Skip to main content

You have more time than you think

By Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, Special to CNN
June 21, 2013 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
As our time has become more valuable, we feel like we have less of it, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton say.
As our time has become more valuable, we feel like we have less of it, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton say.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Authors: Americans perceive they have less time and more to do
  • They say best data show Americans aren't working more, only feeling more rushed
  • As people make more money per hour, they're more likely to feel pressed for time, they say
  • Authors: People feel less pressed if they spend time helping others

Editor's note: Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton are co-authors of "Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending" (Simon & Schuster) and professors at the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School, respectively.

(CNN) -- June 21 is the longest day of the year. Yes, from now on, we'll lose a few minutes of daylight each day.

Before that panicked feeling of time slipping away kicks in (I already have too much to do and now my days will be even shorter?), take a deep breath. There's hope.

First off, it turns out our time isn't as scarce as we have convinced ourselves it is. And second, new research has demonstrated effective strategies to help mitigate the pangs of our time famine.

Elizabeth Dunn
Elizabeth Dunn
Michael Norton
Michael Norton

No one can truly give you more time -- after all, there are only 24 hours in a day regardless of how long or short those hours feel -- but a few simple changes in how you spend your time, and your money, can turn feelings of famine into feelings of plenty.

Our general feeling of time scarcity isn't just caused by shortening days. On a larger scale, people seem to have the sense that their time has become more limited -- that compared to earlier generations, we spend more and more time working and have less and less free time to engage in leisure pursuits.

Indeed, this general feeling of an impending time famine has helped give rise to the Slow Movement, with pursuits ranging from Slow Food to Slow Parenting and Slow Gardening (which we thought was kind of slow to begin with) promising to help the time-poor get off the high-speed treadmill of modern life.

But this basic premise turns out to be an illusion. The most comprehensive data from major time-use surveys suggest that, if anything, Americans today have more free time than earlier generations. That's right: The number of hours we work has not changed much, but we spend less time now on home tasks, so we have a greater amount of time for leisure than in decades past.

So, why do we feel like time is so scarce? One problem is that our time has become more valuable. And as time becomes worth more money, we feel like we have less of it.

Workers who bill or get paid by the hour -- think lawyers and fast-food workers -- report focusing more on pursuing more money than those who get paid a salary. And the effect happens fast.

In one experiment, people were told to play the role of consultants and bill their time at either $9 an hour or $90 an hour. When people billed their time for $90 an hour, they reported feeling far more pressed for time.

Thinking about our time as money changes our behavior as well. In another study, people who billed their time were less likely to volunteer their time for good causes.

Once we start to think about how much money we are giving up (I could make $90 instead of helping out in that soup kitchen), it suddenly seems foolish to sacrifice the cash just to ladle some soup to strangers.

And the effects are evident in more everyday interactions, too. In one study, people who were instructed to think about money before entering a cafe spent less time chatting with the other patrons and more time working. Those who were thinking about their time did the reverse, spending time socializing instead of working.

So what's the problem with a little less socializing and a little less volunteering? Both of these activities are strongly associated with happiness. Volunteers are happier people, and social interaction is a key element of human well-being. Indeed, one recent study showed that just taking the time to chat with the cashier at Starbucks left people feeling happier than simply making the same exchange as efficient as possible. Chatting, it seems, is good for our happiness.

Being happier would be nice, we can all agree, but do volunteering and socializing have any impact on solving our feelings of time famine? Luckily, the benefits of these activities extend beyond happiness.

When people feel their time is scarce, they often attempt to carve out some "me" time -- going for a massage or taking a nap. Sure, massages and snoozes are great, and undeniably nice while in progress. But research shows that once they are over, we feel just as stressed about our time as we did before.

Instead, our research shows that encouraging people to spend time on and with others -- for example, shoveling someone's driveway in the winter or helping a student with her homework -- actually makes people feel less stressed about their own time.

In fact, helping others makes us feel more effective in our ability to get our daily tasks done. Helping others makes us feel as though we accomplished a goal, and that feeling of accomplishment appears to carry over to when we turn from helping others back to checking off tasks on our own to-do lists.

The modern time famine appears to be primarily in our heads; we don't really have more to do than we did in the good old days. As a result, fixing the time famine requires intervention in the mind, via strategies that alleviate the stress of perceived time scarcity.

And lest you think that decreasing your time stress is a waste of, well, time, research shows that feelings of time affluence are a crucial contributor to our happiness. And that holds true even for people who say they like being busy.

When time feels short -- whether due to the change of seasons or the sheer number of things we must get done -- our inclination is to hunker down and focus on making more money and treating ourselves. It may be wiser when strapped for time to use the time you have to reach out and help someone else.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT