If you feel as if there aren’t enough hours in the day, you’re not alone. Americans feel more pressed for time than ever, with 80% saying they lack the time to do what they want to do each day. But studies also show that leisure time has risen since the 1950s.
So, if we objectively have more free time than our grandparents, why do we feel more stressed? In Episode 3 of the Monitor’s six-part podcast series “It’s About Time,” hosts Rebecca Asoulin and Eoin O’Carroll explore why.
The feeling of not having enough time is a psychological experience, says Ashley Whillans, a Harvard Business School professor who studies time and money.
She says: “You could work more or less hours and feel more or less stressed.”
We tend to trade away our most precious resource – time – for more work and more money. But Dr. Whillans has found that those who value time over money are happier.
Of course, some of us are more burdened than others. One of the world’s most time-impoverished demographics is working mothers. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only made matters worse, says Leah Ruppanner, a sociology professor at the University of Melbourne. So what are some solutions? For working moms, a household strike might be in order.
“We have put families into the biggest pressure cooker ever,” she says. “All of those things that really weren’t working, are now really not working.”
This is Episode 3 of a six-part series that’s part of the Monitor’s “Rethinking the News” podcast. To listen to the other episodes on our site or on your favorite podcast player, please visit the “It’s About Time” series page.
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Jessica Mendoza: Welcome to “Rethinking the News” by The Christian Science Monitor. I’m Jessica Mendoza, a producer on this podcast. Today, we’re releasing Episode 3 of our new science series called “It’s About Time.” If you haven’t listened to our first two episodes, go check them out! Here are our hosts, Rebecca Asoulin and Eoin O’Carroll.
Rebecca Asoulin: Hey, you. Yes … you. Let me guess, you’re listening to this right now while driving. Or doing laundry. Or washing dishes. Or dusting.
Eoin O’Carroll: Do people still dust?
Rebecca: Wait, you don’t dust?
Eoin: And maybe listening to this podcast is making you feel a little less anxious than if you were alone with your thoughts – well, at least until I said the word “anxious.”
Rebecca: By listening to a podcast, you’re turning your mindless tasks into something productive. Well, maybe driving isn’t totally mindless. Either way, you’re staying doubly productive.
Eoin: And isn’t that the whole point of life? To be productive?
Rebecca: I’m starting to rethink that a little bit.
Eoin: Yeah, me too.
Eoin: This is “It’s About Time.” A series all about …
Rebecca: Time. I’m Rebecca Asoulin.
Eoin: And I’m Eoin O’Carroll.
Rebecca: In this science series, we interview experts on time. They’ll help us unravel its mysteries.
Eoin: Because understanding time more deeply can help you make the most of the time you have.
Rebecca: The passage of time is literally the most predictable thing in the universe … but we constantly find ourselves asking where did the time go?
Eoin: And it’s almost like: where do you think the time went? The time went to the same place it always goes. Into the past! The Steve Miller Band had it backward.
Rebecca: That feeling of time slipping through our fingers is what we’re going to be exploring this episode. We’ve all experienced it. That sometimes creeping, sometimes overwhelming, feeling of not having enough time.
Eoin: We probably don’t need to tell you this, but people who report being short on time also report lower levels of happiness. Even though we have the same 24 hours each day that our ancestors did, Americans feel more pressed for time than ever before. In fact, up to 80% of Americans say they don’t have the time to do everything they wanted to do each day.
Rebecca: But since the 1950s, leisure time has actually increased – anywhere from three to 10 hours a week.
Ashley Whillans: We don’t hand wash our laundry and watch it dry. We can order takeout. These kinds of services, like house cleaning, are much more accessible to the kind of average person than they ever have been before. Yet people are feeling increasingly overwhelmed by the demands of work and life.
Rebecca: That’s Ashley Whillans, a Harvard Business School professor who studies time and money.
Ashley Whillans: And so while objectively, we have more time, people in my surveys, and surveys conducted all over the world, report feeling an increasing amount of time stress, which is this idea that people feel like they have too many things to do and not enough time in the day to do them.
Eoin: There are a lot of terms for that feeling: time stress, time pressure, time famine, time poverty, and time scarcity.
Ashley Whillans: They’re all tapping into something really similar, which is just: you feel like you don’t have enough time to do all the things that you want to do and have to do. They’re really talking about the psychological experience of not having enough time. We see in our data that that matters more than work hours. You could work more or less hours and feel more or less stressed.
