Chapter One: Time Poor and Tired One TIME POOR AND TIRED
This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
In 2013, I was sitting on the late-night train back from New York to Philadelphia and was contemplating quitting… everything. Between trying to be a good parent and partner, the incessant pressure to publish and perform at work, the never-ending pile of chores—it was all too much. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done, let alone to do any of it well. The coordinating and preparing and doing—it seemed to require a zesty superhero’s level of energy, and I had run out. I rested my forehead against the chilled window and watched the dark blur of trees and houses whiz by.
I’d given a talk that day at Columbia Business School, sharing my latest research on how the quality of our
happiness changes as we grow older. My presentation had been efficiently slotted into lunchtime, flanked by hours of back-to-back meetings, followed by a colleague dinner, throughout which I worked to stay on pace with the guys in witty banter and throwing back beers. Speeding in a taxi to the station, I prayed I wouldn’t miss the last train home.
Though my typical days didn’t begin in a New York City hotel room, they were similarly jam-packed and no less frenzied. I’d wake at dawn to go for a run and come back for a quick snuggle with my four-month-old, Leo, before racing to get ready and dashing to my office. Inside the bustling halls of Wharton, I’d hurriedly try to get my work done in between seminars and meetings. Then I would dash home to relieve our nanny at 6 p.m. Between putting the groceries away, preparing dinner, and cleaning up, even that precious hour before Leo’s bedtime felt rushed. None of these tasks alone took much time, but taken together, these minutes of doing-doing-doing were just too many—especially given how few there were to spare.
I’d felt this way for some time. As the train sped through the darkness, I pulled my coat over me like a blanket. Deeply exhausted, I realized that I needed to truly figure out if doing all of it
was really sustainable. To accurately assess the feasibility of continuing on this course, I knew I had to account for everything. Not just my routine tasks, but also the unanticipated and extra “exceptions” that in aggregation happened regularly (e.g., haircut, dentist, Leo’s doctor’s appointment, picking out a gift, getting the car serviced, showing up for jury duty). Plus, I needed to include not just my to-do lists for work and home, but my determination not to flake on going out for my friend’s birthday dinner, and my decision to take Leo to his baby music class on Wednesday mornings. “All of it” needed to involve some exercise and a decent amount of sleep, because I’m not nice without either. “All of it” needed to factor in whether I’d still have enough energy to enjoy the moments I shared with Leo and my husband, Rob, at the end of the day.
The real problem I was wrestling with on the train that night was that I wanted
to do it all. I loved my job. Not every piece of it, but I had worked hard to get to this point and found real fulfillment in conducting research and connecting with people through teaching. I adored my baby and husband, and I could not let either of those relationships suffer. I wanted to stay healthy and be a good friend. And even though I didn’t like doing chores, it was important to me that I be a competent contributor to a well-functioning household and society.
I’d felt busy before. In fact, I couldn’t remember a time in which I hadn’t felt like I was racing against the clock trying to achieve as much as possible during every hour. I am not alone in this. We live in a culture driven toward productivity—so much so that
busyness has become a status symbol that is taken to signal an individual’s worth. But I knew, both personally and according to my research, that this
rushing around does not feel
Yes, having a baby had loaded more onto my plate. I was no longer in charge of just myself and my career. Now I was fully responsible for another person’s survival and well-being. But it was even more than the additional to-dos that came with a baby. Seeing him grow made me realize how quickly time was passing. Watching how much Leo had changed in just a few months highlighted how fast everything was flying by. I did not want to miss any of it simply because I was in a rush. I didn’t want to speed past his childhood. I didn’t want to speed through my life.
I wanted more time, but not just time to get more done. I wanted more so I could slow down
to actually experience the hours that I spent. When looking at my life, I wanted to feel happy and not only see a blur. With my forehead on the cool window, watching the world outside speeding by, it suddenly seemed that quitting everything and moving to a sunny, slow-paced island somewhere was the optimal solution. I’d invite Leo and Rob to join me.
The Wisdom of Data
As a social psychologist, I’m constantly looking to data to find answers for whatever questions I’m personally grappling with. (So really, I’m only partially joking when I explain my work by telling people that I conduct “me-search.”) And I knew that before charging into my boss’s office to tell him I’d decided to leave my dream job as a tenure-track professor, I should carefully consider the realities of living with a whole lot more free time. Before I asked Rob to walk away from his career and pack for the beach, I needed to know whether I’d indeed be happier trading an overflowing to-do list for a blank one. With more available hours in the day, would I actually feel more satisfied with my life?
