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February 25, 2021

Take Control of Your Time: Our Expert Interview With Ashley Whillans

Rachel Salaman


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During this pandemic, how many times have you heard co-workers say they seem to have less time now, not more, despite losing the commute?

The fact is, we all have the same 24 hours in the day. But it can feel very different for each of us, depending on our responsibilities, commitments and goals. If we're juggling domestic tasks with a full-time job, for example, can we ever feel in control of our time?

Ashley Whillans believes we can. As an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, she focuses on happiness and well-being in the workplace. Her new book, "Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life," offers insights and practical tips on how to turn "time poverty" into "time affluence."

The financial ring to those terms is deliberate. In this clip from our Expert Interview podcast, Ashley Whillans explains how the money vs. time conundrum lies at the heart of her book.

Finding Time Affluence

For Ashley Whillans, time affluence is, "The feeling of having enough time to do all of the things that you both want to do and have to do." And the word "feeling" is key because there's a large psychological component.

"There's been this disassociation over the last couple of decades where we're actually working fewer hours as compared to the 1950s or '60s – and that's true for both men and women and regardless of profession – but we feel more time stressed than we ever have before," Whillans observes.

"It's something that is really in our minds, this feeling of having enough control over our lives, that we can do everything we want to do. It also means that a lot of the solutions for these feelings of time poverty, or the strategies by which we can gain time affluence, are under our own personal control."

I have a good friend who struggles with time management at the best of times. When the pandemic hit, she started working from home, just as her two boys began remote learning. Everything took longer than expected, and she found herself working into the night, just to keep on top of everyday tasks.

I remember her wondering if there was anything she could do to regain control of her time – and her life. For example, technology is supposed to help us work faster and smarter, but it wasn't working out that way for her.

The Technology Trap

That's no surprise to Whillans, who says technology can be a double-edged sword in our quest for time affluence.

"Technology was offered as this promise to free ourselves from the nine-to-five and to offer us complete freedom, and instead technology has, in fact, become a trap. Instead of being in our offices nine to five, we carry our offices with us 24 hours a day, seven days a week," she points out.

This is a particular blight for people using the same space – home – for both work and leisure, which so many of us are doing these days. My friend found her precious family time interrupted by pings and chirrups, as her work goals encroached.

"This idea that I should be working when I'm hanging out with my family, or I should be hanging out with my family when I'm working, these feelings of goal conflict are one of the drivers of time poverty. Our phones, our iPads, our tablets, really facilitate [this]," Whillans says.

Reclaiming Your Time

But there are ways that technology can help, and Whillans tells me two of her favorites.

Firstly, she uses her computer to schedule a time when she'll turn off her phone, shut down email, and focus on whatever feels important. She calls this "proactive time," and putting it in her calendar makes her feel more in control of her time, "more time affluent, more productive, and happier." That's quite a list!

The second trick is "even more helpful," she says, and that's "downloading an app on your phone that will not let you check your email, not let you go to certain social media sites at key hours of the day."

After recording our podcast, I passed on these tips to my swamped friend. Lately, she says she's coping better, and while not yet time affluent, she's not feeling so time poor.

Time Smart

Using technology to help us, rather than letting it hinder us, is one of Whillans' tips for finding time.

Her book also explores "funding time" (by outsourcing activities that others can do) and "reframing time" (like counting vigorous gardening toward our fitness goals). Whatever way we decide to tackle time poverty, the changes don't need to be big or disruptive.

"My research over the past several years has shown quite the opposite," Whillans says. "It's small decisions around the margins, even small mindset shifts, that can have huge downstream consequences for our time use and our happiness."

Listen to Our Interview With Ashley Whillans

Discover fascinating insights from some of the world's leading business figures with our monthly Expert Interviews.

Mind Tools Club and Corporate members can listen to the full 30-minute interview with Ashley Whillans in the Mind Tools Club.

If you're not a Mind Tools member, you can join the Mind Tools Club and gain access to our 2,400+ resources, including 200+ Expert Interviews. For corporate licensing, ask for a demo with one of our team.

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