Rebecca: So why do so many of us feel like we don’t have enough time? Who feels that stress the most? And most importantly – what can we do about it?
Rebecca: We have more time than ever before, but our time is more fragmented.
Eoin: Ashley says one of the major causes of that fragmentation is right in our pockets.
Ashley Whillans: Our cellphones, our technology was supposed to free us of all of these constraints, was supposed to free us from always having to be at the office. But now the office is with us 24/7 in our back pockets. And it creates this kind of attentional pull that can make us feel very stressed out.
Rebecca: Technology doesn’t just make you task switch. It also makes you role switch which creates goal conflict, a predictor time of stress. Goal conflict describes the feeling of doing something but wishing we were doing something else or feeling like we should be doing something else.
Ashley Whillans: We are in the middle of a workday and we get a text from our partner. We are not only task switching, we’re also role switching between our work and professional selves, and our parenting selves or our partner selves. And then we’ll go back to our work-task wishing we were actually not working at all, but spending time with our friends and family instead.
Rebecca: We’ve all tried to manage our tech use. My strategies include turning off personal messages on my laptop and putting my phone in a drawer while I’m working.
Eoin: I tried stuff like that too – turning my screen black and white, that sort of thing. But it wasn’t enough to stop my smartphone from distracting me. So I gave it up! I am now the proud owner of a $60 used flip phone.
Rebecca: So has it helped? Do you feel like you have more time?
Eoin: I actually really love using it. It feels like an actual phone, instead of a glass slab. I feel like not having an internet device on me creates a more solid boundary between my online and offline life.
Rebecca: OK, so do you feel like you have more time?
Eoin: No. Not really. The time I otherwise would have spent doom-scrolling on my iPhone just got filled up with other stuff. But that other stuff is maybe better stuff. I don’t check my phone when I’m playing with my kids, or when I’m trying to fall asleep.
Rebecca: Getting rid of his smartphone made Eoin’s time feel less fragmented, which helped a little bit with his time stress. But it didn’t solve it. No single change is a magic bullet. In general, making one big decision like that can really help because it removes temptation completely. And that’s just easier than making a bunch of smaller decisions along the way.
Ashley Whillans: It’s very American to think that we should be accomplishing our most important goals in life – whether that’s happiness or weight loss – all by yourself. But the best behavioral data suggests that relying on willpower isn’t such a great strategy. Really choosing into technology or into environments that encourage us to make happier and healthier choices is really the better way to go. But people don’t always recognize that. And it can feel like it undermines your control.
But if you’re serious about changing your behavior, it’s really interesting – you should rely less on willpower and more on situational strategies. Like, before COVID, living closer to your place of employment. Taking direct flights. Having a rule around how many things you’re going to say yes to. You want to create default environments, or environments that will default you into more time affluence, less stress.
Rebecca: Time affluence means exactly what it sounds like. You have enough time to do everything you want and need to do. Ashley says she gets asked one question probably most often – and yes, I also asked it: what’s one thing we should do to become more time affluent?
Eoin: Ashley finds that question impossible because everyone’s situation is unique. She suggests diagnosing your time stress problem by looking at moments in your day when what you want to do doesn’t align with what you’re actually doing.
Ashley Whillans: And trying to really get at the root of where you’re seeing these key discrepancies. Is it around work? Is it around personal time? And then on a daily basis, trying to figure out, can I start getting there by changing five minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes of my behavior each day? It’s sort of like exercise, right? It’s not going to happen overnight.
Eoin: The opposite of time affluence, is, of course, time poverty. And that brings us to one of the world’s most time-impoverished demographics: working moms.
Leah Ruppanner: I think for many mothers, parents, and women, they’re carrying multiple dimensions of time.
Eoin: That’s Leah Ruppanner, a sociology professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia, who researches work, family, gender, and time pressure.
Leah Ruppanner: COVID-19 has made everyone feel time pressure in the most insane, intense and stressful way. But for women specifically, the time pressure is intensified, in part because the kids have come home. We have put families into the biggest pressure cooker ever, and the result of that is everyone is stressed out. All of a sudden, all of those things that really weren’t working, are now really not working.
Rebecca: At the very start of the pandemic, Leah ran a study of Australians and Americans. She found that women were feeling more time stressed than men. Several studies have found that women are on average doing more housework and child care during the pandemic. They’re also dropping out of employment at higher rates than men, either losing or leaving jobs, or reporting fewer work hours.