To empirically guide me through this particular crisis, I recruited a couple of my favorite collaborators, Hal Hershfield and Marissa Sharif. We found a data set to analyze that captured, for tens of thousands of working and nonworking Americans, all of the activities constituting a regular day in their lives, as well as their overall satisfaction with their lives. This treasure trove of data meant that I wouldn’t have to rely on advice from any one individual. Instead, we could identify significant trends across a large group of people, which would provide a much more reliable prediction. This data from the
American Time Use Survey would help us answer the pressing question: What is the relationship between the amount of
discretionary time people have in their daily lives and their overall happiness?
As a first step in our analysis, we calculated the varying amounts of time people had available to spend on discretionary activities—
things people want to do
. This included “doing nothing,” relaxing, and watching TV. It also encompassed more active leisure pursuits, like playing sports or going to the movies or sporting events. And it contained purely social activities, like hanging out with friends and family. Importantly, this calculation of available time did not
incorporate the day’s hours spent on obligatory tasks—things people have to do.
For instance, the litany of work tasks, household chores, dentist and doctor appointments, and errands were all grouped as nondiscretionary activities, counting as time that was unavailable.
We then tested how this calculated amount of discretionary time related to people’s satisfaction in life. The results were illuminating. The following graph shows the pattern as an upside-down U-shape—like an arc or a rainbow. This shape is interesting because it points downward toward unhappiness on both
ends of the spectrum. This means there are not one but two stumbling blocks when it comes to discretionary time. But let’s first explore the far left side of this graph, which reflected my particular unhappiness….
The graph makes clear that happiness is lower with less than approximately two hours of discretionary time in the day. This data confirmed that I indeed had too little time. I was time poor
—defined as feeling like you have too little time available to do all that you need and want to do. It turns out that those of us who suffer from time poverty are
not alone. A nationwide poll shows that nearly half of Americans report they
don’t have enough time to do what they want to do. Another poll shows that approximately half of Americans say they almost never feel they have time on their hands, and two-thirds say they
always or sometimes feel rushed.
Even though moms tend to feel more time poor than dads, and even though working parents tend to feel particularly impoverished, all
people lack for time. And it’s not just my fellow Americans. People across the globe—including in the UK, Norway, Germany, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Guinea, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea—also report being rushed and suffering from a hectic pace of life with
too little time.
Validating my distress on the train that night, these results show one of the key reasons why being time poor is such an issue: people with too little time are significantly less happy and less satisfied in life. Studies from other research teams across disciplines (including psychology, sociology, and economics) have similarly shown that being time poor makes us more depressed, more stressed, and more
emotionally exhausted. The constant pressure imposed by a culture that reveres busyness and hurries us along carries an emotional toll.
However, there was more to our data’s story. The right side of the graph offered an unexpected counterpoint.
In addition to the unhappiness from having too little time, the downward slope on the other side of the arc shows that having more than approximately five hours of discretionary time in a day is also linked to
less happiness. It turns out there is such a thing as having too much time!
? Given how much I longed for more free time, how could having wide-open days make me feel worse? Once I began looking into this, I realized that the story of my friend Ben, passed out in a bed of poison oak in the hills of California’s Marin County, offers a clue.
Ben is a brilliant, analytical, and tremendously hardworking guy who ultimately concluded that the grief of office politics involved with running a hedge fund wasn’t worth the time away from his wife and four kids. Nor was it worth the stress he carried home each day from the office. Fortunate to have the financial means, Ben decided to retire at the age of thirty-nine. This would give him time to do all the things he had always wanted to do, but had neglected while busy in his job: relaxing with his family, vacationing, reading for pleasure, and doing plenty of exercise.
Yet Ben is goal-oriented. He does not like feeling idle and derives satisfaction from being productive. Despite his intention to chill out, having so much time on his hands made Ben stir-crazy. He needed a goal, so he set one.
Ben decided that he was going to run the upcoming Dipsea. The Dipsea is the oldest trail race in America, stretching from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach in Marin’s beautiful headlands. In addition to being known for its scenery, its stairs and steep trails have established the Dipsea’s reputation as a grueling, treacherous race.
For months, Ben trained diligently. He closely followed the recommended regimen of hill workouts, long runs, weights, rest days, and diet. On race day, his family gathered with their hand-drawn signs and post-race snacks to greet him at the finish line. He never got there.
Ben had started the race strong and fast, challenging himself to beat the finish time he had calculated as his appropriate target. Yet about four miles in, Ben couldn’t catch his breath. His intensity, dehydration, and the hot day had gotten the better of him. The next thing he knew, the paramedics were standing over him strategizing how to get him into an ambulance. Lying in the shrubs, his whole body itched. The toxins of the poison oak that had cushioned his fall had begun to wreak their havoc.
Only after he had reconnected with his terrified family and received the doctor’s assurance that he would be okay did Ben laugh at the ridiculous situation he’d gotten himself into. Wired toward achievement, Ben had felt uncomfortable with days spent “doing nothing.” Dissatisfied by having nothing to show for his time, he had transformed what was intended to be an enjoyable activity into an extreme goal-directed pursuit. As Ben recovered, he realized the absurdity of just how hard he had pushed himself for this race.
Though Ben is exceptional in many ways, he is not unique in his drive for accomplishment. In a follow-up experiment that Hal, Marissa, and I conducted, we found that lacking a sense of productivity is why
people with excessive amounts of available time feel
less satisfied in their lives. If as a kid you started feeling restless toward the end of a lazy summer, you have experienced something similar. Just like Ben, many people have an
aversion to being idle and are
oriented toward productivity. There is value to being somewhat busy, because it gives us a sense of
purpose in our daily lives.
It is worth pointing out that having a
sense of purpose does not require working in a paid job. For one, volunteering (work that is unpaid) often provides a sense of purpose. Additionally, tasks required to produce well-functioning children and households can similarly offer a satisfying sense of accomplishment; and when completed by someone from the household, this work also
is not paid. Lastly, some explicitly nonwork activities (e.g., pursuing hobbies and playing sports) are considered by many to be both
productive and purposeful. Yet I recognized that in my case, work gives me a significant source of purpose.
In light of the data and Ben’s experience after deciding to stop working, I’d become convinced that, for me, quitting everything to spend my days relaxing wasn’t the solution.
The pattern in our graph was instructive. It showed that regularly having less than two hours of discretionary time each day is indeed too little. It causes stress and unhappiness, which I knew all too well. On the other hand, from the data I now also knew that regularly having more than five hours of discretionary time in the day is too much, because it undermines one’s sense of purpose. Our research suggested that if I quit my job, I would likely feel unhappy as well. With too much time, I would surely find another endeavor to satisfy my drive to feel productive, and this activity too would eventually cause me stress. But whatever I’d end up doing wouldn’t utilize the skills I’d spent years developing in a field I truly cared about. Having between two and five hours seems to be about right.
These results didn’t merely validate my emotional experience; they offered me hope, and ultimately guided a life decision. The sweet spot for the ideal amount of available daily hours wasn’t completely out of reach. It was not unreasonable to commit to having a couple hours each day to spend on what brings me joy. An honest calculation from a typical day showed that I was already pretty close:
- 15 minutes of morning snuggles with Leo
- 25 minutes talking to my friend on the phone during my walk home from the office
- 30 minutes having a glass of wine and dinner with Rob (this would ideally be longer, but Leo’s fussing often cut things short)
- 20 sweet and calming minutes singing Leo to sleep
These were 90 minutes (an hour and a half) in my day that I wouldn’t have wanted to spend any other way. Sure, I would have preferred talking to my friend while sitting together over a cup of coffee, and I would have liked not having baby distractions while dining with Rob. But those small imperfections didn’t disqualify that time as discretionary, even joyful. It was eye-opening to realize that the target two hours was well within my reach—without
me having to make any drastic, life-altering changes. Yes, I’d have to be thoughtful and make some tweaks to my schedule to get there. But I could easily implement some small changes to become happier. By protecting work hours from waste and distraction so that I could produce more of what felt purposeful during those hours, by prioritizing time for activities that filled me
rather than just my schedule, by outsourcing some chores so that I could instead spend that time playing with Leo, by savoring and celebrating day-to-day moments as I shared them with the people I loved… maybe I could “do it all.” Rob could reserve packing for our next vacation.
