Time Is the Only Real Wealth—So Stop Wasting It!

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In her book You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap), Tammy Strobel combines research on well-being with numerous real-world examples to offer practical inspiration on voluntary downsizing and how to create a life that’s more conscious and connected, sustainable and sustaining, heartfelt and happy. The following excerpt is taken from chapter 8: Time Is the Only Real Wealth.

It was a cool August day in Lake Tahoe, and my mom and I were sitting on the beach reading. She was leafing through the latest issue of a real estate magazine, and I was reading a book called Curious? by Todd Kashdan. I turned to my mom and said, “This is incredible!”

My mom slid her sunglasses down the bridge of her nose and asked, “What’s so incredible?”

“Well, according to Todd Kashdan, most people spend less than 20 percent of their day engaged in meaningful work or activities, like talking with close friends, making love, or just playing.”

My mom’s mouth fell open. “That’s shocking! It makes me wonder if people have fun anymore.”

It turns out that a number of researchers have asked the same question. For instance, in 2007, Princeton economist Alan Krueger published a fascinating paper called “Are We Having More Fun Yet?” Over the past ten years, massive technological advances should have given people a vast amount of newly free time. According to Krueger, that’s not the case. Americans feel they still don’t have enough time to engage in meaningful or challenging activities.

I have come to see time as a nonrenewable resource and an extremely valuable commodity. It’s something we never get back. Nor can we hoard it or always count on having it. Tomorrow, our account may be bankrupt. Since that’s true, we each need to evaluate how we’re spending this resource. In general, I’ve chosen to make less money for the freedom to spend a week like the one I was having with my parents at Lake Tahoe. If I was working a traditional job, I wouldn’t have been sitting on the beach with my mom, engrossed in a meaningful conversation. That said, I still work hard and struggle to find the perfect balance between work and play. My work fills me with happiness, but sometimes not working creates stress and feelings of guilt.

Interestingly, one study examined how focusing on personal time versus money influenced an individual’s pursuit of happiness. Researchers found that when subjects focused on spending time with friends and family, they worked less and were happier, whereas those who focused on making more money worked more, socialized less, and were not as happy. In essence, “increased happiness requires a shift in attention toward time.” I’ve found this to be true in my own life. Spending more time with friends and family members and starting my own business were key elements in how I viewed happiness.

As I worked to make this happen, I started tracking my time (for more about doing this, see 168 Hours by Laura Vanderkam). It’s been a very beneficial exercise that has helped me figure out how many hours of leisure time I have, how much time I spend working, and how much time I “waste.”  I’m much more mindful of how I spend my time now. Time is magical and I want to make the most of it.

In this chapter, I look at three areas where we often “waste” the most time: on our commutes, watching TV, and surfing the Internet.

The Thirty-Second Commute

Commuting seems to be a stress that doesn’t pay off.
— Alois Stutzer and Bruno Frey

When happiness researchers ask people to talk about the worst part of their day, people consistently name commuting. In a study called “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox,” Alois Stutzer and Bruno Frey found that commuting long distances to work is detrimental to our happiness and physical health. Interestingly, they found a negative connection between the amount of time spent commuting and a person’s overall life satisfaction. Stutzer and Frey noted that people who drive to work would “have to earn 19 percent more per month in order to be fully compensated.” Extra income is always helpful, but that doesn’t solve the real problem: we spend too much time in our cars. This directly takes away from time we could be spending doing the things that make us happy. 

As I’ve described, my daily commute was once debilitatingly long. My commute, one way, could be ninety minutes or more with traffic, and there always seemed to be traffic. All that time in my car led to constant frustrations and serious back problems — which I guess is what happens when you spend so much time, like I did, pounding the steering wheel and yelling at other drivers. On average, Americans spend about fifty minutes in their car every day, and nine out of ten trips are made by car. What can you do about it? First of all, stop commuting.

