What makes us happier, time or money?

Takeaway: In her book Time Smart, behavioral scientist and Harvard Business School professor Ashley Whillans digs into the fascinating relationship between time, money, and happiness. While making more money is an easier goal to chase, Ashley’s research shows that making time-first choices ultimately leads to greater happiness. Time Smart outlines strategies to do just that, including tactics to save us time and ones we can use to buy time back.  

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes, 55s. 

Podcast Length: 26 minutes, 41s (link to play podcast at the bottom of post).

It’s one of life’s classic quandaries: what ultimately makes us happier, more time or more money?  

Ashley Whillans’ research points firmly at time. Ashley is a behavior scientist and Harvard Business School professor who is fascinated by how time, money, and happiness influence each other. Her book, Time Smart, is a fantastic and concise read on this very topic. She’s also my guest on the podcast this week. 

A central theme of the book looks at how we’re more likely to chase money with greater drive than we pursue having more time. This is for three simple reasons:  

  1. Money is generally a necessity in our society. 
  1. The prevailing narrative is that money and success are synonymous with one another. 
  1. Psychologically, it’s easier for us to track money and feel satisfied when we have it. Having $500 in your bank account is objective and tangible—gaining three hours of time on a Saturday? Not so much.  

This is why we give up our time more readily than we give up our money. But this loss of time comes at a cost, and Ashley argues that it’s critical for us to value our time to the same extent that we value our money. According to her research, people who even just say that they put time first report being happier, less stressed, and more satisfied with their social relationships. People who value time over money also tend to be more productive and creative because they take the time to build new relationships and recharge. These are concrete, positive outcomes that come with making time-first decisions.  

Time Smart outlines a handful of valuable strategies for how we can start prioritizing time over money. I love that many of these tactics don’t cost anything, because it debunks the myth that only the wealthy can afford to put time first. These strategies fall into two categories: tactics to save us time, and tactics to buy our time back.  

Tactics to save time are about tackling time traps head-on. Imagine pinging phone alerts and how they disrupt our moments of leisure. That technology pitfall shreds our valuable time into a thousand distracted fragments, which Ashley calls “time confetti.”  

Time traps are also caused by the mere urgency effect, the phenomena that makes us prioritize things that are urgent but not important—checking your email non-stop rather than spending time with your family, for example.  

To save yourself time, try:  

  1. Scheduling Proactive Time. This is a chunk of time when you can focus on your most meaningful but not necessarily most urgent work. Spend 30 minutes at the start of each week scheduling in a pair of two-hour proactive time blocks. Take these blocks to completely unplug and hyperfocus on your important tasks. 
  1. Focusing on small, everyday time-first decisions. Living your day more mindfully is one tactic to save time. Whenever we make the decision to clock out of work early, create a boundary between home and work (even in today’s day and age), or treat an upcoming weekend like a holiday, we are choosing whether to prioritize time or money. Reflect on your everyday decisions and pushback against the urge to check your email after hours versus spending time with family or friends.  

Tactics to buy back time reframe the value we associate with time and happiness. Because money is a metric we all understand, Ashley conceptualized “Happiness Dollars” which attaches a concrete value to the happiness benefits that come from making time-first decisions. She calculated these values through various surveys where people reflected on their happiness level related to different activities.  

Consider that: 

  • People who say they value time over money is equivalent to making $4,400 more each year. 
  • Outsourcing our most disliked task is equivalent to making $10,000 more each year. 
  • Socializing more than usual is shown to make us happier, which is equivalent to making $20-30,000 more each year.  

Interestingly, one way to encourage people to spend money in order to save themselves time (i.e. hiring a virtual assistant) is to reframe it as a decision that benefits others. By delegating your work, you’re left with more time to spend with family or to volunteer in your community. Focusing on time is not a selfish act. 

Like so much we talk about on the podcast and this blog, choosing to prioritize time over money boils down to mindfulness. As Ashley says, living a time-first life can lead to greater happiness and shape the overall quality of our lives—but we need to consciously decide to pursue that path.  

Hope you enjoy the podcast! 

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