It’s About Time
When it came to my happiness, I was right: time has proven to be my greatest challenge. Yet I used to believe that it had to do with quantity: if only I had more hours in the day, I could do everything I wanted, accomplish everything, and feel better. Interestingly, however, the flat portion of the graph between two and five hours suggests that within a pretty wide range, the amount of time people have available is unrelated to their happiness. This is important because it means that, except at the very extremes, to enjoy greater satisfaction in life, it’s not so much a question of the amount we have. It’s really about how we spend
what we have.
So the real answer is not about being time rich; it is about making
the time you have rich. This graph clarified for me what much of my research had been suggesting all along: for greater happiness, time isn’t only a challenge, it’s the solution. Time is the singular resource that if invested correctly can produce a good, maybe even great, life. If you know how to invest your time and
are invested in your time, you can make yourself happier. It’s about knowing how to allocate the hours you have to achieve outcomes that ultimately matter—the ones that will allow you to look back on your days, years, and life feeling satisfied and fulfilled. And it’s about being completely engaged during that time to make those hours happier.
This focus on investing time (as opposed to money) may seem odd coming from someone who has spent her career as a business school professor. In teaching MBAs, success is typically measured by profits. It’s about the amount made, and more is better. The very reason that most of my students are getting an MBA and pursuing a career in business is to make money, and, they hope, a lot of it. It’s not just my business-minded students, however. In a survey in which my research team asked thousands of people representing a range of occupations and income levels from across the country whether they would prefer more money or more time, the
majority chose money. Yet this might not be the right choice.
Automobile mogul Henry Ford is said to have remarked, “Business must be run at a profit, else it will die. But when anyone tries to run a business solely for profit… the business must die as well, for it no longer has a reason to exist.” This quote applies as much to us as individuals as it does to businesses. Despite the widespread focus on money, the real determinant of success and satisfaction in life isn’t so much about the money earned, but the time spent. Was there a purpose? Was it worth the investment
… of time?
Over the years, I have conducted more than a dozen studies testing the effects of focusing on
time instead of money as our critical resource. The results are consistent and clear: regardless of how much money or time one has, paying greater attention to time predicts higher levels of happiness. Those who place more value on their time rather than money report feeling more positive in their days and more satisfied about their lives. The benefits of being time-focused accrue from being deliberate and investing in better ways—in activities that are more fun, meaningful, and aligned with one’s values. Thus, not straying too far from my business school roots, this book is
an investment guide. But it’s not about money. It’s about how to invest your most precious resource.
Every one of us has exactly the same number of hours to work with and play with each day. We all have twenty-four hours to allocate the best we can, and the stakes are high. Our hours and days add up to years and decades, and ultimately to our entire lives. How we spend our time defines who we are, the memories we cherish, and how we will be remembered by those we leave behind.
And we all want to be happy. People around the globe consistently rate it among their
most important pursuits. This isn’t remotely new. Back in the seventeenth century, French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal observed, “All men [and presumably he also meant women] seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all
tend to this end.”
Happiness (which the psychology literature refers to as subjective well-being and is defined as how positive you feel during your days and how satisfied you
feel about your life overall) matters… a lot. And it isn’t an indulgent or frivolous pursuit. It isn’t selfish, nor is it about plastering a smile on your face and pretending everything is swell.
This basic emotion has a tremendous ripple effect. It can make you more resilient, better at your job, and more giving to the people around you. Decades of studies have shown that feeling happy benefits us both in the office
and in our relationships (personal and professional). For example, happiness increases motivation, creativity, and adaptive problem-solving—all of which can help us at work and get us through
challenging times outside of work. It makes us like people more and be liked by people more. It makes us nicer, more likely to say and do kind things and to help others out.
Happiness is also good
for us. It boosts our immune functioning, raises our threshold for pain, helps our bodies respond better to physiological stressors, and is a significant predictor of longevity. Altogether, these studies provide undeniable empirical evidence that happiness is key to living longer and better lives. So, not only do we all want
to be happy, we should
want to be happy.
This interplay between time and happiness is what has compelled more than a decade of my research, my recent teaching, and now this book. I’m looking to inform the fundamental human question: How can each of us make the absolute most of the time we have?
