When it comes to time, we are born rich and then spend down our fortunes over the years. It may not grow like money in a bank account, but there are ways to get time to pay out a similar kind of interest.
The go-to verb for what we do with time is “spend” it. Researchers say it might be better to think of time as something we invest, using our precious hours to accumulate a wealth of fulfillment and meaning that our future selves can draw on.
This shift in thinking is particularly important because it might help us think longer term. Recent research by Hal Hershfield and Cassie Holmes, both professors at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, and their collaborators indicates that those who think about their time over longer horizons—say, years or a lifetime—tend to be happier day-to-day and more satisfied with their life.
“If we start thinking about investments of time, rather than expenditures, maybe we’ll start focusing on allocating time toward the things that are more closely linked to our longer-term well-being,”
Prof. Hershfield says.
He is currently investigating whether cuing people to think about “investing” their time, versus “spending” it, might prod them into that longer-term mind-set and affect what they choose to devote their time to.
Our anxieties about misusing our limited time have deep roots. Among the earliest written uses of the verb “spend” with “time” is from a 14th-century poem, according to Kory Stamper, a lexicographer. The regret-tinged line, originally composed in Middle English, roughly translates to “The lifetime that I’ve been lent / in idleness I have spent.”
When we invest money, we tie up our present resources in exchange for future gains. But investments of time have the advantage of paying out in both present enjoyment and far-off benefits, says Prof. Holmes.
For someone creating a temporal portfolio, an important task is to figure out which activities deliver the best return on investment. Studies have found that some reliably gratifying ways to use your time include deepening social connections, exercising and getting absorbed in meaningful work, says Prof. Holmes.
Prof. Holmes recommends determining your own best investments by performing an audit of your time use for a week or two. This exercise, which Prof. Holmes details in her book “Happier Hour,” consists of recording, in half-hour increments, what you did and how happy you felt while doing it on a scale of 1 to 10.
When Prof. Holmes has her business-school students conduct a self-audit, some of them are surprised to find that they spend more than a dozen hours a week on social media.
“When they look at how they feel having spent time scrolling, they see, ‘Holy cow, on a 10-point scale, it’s like a four,'” Prof. Holmes says.
“Meanwhile, going out to dinner with their sister or friend or partner is like a nine, but often, it’s like, ‘I don’t have time to meet up with my friends for dinner because I’m so busy.’ “
Having a time-investing mind-set means being proactive, Prof. Holmes says. It means committing in advance to rewarding activities rather than attempting to squeeze those things in only after doing whatever seems most urgent at the moment.
A proactive move she recommends is to block off time on your calendar for the investments that are important to you, just as you would a business meeting. In her own life, these high-priority weekly events are a couple morning runs, a date night with her husband, and going to a coffee shop with her daughter (who is 7, and orders hot chocolate).
Prof. Holmes maintains that even highly time-crunched people can benefit from an investing mind-set, because the value of small time commitments can compound. The recurring coffee date with her daughter, for example, is only 30 minutes a week, she says, “but the impact of that 30 minutes on not only my relationship with her, but on my satisfaction with my life overall, is profound.”
When choosing between different ways you could allocate your time, it can also help to imagine what your future self might hope you chose.
“Who am I, what am I going to be doing in five years, 10 years?” asks Prof. Hershfield. “When we look back, we don’t want to regret finding that our time slipped through our fingers, being spent on stuff that turned out to not be all that meaningful.”
Prof. Hershfield is the author of the forthcoming book “Your Future Self,” and writing it led him to take the perspective of his own future self more often. Recently, when he had a few open days on his calendar, he was torn between focusing on an important work project and taking time off to visit his 99-year-old grandmother with his 3-year-old son.
Looking at the situation through the eyes of his future self made the decision to spend time with family an easy one. “It’s not clear to me that in 10 years, I’ll even remember what progress I would have made on whatever project it was,” he says.
Even a year or two of imagined hindsight can help, according to Anat Keinan, a marketing professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.
Prof. Keinan has conducted surveys of college students after they returned from winter break, asking them if they wished they had spent more time working and studying, or more time traveling and enjoying themselves. The group that was asked about their latest winter break was more likely to regret not doing more of the former, more productive activities. Meanwhile, the group that was asked about their winter break a year prior was more likely to regret not doing more of the latter, more meaningful and fun activities.
One force that can stop people from doing things their future selves would appreciate, Prof. Keinan has found, is guilt about not doing something productive.
“It’s not idle time,” Prof. Keinan says. “It’s actually a great investment in your future memories.”
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