Podcast: Ashley Whillans — Time Smart

Ashley WhillansEpisode 49 of the NewRetirement podcast is an interview with Ashley Whillans — assistant professor at Harvard Business School and author of Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life — and discusses how to think about and value your scarcest resource, your time.

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Full Transcript of Steve Chen’s Interview with Ashley Whillans

Steve: Welcome to The NewRetirement Podcast. Today we’re going to be talking with Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School about how to think about and value your scarcest resource, your time, and her new book, Time Smart. We’re going to cover ideas around how to value time, how to reframe your view of time, and key events like retirement and how to balance your time, money, and experience and possessions to achieve “optimal” happiness. She was referred to us by one of our users, Matt Park, who’s been following her research. And beyond being a Harvard Business School assistant professor and author, Ashley is also a former professional actor. So with that, Ashley, welcome to our show. It’s great to have you join us.

Ashley: Yeah, thanks so much for having me. Acting is very useful in the HBS classroom, I have to say.

Steve: Keep the students engaged.

Ashley: Exactly.

Steve: Yeah. So before we get into your book, I just wanted to see if you could give us a couple minutes on your background and how you went from acting to becoming a behavioral scientist, and what drew you to social psychology and that intersection of time, money, happiness, and your work in public policy?

Ashley: Yeah. I was always really into acting. I grew up on the West Coast of Canada, so we had a lot of film productions from LA come up to Vancouver. One of my neighbors got an agent, and I wanted to do everything she did. So I spent a lot of my childhood acting in B or C, probably D-level films in Canada and doing film and TV and toy commercials. So when I was graduating high school, I thought, well, let’s go for it. Let’s pursue an acting career. I had a brief stint for one semester at a college near my house, but I was really not into it, so I quit college, did the whole server/acting thing, and went to theater school at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, England.

Ashley: And it was there that I really developed a love of psychology. I mean, acting is one part performance and one part character study. And theater school really solidified for me that I was really happy to be the nerd in the library trying to figure out the motivations behind my characters. And I was a little bit less interested in blocking and the performance element of acting, all of the auditioning.

Ashley: So I left theater school knowing that I wanted to go back to college, and immediately fell in love with psychology. I was particularly interested in early days from Dan Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness. And what I really loved about that book is we often predict what’s going to make us happy. And some of the most interesting research in that book was being conducted at the University of British Columbia University, an hour away from where I was going to community college in the evenings while I was working and paying off theater school. So I pursued a lab job at the University of British Columbia in a lab that studies money and happiness, so it became really a natural transition.

Ashley: My professor that I was working with, Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia, was doing a lot of research showing that people don’t spend enough money on others, so that spending money on others, even $5 or $20, can have lasting impacts for our happiness, but we don’t really guess it in advance and we don’t spend enough of our income to help others. And Liz and I decided, well, if people are not spending one resource that’s so precious in our lives, money, in a way that promotes happiness, I’m sure that they’re probably not optimizing the way they spend their time, either. And we also became really interested in trying to understand the trade-offs that we make between time and money.

Ashley: So many of our decisions on a daily basis, our consumer decisions, our job decisions, our career trajectory decisions like when to retire, involve trad-offs between time and money. And sometimes we’re aware that we’re making these trade-offs and sometimes we’re not. And as my research has indicated, these trade-offs have really lasting effects for happiness as well. So I really … Yeah, go ahead. Oh, I was just going to say, I really became interested in psychology in theater school, and then became relentlessly interested in the small ways that we spend time and time and money on an everyday basis, what we get right, what we get wrong, and how we can optimize these daily decisions to really optimize the happiness we get out of our overall lives.

Steve: Yeah, that’s pretty interesting, and I definitely want to jump into some of these research insights you have. For the example you gave about people not spending their money, and following their time, in helping other people, did you figure out why that is? I mean, I’ve seen that in my own life, like we’ll go every couple of years to the food pantry and so some service work and it’s great, and you do it and you work with a bunch of other people packaging food and getting it out the door, but then you don’t make it a regular habit.

Ashley: Yeah. So I think exactly along these lines, one of the biggest barriers is that it’s not a habit. So by the time that we have the financial resources or the flexibility in our schedules to make volunteering and charitable giving part of our everyday lives, we haven’t really strengthened that muscle and we don’t really know what to do, where to go, how to donate, how to spend our time. So even though many of us, myself included, have financial and temporal resources at our disposal, I’m busy, but my schedule is more or less under my control at this point in my career, I don’t really know what to do with my time or money. So I think it is really important to cultivate and develop these habits and to outsource some of this expertise to others that you trust, just like we would outsource some of our most disliked tasks to others as a path to greater happiness.

Ashley: So I think we can also import that idea into our own lives around how we can optimize our time and money and turn to experts to tell us how we might be able to invest our financial and temporal resources to benefit the community in ways that we might not otherwise be doing.

