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Sparingly these days do I find myself thinking I’ve got some time to kill. Time has a way of making itself scarce. I’m like some Pleistocene hunter-gatherer, always scavenging for more. For that matter, isn’t “killing time” a rather misleading phrase? As Christopher Hitchens once observed, time “is killing us.”

Well, I hope you find it bracing to hear, as I did, that we don’t have to be passive in this war. Ashley Whillans, a behavioral scientist, says we can fight back. Her new book, Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life, shows us how. It involves dispensing with the bromide that time is money. Time is more valuable than that. “A major barrier to living this truth—that time is the most valuable resource, something that is finite and uncertain—is this pursuit of money, and the societal focus on having more money and productivity as a means by which to measure the value of our lives,” Whillans says.

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I began by pulling on that cultural-psychological thread in my conversation with Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. We also discussed her recent eye-opening Nature Human Behavior paper, “Why time poverty matters for individuals, organizations, and nations.” Her enthusiasm for cultivating a “time affluent” attitude, when most people nowadays report feeling “time poor,” was infectious.

TIME OUT: “We’re constantly fragmenting our leisure into small buckets of time that are less enjoyable by working, text messaging, or going to social media and doom-scrolling,” says Ashley Whillans.Evgenia Eliseeva
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In your book, you write, “Nothing less than our health and our happiness depends on reversing the nearly innate notion that time is money. It’s not. Money is time.” What do you mean by that?

We’re indoctrinated with this idea that money and productivity are the path to greater happiness and success. My data speaks to the fact that this is not necessarily the best way by which to measure the satisfaction, productivity, and meaningfulness of your life. If anything, focusing on money is a path to unhappiness as opposed to satisfaction. My colleagues and I find consistent evidence that people who feel time-affluent, and in control of their schedules, report greater happiness, less stress, better health. They’re less likely to get divorced. They’re more likely to choose jobs that are satisfying. Time is not money, but happiness.

Why do you think “time is money” is such a seductive thought?

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A lot of students in my class have a number, right? They say, “I’ll start focusing on other areas of my life when I make this much money a year.” But the problem is that when you start getting paid, and seeing money as a promotion mechanism, an incentive, this increases the saliency of the performance. This leads you to want to get paid even more money, and so you become hyper-focused on the incentive and your reference points start to change. This is why I argue that, sure, it’s possible—you might have more time in the future. But maybe that future never comes. Maybe something happens before you get to reap the five years of glorious retirement that we’re all banking on. Maybe you’re never able to get out of this cycle of getting rewarded for high-quality performance, with more money making you want more money, continuing this cycle, which research is pretty strongly suggesting happens to many people who are under these kinds of performance awards, going after money for prestige and external factors.

We think we’ll have more time in the future than we do in the present.

What does it mean to be time-smart?

If there’s something in your life that’s not working for you around time and money trade-offs, the best time for dealing with that is the current moment. Tomorrow might not come. Think about how you can incorporate more time for better social relationships, fitness, hobbies, or volunteering. Then try to make small changes around the margins to enable you to at least make sure that some of the ideal ways in which you want to spend time match up with how you are spending your time today. Don’t defer these decisions into some hypothetical future.

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But isn’t planning for the future, and making sacrifices in the present, rational?

I’m not making a case for irrationality. I think that’s rational. It’s hard to be a young working person in today’s world. We see a lot of student debt. We have more precarious jobs. I’m not saying that focusing on a career is wrong. But if anything, we’re just a little too wired in that direction. We have to make deliberate choices around the margins of our days of the things that we can control so that our whole life doesn’t get wrapped up in productivity, or focused on financial rewards. We miss out on other elements of life that could involve a lot of satisfaction or meaning for ourselves, like an ability to contribute to the causes we care about.

I’m not referring to the pandemic, but aren’t we living amid a relative abundance of free time?

Right. Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show that people are working less hours and have more leisure compared to previous decades. This is in part because we’re able to outsource labor—to laundry machines, for example. The problem is we now end up taking our office with us in our back pocket. We’re constantly fragmenting our leisure into these small buckets of time that are less enjoyable by working, text messaging, or going to social media and doom-scrolling. This task switching not only feels unpleasant, it also pulls us out of the moment, and leads to what psychologists have determined as one of the major causes of time poverty—goal conflict. You could be trying to engage in a conversation, and then think about the things that you could or should be doing instead.

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Is that what you mean when you write that feelings of time poverty are caused by “how well activities fit together in our mind?”

Exactly. My lab mate, Kostadin Kushlev, who’s now at Georgetown, has some striking examples of this. He’s done a bunch of research on email communication. If you ask randomly assigned parents to turn off their email notifications while they’re at a science museum with their kids, they enjoy the activity more than when they had their alerts on. When they have the alerts on, they start thinking about the opportunity cost of that leisure. That undermines our enjoyment of the present moment.

Why is it hard for us to see that these moments of distraction add up, leaving us unsatisfied with our leisure time?

This is where time-poverty gets psychological. We value and think about time and money in different ways. Money’s concrete, tangible. It’s easy to know what the value of $100 is. We similarly value that money now, as we do in three months, six months, 12 months from now. We don’t discount having more money in the future. But time is abstract, hard to quantify. It’s also hard to realize spontaneously what we would do with more time.

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How do your studies highlight the abstract nature of time?