Eoin: All this hits really close to home. I just got served tea by my wife, who has a doctorate from Harvard and is unemployed because of the pandemic. And so all this talk about traditionalization of these roles, I mean, that’s exactly what we went through, right? We, you know, we were both working full time and our days, stretched out to 12, 14, 16 hours as we traded shifts back and forth, and the chores piled up and all that. And, you know, we – we did it for a while. But then once the layoffs came, we’ve snapped right back into these traditional gender roles now. And, you know, I have like six chores that have to do in the week. All of which are cat litter related. Or trash related.
Leah Ruppanner: Yeah. Because people are just trying to survive. And sometimes this is what worries me, is that you go back to the default. And so in times of economic crisis, do people return to the things that felt comfortable? And these things can be, you know, patriarchal, traditional gender norms, or racism, sexism, etc, etc. Do people return to the way things were, perhaps? Or is this a moment to innovate and step forward and be brave?
Rebecca: In the before COVID times, these gaps in housework and child care existed largely because of the nuclear family ideal, according to Leah. That model has the wife at home, and the husband working. And it’s not working for many families because that’s just not true anymore. For straight couples, not to mention queer couples.
Eoin: And we should add that this has never been true for workers from lower income backgrounds where both partners have to work. People struggling to make ends meet are also the most time poor.
Rebecca: Another big reason the nuclear family doesn’t always work is that many women want to work. In one 2019 survey, a record high number of American women – 56% – said they preferred to work over being a homemaker.
Eoin: But women still do more housework than their husbands, even when women earn more than their husbands.
Rebecca: It’s not just about the time women spend doing housework. Women also carry the burden of what Leah calls the “mental load” – the work of keeping track of everyone in your family’s needs. Planning for the future. Weighing what’s happened in the past.
Eoin: The difference between me doing the laundry and my wife doing the laundry, for instance, when I do the laundry, it involves taking stuff down to the basement and pushing buttons on various appliances. When my wife does laundry, it involves doing all that, plus thinking about when the pillow cases were last washed. Thinking about when one of the kids has basketball practice, and what clothes she needs to wear and whether they’re going to be clean or not. And this mental load – it’s an entirely new dimension that suffuses all of the chores. And, you know, when I think that I understand – I think I’m doing the laundry, I’m only really doing a fraction of that.
Leah Ruppanner: Absolutely, it’s all the noticing work, right? It’s all the thinking about and noticing work, but it’s more complicated than that because it’s also thinking about noticing and planning. Right?
Rebecca: So it’s not that men don’t do any of this noticing work. They do it more around their careers.
Leah Ruppanner: That kind of thinking and planning work is going to have an economic reward, in theory, right? And the challenge is if women are using up all of their mental energy or some portion of their mental energy with the mental load at home, that they don’t have the time, space, capacity, or energy to do the thinking work around their careers, around other dimensions of leisure time. And that has a physical cost. A health cost.
Rebecca: Carrying the mental load at home contributes to women feeling time pressure.
Eoin: We can try to be egalitarian on an individual level, but it’s not all on us as individuals to solve this. To fix this temporal gender inequality, Leah argues that it’s society that must change.
Leah Ruppanner: Men of this generation want to be carers. They want to be equal sharers. They want to be active parents. They want to take a larger role in the home. But there is no policy there that supports them. And this creates a huge amount of pressure on the family that doesn’t exist in other countries. Or that doesn’t exist in the same intensity in other countries as it does in the US.
Rebecca: Partially to address this, employers have offered flexible working hours during the pandemic. And 3/4 of workers and managers in one global study say they want to retain that flexibility over their schedules post-pandemic.
Eoin: But the flexibility that some employers are offering at this time is a double-edged sword. Instead of a work-life balance, we now have a work-life blend.
Leah Ruppanner: Flexible work is a trap. We see it as this like solution for everything. But really, on some level, the result of it is you feel anxious because there’s no division between your home and work life, like everyone’s creating dishes all the time. Therefore, your housework goes up. And it just is really challenging to be around people in your family all day long, every day. Isn’t it? Just for your mental health.
But perhaps the solution is to switch our evaluation of productivity less on work time and more on the actual productivity. So if you can do your jobs in four hours or five hours, and you do it at home or you do it in the office or wherever you do it, then who cares, right? As long as the work is high quality and we’re doing it in a productive way, then I think we should shift our thinking around hours. And that long hours are an indication of seriousness about work, investment in work. And there’s an argument right now that, you know, people in order to show that they are serious about it, ‘Yes, I’m working from home, but I’m always on my email or I’m always on Slack.’
