Secrets to happiness for the time-poor person
We all have the same number of hours in the day, but do you make them count? Research shows that if you want to be happy, you should count time, not money.
“Everything changed the day she figured out there was exactly enough time for the important things in her life.” ~ Brian Andreas
Many of us are familiar with the feeling of not having enough time in the day. Do you regularly find yourself saying “I’m too busy” or “I don’t have time for that”? Time poverty particularly affects working parents and impacts both high- and low-income earners. Feeling frequently pressed for time is often accompanied by the perception that life is passing you by.
Research shows that time-poor individuals who feel constrained by competing priorities often become less active and less healthy, and have also been shown to be less helpful. Time is the number one reason people give for making unhealthy food choices and exercising less. Research also demonstrates that individuals who feel time poor experience lower levels of happiness and higher levels of anxiety, depression and stress. They experience less joy. They laugh less. Their productivity at work is diminished.
Time and money are both precious commodities that factor into people’s perception of happiness. In wealthy, first-world nations, there is a tendency to value money over time. But according to research, having greater amounts of spare time is associated with increased happiness and life satisfaction, regardless of income. So why do we work ourselves to burnout? Why do we hustle for the better job and the higher income?
Many of us hold the belief that we will have more time in the future than we do in the present. If we work hard now, we can enjoy life later. However, when the future arrives, we don’t have more free time. We just keep repeating the same behaviours.
Perceptions of time
Your attitude towards time is shaped by your values and mindset, and your perception of time often reflects your priorities. If you find a task to be tedious or unfulfilling, you may tell yourself that you don’t have time to complete it.
I experienced this first-hand during the COVID-19 Melbourne lockdown. Eighteen months prior, I began renovating an old house. Although the inside was almost finished, I could never find the time to paint the gate or fix up the garden. When Melbourne went into lockdown, I was stuck at home for months, and although I was homeschooling children and working, I had more time on my hands than usual. But the gate remained unpainted and the garden untouched. I was always able to find more “interesting” ways to occupy my time.
Perception of time can be strongly influenced by the emotions we experience. In research conducted on the experiences during COVID-19 lockdowns, participants reported feeling as though time had slowed down while they were housebound. Conversely, the saying “Time flies when you’re having fun” makes reference to the perception that time appears to speed up when we are in a positive state of mind or carrying out a task we find enjoyable.
So how do we find more time for the things that matter? Research shows that it’s not about doing more and somehow finding more time in the day, it’s about redefining your priorities and making better use of the time you have.
When you place a high value on something, you naturally treat it with greater respect. It can be helpful to reflect on what is most important to you, actively engage in the moment and move away from tasks and projects that no longer serve you. By viewing time as a precious commodity, you can live a more fulfilling life.
It’s easy to get caught up in the rhetoric your subconscious mind plays in loops, reminding you how busy you are, how much you need to get done, and how time-poor you are. This neural pathway becomes a default pattern, causing you to feel frantic, overwhelmed and time-poor. Subconscious thought patterns can have a significant and negative impact on your nervous system. Over the course of a day, become mindful of your thoughts and the reoccurring messages you send yourself. It can be helpful to actively reframe your thoughts. A powerful exercise involves replacing “I don’t have time for that” with “It’s not a priority.” When you are required to prioritise something, you quickly realise whether it’s important to you.
I recently caught myself saying to one of my kids, “I don’t have time for that right now.” My nine-year-old wanted to play Monopoly on a Sunday afternoon, but I had a house to clean, dinner to cook and a working week to prepare for. Then the words of one of my mentors echoed in my head, “No one on their deathbed has ever said I wish I had kept my house cleaner.” “Grab the board,” I said to my son. “Toasties for dinner!”
Things that matter
We all have the same number of hours in the day; it’s about what you choose to focus on. Reflect on your core values and whether they align with your daily actions and activities. Are there daily tasks you are completing that are not getting you any closer to your goals? Eliminate unimportant tasks to free up time for the things that matter. Delegate, reschedule or simply remove some tasks from your list altogether. Can you save time at the supermarket by having food delivered? Are there any household chores your children or other family members can help with?