Steve: Yeah, that’s interesting. I mean, I know we’re going to get into devices and all the competing things that are there to suck up any leftover time you have. One quote that I saw on Twitter was like, “Rent the space in your head very dearly.” And it does feel like technology is granting some people much more control over their time, but there’s also this onslaught of competing things that are … The whole technology ecosystem’s very, grab your attention and your focus.

Ashley: Yeah, I think we would be remiss not to mention that one of the key reasons we don’t help as much as we want to, could, or should is because we feel overwhelmed by the demands of work and life on an everyday basis. Our bandwidth feels stretched and we feel time poor, which is a lot of where my research focus is, which is this feeling of being … Time poverty is this feeling that you don’t have enough time to do all the things that you want to do or have to do. And that feeling of stress that comes with being time poor does prevent us from helping others, spending more time socializing, volunteering, exercising. It’s been correlated with a whole host of not optimal outcomes either for ourselves or for our families or for society.

Ashley: And I think this bandwidth point is really important. I was talking with my colleague yesterday, we both want to be more civically engaged, especially after this recent election and because of the pandemic. And we have the time flexibility in our calendars to do it, but we don’t have the mental bandwidth to even begin to think about how to open up space in our mind for things like civic engagement or being more politically engaged. So I think this conversation … And my data bears this out, which is why it’s so ironic, because I myself am experiencing it in this way. But we really do see that people who feel time poor do not feel like they have the resources to help others to the same extent as they would want to, and their happiness does suffer as a result.

Ashley: And technology is a major culprit of these feelings of time poverty. So what you were alluding to is something in the organizational behavior literature that we call the autonomy paradox. So technology was supposed to free us from the office, but now we carry our offices in our back pocket wherever we go. And this technology being constantly available, constantly demanding our attention, creates this time stress which really disrupts our ability to focus on the present moment or to work on important but not necessarily urgent tasks, so we become hamsters on a wheel gravitating toward getting the next thing off of our to-do list instead of making space in our lives to work on these more important but not necessarily urgent tasks or goals that we have in our life.

Steve: That totally resonates. Yeah, I think it’s so hard for people to be thoughtful and intentional about their money and also their time. We’re going to dive into all the details here, but when you think about your own work, what do you see as your goal? It feels like you really have a strong sense for why you’re here and what your goal is.

Ashley: Yeah. So I mean, we spend a lot of time thinking and planning for our financial futures, thinking about our career trajectory, and we spend a lot less time, energy, and attention focusing on how we want to spend time both within across days and over the course of our lives. And what I really want my research to do in the world is to help people account for, track, be mindful of and intentional with their time to the same extent to which they’re being intentional and mindful with their money. So my book basically presents all of these strategies and exercises. It’s not just theoretical, even though I really could have at this point written 300 pages about all of these interesting findings related to time and money.

Ashley: We all know that time matters and work probably shouldn’t matter as much as we afford it importance in our life, or this constant sense of busyness is maybe not as … All of these things that we’re filling our time with aren’t as urgent or as important as we make them out to be. We kind of all know these things to be true. That in and of itself is not a revelation. But doing the work of accounting for our time as carefully as money does take some effort, but with simple tools and strategies, we can all get there. So my research is really about trying to help all of us, myself included, I just admitted I’m not the greatest at this either, to live a more intentional and deliberate life and to be accounting for our time as carefully if not more carefully than how we account for our finances.

Steve: Yeah. No, I think it’s awesome. I mean, we are students of the FI, the financial independence, community here, and a lot of those folks are on a journey of, “Hey, I was $100,000 in student debt or in the hole financially, I didn’t really understand what was going on. Then I started getting educated, started figuring out how to pay down bad debt, then started saving money, then started investing, built my first 100,000 bucks, and now I see a path, I have a vision for a point in time when I will be financially independent, so I need to save, whatever, a million bucks or whatever the number is, then that will throw off enough money every year that I will have either absolute or much more control over how I use my time.”

Steve: But they’re very focused on the financial aspect of that. There is part of that, people are starting to be more … Especially as they get closer, like, “How will I spend my time?” I’d love to hear from you, it sounds like you’ve gone through this journey around … almost call it time independence for yourself. Are there any big points in your journey and things you think that you personally need to work on?

Ashley: Yeah. I mean, I think this conversation that we’re having about when we should be thinking about becoming time independent is really important. So I do hear from a lot of my MBAs, a lot of the executives I chat with, saying, “Well, once I get this title, once I hit this number in the bank, then I can start focusing on what I would like to do with my time. But it’s not until I achieve this title or achieve this amount of money in the bank that I’m really going to take time seriously.”