We measure good workers through time. And being a good or ideal worker is about, you’re 100% available all the time. But there are always moments in which cultures shift, in which ideology shifts and if this is a moment where people are thinking about these things, doing things differently – can we capture this moment as a way in which we shift this thinking? While in our pajamas, at home.
Eoin: U.S. culture praises long work hours. And many of us buy into this. We trade away our most precious resource – time – for more work and more money.
Rebecca: Ashley Whillans, the researcher who studies time and money, has posed this question to hundreds of thousands of participants in her social psychology research: Would you rather have more time or more money? She’s found that those who value time over money are happier and experience fewer negative emotions like stress.
Ashley Whillans: We’ve run experiments where we get people to spend money on time. So to actually make a time-money tradeoff. And we show that people are happier after they spend money to buy time as opposed to buying a material purchase for themselves.
And the reason that people who value time over money tend to be happier is because they tend to prioritize social relationships. They volunteer more. They’re more civically engaged. They work slightly fewer hours.
Rebecca: How much money you have and your personality don’t seem to determine the value you place on time versus money.
Eoin: Research shows that, once we reach a financial baseline that meets our needs, getting more money doesn’t improve our emotional wellbeing. Money can’t buy happiness, but having enough of it does seem to protect against sadness.
Rebecca: One study of millionaires in the Netherlands found that 40% valued money over time, and would rather work more than have more free time.
Ashley Whillans: Even as we get wealthier, even as we become more stable, we don’t necessarily change what we are doing or how we’re spending our money. And this is a quintessential trap.
I think so many of the students I talk with, too, are like, “Yeah, your ideas about time are great. I’ll focus on time and social relationships when I hit X number, when I get this amount of wealth or when I get this position.” And this if-then thinking, this contingent thinking, is really a slippery slope.
Rebecca: Because when you hit X number, you’re then around people who have hit Y number. And you start comparing yourself to those people, becoming even more materialistic. That same study of Dutch millionaires found that they were more likely to engage in active leisure, something like fishing. Even in leisure, the millionaires stayed busy.
Eoin: OK, so what actually helps people enjoy their leisure?
Rebecca: Ashley has a study for that too. She and her team conducted large-scale field experiments in rural villages in both India and Kenya. Some women received cash with no strings attached from a nonprofit. Others received a timesaving service — like having their laundry done or getting meals delivered.
Ashley Whillans: And we did find evidence that the timesaving vouchers were equivalently effective as cash transfers at reducing relationship conflict, improving stress, improving happiness for these objectively, materially-constrained women who were working and had young kids at home.
Eoin: But unlike the cash transfers, the timesaving vouchers also gave women permission to take time off, and that let them derive more happiness from their leisure. So it helped legitimize leisure for them.
Rebecca: Except even when we do have permission to not work – whether it’s legitimate vacation time or what Ashley calls “time windfalls” – we don’t always spend the free time in ways that make us happier. Take the pandemic.
Ashley Whillans: People are not necessarily able to realize the potential time affluence gains of this moment. We’re saving a lot of commute time, but not necessarily translating it into greater happiness. If anything, work has filled the spot where our commutes used to go. We don’t have natural breaks or transitions. And now our work and our life are intimately intertwined because we’re both working and living out of the same physical space.
Leah Ruppanner: So what are some solutions for those who are experiencing the time pressure but cannot wait for the entire world to change?
Eoin: That’s Leah Ruppanner again, the gender and time pressure researcher.
Leah Ruppanner: I think the first step would be to go on a housework and mental load strike.
Rebecca: Yep, a strike! The point to figure out what’s essential work and what isn’t. A strike also shows your family the work you’re actually doing that might be invisible.
Leah Ruppanner: Then what I think is essential is to actually catalog, to sit down and have a discussion about, “OK, here’s what actually needs to be done for the family and who’s going to do it.”
Rebecca: Last Hanukkah before the pandemic, I was home with my family. I spent all day cooking latkes with my mom and a 10-year-old family friend. Latkes are Jewish potato pancakes that you normally eat during Hanukkah. And we’d used something like 5 pounds of potatoes to make the first batch of latkes.