Of course, not everyone can, but it’s important to see that commuting is a choice. I chose to become a self-employed writer, in part, to gain back all the time I had lost to commuting. Now my commute is stress-free and takes about thirty seconds. Since my house is so small, maybe not even that long. I climb down from the loft, sit in my window nook, open my laptop, and start writing. Now I cringe to think of all the time I used to spend in my car. In the effort to simplify your life, consider how you can eliminate or decrease your commute time. Is it worth a big home in a far-flung suburb if you’re hardly ever there, and when you arrive at the end of each day, you’re exhausted and frazzled? Is it worth a particular job if it drags you halfway across the state with no work-at-home options?

The other strategy is to commute by any other method than by car. If you can’t avoid a commute, turn your commute into an activity that improves your well-being, rather than detracting from it. Try commuting by train, bus, or bicycle. This is what I did prior to starting my own business. Rather than drive from Davis to my job in Sacramento, I took the Amtrak train and then I walked to the office. I loved it! The train ride was short — a mere fifteen-minute ride — and even though the train was always running late, I rarely stressed out. That’s because I could use the extra time to read, write, or knit — activities that enriched my time. I couldn’t do any of those things when I was in my car, stuck in traffic.

If you take kids to and from school every day, consider doing so by bike or public transportation. My sister-in-law Tina now bikes with her kids to school and loves it. She explained, “I wouldn’t have started taking Isaac and Ella to school on the bike if my husband hadn’t taken my car keys by accident. It was the only way to get the kids to school. A friend of mine had recently come over for a play date, and she helped me. I had to actually put things together. It was a big step for me. The kids had a blast playing on the lawn, while I was throwing tools across the garage.”

Despite the frustrating morning emergency, Tina noted, “The bike path was quiet and taking the kids to school on the bike was a peaceful experience. I also had better visibility on my bike. Overall, being in the bike trailer teaches the kids how to respect someone else’s space. If you avoid teaching your kids these lessons, you push it off and it will come up later in life. I don’t have a lot of opportunities to work out, so biking the kids to school is something I can do with them and get exercise, too. Ninety percent of the time they are in love with the bike and don’t fight much. They get better and better. It’s really about reframing how you look at things.” For Tina, serendipity led to a long-lasting pleasurable habit.

My friend Dusti Arab loves commuting by bike, by herself and with her kids, because it keeps her healthy and fit. However, in the beginning it was hard. She told me, “Bike commuting as a mom sucks for the first few weeks. But keep doing it. I promise, it gets better.”

Surprised, I asked, “Why does it suck?”

“I don’t care how in shape you are, it will wear your body out. For the most part cycling with kids is safe. But there are some communities where that is not a reality. I’ve never had a problem with Evie because I have a yellow trailer, and it makes us visible. If you are well marked, you’ll be okay. As far as weather goes, if you prepare, you’ll be fine. We live in Oregon and it rains a lot. It’s all about preparation.”

When we spoke, Dusti was pregnant, and she gave birth to a baby boy, named Tristan, in early 2012. This forced her to make adjustments. Dusti said, “Before I can cycle with the baby, he has to be able to hold his head up. Until that happens, I’m going to use a sling and take him everywhere with me. We’ll use public transit for at least six months, and after that period we’ll probably get a front-loading bike seat for him — one that will swap out easily. Kids always look so happy in the front-loading seats.”

I asked Dusti why she keeps biking with her kids. She explained that it’s a lot of fun and, more importantly, the kids have fun. It’s all about the experience.

My husband, Logan, considers commuting by bike one of the best parts of his day. He’s been biking to work for several years, and it takes about thirty minutes to get to the office. He said, “Biking is fun, whether it’s sunny or rainy. It wakes me up, gets my blood going, and parking is easy. Plus, I don’t have to wait for the bus or train.”

For us, changing our daily commute was one way we regained control over our time.

