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
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT