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Making Better Use of Your Free Time

What are time affluence, time famine, and time confetti?

Key points

  • Flexible work schedules may create a promise of time affluence, but, in reality, work may take over, leaving us with time famine.
  • We sometimes feel guilty for outsourcing domestic tasks; when it’s affecting our mental health, there’s nothing wrong with buying back some time.
  • Make a “time confetti to-do list,” so that when you find yourself with a spare moment, you know what to do.

Since the start of the pandemic, our perception of time has shifted. For many of us, working, schooling, and spending much more time at home have made it harder to create good containers for our time.

The great promise of flexible work schedules is that they create a feeling of time affluence, and, yet, in reality, flexible work often means that work takes over, leaving us with a feeling of time famine. This lack of balance puts us into a vicious cycle of overworking, burning out, and then giving into our exhaustion and feeling guilty about not overworking.

On a recent episode of the Happiness Lab podcast, Dr. Laurie Santos and Dan Harris talk about science-backed strategies for breaking this cycle. If this topic resonates with you, I recommend listening to the full episode. In what follows, I share some key insights about the psychology of time.

Time Affluence vs. Time Famine

Before we get into some tips to boost your feelings of abundance around your time, we need to better understand what social scientists mean when they talk about time affluence and time famine.

Time affluence is your subjective sense that you have free time. It’s having a state of mind that you’re “wealthy” in terms of your time. Since this is a subjective measure, it can be decoupled from the hours, minutes, and seconds you objectively have, which means that, at least in theory, even people with extreme demands on their time can experience time affluence.

Time famine is just the opposite of time affluence. It’s the feeling you get when you are starved for time. And what’s particularly interesting here is that, from a psychological perspective, time famine works similarly to hunger famine. For example, scientists see evidence of stress on the body in time-famished people.

One survey published by the Harvard Business Review even found that experiencing time famine had more of a negative impact on well-being than being unemployed. You can get a sense of this when you imagine having a full day of back-to-back meetings, a looming project deadline, and a commitment to attend your son's or daughter's soccer game after school, and your supervisor asks to schedule one-on-one time with you.

In the above situation, your nervous system will be activated—you may even be feeling on edge just reading this description.

Strategies for Gaining Time Affluence

So what can we do to gain a sense of time affluence? According to Dr. Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University, director of Yale's Comparative Cognition Lab, and host of the Happiness Lab podcast, it’s all about intentionality.

Here are three strategies Santos suggests for gaining time affluence:

1. Invest in time-saving. If you’re fortunate enough to have some disposable income, you could be directing more of those funds toward saving yourself time. Think of all the ways you could invest in time-saving:

  • You could hire the teen next door to help out.
  • You could get a meal service subscription or hire someone to do meal prep for you once a week.
  • You could hop on a Web site like Taskrabbit and hire someone to put up your holiday decorations.
  • You could use an errand service to buy holiday gifts you’ve chosen or to wrap those gifts.

Although we sometimes feel guilty for outsourcing domestic tasks, when it’s affecting our mental health, there’s nothing wrong with buying back some time.

2. Reframe the subtler time-saving things you’re already doing. In addition to the larger investments in time-saving, we often naturally spend money in subtler ways to gain back time. For example, you might order takeout once a week. But are you acknowledging that you’re saving time by doing so?

The next time you order takeout, instead of simply consuming the food while checking your email, savor the time savings. Remind yourself that you’re putting time back into your schedule by not having to spend an hour or two cooking and cleaning up.

3. Make sure you’re making good use of the free time you have. Here’s a surprising statistic: We actually have objectively more free time now than we did 15 to 20 years ago. If your schedule is anything like mine, you likely find that pretty hard to believe. But it’s true. The difference is that we feel busier now than we did in the early 2000s.

So why all the stress around our time? Time budgets look different today than they did 15 years ago. Whereas we used to have more big blocks of time off, now we have what Santos calls “time confetti.” We get five minutes between meetings or 10 minutes waiting in the carpool line to pick up the kids from school.

What do we do with these little moments of free time? We take out the devices we have glued to our sides 24/7 and check our email or scroll through the same feed we just checked 30 minutes ago. Of course we’re time-starved.

If you want to feel less time-strapped, make sure you’re making good use of the free time you have. Make a “time confetti to-do list,” so that when you find yourself with a spare moment, you know what to do.

Here are strategies Santos suggests for gaining time affluence:

  • Focus on controlling your breath. Breathe in for a slow count of five, then breathe out for a slow count of five.
  • Write in a gratitude journal.
  • Get up and stretch.
  • Go for a quick walk.
  • Doodle.

These little moments can really add up throughout the day if we use them well.

The key to breaking the cycle of overworking and burnout is to change the way we think about time. It might take some practice, but cultivating time affluence will put you into a happier cycle this holiday season and beyond!

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