Rebecca: And I think both my brothers at the same time were like, “Well, we want more.” And I looked at them and I was like, “OK, then you’re going to make them.” And I think Jonathan started laughing. He was like, “I can’t cook.” I was like, “Yeah, you can. It’s literally shredding potatoes.” But I put them all on this assembly line. We made five more pounds of latkes. But I was still like, the forewoman of this latke-making.
Leah Ruppanner: Yes. And that requires work, right? And the thing is that there can be feigned incompetence. “I don’t do this well. You do it.”
Eoin: The bumbling incompetent dad is a staple of our sitcoms. I mean, it’s one of the great legitimizing myths of American life. Whether it’s Homer Simpson, or whoever. I mean, you know, there’s this —
Rebecca: Oh my God, Marge probably does so much housework.
Eoin: Like we’re expected to be terrible at changing diapers. I mean, I’m not great at it. But we’re expected to be bad at all this stuff.
Rebecca: Part of doing less is being OK with other people doing tasks differently (or worse, but I’m not judging).
Leah Ruppanner: This means kids, partners, the dog. You let everybody step in. It can’t be like, “Oh, well, you didn’t shred the potatoes right. So just move aside. I’ll do it.” That is the easiest way to box someone out of doing the work. And to ensure that you’re gonna do that for the rest of your life.
Rebecca: I almost did that to my brother Jonathan, because I thought he was gonna peel his finger off. And I had to call my mom over and be like, “Is he doing it right? I can’t tell.” He just uses it slightly differently. She’s like, “He’s fine. Let him do it.” So go my mom, because I would totally have just started peeling everything for him.
Leah Ruppanner: No. Let him cut his finger off. Then he’ll learn how to peel it the right way.
Leah Ruppanner: And then what you have to do is keep fighting. I’m sorry to tell you this. You’re probably going to have to reduce your work, and you’re probably going to have to do this over and over. Because the challenge with housework is that everyone’s lives are busy, so we tend to go to our socialized default.
And the workload creeps up, creeps up, creeps up. And women often step in in ways that they don’t even anticipate because they can identify things that need to be done even before they need to be done because they’re superhuman – or they were socialized into noticing everyone’s emotional, physical, and work needs before they need to happen.
Rebecca: To change this dynamic we need to recognize it.
Eoin: And to be mindful of how we spend our hours and days.
Rebecca: And weeks, months, years, and lives.
Ashley Whillans: I think it’s good to plan what you want to do with your time.
Eoin: That’s Ashley Whillans again, the time and money expert.
Ashley Whillans: We walk a fine line. We want to be attentive to the value of our time. Yet when we’re in the moment, we don’t want to be thinking about the inherent value of our time. When we’re on that beach, we want to just be present in the moment, so that we can enjoy the time without feeling – or wondering, rather, if we’re getting all of the value out of it that we should be.
Rebecca: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time, haha.
Ashley Whillans: I know, it’s so inevitable. So many bad time puns. Like with every colleague and everything I’ve ever written.
Rebecca: Is there one that comes to mind?
Ashley Whillans: Oh, no. No, I don’t. But I always just like, make quips like that. “Well, it’s about time we had this meeting!” And everyone’s like, “Womp womp. Bad dad joke.”
Eoin: And of course that brings us to the one great secret to comedy.
Rebecca: OK. What’s the one great sec–
Eoin: Do you know what my favorite time on the clock is?
Eoin: 6:30. Hands down.
Eoin: Look at a clock. Wait three hours and 45 minutes.
Rebecca: I can imagine. I have the ability to project. There’s a clock right here too. Oh, I get it because they’re both pointing down.
Eoin: Because they’re hands down!
Eoin: We hope you had fun listening! If you liked this episode, please subscribe to “Rethinking the News” wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating or comment.
Rebecca: And share it with your friends, family, and coworkers! We’re at csmonitor.com/time. This series is hosted and produced by me, Rebecca Asoulin. My co-host is Eoin O’Carroll. Editing by Samantha Laine Perfas and Noelle Swan. Produced with Jessica Mendoza. Sound design by Noel Flatt and Morgan Anderson.
This story was produced by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021.
Read more from Leah Ruppanner: “Motherlands: How U.S. States Pushed Mothers Out of Employment.” The book looks at if states support mothers’ employment or not. And the states that do and do not do well across these measures will shock you.
Read more from Ashley Whillans: “Time Smart How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life.” The book outlines the traps that get in the way and how to overcome them using empirically based strategies so that we can all live happier and more time affluent lives.
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