Ashley: And I want to point out that both for myself and for others, this logic is a bit faulty from a psychological perspective. So there’s a lot of good research showing that as we start being more successful financially, we become even more focused on becoming more successful financially, such that even when we hit that number, even when we hit the point in our mind that we thought, we want more. Reference points shift. So this money begets a focus on money begets a focus on money that we see in the data explains why in larger representative samples you actually see a slight dip in happiness and life satisfaction to the amount of happiness people experience on an everyday basis and overall life satisfaction, when you get to the top 10% of income in society, because people then stop and start comparing themselves to the people that have even more money than they do and even more financial freedom, more materialistic outcomes than they do.

Ashley: So it’s really important, and I think one message that I try to remind myself of and that I’m a little bit guilty of myself is to not do this if/then thinking, but really to start developing a focus on time, meaningful hobbies outside of work and financial pursuits early, much like what we were just having this conversation around, you have a lot of free time available or flexibility, but then you don’t volunteer because you don’t know what to do. Similarly, you want to be setting yourself up for success in the long-term around time affluence such that when you do become financially free, you also have cultivated over time a passion that’s not related necessarily to work or employment, but exists independent outside of monetary compensation.

Ashley: One of my colleagues, at HBS, has research showing that passion in and of itself is also something you need to develop and cultivate over time. So you can’t just expect yourself to hit this reference point and, one, give up on being financially successful; probably if you put a lot of effort and mental energy and attention in your life to hitting a certain financial achievement, you’ll want to challenge yourself to do even better. But also, that you’re going to all of a sudden have a passion that you really want to pursue. I think we need to be thinking about building in time for ourselves each day across weeks over months to figure out what we like that isn’t tied to financial compensation, and then actively start getting better and pursuing that hobby or interest now as opposed to doing this if/then thinking and waiting until we hit a specific financial milestone.

Steve: Yeah, I think that’s a great insight. I mean, one thing that we were just talking about in our community was a lot of people have questions like what should I do with my time, how should I invest my time once I get to retirement or financial independence? They’re worried about getting bored, and there was a writeup of someone who went through this and they actually used COVID as a Petri dish. They’re like, “Okay, well, COVID’s kind of making me work remote. I can test things about having much more control over my life.” And they found some research that said having 3.6 or more interests, passions, versus like 1.9 was the optimal; there’s a threshold there.

Ashley: Yeah, so you want a diverse portfolio of passion, just like investments? I mean, that rings true in my psychological research experience. In general, people have more interests who have life outside of work, who have many hobbies. They are happier on average because it’s just like an investment portfolio: if one part of your life, one relationship, one hobby’s not going so well, you can focus your time and energy and attention elsewhere.

Steve: That’s true. That’s cool. Yeah, I know. And I know we’ve all seen lots of research that shows, hey, as you make more income, your happiness goes up for a while and then I think it plateaus around $75,000 or $100,000. After that, your relative happiness doesn’t increase that much. But your data on the fact that it could go down because as you start to make more money you compare yourself to the people in front of you, and we all know … Well, I don’t … that with the wealth inequality, there’s this massively steepening curve as you get more and more money. It’s like, hey, if you have a million bucks, well, the next level of people have 10 million. And for the people that have 10, I mean, this is an extreme example, the next level have 100. It becomes next to impossible to keep up with that. I do think a lot of folks that are pursuing financial independence, they have a much stronger concept in their head about, this is what I need to be financially independent, and if I get there, I’m done, and I have a plan for doing something with my time and energy after I hit that number, which sounds like is the right approach, given your research.

Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. I think having a clear plan, it’ll also motivate you to disengage with the financial goal. But in the absence of having these strong goals for other areas of your life, that’s when you’re going to get this heightened focus on materialism and making more money because you haven’t really set yourself up for success in other areas of your life. So, exactly, I think having this clear plan of how you want to allocate your time and your time once you’ve hit your financial threshold is really important.

Steve: That’s awesome. So I want to get to your book, but before that, you talk a lot about happiness. And happiness is an interesting concept for me. So first, I was going to ask you how you defined it, but I’d also like to ask you how you measure it, because I mean, I’ve done a lot of reading about happiness, and it feels like happiness is a very ephemeral thing. There’s satisfaction and fulfillment, and there’s joy, and I guess there’s an overall sense of wellbeing, but I’d love to hear how you think about it and measure it when you’re doing all of your work.

Ashley: Yeah, so I follow the Ed Diener sort of psychology economics approach, so that I can look at all of my studies in the context of large global representative studies like the Gallup World Poll. I measure happiness as really the composite of two key components of what it means to live a good life or feel satisfaction on an everyday basis; overall life evaluation, so if you step back, how well do you think you’re doing in life overall. You might have seen this in a ladder type question or on a one to 10 scale. And then I also look at a component of how much joy, satisfaction, stress, and misery that people experience on an everyday basis, which is the affective component of subjective wellbeing. And we do measure both overall life evaluation and this affective experience of satisfaction by asking people how happy they are.

