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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

So much to do, so little time: living with time poverty

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Ashley Whillans

I will begin with a bold statement: the people reading this article are some of the poorest in the world, and I can tell this without even looking at their bank accounts. What I’m referring to isn’t a scarcity of money, but rather a scarcity of time.

Over 80 per cent of working adults today report feeling time-poor. Put simply, they have too many things to do in a day and not enough time to do them. The problem is, these rising rates of time poverty have crushing effects on our happiness, our social relationships, and our physical health. Time poverty silences our laughter, steals our joy and depletes our personal well-being.

So where do these feelings of time poverty come from and what can we do to overcome them?

The simplest explanation for the rising rates of time poverty is that we are spending more time working and completing household chores than in previous decades. Yet there is very little evidence for this. Men and woman today actually have more time for leisure than they did in the 1950s — thanks in part to a few modern miracles.

Instead, my research indicates that time poverty is caused by our constant connection to technology. Our iPhones, tablets and laptops have created time confetti — fragmenting our leisure into small distracted minutes of free time that are easily squandered and lost. In addition, my data suggests that time poverty is also caused by our obsession with work and making money. We are taught — and incorrectly believe — that money, not time, will bring us greater happiness. Even people with $10 million in the bank make this mistake. We have all heard the saying money doesn’t buy happiness, and that is true. The best data suggests that money protects against sadness but does not buy joy. True happiness demands an investment of our attention and our time.

The solution to time poverty is simple: make decisions that allow you to have more free time — even if it comes at the expense of working and making more money. To obtain my PhD in behavioural science, I wrote a 150-page dissertation on the link between time stress and unhappiness. And my life’s work thus far has taught me one simple truth: prioritizing time is really hard.

I myself am a prime offender. Vacation photos taken of me by friends or family always show me working at the beach or in the locker room of a spa. The one time I was caught actually enjoying myself on a vacation, my friend posted a photo of me on safari in Africa with the caption, “proof you sometimes do things outside of the office” — as if to capture an event even more rare than seeing an elephant in the wild.

Just as we know that exercise is good for us, we also know that time is our most valuable resource — and yet we fail to prioritize it, undermining our happiness and health. So what can we do to overcome these overwhelming feelings of time poverty?

Our iPhones, tablets and laptops have created time confetti.

I have the power to make you all less time poor right now. I could end this article right here and give you about 4.75 minutes back. But I’m not going to do that, because I don’t trust you. Many of you would squander that free time, perhaps by passively scrolling on your phone, or if you’re anything like me, by answering just one more work email.

It isn’t our fault that we fail to prioritize time or that we lose moments of free time. The fact is, our brains get in the way. Human beings are pretty much allergic to leisure. Researchers call this phenomenon idleness aversion. Let’s be real: when was the last time someone asked you what you have planned for today and you cheerily replied, nothing’?

We also believe we’re going to have more time in the future than we do in the present. I like to call this bias the Yes, Damn effect, and it works something like this: Monday: hey Ash, can you help me move Saturday? No problem. Tuesday: hey Ash, want to go to dinner on Saturday? Sounds great. Wednesday: professor Whillans, I would really appreciate your help with my paper on Saturday. Of course. Then Saturday arrives: damn, what was I thinking? When the future becomes the present, we often wish we could take back the things we said yes to.

Making matters worse, technology is designed to be inherently addictive, and as a result, we have become mobile dependent and have a hard time spending even minutes away from our smartphones. In 2017, U.S. adults spent an average of three hours and 20 minutes a day using their smartphones and tablets — double the amount from just five years ago. And most of that time is spent on arguably unproductive activities like Facebook, gaming and other types of social media.

This addiction has consequences. It takes a serious toll on our mental health, as my own research has demonstrated. One experiment I conducted with a colleague found that looking at Facebook profiles of people having fun at parties made new college students feel like they didn’t belong. Another study suggested that people who spent more time using social media were less happy. Ultimately, our phones constant connection to the Internet — and our constant connection to our phones — means that we miss out on bonding with those we care about most, lowering everyone’s happiness in the process.

