A recent article in the Harvard Business Review tells us that prioritizing time over money in decision-making will give us a greater sense of fulfillment and contentment.

by Kristy Smith-Dupree


Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Author of the article, Harvard Business School professor Ashley Whillans, tells us how we need to take advantage of small pockets of time:

“We overestimate the amount of time needed to enjoy an experience,” she writes. “We end up wasting small pockets of free time that we could use more effectively. Five minutes spent socializing with a colleague or 20 minutes on an elliptical machine often have more powerful mood benefits than we expect.”

We all do it – wasting a few minutes here, a few minutes there – checking email, scanning social media, browsing news articles, maybe even playing a quick game. The common thought is that a few minutes isn’t enough to do anything significant so we end up spending it mindlessly.

Time Poverty

Whillans explains that the feeling of having enough time is now at a record low in the United States. It is something that stretches across all economic strata with astounding effects.

When my team and I analyzed a survey of 2.5 million Americans by the Gallup Organization, we found that 80% of respondents did not have the time to do all they wanted to each day. This situation is so severe it could even be described as a “famine” — a collective cultural failure to effectively manage our most precious resource, time.

Research shows that a sense of time starvation contributes to unhappiness and suffer higher levels of anxiety, depression, and stress. They exercise less and are less healthy. Their productivity at work is diminished. They are more likely to get divorced.

Health professionals place time poverty as one of the top contributors to rising obesity. Researchers estimate the health care costs of “being stressed for time” at $48 billion a year.

Whillans adds,

In our analysis of the Gallup survey data, my team and I even found that time stress had a stronger negative effect on happiness than being unemployed did.

In the workplace the effects of time poverty are devastating, accounting for billions of dollars in productivity annually. The ripple effect multiplies that number many times over.

On a broader level, time poverty directly accounts for billions of dollars in productivity costs to companies each year, and secondary costs multiply that number many times over.

Valuing Time Over Money

Time yields happiness. Happiness and well-being cannot be explained in terms of income, education, age, marital status, wealth, number of children living at home, or number of hours worked per week. In Whillans research, people’s ability to prioritize their time was what made the difference.

We’ve got it backwards in this country. We spend our time to get money. Whillans suggests the better way is to spend our money to create time.

When my colleagues and I surveyed more than 6,000 working adults living in the Netherlands, Denmark, the United States, and Canada we found that people who spent money on time-saving services reported greater satisfaction with their lives. Purchasing them helped respondents deal with stress and feel less overwhelmed by their to-do lists. This was true even with relatively small, onetime purchases.

Approaching Free Time with Intentionality

Just as when we diet and focus on details such as snacking, portion sizes, and activity levels, Whillans suggests we use the same strategy to think ahead with our free time.

Most people arrive at work with an idea of what they have ahead of them that day. Fewer people arrive home at the end of the day with much thought as to how they will spend the evening. Thinking ahead can direct a person away from small, wasteful activities that bring no happiness.

The same holds true with those free moments through the day at work. It’s as simple as thinking ahead of time, “What will I do when I take a break for a few minutes?”

Changes Begin Small

Whillan’s suggestions surround social and self-care activities such as:

  • Be more active socially and physically. Volunteering and exercise are profoundly better at combating unhappiness than passive leisure.
  • When you eat, eat slower and better. Savoring good food reduces stress.
  • Meet new people and help someone. Although initiating a conversation with someone you don’t know is difficult, casual social interactions with strangers significantly boosts happiness
  • Improve your drive time. Turn off the phone and turn on the music or podcast.

You get the idea. There are ways to use our free moments to our own advantage. Time is a precious commodity that can have a tremendous payoff when used strategically.