Are You Rich or Poor?
As life begins to return to normal, I realize that pre-pandemic, I was poor! Time-poor. The pandemic eliminated 90% of all the activities I believed were essential and crucial to a happy and successful life. That all changed when the world shut down, and I had lots of time on my hands and many kids in my house. Life came to a halt, and I had time to do a lot of thinking and a lot of walking during a nearly seven-month sabbatical from my previous life. When kids returned to school and work began to get busier, I found myself highly bothered by all the demands on my time that didn’t align with what was important to me. I had become time rich and wasn’t ready to give it up.
In 2012, about 50 percent of working Americans reported they were “always rushed,” and 70 percent “never” had enough time. In 2015, more than 80 percent said they didn’t have the time they needed to accomplish everything they felt they needed to.
Time poverty is a serious problem, with severe costs for individuals and society. Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School and a leading researcher on time, amassed a large amount of data showing a correlation between time poverty and misery. Time-poor people are less happy, less productive, and more stressed out. They exercise less, eat fattier food, and have a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease. Time poverty forces us to compromise. Instead of preparing a nutritious dinner, we grab chips and guacamole and munch mindlessly while staring at our screens (phone, TV, computer, etc.).
Researchers initially believed most of us are time-poor because we spend more time working than previous generations. But the evidence doesn’t support this theory. Time diaries show that men’s leisure time in the US, for instance, has increased six to nine hours a week in the past 50 years, while women’s has increased four to eight hours a week.
Why, then, do we feel more time-poor than ever?
Time poverty doesn’t arise from a mismatch between the hours we have and the hours we need; it results from how we think about, value, and use those hours. This concept is critical to understand! It’s as much psychological as it is structural. We are ceaselessly connected. When free time arrives, we are unprepared to use it, so we waste it. Or we tell ourselves we shouldn’t take a break, so we work right through it.
Let me share a few time traps from Ashley Whillans’ research on becoming time smart and rich!
Time trap #1: Technology interruptions break our hours into confetti
Technology saves us time, but it also takes it away — this is known as the autonomy paradox. We adopt mobile technologies to gain autonomy over when and how long we work, yet ironically, we work all the time. Long blocks of free time that we used to enjoy are now interrupted constantly by our devices. This situation taxes us cognitively and fragments our leisure time.
They called this phenomenon “time confetti,” the little bits of seconds and minutes lost to unproductive multitasking. Each bit alone is not very bad, but all that confetti adds up to something more pernicious.
Time trap #2: We focus too much on money
Another trap is a cultural obsession with work and making money. We are taught — incorrectly — that money, not time, will bring greater happiness.
Research shows that money protects against sadness but doesn’t buy joy. Once we make enough money to pay our bills, save for the future, and have some fun, making more does little for our happiness.
Having money shields us from stress. When your car breaks down, money provides a solution. And having cash on hand even provides peace of mind in the absence of a crisis. But staving off negative outcomes is different from creating happier ones.
I will repeat this point because it’s so important: Money does not buy joy. Fame does not buy joy! Belonging, relationships, a healthy brain and body, challenging goals, and hobbies. These are the things that bring joy.
A culture obsessed with making more money believes, wrongly, that the way to become more time affluent is to become financially wealthier. We think, “I’ll work hard and make more so that I can afford more leisure time later.” This is the wrong solution. Focusing on chasing wealth leads only to an increased focus on pursuing wealth.
Time trap #3: We regard busyness as a status symbol
More than ever, our identities are tied to work. The best data show that people living in the US increasingly look toward work — not friends, families, or hobbies — to find purpose. In a 2017 survey, 95 percent of young adults said that having an “enjoyable and meaningful career” was “extremely important” to them.
Given the importance that we place on work, busyness at work carries status. We wear it like a badge of honor. We want to be seen as the employee who works the longest hours, even when these hours aren’t productive. Now, since the pandemic, this has begun to change and we perceive working hours differently. But on the other hand, the pandemic has caused financial insecurity.
Financial insecurity also drives us to work more. As society becomes increasingly unequal, people feel insecure about their financial future, regardless of their current stature. Those doing well worry about how far they could fall. Those struggling to make ends meet fear falling farther behind.
Most of us cope by working more and trying to make more money. And we feel guilty about spending money on things that make us happy, such as dining out or vacations.
With our self-identity so wrapped up in work and productivity, the social appearance of being busy makes us feel good about ourselves. In contrast, focusing our attention on something other than work can threaten our livelihood and status.
Time trap #4: We have an aversion to idleness
Even if we lived in a perfectly equal society, we would still create time stress for ourselves because human beings are not built for idleness.
Researchers call this idleness aversion, and it makes us do some strange things. Dan Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, placed some college students in an empty room and gave them nothing to do. Many preferred giving themselves mild electric shocks to being left alone with their thoughts. Another study showed that working parents felt “bored” and “stressed” during leisure activities, signaling that even the most time-poor among us don’t know how to relax.
Technology may help us avoid being alone with our thoughts, but it is a trap that contributes to stress and time poverty. Being constantly connected to our devices prevents the brain from recovering, keeps our stress levels elevated, and takes us out of the present.
Idleness is a valuable form of leisure and can increase time affluence. The physical and mental benefits of disengaging the brain are far more valuable than the stress created by keeping the mind engaged at all times.
We all have the power to overcome the time traps we have fallen victim to. Like getting fit, increasing your time affluence requires taking small, deliberate steps each day to have more free time and enjoy it. And like getting fit, it’s not easy at first. Both our society and our psychology make these time traps highly appealing.
No matter what time affluence looks like for you, the happiest and most time affluent among us are deliberate with their free time. Working toward time affluence is about recognizing and overcoming the time traps in our lives and intentionally carving out happier and more meaningful moments each day.
*Ashley Whillans, (Nov 2020). Time Traps, Ted Ideas.
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