Ashley: However, people are pretty good judges of how much joy they’re experiencing in a moment or across the day. And these self-reports have been verified by third party raters over the course of many decades of studying happiness. You may have heard some people wrapping up things like religious participation, volunteering, time use into what it means to be happy. But I actually like to keep those things separate. So I’m just looking at life satisfaction and the extent to which people experience positive emotions more than negative emotions on an everyday basis. And then I’m looking at how things like time use and social interaction or religious participation feed into those feelings. So I like to keep the social component separate out of the way I define happiness so I can see the extent to which they predict the amount of joy we experience on an everyday basis, for example.

Steve: That’s interesting. Is it useful for people to try and track their happiness like they would do a fitness tracker or their sense of wellbeing and other tools that people can use, kind of like, “Hey, this is how I’m doing,” and see

Ashley: Yeah. I mean, even one of my colleagues, George Ward, and his team at MIT, have used feeling thermometers, asked employees to rate which happy face was most indicative of their experience, a frowny face or a smiley face. And they did that week over week and looked at weekly and over the year sales performance and found that workers who had more positive emotional experiences on a week-to-week basis sold more and were more likely to get promoted. So I think to the extent that you’re interested in tracking happiness and you know that you’ll reliably report on your emotion, it could be something useful to track. The problem with … We’re always so tempted to game any behaviors that we’re tracking.

Ashley: So I think it would be helpful if someone else compiled the results for you because it’s very … If you had really positive moments or something that stood out for you where you feel like you should have felt positive but maybe didn’t, you’re probably likely to socially desirable respond, especially if your target audience is you yourself and no one else is going to look at it. So I’d probably try to get a commitment buddy, if you’re really going to be serious about tracking your mood, and try to understand how the decisions you’re making on an everyday basis around time and money are affecting it, because we like to deceive ourselves and we also will probably want to respond to so-called positive events in our life with the so-called right emotions. So we probably need a researcher or a friend to hold us accountable to being honest, if we’re serious about tracking it over time.

Steve: Yeah, my life experience is that people are very bad at recognizing especially bad moods in themselves. They’re like, “Oh, I’m fine,” but myself.

Ashley: Yeah, exactly.

Steve: “I’m fine. You’re not fine.” It’s like … Yeah, maybe there’ll be some third party objective way to get a sense of your mood.

Ashley: I’m pretty sure there’s mood apps out there. I don’t have one that comes to mind, but I’m pretty sure if you did a quick search on your favorite app store, you’d be able to find something out there.

Steve: Yeah. All right, that’s pretty cool. So let’s move on to your book, Time Smart. Can you give us a little bit about why you wrote it and who it’s for?

Ashley: Yeah. We’ve been talking around this topic for basically the entire conversation up to this point, so now we can give it a bit of a framework. So as we already mentioned, 80% of working adults all around the world feel time poor, so they feel that sense of they have too many things to do, not enough time in the day to do it. And we often lack the language for talking about time poverty and time stress. So my book walks us through, what are the time traps that make us time poor, both that are individually imposed, like the technology trap that we were talking about earlier in this conversation, but also organizational factors like our workplaces use hours and quickness of response as a proxy for commitment. Obviously, that’s a problem, going to make us at least appear to be working at all hours.

Ashley: And then it also provides simple strategies that we can all take in our everyday life to have more and better time. Then the last chapter does zoom out and say, hey, again, this isn’t just an individual problem. Our societies are making us time poor, organizations are making us time poor. Let’s all work together to solve this pressing problem in society. So my book really walks through, as I mentioned, these time traps, and then talks about three simple strategies that we can all use to have more and better time in our everyday life: finding time, funding time, and reframing time.

Steve: Got it. Yeah. So, would love to hear more about what you do to find it and fund it and so forth.

Ashley: Yeah. So finding time is something that we talked a little bit about already. So the first step is doing a time audit: how do you spend time on an average workday? Not a weekend when you have a lot of discretionary time at your disposal, but during a weekday when you’re more likely to feel pressed and pulled in many directions. Do a time audit. Think to yourself, what did you do in the morning, in the afternoon, and in the evening. And what were the major activities that you spent your time doing, and how positive did you feel during those activities?

Ashley: So I actually, in very HBS fashion, get people to plot their time use activities on a 2×2 grid of how pleasant and unpleasant the activity is and how purposeful or purposeless the activity is, because sometimes activities that are unpleasant in the moment give us a lot of overall life satisfaction, like taking care of our kids sometimes might feel unpleasant, but it’s part of our overall goal in life and it’s what makes life wonderful overall. So we don’t want to minimize those kinds of interactions. And even working out, like working toward a fitness goal, in the moment can feel pretty awful, so your pleasantness might be zero, but your purpose is really high. So again, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, and that’s why it’s important to differentiate how pleasant the experience feels in the moment versus how much meaning you’re getting out of it. It’s a really important differentiation.

