While poverty is a critical challenge, the global rates of extreme financial poverty are declining. However, a lack of time resources, or time poverty, may be rising.
Researchers define time poverty as the persistent feeling of never having enough time. A 2015 Gallup poll found that almost 50 percent of Americans reported feeling they, “Don’t have enough time these days.”
Dr. Ashley Whillans, a social scientist and assistant professor at Harvard Business School, believes the extreme word “poverty” is apt for both financial poverty and time poverty – both are chronic, cyclic, and cynical. And they lead to reduced well-being.
Time poverty can affect anyone, but it seems worse at both ends of the income spectrum. Research spans from low-income women in Kenya, who tend to suffer from an objective lack of time because of daily household responsibilities, to business executives, who might have the means to create time, but struggle to feel like they have enough time.
Prioritizing Time Over Money
Whether we are aware of it or not, we make tradeoffs between money and time every day. You could decide between parking in the garage and driving around the block, ordering from Amazon and walking to the store, or between ordering takeout and cooking.
In Whillans’ data, those who tended to value time over money appeared happier. Researchers gave 60 working adults a total of $80 to spend on separate weekends. One weekend, researchers asked them to use $40 to purchase a material good and another weekend, researchers asked them to use $40 to purchase a time-saving good. On average, participants were happier after the time-saving purchase.
While many say they value time over money, actions often show the opposite. People Google, “How to save money,” twice as much as, “How to save time.” When researchers asked what participants would spend $40 on, only two percent reported they would buy something that the researchers classified as timesaving.
If we have the means to do so, Whillans encourages us to use money to save time, without those feelings of laziness or guilt. Whether it is hiring someone to mow the lawn, or buying a direct flight, trading money for time could make us happier.
A Modern Problem of Perception
We each have 24 hours in a day, but everyone experiences time a little differently. Although the average person works less each week and has more time for leisure activities than previous decades, time stress continues to rise.
Modern conveniences are a double-edged sword for our perception of time. Dishwashers and robot vacuum cleaners shave minutes off each day. But other tools, like Google Calendar, can make us hyper-aware of each passing 15-minute segment of life. Texts and emails alert devices on our wrists, quite literally replacing time with work notifications.
The abundance of leisure activity also contributes to the feeling of time-poverty. A new Netflix series, Disney Plus classic or an educational YouTube video can make us perpetually feel like we are missing out. This all creates a subjective feeling of never having enough time.
Some activities make us feel more time-poor, but other activities make us feel more time-rich. In a research paper, scientists report that individuals who volunteer their time may feel more time affluent. Taking the effort to carve out time for others increases the belief we can manage our own time well. Perhaps more expectantly, activities that involve a component of mindfulness, like meditation or a slow walk, can change our perception of time.
Mending Our Relationship with Time
There is a happy medium for how much we value and think about time. While it seems most people undervalue time, it is also possible to overvalue it. Research from professor Selin Malcok shows that over scheduling leisure may steal some of the enjoyment away from those activities. A “maximizing” mentality is also associated with lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction. Like everything in life, moderation is important, including how much we value our time.
While Whillans’ focuses on giving people more time in the day, she also focuses on more intention with time. She says her reflection questions to reclaim some control over time are, “How do I spend time regularly? What do I do in the morning, afternoon and evening? Which activities cause stress? Can I say no to certain things? Can I outsource?”
Is time poverty the next modern social ailment? Whillans states she has “cautious optimism,” explaining that especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers, organizations and individuals are starting to think more about how a lack of time affects our well-being. Perhaps it is time to start thinking about time and money the same.