Four out of five adults say they’re ‘time poor’ – they have too much to do and not enough time to do it. We hear tips for reclaiming that time from Harvard Business School’s Ashley Whillans, author of the forthcoming book Time Smart. Plus, Kay Kim from plant brand Rooted explains why he and his team recently closed their shop in New York City’s Chinatown and doubled down on e-commerce.
KAY KIM: I mean, what's not to worry about as a small business in the middle of a global pandemic? I would say that the reason we have survived up until now is because of how quickly we've been able to adapt, to try out new ideas, to fail, and not being afraid of failing. One of the things that keeps me up at night is what if one of those failures is too big of a failure, and we can't recover? What if it takes us 10 steps back, and now we're sitting at a place where it looks like we have to shut down because of this one move? But you don't want that very thought to stop you from wanting to keep failing and testing out new ideas, because at the end of the day that's what has kept us alive until now.
DANNY GIACOPELLI: That's Kay Kim, the founder of Rooted, a plant startup in New York City. As we'll hear in just a bit, the pandemic forced Kay and his co-founder Ryan to abandon their physical shop in Chinatown and double down on e-commerce. But here's the good news: so far, sales are soaring. Later on, we're with Kay to hear why he ditched bricks and mortar, and what he's learned so far.
I'm Daniel Giacopelli, editorial director of Courier, a media company all about stories of working better and living smarter. Today on the show, we're starting with a topic that probably all of us are grappling with right now: time management. Four out of five adults report feeling that they are time poor; they have too much to do and not enough time to do it, and that was before the pandemic. Time poverty leads to less joy, less productivity and worse health. In October, a new book is coming out from Harvard Business Review press called Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life. The author is Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, whose research focuses on time and happiness. I caught up with her just a bit earlier to find out some techniques and strategies for reclaiming time and improving our time affluence. Here's Ashley.
ASHLEY WHILLANS: The definition of 'time poor' in the academic literature is based on the idea of feeling like 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, this subjective feeling of being overwhelmed and pulled in many different directions.
The impetus for the book is that an increasing amount of people are feeling time poor. It's interesting to think about this topic in the context of Covid. I've been doing a bunch of research on it while starting to think about my second book. I think people's meanings and construal of time have changed a lot. Pre-Covid, our large-scale survey data suggests that people are feeling increasingly time poor. There's a stat in the book’s first chapter on how 80% of working Americans in large representative panels, one including a dataset of 3 million, feel like they have too many things to do and not enough time in the day to do them. These feelings of time poverty have greater negative effects on subjective wellbeing, happiness, life satisfaction, than being unemployed in our data.
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. It'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, Germany, Australia. It affects both the very wealthy and the very poor. I'm doing a lot of research on time poverty among the working poor. It doesn't seem intuitive, but people who are struggling to make ends meet, who have to work multiple jobs, who can be very far from their places of employment and are constantly job searching… While also having less access to market support, like outsourcing and things that people with middle and higher incomes are able to take advantage of. Then for people with very high incomes, their time becomes more valuable because it starts to become worth more money. Anything that's valuable is seen as scarce; as we start to make more money, we start to feel more pressed for time, because every minute that we waste feels financially viable. On average, you see that time stress undermines happiness across the income distribution, but that lower-income and higher-income earners are even more affected than their middle counterparts.
DANNY: Do you think lockdown has made us more or less time poor? You can make the argument that when you're at home, you're not experiencing all of the many office distractions: meetings and brainstorming sessions, watercooler talk and all that stuff. Or you can make the argument that when you're at home, you have to deal with your pets and kids and the doorbell ringing constantly. So, what does the research say?
ASHLEY: I think it's a really complicated question. My collaborators and I recently wrote an article that should be in HBR Press in a few weeks. Since we have all saved time on commuting, shouldn't we all be time rich now? But the answer to that 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. There could potentially be this silver lining of time affluence right now, but it's not being fully realised for all groups of people and across all professions.
