When you think of your most valuable assets, how much thought goes into your time?
For many of us – myself included – there is an automatic quality to time, an assumption that the rhythms of our life will, going forward, look and feel much the way they have.
September contributes to this. We live close to a college campus, and while the pandemic tinted the past two Septembers, the current back-to-school – unmasked students walking across campus in the crisp air and changing light – is familiar.
Of course, as the old song goes, it ain’t necessarily so. Our time may seem like it’s moving in predictable cycles, but that’s an illusion. Our time is finite, and precious – an extraordinarily valuable asset.
So – how best to spend it?
A wide body of social scientific research suggests that paying attention to time can help us spend that time better. And the better we spend our time, the greater a return we can get from that investment. In other words: time, like money, is an asset whose value can appreciate over time – if we spend it wisely.
Some takeaways from the research:
- Pay attention to spending time with family, friends, and people you enjoy: research indicates that “socially connecting activities … comprise the happiest parts of the day.”
- Having spare time, along with the perception of some control on how to spend it, “has been shown to have a strong and consistent effect on life satisfaction and happiness, even controlling for the actual amount of free time one has.” The research points to a benefit in increasing “discretionary time,” even if you have to pay some money to do so. Interestingly, though, research also points to a diminishing return on spare time: some is good; too much isn’t. Note how this may have implications for the traditional model of retirement.
- Think about how valuable your next hour or two might be, and how the value can extend beyond that hour: so-called “prosocial” behavior, like volunteering, tends to make people happy. Research has also found, somewhat counterintuitively, that giving away time, as with volunteering, can actually help people feel they have more time. “Focusing more on time (vs. money) seems to make individuals more self-reflective, compelling them towards behaviors that are highly aligned with their ideal self.”
- Simply being reflective about time seems to contribute to people’s happiness. That may have something to do with a recognition of time’s limited nature. “Awareness that one’s overall time in life is limited improves subjective well-being by encouraging people to find greater enjoyment in life’s ordinary pleasures and close relationships.”
I (Tom) found myself reflecting more on time a few weeks ago, in the stretch leading up to the Jewish “Days of Awe,” the period from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, through Yom Kippur, the Jewish “Day of Atonement.”
It turns out this 10-day stretch (we’re in it now) is a 3,000-year-old cognitive reframing technique. During that time span Jewish people take a break from work, gather as a community, and consider time with one another.
These “High Holidays” ask: What have you done this past year? And what can you do to improve your life, and that of others, in the year to come?
As the contemporary research emphasizes, simply considering the question can have a positive, even a transformative, impact. If time is a precious, finite asset, how will you use it?