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.