Downloading a time-tracking app can be a useful exercise. It’s interesting and often surprising when you discover the amount of time you spend on social media. Mindless activities such as scrolling Facebook, watching Netflix and online shopping may feel relaxing, but are not necessarily the best choice when it comes to your wellbeing. Technology offers a constant temptation to fill your attention that can contribute towards sympathetic nervous system dominance. This results in the production of excess stress hormones due to spending so much time in the fight or flight state.
Resting and participating in activities such as yoga and meditation that soothe the nervous system are important for your mental health and wellbeing. Breaks can also increase creativity, productivity and focus. Being present in a moment often enables greater insight.
It can also be helpful to be more selective about the information you consume. You are bombarded with a significant amount of information daily, but only a small portion of it is valid and useful. Some of it can be distressing, resulting in negative emotions that are avoidable.
Being generous with your time does not mean saying yes to everything. There are limits to what you can do, and you need to choose carefully. Revisit your values when taking on new tasks and responsibilities. Will this new task move you closer to your goals? Does it support your values? Is it important to family life or your personal growth?
Healthy boundaries also apply to the expectations you place on yourself. Do you spend hours trying to perfect tasks or projects that are already of a high standard? Have you considered how much of your valuable time is being squandered in the pursuit of perfectionism? Time that could be better spent catching up with friends and family or dedicated to your wellbeing. By learning to silence your inner critic and acknowledge when a task has been completed at an “acceptable level”, you can claim back hours of your time.
Reframe arduous tasks
There are some tasks we are required to complete daily, that can’t be delegated or outsourced. They may be monotonous, but they are a part of life. By reframing these tasks, you can rewire your brain to perceive them as time well spent. Practise gratitude in the grocery line, master mindfulness when you are cleaning the house and soak in self-help audiobooks during your morning commute.
Experience the moment
“The days are long, but the years are short.” ~ Gretchin Rubin
Time only matters right here and now, in this moment. You can’t change the past by ruminating on it, and no matter how meticulously you plan, you can’t control the future.
Do you remember the last time it felt like time stood still? If you reflect on this moment, you might find that you were fully engaged in the experience. When we are in a state of flow and our mind is stimulated and engaged, time can cease to exist. Conversely, if you are caught up in a cycle of constantly planning, hurrying and hustling, it feels like time passes in a blur. When working towards a future goal, take the time to experience and appreciate every step along the way.
It is especially important to be present and fully experiencing the moment when spending time with your loved ones. Use this time to connect, recharge and create precious memories. By focusing deeply on what you are doing and actively listening, you can strengthen existing bonds and build new relationships.
It’s also important to be fully present during difficult moments. Although avoidance or distraction during challenging experiences may feel like the best way to reduce your pain, suffering at some stage is inevitable. The more we learn to sit with discomfort and grow from it, the more resilient we become. Fully accepting and engaging with difficult experiences can also enable you to savour happy, meaningful times more deeply.
The best things in life are free
Appreciate the small moments more deeply by practising gratitude. We often wait until we no longer have something before we appreciate its value. We don’t appreciate the free time we enjoyed in early adulthood until we are wearily chasing around toddlers. Or the freedom of knowing we have many years of life stretching ahead of us, until it is tragically taken away.
Upon finding they have a limited time, people derive greater happiness from ordinary experiences. They are more likely to pursue emotionally relevant goals, behave more generously and prioritise their close relationships. Don’t wait until it’s almost too late. Start today by thinking about when you feel at your happiest. What are you generally doing?
Consider such things as playing with your children or grandchildren, volunteering, hiking in nature or watching a sunset. Make a list and commit to doing these things more often.
Stay young at heart
There is a collective belief that time goes faster as we get older. As children, we are more present and engaged, and are constantly having new experiences and learning new skills. As adults, tasks can become routine and at times we coast through life on autopilot. Commit to lifelong learning, trying new things, exploring new places and giving yourself the opportunity to meet new people. This will keep you engaged and connected, and ensure life is enriching and meaningful at any age.
We only have one life and a limited amount of time. We all have the same number of hours available in the day. Use them wisely. Actively choose how you spend your time. Push your comfort zones, engage deeply, practise gratitude and make memories. Live a life you value now, so that one day you can look back on a life well lived.
Emma Nuttall is a nutritionist (BHSc) and freelance writer. She combines evidence-based nutritional medicine with mindset strategies to support her clients in achieving their goals.