Since that fateful night on the train, I have continued conducting research and have applied the subsequent findings to guide my own thinking and investments of time. Even though my days are still full, I have finally figured out how to make them fulfilling. Ultimately, I did decide to leave Wharton, but I have not left my career in academia. Though I appreciated my colleagues and the vigor of the school, I took a note from my research and chose happiness. For brighter days, I did eventually ask Rob to move, and it happened to be a place with a beach nearby. But, except when on vacation, we don’t spend entire days relaxing. We are now raising Leo and our daughter, Lita, back home in California.
I’m a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Determined to spend my time more purposefully, I shifted what I taught—now I teach happiness. Inspired by
Laurie Santos’s Psychology and the Good Life undergraduate course at Yale, and Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’s
Designing Your Life course at Stanford’s design school, I developed a course called Applying the Science of Happiness to Life Design. It shows my MBA students how to optimize their personal and professional lives. I’ve culled insights from my own research, as well as that of colleagues across the fields of psychology, behavioral economics, marketing, and organizational behavior to help my students craft their time—in their day-to-day and their lives overall—to be happier.
I wrote this book to bring these lessons to you. To highlight how the underlying research—based on hundreds of thousands of data points—relates to you and your life, I’ll share anecdotes from my students and my friends, as well as many of my own. These stories are necessarily personal, because our time is personal—it’s the substance of our daily existence. And though every experience may not represent your own, I suspect you will see aspects of your life experience in ours. So I invite you to read along and share in this journey, and you can rely on the takeaways following each chapter to cement what you’ve learned on the way. Perhaps even more useful, I will give you assignments, just as I do for my students. There are more than a dozen exercises throughout the book that I strongly urge you to implement to immediately experience their proven benefits. By doing these exercises, you will essentially be taking my course and, exactly as my students have, you will enjoy greater happiness, meaning, and connection in
your life as a result.
In the chapters that follow, I will first boost you out of your scarcity mindset. In chapter 2, I will help you realize that despite feeling
time poor, you actually have all you need to be able to dedicate hours to what really matters. We’ll work on your perceptions and increase your time affluence. I will give you the confidence to decide how you spend your time, which is about what’s worthwhile, rather than merely efficient.
In chapter 3, I will lead you through the Time Tracking Exercise. This will help you identify which activities promise you
the greatest happiness and which ways of spending aren’t worth your time—all guiding you how to invest your time more wisely. Noting that there are inevitably some required activities that aren’t particularly fun (e.g., chores, work, and commuting), in chapter 4, I will offer some strategies to make these times that threaten to feel like a waste more satisfying.
However, making the most of your time isn’t just a question of the activities you spend your time on; it’s also about how you engage in that time. It’s about how you approach the activity and your mindset as you do it. For instance, even though having a conversation with the love of my life over a cheeseburger and a glass of pinot is among my most joyful activities, if having dinner with Rob becomes so regular that I fail to notice its specialness, or I’m so distracted by the to-do list running through my mind that I fail to hear what he just said, then I’ve wasted my time (and his). I’ve missed out on the potential happiness from that hour. So in chapter 5, I will give you strategies to pay more attention, and then, in chapter 6, some techniques to remove distractions—so that you can make the most of all the time
Though you have plenty of time to live a happy life, this is only true if you spend deliberately and don’t let it get mindlessly filled. Your daily hours are finite. In chapter 7, I will share the importance of being proactive rather than reactive in your spending—pushing you to prioritize what really matters to you, those ways of spending that bring you joy.
Notably, each hour doesn’t stand alone. It’s not as straightforward as simply adding your various hours together to sum up to a satisfying week. How your week’s activities are pieced together and arranged can have a significant impact on your overall satisfaction. In chapter 8, I will encourage you to view your schedule as a beautiful and colorful mosaic, and yourself as the artist. I will walk you through how to craft your time: selecting, spacing, and sequencing tiles to design an ideal week. This will allow you to increase the influence of your good times and minimize that of your chores. You’ll also see that even though it’s not possible to do it all and be it all in any given hour, you can do and be everything you want over the course of your weeks and months and years.
Lastly, in chapter 9, we will zoom out from focusing on your hours to consider your years and life overall. Taking this bird’s-eye view will help clarify your values, what you truly care about, and what matters to you most. This broader time perspective will guide how to spend today’s hours—ensuring that you fill your days with what’s fulfilling, so you can look back on your years feeling a sense of meaning, without regrets.
With this empirically based wisdom, you’ll learn how to craft the time of your life. It all starts with a happier hour.