Somehow, time is your enemy, while more time is also a luxury.
Things weren’t much different a few centuries ago in 1682, when William Penn wrote: “Time is what we want most, but what, alas! we use worst.”
Understanding our strange relationship with time simply helps us manage it better. When you feel like you have time, the world opens up. You’re motivated to act and explore on the one hand and savor and breathe, on the other.
Contrast that when you feel like you don’t have enough time. It’s stressful and taxing and you start making decisions based on that anxious feeling of lack. It might mean reaching for the quick, unhealthy snack rather than your usual walk and putting those non-urgent (but important) activities that nourish and enrich you, like exercise, personal projects, and relationships, on hold.
Since how you think about time affects the reality of how you spend it, the ability to influence that perception can be incredibly powerful. Here are three surprising methods, backed by research, that will help expand your sense of time and motivate better decisions about how you use it.
1. Find More Time By Giving Your Time to Others
One of the most counterintuitive things you can do increase your sense of time is to give some of it away.
Cassie Mogilner, from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, found that spending time on other people [pdf], instead of wasting time or spending unexpected free time on yourself, expands your sense of the present and future time. For example, in one experiment, participants had to either write a short letter to a seriously ill child or count the number of times the letter “e” showed up in some Latin text. The letter-writers reported that they felt like they had found more time.
In a follow-up experiment, Mogilner and her colleagues asked some people to spend 10 or 30 minutes “doing something for yourself that you weren’t already planning to do today.” Others were assigned the task of spending 10 or 30 minutes on someone else, doing something that hadn’t been planned. The duration of the time spent didn’t matter but what they spent it on did — spending time on others expanded people’s sense of the future.
This expansion happens because helping people increases your sense of usefulness and effectiveness. As Mogilner explains:
Decompressing in front of the television or getting a massage might be fun and relaxing, but activities like these are unlikely to increase feelings of self-efficacy. Indeed, people’s choice to spend additional leisure time on themselves may partly explain why the increase in leisure time in modern life has not increased people’s feelings of time affluence.
Instead, spend time on others to help that stressful feeling like you’re trying to squeeze your day into a shoe size that’s too small. You don’t have to donate extraordinary amounts. Mogilner notes that little acts of prosocial behavior are enough: “Carve out 10 to 15 minutes a day to do something for someone else.”
2. Seek out the awesome.
When you think about a point at which time stood still or even melted away, as you were caught up in the moment, there’s a good likelihood that you were experiencing awe. Indeed, researchers Melanie Rudd and Jennifer Aaker from Stanford and Kathleen Vohs from the University of Minnesota confirmed in a series of studies [pdf] that awe expands your sense of time.
The feeling of awe, itself, is quite expansive. It’s what you feel when you perceive a kind of vastness that shifts your understanding of the world, altering your perspective about your place in it. You might, for example, experience awe from encountering immensity or beauty, like the Grand Canyon, or a personal turning point like childbirth.
In one experiment, participants who watched awe-eliciting commercials featuring images like beautiful waterfalls and astronauts in space reported feeling like they had more time than people who watched happiness-eliciting commercials. The researchers found that this expanded sense of time even increased people’s willingness to volunteer to help others because they felt less impatient.
Awe helps you live in the present, captivating your attention, the study explains, which itself stretches out time because you’re not as concerned with how much of it you have.
You might think that awe-eliciting experiences might be hard to find but small doses can be enough. Remember that even the one-minute ads that the researchers used in the experiment were effective. Seek out things that make you go “whoa.” One of the best ways to do that is to get out and experience the beauty and wonders of nature. Experience new things such as travel, which helps you focus on the present moment and increase the chance of an awe-inspiring moment. Or, as Vohs points out, simply look up at the night sky.
3. Schedule the Good Stuff.
Just enjoying the moment seems like an obvious answer to increasing our happiness and reducing anxiety over how we’re spending it. The problem is that we often deny ourselves those moments because we feel too busy, creating an unhealthy feedback loop, or we feel guilty, which lessens our enjoyment of it.
In a paper for The Journal of Consumer Psychology, Aaker, Rudd, and Mogilner examined how rethinking time affects our happiness and concluded that it also depends on our sense of control. They write:
having spare time and perceiving control over how to spend that time (i.e. discretionary time) 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.
Feeling an expanded sense of time makes us happier because we feel like we’re not victim to forces totally outside of our power.
Using time wisely requires managing our sense of control over how we spend our time rather than letting time just happen to us. Aaker, in an interview with Eric Barker, suggests that a good way to do this is to schedule things that you want to spend time on as diligently as you might schedule a business meeting. If you want to exercise or spend more time with a friend or read more, literally put it on your calendar.
The suggestion sounds almost too simple and maybe even a little too type-A, but the fact remains that we don’t follow through on our goals. As Aaker explains that even though our smarter selves know what energizes and sustains us, “there is often a gap between where people say they want to spend their time and how they actually spend their time.”
You can close the gap of habit and regain a better sense of control by making your desired activity an easier decision so that you’re less at the mercy of self-doubt, procrastination, and inertia to overpower you. “When you put something on a calendar, you’re more likely to actually do that activity – partly because you’re less likely to have to make an active decision whether you should do it – because it’s already on your calendar.” It’s like smarter past-you has got future-you’s back.
Fill in your time with what you really want to do instead of filling your thoughts with regret on missed opportunities and how you’ll get to goals when you have a spare moment. The productive spare moment is a rare beast indeed, and the chances are higher that you’ll have the time when you schedule it.
The secret to changing your time mindset comes down to convincing yourself that you have enough so that it’s not an enemy or an opponent to race, beat, and kill. When you work with it and make it work for you, you’ll stop feeling exhausted and overwhelmed from swimming against its current.
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Images: clock adapted from Brayan Zapata, slideshow via Bakadesuyo