It’s Time You Got Time Smart: A Q&A with Ashley Whillans

I recently went back to my office for the first time in months to grab a few things. It was a morning on a weekday, around the time I would typically take my 20-minute walk to work. I sat down in my office chair and tried to remember what it felt like to start my day as the old version of “working me”—the one who didn’t roll out of bed and start writing emails in her pajamas.

It wasn’t a perfect experiment, but sitting down at my desk after a physical transition from home gave me a burst of focus—something that’s been hard to recapture since starting my work days from home. That extra 20 minutes in bed has been luxurious. But my brief trip to work made me think that reinvesting that time into a morning walk around my neighborhood might pay dividends in focus and productivity over weeks and months of remote work ahead.

As an expert in time perception, Harvard Business School professor Ashley Whillans has talked to lots of people about these exact types of feelings, experiences, and time-based calculations. Her interest lies not in the sheer number of minutes or hours people spend on certain things, but in how we feel about the time we spend working, socializing, and doing our chores. Her new book, Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life, has a simple premise: we’re much better at spending and saving our money than our time, and we’d be much happier if we valued our time more wisely.

I had a chance to talk to Whillans about her new book. Our conversation explored tactics we can all use to think about our time more critically, at both the personal and the organizational level, and the surprising facets of our lives that can benefit from time savvy decision-making (spoiler alert: there’s good news for romantic relationships!).

It’s 4 p.m. on a Thursday, and I’m wondering, how time affluent do you consider yourself right now?

[Laughing] Definitely not time affluent. I’ve been running back and forth between meetings, trying to manage my inbox so that I don’t end up with 500 unread emails, and getting texts about projects. I’ve come into this meeting about seven minutes late.

And I think I’m like most people—that’s why I wrote this book. I study time management. Did I leave slack between my meetings today? No, I absolutely did not. Why not? I don’t know. Maybe I should’ve thought about that two weeks ago when I was scheduling today. But I didn’t because two weeks ago, I thought I’d have lots of time today.

I feel like my life is a case in point about how it’s hard for everyone to manage time in a way that will enable you to feel in control of your schedule. So, it’s 4:15, Thursday afternoon, and I’m definitely time depleted, not time affluent.

I want to dig in to this feeling you’re describing of being time depleted. Your book actually starts with the paradox that most people should have more time for leisure than their parents or their grandparents, but they feel busier. Why is that?

One of the reasons that we don’t feel like we have as much leisure as we used to, even though we have more, is that our leisure (and even our work time) is a lot more distracted. This is the idea of “time confetti.” When we’re trying to enjoy leisure, or we’re trying to focus productively on work, our mind is being pulled in many different directions that make us feel stressed and overwhelmed. To the extent that our technology is distracting us, pulling us out of the present and undermining our ability to enjoy leisure, it’s also creating all this tension between various aspects of our life and things that we could or should be doing. That is a major driver of time poverty: time confetti and our relationship with technology.

I think related to this is the mere urgency effect. When you are busy, you want to get through your inbox so that you feel a sense of accomplishment and feel more in control of how busy you are. Instead of focusing on important stuff, just letting those emails go and focusing on this conversation, you really want to get just a few things done to get that sense of goal accomplishment. That’s another really interesting psychological reason why we feel time poor. We get really drawn into things that are seemingly urgent, but not important, at the expense of taking the time we need to work on something truly important.

In your book you point out that time is much harder to measure than money. What tools or metrics have you found useful for trying to measure time?

I get my participants to try to think about the concrete value of their time—thinking about what they can or cannot do as a result of a specific decision that they make. For example, living further away from their place of employment will cost this many hours, and that is the equivalent of seven days of paid vacation.

It’s not just that time is abstract and amorphous and that we often don’t think about time in the same way as money. It’s also that we’re bad at accounting for small losses of time. We need to think about how one decision we make, like where we live, will accrue time costs over weeks and months that are not trivial. They feel trivial in the moment, so we discount them. But then over the course of our weeks and months and years, they’re really not trivial, and contribute to why we feel so stressed.

We’re bad at accounting for small losses of time. We need to think about how one decision we make, like where we live, will accrue time costs over weeks and months that are not trivial.

Another strategy I talk about in the book is to get people to put time in a currency that we all know and understand, which is money. We know that making $10,000 more in household income results in a point five increase in life satisfaction. I basically said, “Well, what is the impact on life satisfaction of all these time related choices: exercising more, working less, savoring more, feeling less busy, focusing more on time versus money?” I worked out that even if you spend about $150 per month to outsource your disliked task of house cleaning, this produces a happiness equivalent of making $40,000 more of household income per year. (Calculated based on estimate of someone making $50,000/year). So some of the small changes we make around the margins can have really huge impacts for our happiness.