The issue is about how we can better support time affluence during this time. We collected 15 data sets from workers all over the world, and asked them about how they were 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 time – we're doing way more cooking, way more childcare. They're reporting less productivity at their work because of more distractions; this is true for parents across the board, but especially for women who tend to take on more of those domestic responsibilities at home. There is opportunity – some people have more time to do hobbies, and engage in leisure. Some people have felt they have never been so fit or able to cook so well, but those gains are not being fully realised by everyone that we're studying.
DANNY: What do you think about the idea of idleness? Is not having enough to do associated with unhappiness, or happiness? Is too much time bad and not enough time, equally bad?
ASHLEY: Part of the reason why people who are unemployed are miserable is that 1) they just have less to do, so they're more idle and idleness is associated with unhappiness, and 2) they have less coordinated social schedules. 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. That keeps us all in a similar cadence, and for people who are unemployed, that cadence doesn't exist. In general, you're absolutely right: too much time is bad; not enough time is bad. There's a sweet spot – you don't want to be overwhelmed, but you want to have enough meaningful activities to fill your day.
DANNY: What can people actually do to reclaim their time? What are some of the strategies you talk about in the book?
ASHLEY: In the book, we talk about finding time, funding time and reframing time. Funding time is just like it sounds. Are there ways that you can give up money to have more free time? It could be things like outsourcing house cleaning, or childcare, which is a little harder to do right now, so we're also advocating for the use of autonomous products that significantly increase wellbeing. We've done all these fun studies, looking at people who have roombas and blenders and other kinds of appliances that save time, and then thinking about how to make use of that free time. It's also about broadly sacrificing earned income to have more free time. You could work fewer hours, or take more paid and unpaid vacation.
With finding time, this is about thinking about those pockets of time that go wasted in your day, and then substituting that with more time-affluent activities. In the book, I talk about how we waste a lot of time mindlessly on our phones and engaging in activities that aren't necessarily as positive as they could be. In labour economics literature, we talk a lot about maximising our time index, spending as much time as we can engaging in activities that bring us happiness, and the least amount of time in activities that bring us misery. My book editor and I thought that you could think of it as the Marie Kondo method of time use. Asking yourself: do I like this activity? And if not, let's get rid of it or try to make it better.
If you don't really like doing housework, but you can't outsource, are there ways of imbuing that negative time with positive activities like listening to a podcast or 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? Maybe spending five minutes meditating or reaching out to a friend or doing 50 jumping jacks. It seems simple, but unless you plan and actually write down your intentions for these small windows of time that often go missing, then we often don't do it. That's the whole point of the book. My strategies are obvious: I'm a time researcher, I spent my whole dissertation doing this, and I couldn't put it into practice in my own life. The book is really focused on some of the science behind what I'm saying, and then also practical implementation strategies for getting there.
The third classification is reframing time. 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. But there's a lot of good science behind the idea of reframing these activities that we don’t like but have to do. Alia Crum at Stanford has shown 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 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 jobs which involve a lot of drudgery: paperwork, administrative tasks, email processes, stuff that's really annoying… Thinking about how those tasks enable other people to get their job done, or connect to a broader goal can help people feel much better about doing them in the moment. If you can't buy yourself out of the activity, 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 to make you feel less stressed?
All of these strategies serve to reduce time stress because, as I mentioned before, time stress is a form of goal conflict. You're doing one thing, but you wish you were 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. A lot of reducing time stress is about minimising that feeling of goal conflict. That's why that third strategy is effective. It allows you to see the task for what it is, to appreciate the task more.
DANNY: Do people often confuse happiness with productivity? What is the end goal here? Is it to be happy or to be more productive?
ASHLEY: I think people do confuse it, and I address this in the book. I'm focused on time use with 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 De Neve's lab, which suggests that happier employees are more productive. I'm not focused so much on that. I come down on this in the book a little bit. If you think you can just outsource and then spend that time working and still be as happy, you're wrong. Even people who like their jobs 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 and happiest people work actually fewer hours as opposed to more. Even if you're intrinsically motivated.
I get a lot of push back from people who like their jobs, but I like my job, too, and even 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. This means my work 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. Happiness is not just about being productive.
If you could build your ideal 24-hour day, what does that look like? 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 really matters for the way that we feel about ourselves. You take this ideal day, this ideal week, and you map it on to how you live your life, and what you're going to see is that you spend more time than you should be working, and less time interacting or on hobbies. My book is about trying to shift this balance back into our lives. 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. We need to retrain ourselves to think about time and happiness as a more important focus than money or productivity or work.
DANNY: That was Ashley Whillans, author of the forthcoming book Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life, which comes out in October from Harvard Business Review Press. Up next, we're in New York to hear from one business founder of a plant startup, which has changed its strategy in light of Covid. Kay Kim is co-founder of Rooted, a direct-to-consumer company we featured back in our print edition a few months ago. Kay and his co-founder, Ryan sell plants: beautiful, stylish plants from their e-commerce site, and also at a physical shop in Chinatown in New York. Back in March when the pandemic hit, Kay announced the indefinite closure of that shop, like most businesses with a physical presence, but just a week ago, they announced on their Instagram that the shutdown would be permanent. They've decided to go all in on e-commerce, and they're shuttering their physical bricks-and-mortar store completely. I thought we'd catch up with Kay to find out how they're managing that transition and what they've learned in the past few weeks.
KAY KIM: Ryan and I, we were fortunate enough to grow up in places like Hawaii and California, which are constantly surrounded by thriving foliage. When we moved to New York, and experienced that concrete jungle life, we began to miss a little bit of that greenery. Instead of buying really expensive furniture for our apartment, we decided to deck out the place with plants. We quickly discovered that that entire experience was a lot more difficult than we had expected. We were looking for affordability, convenience, variety, and that just was really hard to come by. We inevitably ended up at Home Depot where, yes, we had the affordability but the variety was not there, the convenience was not there. Living in New York City, you either have to lug all of your plants onto the L train or order a really expensive Uber, and that applies to most New Yorkers. So, we decided that we could do this whole plant company thing a little bit better than what was already out there, using our backgrounds with design, advertising and tech.
DANNY: The road to your retail journey began with plant parties at your apartment. What did that entail? What's a plant party?
KAY: A plant party was trucking an entire freight truck up from Florida filled to the brim with plants, and decking out a house like an Ikea showroom, blasting music, providing drinks and just inviting all of our friends, and really just having a good time. They can also walk around our entire house, it's a two-storey house, and view the plants in situ to emulate what it could be like in their own space; seeing that this room is great for these plants, because it gets this amount of light, so on and so forth.
Eventually it came to a point where random people were showing up, they had seen pictures on Instagram and Facebook, and that's when we were like: yes, I think there's something here, let's take it to an actual physical storefront. We took a shop in Greenpoint, and from there we went to Williamsburg. Our most recent space was in Chinatown.
DANNY: You recently posted on your Instagram that you're shutting down all of your retail operations entirely. Was that a direct result of Covid?
KAY: That was a direct result of Covid, yes. We were quick to respond on that front. We didn't want to risk our team or our customers, so we shut it down about two weeks before New York even recommended people to not go out anymore.
DANNY: You've gone all in now on e-commerce. What I'm interested to know is, what was the proportion of your sales that came from e-comm? And what was the proportion of sales that came from your actual physical bricks-and-mortar store pre-Covid? I know you also had a B2B element as well.
KAY: Pre-Covid, B2B and retail were about 40%, and our e-commerce at the time was 20%. But we had shut down both B2B and retail, and shifted completely to e-commerce and online.
DANNY: How's e-comm doing now?
KAY: In the early stages of the pandemic, we were really fortunate as a business because our total sales for e-commerce alone superseded our B2B retail and e-comm sales pre-Covid, which is totally insane.
