There is an 8 out of 10 chance that you are one of the poorest people in the world. However – we don’t mean poor in the sense of material wealth (although this is a pressing issue for many of us at the moment).
We’re talking poor in the sense of time – you have a lot of things to do, and not a lot of time to do them. Time poverty affects every culture and economic segment - most of us feel or have felt this way.
A study released in September revealed that nearly 8 million Australians reported 'always' or 'often' feeling rushed for time, affecting those aged 40-54 the most.
Whilst this may seem like the definition of a first world problem and you feel you should just get on with it – this is wrong. Time poverty is a serious problem, and one that can result in serious costs for society and individuals. The data shows that there is a correlation between misery and time poverty.
People who are time poor are less productive, less happy, and more stressed out. They eat unhealthier foods, have a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease and exercise less. A lack of time forces us to compromise for the quicker, more convenient options.
An obvious explanation is that we spent more time working than the previous generations before us, but the evidence isn’t supportive of this claim. In the USA for examples, time diaries show that men’s leisure time has increased by six to nine hours a week in the past 50 years, and a four to eight hour increase for women.
Why is it that we feel more time poor than ever then?
Time poverty doesn’t stem from comparing the time we need with the time we have – it results from how we value and think about the hours we have. It’s equally as psychological as it is structural.
We are ceaselessly connected. When free time arises, we are unprepared to use it – so often it gets wasted. Or, we tell ourselves we shouldn’t take a break, so we work right through it.
The first step to become time rich is to identify the things eating away at your time – we look at some of these below.
Technology saves time, but also takes it way. This is known as the autonomy paradox. We adopt mobile technologies to gain autonomy over when and how long we work, but because of this, we end up working all of the time. Our devices now constantly break up long blocks of free time we used to enjoy. The situation has a tax on our mind and fragments our leisure time, which makes it hard to use.
It has been said that answering what you perceive to be quick emails, slack messages, tweets, text and Instagram notifications can erode up to 10% of your leisure time, but research shows that these estimates are conservative and it is more than likely a lot more.
It also takes time to cognitively recover from shifting our minds to a stress free activity. People end up enjoying their free time less and, when asked to reflect on it, estimate they had less time than they did. This effect of technology makes us feel more impoverished than we already are.
Another thing that eats away at your time is a cultural obsession with work and making money. We’re taught – incorrectly – that it’s money, not time, that brings happiness.
Research indicates that whilst money can protect against sadness, it cannot buy joy. Once we make enough money to pay bills, have some fun and save for the future, any figure above this does little for our happiness.
In data from 1.7 million people in 165 countries, researches filled out the exact dollar amount, which added money no longer has an effect on happiness. After we make $60,000 - $70,0000 USD a year, money stops predicting how we laugh or smile each day. After we make $95,000 - $105,000 USD a year, money stops predicting how well we think we’re doing in life.
If anything, once people make a lot of money - $105,000 USD a year in the USA – they start thinking they are doing worse in life. No matter how rich we are, there will always be someone richer to compare your wealth to, and this has a detrimental effect on your wellbeing.
Whilst having money definitely shields us from stress, staving off negative outcomes is different to creating happier ones.
Therefore, contrary to popular belief, we conclude that money doesn’t buy joy.
A culture obsessed with making more and more wealth believes that the way to become more affluent is to become richer financially. This is the wrong solution. Focusing on chasing wealth leads only to an increased focus on changing wealth.
Undervaluation of our time
Cultural obsession with wealth results in many people protecting their money in ways that are counterproductive to time affluence.
It’s hard to measure times value. Even if we’re making a bad trade off between time and money – such as driving two miles out of our way to save 10 cents a litre on petrol – it doesn’t feel like a bad choice at the time. That’s because most people don’t know the value of the time spent travelling the extra 2 miles.
Another example – which doesn’t sound as bad as usual right now – is settling for connecting flights on a holiday to save money. Whilst it may save you $300 or so to stop somewhere on the way, your increasing fatigue and stress from having to travel for longer – and losing the time difference from your holiday – is the sacrifice worth it?
The trap is simple: We habitually to pick the lowest cost when we shouldn’t. When you break it down and compare the money saved with the time it’s taken, it often brings the issue to light and helps you look at the value of time with a different lens. Our time is something we tend to grossly undervalue.
We regard busyness as a status symbol
Tying our identities to work has been a growing trend over the past two to three generations. The best data shows that people look towards their work (not hobbies, friends or family) as their purpose. In a 2017 survey, 95% of young adults said that having an enjoyable and meaningful career was extremely important to them.
Given the importance that we place on our career, busyness at work carries status – often worn like a badge of honour. We strive to be seen like an employee who works the longest hours, even if they aren’t productive.
Financial insecurity also drives workism, and it’s on the rise. As society continues to become less and less equal, people feel increasingly insecure about their financial future, regardless of their current stature. Those who are doing well worry about how far they could fall. Those struggling to make ends meat fear falling farther behind.
We then work more and try to make more money – and we feel guilty about spending this money on what makes us happy.
The social appearance of being busy also makes us feel good about ourselves. In contrast, focusing our attention on something other than work can threaten our status and livelihood. We worry we won’t be valued, and to some extent, this is right.
Research shows that employees who boast about working nonstop, and being extremely busy are perceived to be better, richer workers with more prestige, even when this isn’t true. They’re even thought to be more physically attractive.
Even if it feels good in the moment for someone to see the email you sent on a Saturday night, this behavior contributes to an unhappy and unhealthy life.
Overestimating how much time we have tomorrow
Most of us are overly optimistic about our future time. We mistakenly believe that we have more time tomorrow than we actually do. This is often referred as the planning fallacy.
Agreeing to things ahead of time for a day in the future causes us to assume we have more time than we do. Then, the day that we committed to doing lots of things arrives, and we are rushed off our feet.
Statistically, the best predictor of how busy we will be over the next 7 days is how busy we are right now. Our minds frequently forget this important point and trick us into believing we’ll have more time later than we do now. This overestimation means that whilst we want to say yes to everything to feel productive, connected, respected and loved – it can have a detrimental effect as we don’t actually have the time for all of these yeses.
Ironically, perpetual busyness undermines the goals that we set out to achieve by being busy in the first place.
Whilst not all of these will be relevant to you – these things that eat away at our time are personal and will be different from others. To identify what you should change, assess if the activity leads to you being unhappy and steals time that would otherwise be used in a way that makes you happy.
We all have the power to overcome these time traps we’ve fallen victim to. But, society and our psychology make them appealing, and we don’t instinctively respond to time poverty in a way that controls it – so it will require a conscious effort. Recognising and documenting the time traps you fall into most often, will help you target what needs to change.
Even though time poverty feels the same for everyone, time affluence looks different for everyone. It could mean spending 10 more minutes reading a book instead of scrolling through Linkedin, or it could be learning how to invest your savings instead of discussing the work gossip on Slack.
No matter what it looks like to you, the happiest and most time affluent are deliberate with their free time. Working towards time affluence is all about recognising and overcoming what wastes the most of your time and intentionally using this wasted time to make more meaningful, happy moments each day.
This article is adapted from a piece on TED.com by Ashley Williams.
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