When it comes to making time savvy purchases, it sounds like one tool we can use is spending money to facilitate saving our time.

People are definitely resistant to that idea, right? Because it feels like a loss. It goes back to the psychological underpinnings of this. We’re really sensitive to small losses of money and way less sensitive to small losses of time in the moment.

Mike Norton, Jessie Pow, and I have a working paper on relationship satisfaction. Couples who spend money on time saving purchases together are happier, less stressed, spend more quality time together, and have more positive intimate relations with each other.

But it’s better when the decision is joint! You don’t want to buy your partner a gift of a chore that they wish you did more of. Be careful that there is some chore equity going on.

Okay, that is a good, crucial note of caution.

My dad would always try to buy my mom a house cleaning service on Valentine’s Day and she used to always get really upset. And so now I have empirical data [laughs].

During the pandemic, the government created a stimulus package to help people address their financial needs. If the government were to approach you and ask you to design a stimulus package to help people manage time scarcity, what would you recommend?

One thing that we’ve been advocating for the individual and the organizational level is to build in breaks, boundaries, and transitions. I used to say commuting is bad, and in the book, I harp on it a lot. But actually, it does also serve an important psychological function of transitioning from personal to professional role for planning for the day ahead. People are really struggling because they don’t have a commute, a natural boundary, between their personal life. Building in some sort of commute into everyone’s day that involves physical activities would be really great. (Also, not letting corporations schedule meetings during lunch breaks and having a clear ritual or boundary at the end of the day.)

We’re really sensitive to small losses of money and way less sensitive to small losses of time in the moment.

I do think that a lot of our time poverty is driven by our concerns about money. Making sure that people feel financially secure—more than what’s currently happening in a lot of places—would go a long way in reducing people’s time scarcity. When you’re feeling financially uncertain about the future, regardless of how much money you have, you focus more on work and productivity and less on home.

I had a chance to work with some organizations to improve their work life balance for employees. Overwhelmingly, people said that their time was drained by their email inbox, so we recommended a tool that allowed people to pause the inflow of emails into their inbox. A challenge we faced was getting people to use the tool. Do you have any recommendations for how to make it easier for people to use time saving tools? Or would you recommend a different approach completely?

People are really reticent to use situational constraints because they want to feel like they have ownership and control. And of course, with email, there’s always an excuse. “Well, what if I got a really important email from a client? You don’t want me to check that?!”

I would say move up a level. Target not the individual but the team/organizational level. The company can by default turn your email notifications off during this time and then set a norm, if it’s really urgent, you can text. It takes the uncertainty out of the process.

When you’re feeling financially uncertain about the future, regardless of how much money you have, you focus more on work and productivity and less on home.

The time management system isn’t just the responsibility of the individual but rather the team or the organization. We know from the psychological literature that there are these ideal worker norms that prevent us from protecting our time. Sure, you might tell me I can use this pause button, but if I don’t get back to you right away, and someone else gets to that email first, it makes me look bad because you’re using how quick I respond to emails as a signal of my commitment and quality of my work to the organization. Especially as we’ve moved more into knowledge worker type jobs being the norm, we use all these wrong metrics to proxy quality and commitment, and employees internalize these norms in the workplace.

One of my favorite facts in your book was that while French people spend more time eating each day, Americans spend more time choosing what they’re going to eat than enjoying their meals. I was wondering if you could say a little bit more about what’s uniquely American about the time scarcity problem that we’re feeling?

We have a new working paper showing that high Protestant work ethic beliefs predict the extent to which we’ve normalized busyness. U.S. work culture has this dominant, prevailing idea that leisure is wasteful, and that optimizing the best option—for example, the best possible food choice—as opposed to satisfying for a good option and enjoying it more, is the best path forward. Those are quintessential American characteristics that I think get in the way of time affluence, because it means that our culture prioritizes and actually gives status to this “working all the time, never can get on their calendar, doesn’t have a life” sort of person.

Silvia Bellezza’s paper on busyness as a status symbol shows that in Europe, and in Italy, in particular, leisure is a status symbol. If people have more time off, people are like, “What is that person doing right?” And if the opposite is true in the U.S.—the busier you are, the more important you seem—then we want to be that person. I think that’s where culture starts to play a role in shaping what we think is appropriate or good behavior

That means we’re also more impatient. Our time is worth more money. We’re constantly dealing with our time being on the clock, because the opportunity costs of our time are really high. Which means that people might not be willing to just socialize for no reason. Everything here has an instrumental purpose, which can make people more impatient or more focused on where they’re going to eat and what that’s going to look like, than just sitting down and enjoying the meal with a friend.