Ashley: And the theme I want to think about, all of the activities that are unpleasant and purposeless, paperwork, filing, budgeting, household, chores, whatever that is for you, and then you want to look at all of these activities over the course of an average day and think about maximizing the positive, so the pleasant and meaningful activities, and minimizing the negative, unpleasant, unimportant. It seems really straightforward, but I think it’s a really good thing to do from a time hygiene perspective, just to see how are you spending your time, is it meaningful or not?

Ashley: And then one thing you can do as well that I also recommend is to compare that set of activities to how ideally you want to be spending your time and your life, so not only mapping out what you’re doing, but how much of a discrepancy there is between an average day and your ideal day. That will also give you some ideas of what kind of activities you want to add and to think a little bit about what gets in the way from you having more time to spend in these more meaningful pursuits.

Steve: That’s awesome. And then you talked about funding it, so basically hiring people to do things that you hate to do or find purposeless and unpleasant?

Ashley: Yeah, exactly. So that bottom quadrant of unpleasant, purposeless, can you outsource it, can you delegate it? So one thing also, in a work context, sometimes we’re tasked with activities that maybe to us feel unpleasant or stressful, but to someone else they might seem like an opportunity. Sometimes I get invited to work on papers and I’m like, “Eh, maybe I will,” and then when it actually push comes to shove, that’s kind of stressful and somewhat unpleasant. It’s not how I would ideally be spending my paper writing time. So in that case, I should just delegate that task to someone else, a grad student who might find that actually a really exciting and meaningful activity. So outsourcing and funding time, although usually referred to in the context of my research as giving up money to save yourself time in the home, you can also think about this in the workplace context, hiring someone to be your administrative assistant, for example. But even beyond that, think about delegating tasks to others that might be an opportunity for them and a slog for you.

Steve: Got it, got it. Makes sense. And sorry, you mentioned a third bucket, and I spaced on what that was.

Ashley: Reframing time. So there are a lot of activities that are unpleasant that we still find ourselves doing. We can’t outsource everything. Actually, I have data suggesting you shouldn’t outsource everything. So there’s actually a quadratic relationship between outsourcing and happiness. For people who don’t do it and all and who do it all the time, this is associated with less happiness. So there’s kind of this sweet spot. You don’t want to undermine your perceived control over your time by outsourcing everything and feeling like nothing is under your own control or you’re spending all of your time managing the people that you’ve outsourced your work to. So, that does seem to come at a cost to happiness.

Ashley: But reframing time is for all of those activities and experiences in life that you could either use some more of a boost of satisfaction from, like the average everyday weekend, or work tasks that you simply can’t get out of. So from a work perspective, you can just remind yourself of how your task is helping your colleagues get work done, do a little bit of mental gymnastics around reframing. And then from a leisure perspective, my colleagues have some great work showing that you can get more satisfaction out of your weekend if you treat your average everyday weekend like a vacation, because you’re less likely to think about the opportunity cost of your time, you’re less worried about trying to get work done during your weekend, and you’re less attentive to your technology.

Steve: That’s awesome. So actually, I want to shift back a little bit back to how the time and the happiness hangs together. And you had this concept of happiness dollars. What are those and how do they work?

Ashley: Yeah, so you were asking me what’s happiness, implicitly, why does it matter, why should I care about it? And your question is very much aligned with, and how do I value it, how do I quantify it? Your questions are very much aligned with the questions I get from students, especially teaching at a business school: “Sorry, what is happiness again? Can you just put it into a metric that I understand and can actually grasp?” So I did that. I created this metric called happiness dollars, which is the income equivalent of the happiness that you would get from making a time-related choice. So let me unpack that a little bit. We know in the empirical literature that in the US, on average, about five years ago, I’ll probably have to update my stats now given the COVID economic recession, et cetera, but so take this with a grain of salt, but on average, a $10,000 raise produces a half a point increase on that 10-point life satisfaction scale I was telling you about.

Ashley: So we can basically use that as a reference point because I know in my data, and I have a lot of data amassed over many years, about the extent to which time-related choices produce happiness increases. So changing from doing no active leisure in a day to 30 minutes produces about a .7 increase in happiness on that 10-point happiness ladder. So then it can create financial metrics around the income equivalent of these time-related choices, which is a really fun exercise to make the value of these time-related choices and focusing on time really sticky for people. So I even have a macro now where people can account for time and accumulate happiness dollars.