Why I Don’t Own a TV

Today, the average American home contains more TVs than people. In 1950, only 5 percent of American homes had TVs. By 1960, over 95 percent of American homes had TVs, and that’s not all. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, watching TV is the primary leisure activity for Americans today, the one they do the most. On average, Americans spend about 2.8 hours per day watching television; that’s over a thousand hours a year!

In 2005, right before I left the investment management industry, Logan and I fell right in line with this average. At the end of a long day spent mostly sitting — in my car during my commute and in my cubicle for eight hours (or more) at work — I’d sit in front of the television for two or three more hours each night. Most of the time Logan and I would flip through the channels hoping some program would catch our eye while complaining about commercials. The longer I watched TV, the less alive I felt. I was turning into a zombie, so I proposed a change.

As I was reevaluating my leisure time, I decided to replace watching television with reading and, hopefully, doing fun things together with Logan, like taking evening walks and going for bike rides. But when I excitedly presented my plan for watching less TV, I became disheartened. Logan wasn’t interested. He didn’t want to give up his TV habit. We were in the process of decluttering our lives, and I suggested that we donate the TV to a friend. Logan wasn’t thrilled and resisted this idea.

However, I was soon pleasantly surprised when he suggested a compromise. Around this same time, Logan volunteered to participate in a heart study at the University of California at Davis. For the study, he had to wear a heart-rate monitor throughout his day. What he discovered was that his heart rate was lower while watching TV than it was while he was sleeping. Logan felt the TV was acting like a drug that put him in a vegetative state. He reasoned that a low heart rate could be a contributor to heart disease.

Rather than give the TV away, he suggested that we put it in the closet. If it was out of sight, we wouldn’t be tempted to watch it, but if we wanted or needed the TV, we could pull it out and plug it back in. For months, the TV sat in the closet, unwatched and collecting dust. In fact, one of our cats loved sleeping on top of it. We both learned that we could survive and thrive without a TV.

Recently, Logan and I talked about our fights over the TV. He said, “Well, we both agreed that we needed to downsize. I agreed to part with the TV because I knew I had to start living without so much stuff. In the back of my mind, I knew I had the computer. So if I wanted to watch a show, I could always log on to the Internet. Hiding the TV in the closet forced me to be more intentional about how I used my time. Surprisingly, I felt happier without the TV constantly blaring, and I wasn’t exposed to so much advertising, which curbed my desire to buy more stuff.” Logan described the TV as “a small sun in the solar system of my life. Everything seemed to center around the TV, including our furniture.” 

Ultimately, how you spend your time and energy is what your life becomes. Yet Logan put his finger on another big, time-related problem I had to conquer — the Internet.

My Digital Sabbatical

When I was in high school, I was scared of the Internet. I didn’t have a personal computer or an Internet connection. When I had to do research for papers, I always asked my best friend’s parents for help. They lived a block away and I drove over to their house to do research.

The Internet seemed like a big monster. I avoided it and email until I got to college, when I knew I’d have to get over my fear. I distinctly remember the first time I checked my email in college. All new students received free email accounts, and a few of my professors were going to send out assignments via email. I was sitting in the student union, staring at a computer screen like a dutiful student, going through the process of creating my new email account. It’s hard to believe that was fifteen years ago.

I’ve always been a “late adopter” when it comes to technology, though today my life and work are intimately connected with it. It’s funny how things change over time. All of my jobs have used computer technology and resources. During my time in investment management, I helped out with a huge database migration project. When I worked at a local rape crisis center, we built a website as an outreach tool. When I started working at California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA), I learned all about blogging, social networking, and how the policy world worked. The work I did at CALCASA changed how I viewed technology, particularly how it can be used for good.

In September 2010, the Chartered Institute for IT released an intriguing report about Internet use and happiness. Interestingly, the results suggest that some people benefit more than others from the Internet, including those with lower incomes, people living in the developing world, and women. The researchers said the Internet has “an indirect, enabling, and empowering role leading to a greater sense of freedom and control which in turn leads to greater life satisfaction.” In other words, Internet access will make you happier as long as it’s used in moderation.

