You can become more 'time smart' by changing one small habit at a time, says author

Even though North Americans have more leisure time than ever, many of us feel chronically time-crunched, focusing on work at the expense of meaningful leisure time with others. Behavioural scientist Ashley Whillans studies the relationship between time, money, and happiness. In her new book, she explains how we can avoid the 'time traps' that lead to overwork, and lack of free time.

Behavioural scientist Ashley Whillans says our technology use and obsession with work has made us time poor

Canadian behavioural scientist Ashley Whillans studies the relationship between time, money, and happiness. (Evgenia Eliseeva/HRB Press/CBC edit)

Originally published in December, 2020.

Our relationship with time is as complicated as ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, but a behavioural scientist argues that this might be a good opportunity to change our habits in favour of more time affluence. 

"The COVID environment and work from home has accelerated some of these trends for the positive. So we see remote work is here to stay, we see more flexible work arrangements," author and Harvard Business School assistant professor Ashley Whillans told Spark host Nora Young.

"I think the extent to which workplaces use this as a moment to take mental health and time off policies seriously, for employees this will be a benefit."

Research suggests that, while technological advancements allow North Americans now to have more free time than in the 1950s or the 1980s, they feel more pressed for time than ever before. 

Whillans explores the concept of time poverty and offers tips to mitigate it in her new book, Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life. She said that while our perception of time is a result of both personal choices and general societal attitudes, we as individuals have the ability to change this: "Small, simple changes around the margins can go a long way."

Disrupt one habit at a time

The first step Whillans recommends in cultivating time affluence is to evaluate areas of improvement.

"Think about a typical work day you had. What are moments that brought you joy and what were moments that brought you stress? Of all those activities that aren't bringing meaning or pleasure, and that are unproductive and stressful, think about one very specific activity that you're going to try to do less of going forward." 

Whillans used the example of "doom-scrolling" — spending time mindlessly browsing social media — as a habit many may want to change. 

"When we're feeling overwhelmed, we actually reach for low-level tasks that feel somewhat satisfying in the moment, like checking an email, texting a friend, checking something on social media," she said.

"It gives us this feeling of accomplishment that is coming at the cost of our time affluence."

Once you have identified a habit that doesn't serve you well, Whillans recommends writing down a strategy for avoiding the activity, and putting the written reminder in a visible spot.

Whillans says stress often makes us turn to low-level tasks that feel somewhat satisfying in the moment, such as scrolling through social media. (iStock/Getty Images)

Opt for active leisure activities

In Time Smart, Whillans argues that our use of technology contributes to the fragmentation of our downtime. "Whereas we used to have an uninterrupted hour of leisure after work, after dinner, where we truly got to enjoy and be present in the moment in whatever we were doing, that one hour of leisure is now disrupted into small moments of time that are easily squandered," she said. 

Whillans refers to this disruption as "time confetti," a term created by author Bridget Schulte — which, despite its festive sound, is something Whillans says contributes to our time poverty. 

"Our technology pulls us out of the present moment into what we could or should be doing," she explained. 

To avoid the detrimental effects of time confetti, Whillans recommends consciously committing 10 to 30 minutes each day to active leisure, such as cooking or socializing. 

"These are the kinds of leisure activities that are most likely to translate into greater positive mood and greater meaning and satisfaction in life," she said.

Set firm boundaries for work-life balance

A major factor contributing to time poverty is a lack of work-life balance. 

Whillans used the example of time management during the COVID-19 pandemic to illustrate this: "With so many workers working from home, the time that we could have spent doing something other than our commute is now spent doing extra work."

She recommends setting aside the time you would normally take to commute to your workplace, and use it for anything but work-related activities — like going for a walk or reading a book. 

"It's about cultivating these moments of free time throughout the day, and sticking to them, where you're going to commit to not just checking email or working on your next project, but taking time for yourself and your family."

Whillans said employees and policymakers need to do their part to help workers maintain a healthy balance between life and work, during the pandemic and beyond. 

"Workplaces are going to need to broadly continue offering workplace flexibility, paid time off and childcare support," she said.

To hear the full conversation with Ashley Whillans, click on the 'listen' button at the top of the story.


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