Ashley: So very concretely, a few statistics: just shifting your mindset from focusing on money as opposed to focusing on time, so going from more money being your top priority to being time more your top priority, without changing any of your behaviors, produces an income equivalent of making $4,400 more of household income per year. Outsourcing your disliked tasks on a regular basis, so going from not outsourcing to outsourcing, produces a happiness equivalent of making about $16,000 more of household income per year. And then on net, it’s about $12,000 of household income per year, when you subtract out the amount of money you have to spend to hire a house cleaner, for example.

Ashley: So you can see that if you start making deliberate choices in your everyday life to focus on time, have more leisure, have more social interaction, that the happiness dollars or the bang for your happiness buck, if you will, really start to accumulate across time. And you can see that money is not the only path to happiness. There’s so many things that are under our control, so many behaviors on a daily basis that we can do consistently that can have really lasting effects on our happiness, to the same extent if not more than chasing more money.

Steve: That’s awesome. Yeah, I think … A couple stories. So in our life, when my wife and I were having our first kid, we were like, “Okay.” We were living in San Francisco. We were like, “Okay, well, if we get childcare, one of us has to make $100,000 a year just to pay for childcare.” And I think a lot of couples go through this, and we’re like, “All right, well, let’s stop working. Let’s have one of us stop working and provide the in-house childcare,” and we made that decision. And in retrospect, I think it was a great decision that worked out fantastically. And another one of our coworkers recently moved from Las Vegas to Utah and they were like, “Okay.” There was some external drivers, but they were thinking really broadly, I think especially in the age of COVID here where I can … We’re already remote, but many more people are remote and many people are now, especially younger people, are moving, making dramatic physical location changes for a lower cost of living.

Steve: And I think people are really doing what you’re doing. They’re not doing it as scientifically, but pulling back and saying, “Hey, what are the real trade-offs here? I can bring down my costs and that might free up one spouse from having to work or one partner from having to work or something like that, and what does that look like? And how do we roughly think we’ll feel?” Are there any great tools out there to … Because I could totally see … I mean, this is what we’re doing. We do this from a financial perspective. It’s like, how do you optimize your finances to get to financial independence quicker, and how do we help automate you getting there? But I could totally see folding in the time side of this and being like, “And by the way, do you have a house cleaner? Where are you on the money curve? And here’s some simple time things that you could fold in.” I mean, we all talk about working out and being healthy and stuff like that, but really, I love the idea of being very specific: “Seriously consider this, seriously consider that.” Is there anything like that that you’re doing, either with tooling or with the studies you’re doing?

Ashley: Yeah, so definitely on my website, you’ll be able to check out some of my toolkits. And we are publishing a tool for becoming more time affluent and how to structure minor consumer purchases and major life decisions while keeping time in mind and these time and money trade-offs in mind. And that should be available via Harvard Business Publishing I think within a couple of weeks. And it’s exactly to do this. It’s really comprehensive. I think every chapter will be a little bit more relevant, depending on what kind of decisions you’re making. Are you making those more major life decisions, are you thinking about making more minor decisions around the margins? But I do think that, again, these planning worksheets and tools are so helpful for us actually following through on some of these time smart decisions.

Ashley: And my research really suggests that making decisions with time in mind and these time and money trade-offs in mind can, as you were saying in your own personal experience, significantly improve happiness over the course of years. So it can have really huge payoffs for wellbeing and reduce stress across time as well. And especially in the context of relationship satisfaction, because you’re reducing household stress by optimizing time and money decisions at a joint level as well.

Steve: Yeah. Do you see interesting data coming out because of the pandemic because people are now reframing their lives?

Ashley: Yeah. So I think the points that you were hearing totally resonate with the data that I’m observing. So we’ve been conducting a lot of … I mean, as a time use and happiness researcher, it’s an interesting forced experiment that no one would have ever signed up for, and it’s accelerated a lot of digitization, it’s accelerated a lot of work from home trends. And being a time nerd, I can study all of it and run surveys and see what we can learn from this moment. And I really am seeing this dramatic shift in interest in flexible work and this prioritization of time, so in two large data sets. We’ve been collecting data on remote workers in 80 countries since March in collaboration with the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. And we see pretty reliable evidence that no matter where people live or who they are, their personality, their background, their gender, their professions, that people are spending more time with friends and family and report wanting to spend even more time with friends and family going forward.

Ashley: They had some flexible work. A lot of the workers that we’re surveying are knowledge workers. They want even more flexible work options going forward. And then in a longitudinal cohort of college students that we’ve been tracking, we see that students exactly are focused more on meaning and purpose out of their careers than necessarily pursuing finances right away. So I think this moment, to the extent that students in our sample weren’t directly impacted by the negative financial implications of this current moment, so they hadn’t lost a job or their parents hadn’t lost a job, as long as that wasn’t true, we see that students are really reflecting on the importance of time, the limited nature of life, the uncertainty of the world, and are really going after things they’re intrinsically motivated by, not necessarily that is going to bring them the most money the fastest.

