Imagine you have two choices in how to proceed in your career: You can sign on to a high-profile, high-stress project that will result in long hours but greater earnings, or you can stick with a less prestigious career track and make less money but have a much  more humane schedule. Which would you take?

For many the answer is instant -- we'd go with the bigger, more important job. That's what success looks like, right? Aren't we constantly urged to reach for the stars, take chances, and invest in ourselves?

But here's the rub: A huge amount of research has been done on these sort of tradeoffs and it reveals our instincts are all wrong. We think we should work hard to make bank to buy ourselves security and nice things, and that will make us happy. But tons of science shows we'd probably actually be happier if we had less money but more time.

To be happier, maximize time not money

That's the takeaway from a long and fascinating recent HBR cover story from Harvard professor Ashley Whillans. Here's the essence of her argument:

Research consistently shows that the happiest people use their money to buy time. My colleagues and I have conducted correlational, longitudinal, and experimental research with nearly 100,000 working adults from all over the world. We consistently find that people who are willing to give up money to gain more free time -- by, say, working fewer hours or paying to outsource disliked tasks -- experience more fulfilling social relationships, more satisfying careers, and more joy, and overall, live happier lives.

The science might be definitive, but that doesn't mean following this advice is easy. As Whillans acknowledges, our world is set up in such a way to make obsessing about money the default approach to life. Net worth is our most common shorthand for success, and the first question we ask one another is generally, "So, what do you do?" not "What do you do that makes you happy?"

It's also true that modern life is expensive -- the cost of housing, education, and health care have all shot up relative to incomes -- so fretting about finances can feel unavoidable. And for those still struggling to get by, more money really will lead to less stress and more joy.

Quitting your long workweeks to become a woodworker and live in a cabin or a similar drastic action feels impossible for most of us. Nor can lots of folks waltz into their boss's office and inform them they'd like a pay cut in exchange for fewer hours, please. Entrepreneurs, in particular, may struggle to work less when they're in the thick of starting a new venture.

So does Whillans have any realistic ideas for how to start spotlighting time rather than money in our decision making? Here are a few.

  1. Make the most of small blocks of time. If you have 20 minutes free, you might be tempted to fritter it away on social media or the news. But these little chunks of time can boost our happiness more than we expect if we use them thoughtfully. "Because we overestimate the amount of time needed to enjoy an experience, we end up wasting small pockets of free time that we could use more effectively. Five minutes spent socializing with a colleague or 20 minutes on an elliptical machine often have more powerful mood benefits than we expect," Whillans insists.

  2. Plan your leisure time. The research is clear and it runs counter to our intuition: If you plan your free time you'll get more joy out of it than if you try to be spontaneous.

  3. Savor meals. The French are famous for their love of a good meal. Sandwich-wolfing Americans could learn something from them. When Whillans and a French colleague "surveyed 12,000 French and American adults about their dining habits, we found that on average, the French spent significantly more time eating. Because they savored their food more, the French derived greater satisfaction from it -- which in turn reduced their stress."

  4. Volunteer. It seems counterintuitive that spending time on others would make you feel like you have more time for yourself, but that's just what the research shows. "Volunteering is not only linked to greater happiness but also increases your feelings of time affluence," reports Whillans.

  5. Buy back your commute. "Consider taking public transit or an Uber to work once a week. Instead of sitting in traffic, you can spend that time in a leisure activity like reading. Or, if you use it to work, you can leave the office earlier and have more time with friends and family. Even an hour a week adds up significantly over a year," suggests Whillans.

These five ideas are only the tip of the iceberg. Check out Whillans detailed article for a lot more advice on how to start thinking more about time and less about money, including what leaders can do to help employees be less stressed about time and therefore happier and more productive.

Published on: Feb 12, 2019
The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of