A good friend of mine is sick, very sick.
Until now, my friend’s balancing act has been the one most of us face, making time for work and her life outside of it, mostly her daughters. Now, she faces the toughest juggle of motherhood — cancer treatment and her strong desire to stay involved in the day-to-day activities of her teen girls. As she reprioritizes, her sudden illness has made me think a lot about how all of us use our time.
If you were to track your time, carefully, for a week, how would you say you spend most of your days and nights? Are you spending your time in a way that makes you happy?
In our ongoing quest for work/life balance, I often say the elusive “balance” comes from spending more time on what fulfills you rather than trying to maintain equilibrium. For some, it’s work that makes them happy, for others it’s time with family, friends, or a hobby.
For most people, there’s a gap between where they say they want to spend their time and how they actually spend it. “If we rethink how we spend time, and be more intentional on how we spend it, that may impact the happiness we feel,” says Jennifer Aaker, a social psychologist and marketing professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business and author of The Dragonfly Effect, regarding her research on happiness. Her comments were included in an interview posted on her website.
Right now, Americans are less happy and optimistic than we’ve been in decades. Only about one-third of Americans describe themselves as “very happy,” according to surveys funded by the National Science Foundation. In addition, the share of Americans who identify themselves as optimists has plummeted since 2004 from 79 percent to 50 percent, according to a new Time poll.
A few changes in time usage could move you closer to improving happiness.
• Get more fulfillment from work. Understanding how we should be spending our time at work is much more important than people think. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at the Harvard Business School and the author of Evolve! Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow says the happiest people at work tend to be those facing the toughest — but most worthwhile — challenges. When workers feel like they can make a difference, it leaves them more fulfilled, she says.
Passion for your job increases happiness, too. Entrepreneurs spend more time on work-related activities than others. Those who combine what they do best with what they enjoy most with what the world needs report a high level of happiness.
Many people view learning a new skill at work as a frustrating task. But accomplishing personal growth makes people happy. “When someone is moving a project forward, or going to a conference to learn something new, there’s a big time/happiness payoff,” says Gretchen Rubin, author of Happier at Home and The Happiness Project, a New York Times bestseller and a popular blog.
• Spend more time on leisure, less time on mundane. Of course, the bills have to be paid, the bathroom cleaned, but are you being strategic with your time?
The annual American Time Use Survey released last month provides a window into how Americans spend their days. This year, the survey shows those of us who work, spend about 7.7 hours a weekday at our jobs. We spend anywhere between 2-2.6 hours on household tasks, about 1.3 hours on child care, and about 1.4-1.9 hours on recreation and leisure. Those numbers show that last year, Americans spent slightly less time at work but more time on household tasks.
Rubin says people often move from activity to activity without really thinking about what they prefer to be doing and with whom. “Time gets filled up but not with things important to you.”
For most people, physical activity and volunteer work are linked with happiness. Social connections are big predictors as well. “The more time that individuals spend on relationships — going to lunch with a co-worker or out to dinner with close friends — the happier they are,” Rubin says.
South Florida executive coach Margarita Plasencia says a first step is figuring out what drives you. She calls it “centering.” “If gardening makes you happy, then you know that on Sunday, there’s no question what you are going to do. You make gardening a priority.”
• Re-assess your spending. With all the advancements we have made, Americans still equate being rich with being happy. As Time magazine notes in a recent article by Jeffrey Kluger on happiness: In an era with Facebook, YouTube and reality shows, everyone is continuously comparing themselves to others and someone else always appears to have more.
Money can make you happy but it’s the way you spend it that affects happiness. Rather than buying bigger homes or luxury cars, psychologists found people are most happy when they spend their money on experiences, such as attending a baseball game with friends or taking a much-anticipated trip.
Psychologists also found the value of experiences tends to grow over time, making us happier as we look back on them in our memory, possibly because they tend to bring us closer to other people, whereas material things are more often enjoyed alone.
• Consider easing up on multi-tasking. As we try to squeeze more activities into our busy lives, one of our poorest ways to spend time has proved to be multitasking. In the moment, multitasking might make us feel good. But researchers say we are most happy when we are engaged directly with an activity with a single focus, such as working quietly and alone on a project or having a conversation with someone you know well and not being interrupted by cellphone calls. “That takes discipline and sometimes people don’t want to engage in it,” Plasencia says. “They don’t realize they are less happy when they are trying to do everything and not focused on anything.”
• Ask for flexibility. An increasing number of American workers feel they would be happier with a flexible work schedule or a sense of control over their work day. Managers are most likely to grant flextime to men in high-status jobs who request it to pursue career-development opportunities, according to a new study by Professor Victoria Brescoll, of the Yale School of Management. Women, regardless of their status within a firm or their reason, are less likely than high-status men to be granted a schedule change. But that shouldn’t stop you from asking.
Even if you already consider yourself happy, it’s important to revisit your time use now and then and make sure you are making a habit of spending it in ways that lead to maximum fulfillment. My friend plans to do that, and I do, too.