Steve: Yeah, that’s awesome. I mean, I definitely see that with … I have a college-aged son who’s … And I engage with him and his friends, and definitely, I think there’s much more … And also younger workers on our team … I think they’re a lot more thoughtful about, “What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Is this meaningful to me?” And a lot of the stuff that you’re describing, it feels like there is the right level of income, and schedule control is something that has come up in peer groups and friend groups. It’s like, some people used to have it, but now many more people have it because they’re all remote. And you’re seeing all these tech companies that are basically … Twitter, Apple, everybody, they’re like, “You can be remote for a long time or forever.” Like Twitter said, “You don’t have to come back to the office.” I think Microsoft went 50/50, or something like that. But it’s huge groups of people now. It’s going to dramatically change what our work socialization’s like, how that looks. And then, yeah, the family social connections thing is interesting. You’re saying there’s more. It feels like there’s less opportunity because there’s more restrictions on who you should engage with. But you’re saying people are actually talking with more people, or …

Ashley: Yeah. Well, so within their immediate household. And I also think that that social time’s a bit of a double-edged sword, right? So you’re also getting a huge amount of distractability. So remote workers are feeling distracted and unproductive, and my colleagues have research showing that we are in fact in more meetings because every conversation now has to be a Zoom call. You can’t just run into someone in the hallway. So there are ways in which work from home is not optimized. Obviously, with childcare being an issue for so many people worldwide because of the pandemic, you are both taking care of your kids and educating them and trying to do your full-time job. So I think there’s definitely a lot of non-optimal time arrangements going on at the moment. But in general, I think this has tripped a general sense of wanting more control over our schedules, less business travel, more flexibility in our work options.

Ashley: I don’t think any of us that, including myself, have been stuck on Zoom for everything for the last eight months, are like, “I never want to go back to the office.” I’m like, “Oh my goodness, I can’t wait to have one or two office days a week, because I’m really just wanting to free myself of the Zoom prison that is my guest bedroom in my house.” But I think the extent to which that feeling dissipates, I definitely don’t think five days a week in the office is going to become a norm. I think it might be a 3, 2, 2 shifted schedule. I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure on organizations to innovate related to flexibility and remote work indefinitely, as you’re saying, moving forward.

Steve: Yeah, it’s going to be pretty interesting. All right, so I’m cognizant of your time. I know we only have a few minutes left here. So I want to ask you a couple more things, and then just a little bit about good resources. But we touched on hedonic adaptation before, and you mentioned some things that people don’t habituate to, and things that people do habituate to, which I thought was really interesting. I’d love to get your color commentary on that.

Ashley: Yeah, so hedonic adaptation is the idea that when we have an experience, the next time we have it, it’s less exciting. So you go to this amazing restaurant, and the first time you go, it’s mind-blowing. It feels like the best thing you’ve ever done. And then you go again and it was okay. So, that’s a feeling of hedonic adaptation. And it’s more likely to happen actually in the context of material consumption. So you buy a nice car and it feels amazing and you drive in it for a week and then you’re over it and it’s just a car and it’s just getting you to point A from point B and you’re not thinking about it anymore to the same extent. There’s some nuances, but that’s the basic idea.

Ashley: However, what’s really interesting is these active leisure activities that we’ve been talking a lot about in this conversation, volunteering, socializing, participation in clubs and groups and hobbies, you don’t habituate to that to the same extent, in part because it has this social component woven through, and other people are inherently interesting and dynamic. So you don’t actually adapt as much to these active social experiences as you do to buying new stuff, renovating your house. So I think in terms of a time/money allocation, this is why it’s important to put enough time in your calendar to invest in social activities or activities that have a higher purpose like sports, but that also have this social component. And maybe this is something we’re all lacking right now. I realize as I’m saying this example that I haven’t gone outside and done sports in a very long time. But these kind of experiences that have a higher order goal and a social component, you almost don’t habituate to. You get kind of the same satisfaction each week, week over week, for presumably years, in some of the data that we’ve seen. And again, I think it’s because of the variability, the social component. It feels inherently good every time you do it.

Steve: So activities with people, good, and you don’t get bored of them, and stuff, you get sick of. You mentioned travel as something that people do habituate to, which I thought was kind of interesting. I’d love to hear your take on that.

Ashley: Yeah. So, I mean, I guess it’s really about the variability of experiences. So if you travel to a lot of different places, maybe you’re not going to be as sick of it over time. But you can habituate to experiences as well. Again, in the restaurant example, even five-star dining you get sort of sick of over time. But again, these social experiences that are variable don’t seem to have that same hedonic adaptation.

Steve: Got it. Okay. So any top tips for folks that they should think about in their own lives, like how they can do better and just be smart about their time, be a little bit happier?

