We all struggle to fit downtime into our days, but is there a way to relax our routines, become more “time affluent” and ultimately happier and less stressed in the process?
As the old adage goes, time is money, and for many successful people, time affluence, or more specifically, the lack of it, is used as the barometer for success, so the pressure to fill their days and always appear to be ‘on’ makes downtime seem virtually impossible. “Time affluence is the subjective sense that you have some free time. It’s the opposite of what many of us experience, which is time famine, the subjective sense that you don’t have any time at all, that you’re literally starving for time,” Laurie Santos, cognitive scientist and Professor of Psychology at Yale University describes. “We think that time equals money and because we value money so much we mistakenly think we must be working all the time. I think this is one of the reasons that we struggle so much to give ourselves some downtime,” she adds.
But should time—specifically downtime away from our computer screens and the pressures of work or family life—be such a precious commodity that most people can’t afford to implement it into their daily routines? People who are time-deprived (or who feel like they’re always against the clock) are more likely to be anxious, depressed and less fulfilled than people who feel like they have lots of free time, so why do so many of us struggle to manage our time better, and give it away when we wouldn’t dream of parting with our money?
Ashley Whillans is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School where she teaches the Motivation and Incentives course to MBA students, and is also the author of Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life. She believes that there are many reasons why we struggle to prioritise time over money and to afford ourselves downtime. “One factor involves ‘idleness aversion’,” she tells MOJEH. “This idea that leisure is lazy, and that busyness equals success. This is known as the trap of ‘busyness as a status symbol.’ We think that being busy will confer us high status in society and in part, we are correct. However, being busy and feeling time poor comes at a dramatic cost to our happiness and personal relationships. In one study, being time poor had a stronger negative effect on happiness than being unemployed. It also contributes to poor diet, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation, and obesity.”
“Creating a flexible schedule but having some form of schedule—for instance Friday is a no work day, time with family, dinner with friends, work is off limits” is the best way to tackle the double-edged routine sword, offers Joanna Richmond, a psychologist at Cognitive Therapy Dubai. And while she also believes routine is healthy as we like to be able to predict what is going to happen during the day and predictability reassures us, flexibility is also important. “Being too strict with our time can lead to disappointment as we just might not be able to get everything done in the time we have allocated ourselves. If we are too strict with ourselves we can feel a failure, leading to depression,” she asserts.
“Some people love schedules and others function much better if their schedules aren’t so tightly scheduled,” Whillans adds. “Regardless of our preference, or our natural way of setting up our schedules, it is important to ask ourselves what I call ‘small why’ questions. If you find yourself arranging your meetings back-to-back, ask yourself ‘why am I doing this?’ Maybe it is because you are anxious to make informal small talk. If so, try to encourage yourself to leave small breaks in your day to recover. If you find yourself constantly checking emails before a major client meeting, ask yourself why? Perhaps it is because you are anxious about the upcoming meeting and trying to distract yourself. Since social media can be more stress inducing than relaxing, try to substitute this activity with something stress relieving—like listening to a mindfulness tape. So, regardless of what behaviour you engage in, ask yourself ‘why am I doing this? Does it have to be this way?’ and if you find you’re using it as a coping mechanism, try to instead deal with the underlying emotion.”
While unavoidable, the global pandemic has had far-reaching consequences that include the struggle to achieve a work-life balance, and while our social lives were forced to take a back seat in 2020, for many people, work commitments felt even more overwhelming and harder to disengage from as working from home became the new normal. In one study using objective data from Microsoft of three million workers, researchers found the average workday had expanded by about 52 minutes (or the amount of time we used to spend commuting to the office), and workers reported feeling overwhelmed by distractions and the absence of work-life separation.
However, Whillans believes that the global pandemic has forced many of us to reassess or revise our usual routines. “As the new normal emerges in some places in the world, we have heard many employees starting to reassess their relationship with work. Do I want to work as many hours as possible? Do I want to travel as much for work as I used to? Maybe the money isn’t worth it,” she elaborates. “Now is the perfect time to reflect on our core values and to assess whether how we spend time daily is how we want to live our lives. Before going back to the way life was, now is also the perfect time to think about whether there are small changes we can make to our daily routine to have more time like reducing social media time and finding 30 minutes each day to exercise or meditate.” A sentiment shared by Professor Santos. “Anecdotally it does seem that lots of people have been reassessing their priorities during the pandemic. I think many of us have realised that we don’t like our long commute or that we like spending time at home with our families, and my hope is that this will allow people to rethink the way they spend their time so that they can do so in ways that promote wellbeing even more.”
This could be part of the reason why her online course in The Science of Wellbeing, available at Coursera.org has seen such a surge in popularity since the pandemic began. “We’ve had around 3.5 million new learners sign up which is really incredible and humbling but I think it tells us—tells me at least—that people are really voting with their feet. They don’t like this culture of feeling overwhelmed and stressed and they really wanted some strategies to feel better. I hear constantly that when people learn about time affluence, it’s like a light bulb goes off and they really rethink the way they’re thinking about time and its connection with their wellbeing.” And it’s this ability to give yourself permission to deviate from the plan and take more of an ad hoc approach to your wellbeing that’s at the crux of the issue, as Professor Santos clarifies: “We all know what it feels like when we have some free time. If you’re feeling the opposite of that, if you’re feeling time famished, that might be a good signal that it’s time to build in a little bit more free time during your day.”
So how can you approach achieving your self-care sweet spot, without letting all your other commitments and responsibilities suffer as a consequence? While both Santos and Whillans agree that time is subjective rather than prescriptive, and downtime should be measured in terms of quality over quantity even when it comes to leisure activities, too much of a good thing will ultimately have a detrimental effect so a measured yet relaxed approach is best. “Research suggests that when we schedule too many leisure activities back-to-back, these activities can start to feel like work and undermine our enjoyment,” Whillans explains. “So rough scheduling of a general plan of activities you want to accomplish with your leisure activities works better than scheduling leisure activities back to back and by the clock.” Richmond has this ad vice: “It’s the quality of downtime. A real holiday is a change of culture [and] something different from what we are used. And that’s far more refreshing”