batson then recreated the very parable that the priests were about to deliver by hiring a “shabbily dressed” actor to pretend to be hurt. The actor had his head down, eyes closed and wasn’t moving. He was slumped in the doorway blocking the path the priests needed to take.
“In some Gallup world poll data that we analysed with 2.5 million Americans, we found that this feeling of time famine had a worse impact on happiness than being unemployed.” – Professor Ashley Whillans
“The priests would literally have to step over the actor’s body to make it past,” says Santos.
When the priests approached, the actor was told to cough twice. Interestingly, only 63 per cent of people who weren’t in a rush stopped to assist the “injured stranger” (you have to wonder what the other 37 per cent were thinking). But the results get even more concerning. Of those who were flat out hurrying to make it to their sermon, only 10 per cent stopped to help.
“Ninety per cent of the subjects completely ignored an obviously injured person on the street because they were rushing to give a sermon about how Jesus said you should stop to help injured people on the street,” says Santos.
Whillans adds: “When people are thinking of the economic value of their time, when they’re thinking about being hyper-efficient with every second, this comes at a cost of our willingness to take time out of our day to help others.”
Buy back your time and create windfalls
So how do you overcome time scarcity? Whillans suggests buying back some of your time by outsourcing tasks where you can. Her research suggests this is a good predictor of happiness. And it’s not something only the uber rich can do. Whillans found something as simple as paying the neighbour’s kid to mow your lawn or wash your car can have substantial positive impacts on your wellbeing.
“It buys us out of some of this dread or the anticipation of having to come back from a nice social event on the weekend and have a million chores to do before the work week starts,” says Whillans.
Next, she suggests we rethink what we’re doing with our ‘time confetti’ because we’re not trying to change the objective amount of hours in a day, but rather how we perceive those hours.
So next time you have a spare moment in your day, say a meeting is cancelled or you arrive early to an event, try and be more deliberate about how you choose to spend that free time.
Whillians has created a time windfall list for herself to make the most of those pockets of time, so rather than getting lost in a 15-minute scroll through the ether, she has a go-to resource that determines how she’ll make the most of that unexpected piece of confetti. That might be calling a friend, reading a chapter of a book or doing a five-minute mindfulness practice.
“It’s all about not squandering the small moments of the day,” she says.
I saw a really nice example of this when I was on the bus earlier this week. The driver pulled into a stop, let some passengers off and then, I assume, realised he was ahead on his route. He stood up, took a very slow sip of water and then stood by the open doors of the bus and looked up at the sky, eyes closed, letting the sun warm his face.
It felt strange at first. The rest of the passengers and I made eye contact wondering what was going on. But when he turned to us and smiled, then jumped back into the driver’s seat and took off, I thought, ‘this a man who knows how to make the most of his time confetti’.
It was only a two-minute minute delay in our trip, but it likely made the world of difference to his day. He could have easily worked through his whole shift without even standing up, but instead he made a choice to reclaim his time. We all need to be a little more like that bus driver.
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