By Molly Rose Teuke
“Time is a game played beautifully by children.” — Heraclitus, Greek philosopher
“All work and no play … “We know how that old proverb ends, but it turns out that not taking time for yourself does a lot more than make you dull. It depletes your energy, drains your motivation, makes you more anxious, and generally leaves you unhappy and harder to get along with. It also makes you less productive at work.
Time poverty and its happier corollary, time affluence, have been a focus of research only since the end of the 20th century, but the explosion of research findings and corresponding advice is awe-inspiring, demonstrating conclusively that time poverty is at an all-time high in this country. Analysis of a Gallup survey of 2.5 million Americans showed that 80% of respondents didn’t have time to do everything they wanted to each day. It may seem that modern life simply demands longer hours at work, yet the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reports that U.S. income-earners work, on average, at least four hours a week less than they did in 1950.
“We’re completely strapped for time because we don’t know how to value it,” wrote Ashley Whillans in the Harvard Business Review in 2019. We continue to value income as the gold standard of importance and devalue time. Research by Whillans, who’s on the faculty of Harvard Business School and an expert on how we perceive time, suggests that we devalue time today not only because it’s not a valid measure of personal importance, but also because we’re sure we’ll have more of it in the future. We conveniently ignore the reality that counting on future time won’t give back missed opportunities to savor connections with family and friends, or to reflect in meaningful ways on the direction life is taking.
Leverage the Clock
It may be time to rethink your personal use of time. You can’t actually stop the clock, but you can leverage your time more wisely. Laura Vanderkam, author of “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think,“ likes to look at time in blocks of 168 hours (24 hours a day times seven days a week) because it allows more flexibility for finding time for things that matter even when one day in the week goes wrong. Her research with more than 100 successful men and women shows they ignore or minimize the little stuff, and instead pay attention to three big things: nurturing their careers, nurturing family and close friends, and nurturing themselves.
“Focusing on time is not selfish,” says Whillans. “It’s really in making enough time for ourselves that we’re able to have the energy and attention to best serve those that we care about.” In that vein, here are three ideas on how to tip your personal scales from time poverty to time affluence, which Whillans defines as a “feeling of having control and feeling like you have enough time on an everyday basis.”
1. Buy Time
First, spend money on products that save you time, for instance, devices that automatically water your plants, or feed and water your pets. Or tools that streamline cleaning, like a robotic vacuum cleaner. In the kitchen, it could be a programmable slow cooker or pressure cooker.
Second, outsource. Hire a cleaning service. Find a neighborhood kid to mow your lawn or wash your car. Find a service to launder, dry and fold your clothes. Order carryout more often. Or if you love to cook, invest in a meal kit service that saves you the time and trouble of planning and shopping.
2. Don’t Give Your Time Away
The U.S. Travel Association reports that nearly 50% of Americans who earn vacation time left more than half of it on the table in 2019. That amounts to 768 million unused vacation days. How many of those days were yours? The economics of our reluctance to claim earned vacation days is staggering — $65.5 billion in lost benefits. To help combat this sorry state, the association designated the last Tuesday in January as “Plan for Vacation Day.“ Mark your calendar as such for January 25, 2022. End the time giveaway to your employer.
3. Make a Decision
Unless you get in the habit of making smart choices about time, it will slip away on little stuff that isn’t making you happier. Planning to use vacation time is just one decisive step toward more time for you. Another, according to Vanderkam, is planning your weekends.
When you plan your free time (even if it’s just to plan a nap or a stroll in the park), you’re less likely to fritter it away surfing social media or watching TV. When you plan and carry out a rewarding activity, you can look back on it as time well-spent and that can lead to a perception of time affluence.
If you find it difficult to plan your free time — or even acknowledge that you deserve free time — when other demands are staring you in the face, engage in something that takes in-the-moment decision-making out of it. Take a class in an activity that interests you, whether it’s physical (snowboarding), manual (pottery) or cerebral (learning a language or a musical instrument). Once you’re signed up, you have to take the time to attend — it’s the responsible thing to do, right? Or find a volunteer activity that brings you joy (at an animal shelter or a story hour at the library, for example). Once you’re committed, you won’t feel guilty about taking that time for yourself. Just make sure it’s something you actually enjoy, which makes it you time and not other time.
On a day-to-day basis, follow the advice of Josh Davis from his book, “Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done.“ When you finish a chore or a task, don’t automatically move on to the next. Take a moment to make a real decision: Would this be a good moment for a little me time? Those daily decisions can give you the small time chunks you need to feel like you control time and not the other way around. By the same token, pay attention when you do take a break for, say, an ice cream. Don’t take it for granted — mentally chalk it up to me time.
We all get the same amount of time as everyone else: 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week. As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in “The Fellowship of the Ring,“ “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” How you decide has the power to reduce stress and increase joy by giving you that feeling that you’ve got plenty of time after all.
Molly Rose Teuke has an enduring curiosity about what makes our brains tick. Pre-COVID-19, she offered a program for Nicolet College called Getting Your Brain on Your Side and delivered brain-based leadership training for the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global leader in the performance arena. She also hosts a weekly classical music program on WXPR-FM. You can reach her at mollyrosecoaching.com.