Harvard professor: Focusing on time instead of money can make you happier ― here’s how

There is "evidence that focusing on time, not money, is going to help us get to greater happiness."


Given the economic stressors of the last year, especially when it comes to money and work, it is understandable to be overwhelmed by all the things on your plate.

But Harvard Business School professor and happiness researcher Ashley Whillans argues in her latest book, "Time Smart," that focusing on time ― freeing it up from activities that don't make you happy and filling it with activities that do ― can improve your well-being.

Researchers have found that countries with a higher proportion of respondents who value time and leisure over work and money "report having a higher percentage of citizens that are happier," she tells Grow. "And this is regardless of how wealthy those countries are." Happier citizens are less depressed, less likely to commit suicide, are less obese, and overall report better health.

"I think there is pretty convincing evidence that focusing on time, not money, is going to help us get to greater happiness," she says.

Here are some ways to help shift your focus and take control of your time.

Track activities to figure out how you spend time

One way to reframe your attitude toward time is to do an exercise to better understand how you make decisions.

"One of the best ways to do this is to spend an upcoming Tuesday keeping a detailed log of how you spend your time," Whillans writes in the book. "Tuesdays tend to be fairly routine workdays, when people usually experience more negative feelings and greater stress than other days," so capturing the reality of your Tuesday can give you a pretty accurate snapshot.

Chronicle your day in chunks of time. Write down each of the activities you take on from when you wake up to 12 p.m., from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., and from 5 p.m. until you go to sleep.

Write down both what the activity is and exactly how you feel about it. If an activity was pleasant or unpleasant, ask yourself why, and be honest. There are no wrong answers.

Cut out activities that make you unhappy

Once you understand what your day-to-day activities are and how they make you feel, see which ones really hold meaning and if there's a way to do those more often. Conversely, if there are activities you find unpleasant, see if you can do them less or stop doing them altogether.

For example, if you hate grocery shopping and there's an affordable meal delivery service that can do the work for you, consider signing up. That could free up time from doing an activity you don't like.

How reverse budgeting can relieve money stress

Video by Courtney Stith

If you hate commuting to work, find out if your employer will let you work from home some of the time. These days, more and more companies are becoming open to the idea of flexible and remote work.

And if there's no way to cut an activity from your life, see if there's a way to make it more pleasant. If you hate doing laundry, for example, and you love listening to audiobooks, try to listen to an audiobook while you're doing laundry.

Use leisure time wisely

When you do have a minute of free time, doing the right kind of leisure activities can make a difference in your quality of life. Active leisure, as Whillans calls it, like exercising and volunteering, as opposed to passive leisure, like watching TV or online shopping, can ultimately make you happier in the moment.

There's no shortage of evidence of the many benefits of exercise ― even something as simple as taking a walk can make you feel better. "Research shows that those who've moved within the past 25 minutes report higher happiness," writes Whillans.

Social interactions can also help, she says. Volunteering, for example, "boosts mood and increases" the feeling of having more time, writes Whillans, "because we feel more in control of our time when we feel we can choose to give some of it away."

In short, "prioritizing time is related to happiness more than most people expect," Whillans tells Grow, "and how we can get greater control over time and happiness doesn't necessarily involve major life decisions." Sometimes that can be as simple as choosing to stop looking at Instagram and taking a walk.

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