How to be smarter with your time

Ashley Whillans, author of ‘Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life’ on how we can achieve a better work/life balance.
What does 'time poor' mean?

Time poor - the definition in the academic literature - is this idea or feeling that you have too many things to do and not enough time in the day to do them. It’s not necessarily about the objective amount of time you have, but instead the subjective feeling of being overwhelmed and pulled in many different directions. The impetus for the book and a lot of my research is that an increasing amount of people are feeling time poor. It's interesting to think about this topic in the context of Covid, as I think people's meanings and construal of time has changed a lot, but in general, pre-Covid, our large scale survey data suggests that people are feeling increasingly time poor.

There's a stat that I write in the first chapter, which is that 80% of working Americans feel time poor. They have too many things to do and not enough time in the day to do them. And these feelings of time poverty have greater negative effects in subjective well-being, happiness and life satisfaction than being unemployed – a similar magnitude effect on happiness. It's really striking to show that so many people feel overwhelmed by everything that they have to do. And this translates into a lot of misery and stress for people. And that's not just an American phenomenon. There's been some great economics research showing that people feel increasingly time poor in societies as different as Japan to Germany to Australia.

It afflicts the very wealthy and the very poor the most. I'm doing a lot of research on time poverty among the working poor. And it doesn't seem intuitive. But actually, people are struggling to make ends meet, they have to work multiple jobs, commute very far distances to their places of employment or are constantly job searching while also having less access to support like outsourcing and things that people with middle and higher incomes are able to take advantage of more. And then people on very high incomes, their time becomes more valuable because their time starts to become worth more money. Anything that's valuable is seen as scarce, and so as we start to make more money, we start to feel more pressed for time, because every minute that we waste feels worse to us since it's worth so much money. On average, you see that time stress undermines happiness across the income distribution, but that lower incomes and higher incomes are even more affected than middle income earners.

Has lockdown made us more or less time poor?

It's actually a really complicated question. You know, we saved all this time commuting – shouldn't we all be time rich now? And the answer to the question is not quite so simple. People are finding it very difficult to separate work and life. People are working a lot longer hours to compensate for not having social interactions. And people are doing a lot more caregiving that they weren't doing before. And so, there could potentially be the silver lining of time affluence right now – but it's not being fully realised for all groups of people and across all professions.

‘There's a sweet spot where you want to not be overwhelmed, but to have enough meaningful activities to fill your day.’

The question becomes, how can we support time affluence right now? Because what we're seeing in our data is not surprising en mass from things other people are saying. We collected 15 data sets from workers all over the world and asked them about how they're spending their time, how happy they felt, how stressed they felt. And you see huge gender differences and huge differences via parenting. Women have way less leisure right now than they did before. They're doing way more necessities. Way more cooking. Way more childcare. They're reporting less productivity at work because of more distractions. And this is true for parents across the board, but especially women who tend to take on more of those domestic responsibilities at home. Some people are saying, 'I have more time to do hobbies and to engage in leisure. And it's been great. And I've never been so fit and I've never been able to cook so well.' But those gains are not being fully realised by everyone that we're studying.

Is too much time bad and not enough time equally bad?

It's quadratic, exactly as you're saying. The feeling of time affluence predicts happiness and then if you have too much time and not enough to do, that predicts unhappiness. That's part of the reason why people who are unemployed are miserable – because, one, they just have less to do so they're more idle and idleness is associated with unhappiness. But they also have less coordinated social schedules. So with unemployment, pre-Covid, one reason that employment predicts happiness and unemployment predicts unhappiness is not only do you have too much time on your hands (you don't have enough meaningful activity to fill your days), but you're also not living a schedule that's consistent with other people's. Work is a coordination function – weekdays are quite busy and it's hard to meet up with people and then the weekends are quite free and that kind of keeps us all in a similar cadence. And for people who are unemployed, that cadence doesn't exist. But in general, you're absolutely right: too much time is bad, not enough time is bad. There's sort of a sweet spot where you want to not be overwhelmed, but you want to have enough meaningful activities to fill your day.

So what can people do to actually reclaim their time?

In the book we talk about funding time, finding time and reframing time. Funding time is exactly as it sounds. Are there ways you can give up money to have more free time? It could be things like outsourcing house cleaning or childcare to others, which is a little harder to do right now. So we're advocating for the use of autonomous products, which also significantly increases well-being.

‘We actually waste a lot of time mindlessly on our phones and engaged in activities that aren't as positive as they could be.’

We've done all these fun studies looking at people who have Roombas and blenders and other kinds of appliances that save time – to the extent that you think of those as time-saving devices and then think about how you're going to spend that free time. Those are also associated with greater happiness and less stress, similarly to outsourcing and house cleaning. So maybe autonomous products are the way we should be thinking about that category right now. But it's also about broadly sacrificing earned income to have more free time. So you can work fewer hours, take more paid and unpaid vacation, and that could be a sacrifice of money to have more free time. So that also fits within this bucket of funding time.

And then there's finding time. This is about thinking about pockets of time that kind of go wasted in your day and then substituting that with better, more time-affluent activities. In the book, I talk about the fact that we actually waste a lot of time mindlessly on our phones and engaged in activities that aren't necessarily as positive as they could be. We want to think about spending as much time as we can engaged in activities that bring us happiness and the least amount of time and activities that bring us misery.