When I provide people in my experiments with choices between cash and time-saving vouchers, people don’t see the time-saving voucher as helpful unless you remind them explicitly of what else they could do with the two free hours that they wouldn’t spend cleaning their house. We’re bad at opportunity-cost reminders in general, but we’re especially bad when it comes to time. It involves some extra planning that we don’t always engage in.

We also undervalue time in the future. We think we’ll have more time in the future than we do in the present. Meaning, I don’t care that much about having two hours a week from now, or three months from now, because I think I’ll be less busy than I am right now. We also undervalue time because we don’t account for small losses of free time to the same extent as we account for small losses of money. Money is easy to track, and we’re used to doing that because of the market economy. It takes huge losses of time—10 months, 12 months on a project—to pay attention to it. But it doesn’t take much money to pay attention to losses.

Money and productivity are not the path to greater happiness and success.

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Do you think people should have a time account, alongside their bank account? 

Yes. I have an accounting-for-time exercise. I have people write out their time-affluent activities like volunteering, socializing, outsourcing. And then also write out time-poverty producing activities, like the amount of hours they spend researching for a bad deal, or researching for a small deal on the Internet over consumable goods, which is one way we all waste time. Arguably we waste more time on that now during COVID than we did before. I quantify the value of that time-saving into “happiness dollars,” the income equivalent of the happiness you get from making a time-related choice. 

Are you saying activities like volunteering bring you more “happiness dollars” than searching for the best price on the Internet?

Right. Even shifting your mindset from money to time produces the happiness benefit of making about $4,400 more of household income per year. I use this exactly to try to get people to see that I’m not crazy. I’m not just some wacko psychologist. The benefits of making time-first, or time-related choices can have the same, if not more benefits for happiness, than trying to go after making more money at your job. I totally get that it’s maybe kind of antithetical to the point I’m trying to make. I often joke that I have to put time in a currency that my MBAs or executives care about.

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And there’s the irony that the more you can charge for your time, the more precious and scarce it can feel. 

That’s right. Feelings of time-stress are driven by increases in income because as our income goes up, our time becomes more valuable, and anything that’s valuable is perceived as scarce. These economic trends manifest themselves at an individual level, such that we start feeling more pressed for time as we end up getting more money.

Researching a small deal on the Internet is one way we all waste time.

You discuss a funny relationship, or maybe it’s a depressing one, between income and happiness, called the Easterlin Paradox. What is that?

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The paradox is at a point where happiness varies directly with income. Having more money does not necessarily result in greater happiness. You might’ve heard something like a $75,000 salary but it’s actually much higher than that, around $100,000. It takes quite a while for money to no longer pay off for happiness. But if anything, though, at some point of this inflection, there’s a deep dip, such that wealthier people are actually less happy than less wealthy people. Which underscores my point that pursuing money for the sake of happiness might get you more money, but it’s not necessarily likely to produce greater happiness reliably. It might make you less happy over time because you start comparing yourself to people with more money than you and have less time than you did before.

What contributes to our sense of time poverty beyond our psychological ticks?

There are a lot of organizational-cultural factors that push us to be constantly working. The most pressing factor now is the economic recession. Not only does the economic situation mean that people are worried about losing their jobs, but it also creates a subjective feeling of financial instability and precarious employment, which can lead us to focus more on time and less on leisure pursuits. In my data, just the feeling of not having enough in the future—even if you have lots of money in the bank, even if you’re still employed—pushes around people’s time and money preference. This general instability in the world creates this need to overcome our anxiety by being productive, making sure we’re doing a good job at our jobs. You’re seeing increasing amounts of precarious employment, increased contract work, and a decreased full-time labor market. Income volatility even within one’s job is increasing a lot. And this makes us feel anxious, and can lead us to prioritize work and finances over leisure.

In your paper, you discuss ways that people become time impoverished because of institutional or bureaucratic things, like wait times for voting, which is of course in the news right now.

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Oh, my God, I know! Good political-science evidence suggests wait times decrease democratic participation. But it also disproportionately affects people who are already financially constrained. There is this pervasive idea in the United States, but also elsewhere, that people who make less money have more time. This Protestant work ethic belief, that leisure is lazy, and that poor people are not hardworking, is due to the meritocratic belief system in our country, which is flawed. In our research, policy makers seem to neglect time costs when thinking about where they put voting booths, for example. In the great book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Princeton, shows, based on interviews with people he followed for years, that the financially constrained are also quite time poor because they’re always searching for jobs, underemployed, and have to travel far to go to their appointments, or to get welfare. Yet a lot of policies assume that poor people have lots of time, which in my research is not the case.

What does maintaining a time-affluent mindset look like for you during the pandemic?

I spend the first 15 to 20 minutes deliberately not letting myself in my inbox. I try to go for a walk or if I have an hour before, message a friend or look at the news. If I go into my work day having the first thing done be work, that colors my whole day. I find I don’t take breaks. I just keep my head down and focus without coming up for air. That’s really easy to do in the virtual work-from-home environment even more so now than before, and data bears this out. We’re just working all day every day—no breaks, boundaries, transitions, lunch, walking, nothing. It feels like you just get absorbed by Zoom calls.

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Brian Gallagher is an associate editor at Nautilus. Follow him on Twitter @bsgallagher.

Lead image: VectorMine / Shutterstock

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