DANNY: What accounts for that?
It comes down to a lot of factors, like people getting extremely stir-crazy in their homes. Cabin fever is a real thing. At this point, people want to invest in their space, they want to go outside, but they can't. So what better way to bring a little bit of the outdoors indoors than with plants? It's scientifically proven to make people feel better, reduce stress, anxiety, make for a better Zoom backdrop. We definitely saw a spike in sales because of that.
DANNY: If you look at the data of what people bought as soon as lockdown happened, they bought plants. En masse.
KAY: Yeah, it makes sense.
DANNY: This is a really crowded market, the plant market here in London. There's probably five or 10 startups I can name off the top of my head that sell plants to your door. How do you guys try to compete in that market? How do you differentiate yourselves? I imagine you get the plants from the same nurseries in the Netherlands or Kenya or wherever plants come from? Is it all marketing and community and branding?
KAY: Plants are the epitome of a commodity, right? A plant is a plant is a plant, even if this brand over here is selling a pothos, and we're selling a pathos; at the end of the day, we're both selling the same exact product. Yes, it could vary in terms of quality and affordability and the overall experience, but outside of marketing and branding and community, there really isn't that much of a difference. So we try to leverage our tone of voice, our mission and sustainability practices. Education is our main marketing driver.
As founders, we're not third-generation farmers who grew up growing plants at a nursery. We are just a couple of guys who love nature and plants, and just wanted to share that with as many people as possible, because we know how it makes us feel. We didn't know how to take care of plants at the beginning; we freaked out just like everybody else when a leaf turned yellow. Because we have that background, we truly understand people's reservations and their fear when it comes to their plants. We try to optimise their experience by taking it from their approach and their perspective.
DANNY: Did you think about keeping the storefront open at a reduced size, or as a small showroom of what the plants might look like? If your sales are doing so well, I guess there wasn't a huge financial impetus to close down the store unless your rent is exorbitant, which it probably is because you're in New York City.
KAY: Yeah, it is in Manhattan, and in Chinatown, especially. We were on Canal Street and Center, which is prime real estate. It really didn't make any sense for a small business like ours to even consider it at this point, simply because we don't know what the state of retail is going to look like even a year out from now, and we just can't take that risk.
DANNY: You guys are one of the lucky ones, though in that you are still around, you haven't shut down, sales are still really, really strong. That being said, what keeps you up at night? What are you worried about?
KAY: I mean, what's not to worry about as a small business in the middle of a global pandemic? I would say that the reason we have survived up until now is because of how quickly we've been able to adapt, to try out new ideas, to fail, and not being afraid of failing. One of the things that keeps me up at night is what if one of those failures is too big of a failure, and we can't recover? What if it takes us 10 steps back, and now we're sitting at a place where it looks like we have to shut down because of this one move? But you don't want that very thought to stop you from wanting to keep failing and testing out new ideas because, at the end of the day, that's what has kept us alive until now.
DANNY: Is the ultimate nature of entrepreneurship what you just described?
KAY: Yeah, you've got to learn to adapt. You've got to differentiate yourselves. You've got to try new things and really engage with your customers and see what sticks. The things that do stick you need to reiterate and improve and start that process all over again.
DANNY: And that's it for this week, make sure to check out our brand-new Workshop podcast, which we launched last Wednesday. Each episode digs into the nitty-gritty of one business topic. From finance to marketing to HR, we really get deep into the heart of what it means and hopefully how you can apply it to your own business. You can head to the show notes of this show to find a link or just search for Courier Workshop. And make sure to also check out our Fresh Fund grant scheme that we launched at Courier for black business founders in the US or the UK. That's basically some extra money to supercharge a company or start a new one. You can find out more details on the website: couriermedia.co. Any questions, comments or feedback? Just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Daniel Giacopelli, the Courier Weekly is back again next week.