My book editor and I were just sort of like, well, you can also think of this as the Marie Kondo method of time use, right? Do I like this activity? If not, do I get rid of it or try to make it better? So, finding time is, if you don't really like doing the housework but you can't outsource it, are there ways of imbuing that negative time with positive activities, like also listening to a podcast or also talking on the phone with a friend? If you tend to fill up those random pockets of time that you get between meetings with random email checking, could you create a list of things that you could substitute that free time for instead – spending five minutes meditating or reaching out to friends or doing 50 jumping jacks?

It seems simple and intuitive and obviously we all know this, but unless you plan and actually write down and have implementation intentions for these small windows of time that often go missing – or ‘bad time’ but your habit isn't to try to make that time better – then we often don't do it. That's the whole point of the book. My strategies are obvious, but I'm a time researcher, I spent my whole dissertation doing this and I couldn't put it into practise into my own life. So the book is really focussed on some of the science behind what I'm saying and then also practical implementation strategies for getting there.

‘A lot of reducing time stress is about minimising that feeling of goal conflict.’

And then the third classification is reframing time. Sometimes you're stuck in activities you don't like at work but also outside of work, like commuting when we all go back to the office. Sometimes you can imbue that with better time. But it's not always possible to imbue bad moments of time with more positive activities. Like, it's very hard to be both working on administrative tasks at work and also be listening to a podcast. I'll get my finances wrong for my grants if I'm also trying to do some other cool better thing! So in this case, there's a lot of good science behind the idea of reframing these activities. Alia Crum at Stanford has a lot of research showing that if you reframe negative activities at work, like the physical activity of your job, and you think about it not as a chore, but actually as a way to meet your required physical health goals, then you feel way better about it and your health actually improves, your BMI decreases and your blood pressure decreases.

We also have some research showing that a lot of our jobs have a lot of drudgery, paperwork and administration tasks, email, process stuff that's really annoying – but just thinking about how those tasks enable other people to get their job done or connect to a broader goal of being a good communicator at work or getting a research project done, that can actually help people feel much better about those tasks in the moment that they're doing them. And so that third category is really like, well, if you can't buy yourself out of the activity, and you can't imbue it with more positive moments, can you just change the way you're thinking about it? To take some of the edge off and make you feel less stressed?

And all of these strategies serve to reduce time stress, because, as I mentioned before, time stress is like goal conflict in some ways. You're doing one thing, but you feel like you wish you would be doing something else. Or the drudge work in your office is making you feel like you can't get any of your meaningful, purposeful activities done. So a lot of reducing time stress is about minimising that feeling of goal conflict. That's why the third strategy is effective, because it allows you to kind of just see the task for what it is to appreciate the task more and to make it feel like it's less coming into conflict with other goals that you have in your life.

Do people confuse happiness with productivity?

Yeah, I think people confuse it and I address this in the book. I'm focused on time use with the outcome and the long term goal of being happier and healthier – because that will make you more productive, right? You can think about these things in whichever way suits you best. There's really good evidence coming out of Jan-Emmanuel De Neve's lab at Oxford that suggests happier employees are more productive. I'm not focussed so much on that. I'm like, well, if you think you can just outsource [tasks] and then spend that time working and still be just as happy, then you're wrong. Even people who like their jobs, who work more hours in an average week than they usually do, report low levels of happiness and higher levels of stress when they're working more than usual or when they're working past a certain threshold.

There's accumulating evidence suggesting that the most productive, happiest people work actually fewer hours as opposed to more, even if you're intrinsically motivated. Because I do get pushback, like, ‘Well, what if I like my job?’ And I'm like, I like my job too! But I know I'm more stressed and less happy when I'm working 60 to 70 hours a week as opposed to 50 to 60. Because then my work is coming in the way of other things that are really important for happiness, like my social relationships, chatting with my partner, going for jogs or walks – those things really matter for happiness. Happiness is not just about being productive.

‘We actually need to retrain ourselves to think about time and happiness as a more important focus than money or productivity or work.’

Another way that I talk about this: how do you ideally want to live your life? And how does your time live up to that ideal? If you could build your ideal 24-hour day, what does that look like? And what does your ideal week look like? That's going to have work in it for all of us, but is work going to be the entire thing? Probably not for most people, because what we know from the happiness literature is that exercise, social connection and helping others matters for the way that we feel about ourselves. You take this ideal day, this ideal week, and you map it onto how you live your life and probably what you're going to see, like most people, is you spend more time than you should be working, probably spend less time interacting [with others] and on hobbies.

And so my book is really about trying to shift this balance back to our lives, because, really, we don't need more cues in our life to be productive. We're indoctrinated with this idea. Society tells us that our self-worth as a person is our productivity. And so my book is like, sure, you can think about this as a way to be more productive. But actually I think we should be focussing more on the happiness part of this as the outcome, because we’re already trained to focus on productivity. So we actually need to retrain ourselves to think about time and happiness as a more important focus than money or productivity or work. We're already told that those things are the most important thing – we don't need more help in thinking about that! We need a little bit more help thinking about time and happiness first.

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