Clearly, technology, our society and our minds are conspiring against us when it comes to time. But luckily for us, just like people who are physically fit, the time-rich among us make small simple decisions in their everyday lives that allow them to have more and better time. For one thing, they prioritize time over money. No matter how much money they make, they are willing to give up some of it in order to have more and better time. They are also likely to take all of their paid vacation time. This seems obvious, but far too many of us don’t do it. If your boss were to put a giant stack of money on the table in front of you, you wouldn’t walk away from it. But by failing to take all your paid vacation that’s essentially what you’re doing. You’re walking away from a gift of time.

In addition, the time-rich spend more time savouring daily experiences. My collaborator and I have data showing that the French spend more time eating and are less stressed and happier as a result. In contrast, Americans spend more time choosing their food than actually enjoying it. The time-rich also spend time engaged each day in activities that we know are good for happiness: socializing with friends and family, volunteering, and exercising, even if just for a few minutes. As it turns out, giving away our time for free by volunteering is one of the best ways to feel like we have more of it.

In part, the time-rich have more time for these activities because they are willing to pay to outsource their less appealing tasks to others. My data suggests that simply spending as little as $40 to outsource our most dreaded task to someone else can really pay off in terms of happiness and stress.

Each day we are rewarded with small moments of free time, like during our morning commute or while standing in line at our local supermarket. The time-rich among us don’t squander this time. They capitalize on it. They keep lists with activities that they can complete in these found moments, like texting their friend, calling their mom or reading an eBook. The next time you feel compelled to take one of those 'what celebrity do I look like?' quizzes on the Internet, try texting your best friend instead.

We incorrectly believe that money, not time, will bring us greater happiness.

It can be hard to prioritize time, in part because unless we are paid by the hour, it isn’t always easy to measure what our time is worth. A $10,000 raise is easy to understand; but the value of an additional 30 minutes of free time isn’t quite so simple.

The good news is, we can all make time-related choices easier for ourselves. I work at a business school, so the only way I can get my MBAs to care about happiness is if I put it in terms they understand: money. What I use in these calculations isn’t money per se, but rather the income equivalent of happiness, or what I like to call happiness dollars. I define happiness dollars as the income equivalent of the happiness that you would experience for making a particular time-related choice.

Of course, the numbers resulting from this calculation depend on how much money you make. As it turns out, people who make less money actually benefit more from making time-related decisions. In fact, I found that simply shifting our mindset from prioritizing money to prioritizing time produces the happiness gain equivalent of making $2,200 dollars more per year.

Outsourcing your most dreaded chores to others might feel frivolous, but I found that it really pays off: Outsourcing housecleaning or grocery shopping produces a happiness gain of making nearly $13,000 more per year. And if we add up all of the activities that I have mentioned — vacation, savouring daily activities, spending more time engaged in happiness-producing activities, and creating time affluence to-do lists — we can actually make ourselves happiness rich. Who doesn’t want that?

I’m sure some of you are already thinking about how to game the system. I’m just going to outsource my most disliked task to someone else and then spend this additional free time working and making money while all these other suckers focus on free time and happiness. Not so fast. Some activities are so unpleasant that they actually feel like a pay cut. So, if you spent all of the time that you gained by outsourcing your most disliked task working, this would actually produce a net loss in terms of happiness.

It can be hard to wrap our minds around the concept of happiness dollars because we aren’t used to thinking about our happiness in monetary terms. However, the purpose of this exercise is to see that being as careful with your time as you are with your money is an investment that can really pay off in terms of happiness.

Time is hard to account for. It is easily spent and often squandered, stolen, and lost. To overcome our overwhelming feelings of time poverty, we need to start shifting our attention away from work and making money and towards having more and better time by planning our time as carefully as we plan our money and holding ourselves accountable. Our happiness — and the happiness of our planet — depends upon it.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Rotman Management magazine.

Ashley Whillans is an assistant professor in the negotiation, organizations and markets unit at Harvard Business School and the author of Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life (Harvard Business Review Press, Oct. 2020). She has twice been named a rising star of behavioural science by the International Behavioural Exchange and the Behavioural Science and Policy Association. Born and raised in Vancouver, she co-founded the department of behavioural science in the oolicy, innovation, and engagement division of the British Columbia public service in 2016. This essay originated as a presentation at TEDx Cambridge.