Take Back Your Time for a Happier Life


Manage Your Time

Ever feel like you have too much to do and not enough time to get it done?

If you answered “no,” you are in a rare category. Four out of five of us say we are time-poor, unable to get all we need to get done in a given day.

Time-poor living robs us of happiness and increases our stress, which makes us even more unproductive in a negative cycle.

What can we do?

Enter Ashley Whillans and her book, Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Life and Live a Happier Life. She’s a happiness researcher and Assistant Professor at Harvard Business School. Her specific area of research explores the connection between how we spend time and happiness.

Reading this book, I walked away with tools to help all of us turn that time-poor deficit into one of time abundance. I reached out to learn more about the research.



What do most people get wrong when they think about time?

People think that money is more important than time. People also erroneously believe that they will have more time tomorrow than they do today.



What has your research shown about those who value time more than money?

Regardless of how much money people make, where they live, their personality, their professions, or their gender, people who value time over money report greater happiness. That is, they report greater overall satisfaction with their life, and experience more joy and less stress each day. People who value time more than money are happier because they spend more time each day engaging in activities that we know are good for happiness: they spend more time socializing with friends and family, they are more politically engaged, they volunteer more, and they are more likely to take minutes out of their day to talk with someone new—like the barista at their local coffeeshop or a next-door neighbor.



If you find yourself as someone who values money more than time, what steps should you take if you want to make a change?

If you are at the point in your life where it makes more sense to value money more, that is perfectly OK. I am a time and happiness researcher, and I think of myself as someone who values money more than time! I graduated three years ago from my PhD and am saving for major financial goals such as buying my first house, having a (COVID-safe) wedding, and starting a family. I also came from a working-class family, and I am a first-generation college student. These two factors predict having a money-centric focus. What is important to realize is that all of us can make decisions to have more and better time—without spending a penny. In particular, we can take steps in our daily lives to find time and reframe time.

Many of us—myself included—waste time unintentionally—such as by spending 10 minutes or 60 minutes between meetings passively scrolling on our cellphones. To gain time affluence we can all “find time” by replacing unfulfilling or unintentional activities with activities that have been scientifically shown to improve feelings of time affluence: like helping a colleague, connecting with a friend or family member, doing 10 jumping jacks, or vacation planning.

In addition to “finding time,” we can “reframe” time. If we have to spend time in unenjoyable ways like cleaning the house, we can inject joy by bundling the activity together with our favorite podcast or reframing the activity as exercise. Similar reframing techniques have been shown to significantly improve joy, reduce stress, and improve physical health.



What are some of the best ways to identify those things that are draining our time?

In Time Smart, I talk about “creating substitution lists” and “keeping our why in mind.” To become more time affluent, we need to start becoming more intentional. Track how you spend your time during a regular workday. At the end of the day, look at activities that were especially unpleasant or devoid of meaning. Why did you engage in those activities? Can you spend less time engaging in them? A lot of time poverty producing activities such as immediately responding to email alerts are habitual. The first step to changing these behaviors is recognizing them. The second step is coming up with a plan to overcome these time wasters. For example, you can create a “substitution list.” Write down the activities that you do that waste your time (i.e., looking at photos of your friends’ kids for dozens of minutes a day). Write down what you plan to substitute this activity with when you catch yourself doing it. It is also important to write down why you are engaging in this time-wasting activity (Boredom? Anxiety?). Do you often play online games right before a big meeting? Maybe this is due to anxiety. If yes, try walking around the block (exercise) or putting on a headspace track (mindfulness) instead.



Tell us more about your findings regarding productivity and vacation.

Most Americans do not take all of their paid vacation. This choice is akin to walking away from a giant stack of money. Most of us forgo vacations because we “don’t have time.” Perhaps ironically, as it turns out my research suggests that employees who take frequent vacations are more productive, happier, less stressed, and less time poor than employees who do not take all their vacation. They also find their jobs (and their lives) more meaningful. The secret to happier vacations is taking them frequently. This is because the benefits of vacations wear off quickly. Although many of us believe that taking one long vacation each year will mend our entire lives, this belief is misguided. We need to take frequent, short, restful vacations (where we unplug completely) to reap the greatest rewards.



How can employers best utilize your research?

Reward employees with time, such as by increasing the number of paid vacations your staff receives each year and offering time-saving services like housecleaning or grocery delivery as a reward for work well-done. Lead by example: If you are a manager, don’t send emails while on vacation. Celebrate time-off. Empower your employees to ask for more time on adjustable deadlines at work. Set clear norms for digital communication. Penalize people on your team who send emails early in the morning, late at night, on the weekend, or who don’t take all their paid vacations. Our workplaces typically celebrate burn-out and exhaustion. We need to flip the script and begin to celebrate time-off and self-care. As managers and leaders, it starts with us.



You tell several stories in the book that are compelling, such as the low-income mother traveling to get to a pharmacy. If she moved closer to the pharmacy, she would clearly save money. Why do we so often miss what’s obvious on reflection? Why do we struggle with these types of decisions? 

Time is abstract and hard to account for. In contrast, money is concrete and very easy to track. When we are feeling financially insecure, we are especially likely to focus on money and productivity. It is also very difficult to recognize that we will be as busy tomorrow as we are today. One simple strategy is to write down how much time you spend in unpleasant or stressful activities (like commuting) and then add up the time-losses across weeks and months. Also write what you cannot do because of the amount of time you spend trapped in unproductive activities. This helps us more clearly see how “small” losses of time add up into huge costs that often equal weeks and weeks of missed family and vacation time each year.

take back your time

At the end of the book, you talk about why pursuing time affluence isn’t selfish. Why do we think it is? What’s your hope for those reading this book?

My hope is that we all start treating time like the invaluable resource that it is, and that we begin to celebrate time affluence vs. time poverty. I hope that people who read my book start to take small steps in their daily lives to have more and better time—that they realize to gain time affluence, they don’t need to quit their jobs, move homes or take a sabbatical. Just like good health is built by choosing salads over dessert day over day, all of us can build time affluence by making small decisions—such as exercising more and driving less—that enable us to have more and better time. By becoming time affluent, we will be better employees, better friends and family, and better stewards of our communities and our planet. When we are time affluent, we are in a better position to enact our values and help those around us.

For more information, see Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Life and Live a Happier Life.


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Image Credit: Jon Tyson.

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