Ashley: Yeah. I mean, I would think that … Often, when we think about this topic, we think about needing to have a lot of time, hit that reference point, hit that goal, have our finances figured out and then focus on the rest of our lives. And again, to this conversation, I would say challenge yourself to be more time smart tomorrow in 30 minutes. What is one way that you can spend your next 30 minutes, one hour, in a different way? Because if you can be more deliberate about how you spend time that often goes missing that you would have just spent on social media, this is really a key unlock. So for me, people have sort of asked me, “What have you done now that you’ve written this book?”

Ashley: And I say, “I actually disrupted my habit around getting up, rolling out of bed, going to the computer. Now I get up, roll out of bed, and do not let myself get on the computer, even though I really want to, because it puts me in a whole different mindset for the rest of the day. I’m more attentive to paying attention to things outside of work. So I’ll force myself to read or go for a run, go to the gym in my apartment building, whatever it is, but it can’t be work.” So I would just find that unlock for you and try to think about where does time go missing, even in small increments? We don’t often pay attention to half an hour, an hour, that kind of goes missing in our inbox every day, but that’s exactly the kind of behavior we should start paying attention to and substitute with more meaningful, social, rewarding activities.

Ashley: One thing that we didn’t cover that I do think is important to mention is we have a little bit of research related to retirement showing that people who retire in response to financial incentives like Social Security benefits, who weren’t very satisfied with their jobs, actually derive a great deal of meaning and satisfaction after retirement. So I think these findings speak to a broader theme that we were talking about, is if you can, and even if you think you’re not quite where you need to be, but you’re in an okay place, and you’re really not having a lot of meaningful and purposeful activities, you might want to think about making a major life decision earlier than you were considering because your happiness and satisfaction is likely to pay off more from how you spend your time than whether you have quite enough money in the bank or you’ve reached that financial goal perfectly. Our data suggests that you can get a lot of meaning and satisfaction from changing careers or working less if your job is not bringing you a lot of satisfaction and it is instead one of those stressful, unpleasant activities that you’re spending a lot of time doing.

Steve: Yeah, we get a lot of users or folks that are kind of like, “Well, it’s a one more year syndrome. I feel like I’m good, but I’m not quite sure if I work another year, I can sock away this much more money and my money grows a little bit longer.” But then when you talk to people who do retire, they’re like, “Oh, I wish I had done it earlier.” We hear that a lot, and, “It wasn’t quite so bad as I thought.” I think especially if you reframe it like, “Hey, if I had to, I could go back and consult or I could do something part-time.” I mean, I think that’s another way. A lot of folks, they think about, “Well, I’ve been making $100,000 or $150,000 a year. It’s going to go from that to zero.” Well, it could go to zero, but then if you went back and you made $30,000 a year consulting or something, and you’re getting Social Security and you’re being prudent with your draw downs, it can all work out fine and your costs might go down as well, and all that other stuff. But it’s cool that you have that data.

Steve: I’d love to look at that data. And this is the kind of thing we might actually want to put in the tools, like, “Hey, okay, doing this might lead to your increased satisfaction over here.” So, that’s cool. All right. Well, I think we’ve covered a lot of great stuff. This is good. We’ll definitely link to your book, Time Smart, and also your site. And if you send us those tools that you’re using, we’ll add that stuff to the notes. Any final thoughts about resources or people that you think are doing good stuff in this space?

Ashley: Yeah. So from a practitioner perspective, I really like Laura Vanderkam. She writes a lot on this space. Dan Pink also talks a lot about the importance of intrinsic motivation in the workplace. I think trying to import some of these ideas into how to make work better, so both of those are really thought leaders in this space that I look to when thinking about bridging some of my academic research into more practitioner audiences. I definitely look to both of them because they’re actually practitioners or industry folks as opposed to academics. So I think we have a lot to learn from talking with each other. I’m usually heads down in a regression table and they’ve been talking to more people out in the real world than I have. So they’re definitely people to read and look into.

Steve: Okay. Awesome. Well, we’ll look for that. Okay. Well, good. All right. I’m going to wrap it up here. So, thanks, Ashley, for being on our show. And thanks, Davorin Robison, for being our sound engineer. Anyone listening, thanks for listening. Hopefully, you found this useful. Our goal at NewRetirement is to help anyone plan and manage their retirement and financial life so that they can make the most of their money and time, the purpose of this talk. And we will point you to Ashley’s research and also have a link to her book, Time Smart. And if you want to discuss this more, jump on our Facebook group or follow us on Twitter, @NewRetirement. And then finally, we’re trying to build an audience for this podcast, or increase the audience, so any feedback and comments and recommendations or ratings are super helpful. And with that, thanks, and have a great day.

NewRetirement Planner

Do it yourself retirement planning: easy, comprehensive, reliable

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Take financial wellness into your own hands and do it yourself retirement planning: easy, comprehensive, reliable.

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