But is that the way most Americans use it? On my daily walks around Portland, I see more and more people staring down at glowing screens, not paying attention to their surroundings. It makes me wonder if being constantly plugged into technology is a detriment to our happiness.

A number of researchers and reporters have found that constantly scrolling through email, sending text messages, and logging on to social networks fire up the “dopamine-reward system.” Sherry Turkle has written extensively about people’s relationship with technology; she noted recently, “We must lead examined lives with our digital objects and constantly question what is served by always being on.”

As I assessed my own time, I knew that I was plugged into my laptop and iPod way too much. I wasn’t clinically “addicted” to the Internet, but I was constantly multitasking and toggling between screens. I kept asking myself questions like: Did I really need to check my email every hour? Would twice a day suffice? The more I checked my email and various social networks, the busier and less focused I felt. Even for a blogger, being constantly plugged in didn’t seem to improve my productivity.

This is a common problem today. Journalist Marjorie Connelly reported in the New York Times that 30 percent of people under forty-five years of age said “the use of devices (like smart phones) makes it a whole lot harder to focus.” In addition, juggling email, phone calls, and other incoming messages changes the way people think and behave, and not for the better. As Connelly noted, our ability to focus is being “undermined by bursts of information. These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats.”

The answer, of course, is to unplug. I started small by unplugging during weekends. For two days, I didn’t turn on the computer at all for any reason. I did this for six months, and the experience was refreshing. I was reading more often on the weekends, spending quality time with Logan, and taking a lot of yoga classes. It’s amazing what I can accomplish if I’m not mindlessly scrolling through my Twitter or Facebook feed.

Then I conducted a bigger experiment. I decided to take a month-long digital sabbatical in July 2011.

My main reason for doing so was to focus on writing this book. I needed to maximize my time, and to do that, I eliminated all kinds of activities from my daily schedule, such as mindless Internet surfing. For the entire month, I didn’t blog, check email, or access social media; I didn’t check Twitter or Facebook. However, I didn’t unplug completely. I allowed myself to do book-specific research on the Internet and to send out content to members of my subscription service. The sabbatical was an intense time to focus on writing and only writing.

Even unplugging to this degree for a month made me nervous. At this point, I’d been blogging for over three and half years. I was scared that my readers would be upset and might unsubscribe from my site. On the other hand, I had a good reason to unplug. When I was constantly reacting to incoming messages, I wasn’t getting work done.

During my sabbatical, I worked a lot, but I had mixed emotions and reactions. In fact, I felt like I was on an extended vacation in some ways, and I spent a lot more time outside and with friends. At times I felt happier as I let go of my need to stay “connected” and updated on everything. That said, I also missed this connection. At the start of the sabbatical I felt isolated. Instead of using email to stay connected with distant friends and family, I made more phone calls, but this wasn’t the same, strangely enough. In essence, I struggled with a loneliness that was a symptom of Internet withdrawal.

Ultimately, taking a break from the digital world was refreshing and centering. The Internet and social media bring me an incredible amount of happiness. I love connecting with readers and writers and keeping up with friends and family. But if I spend too much time online, I start feeling unhappy, dissatisfied, and disconnected from the real world. Sometimes stillness and silence are the best way to harness creativity.

The idea of living simply extends to all interactions and experiences. Most of all, it’s about making the most of your time. It’s important to consider and manage what relationships you devote your time to. For a long time, I woke up and immediately logged on to Facebook. I wanted to check in on and connect with all my friends. But is that what I was really doing? 

This question came home to me one morning as I powered up my computer and logged on to Facebook. A sea of faces popped up in my news feed, and I had fifteen new friend requests. Yet I didn’t know any of these people. I’m sure they were all great folks; no doubt, they all knew somebody who knew somebody who knew me. However, it suddenly felt so out of control. I knew “Facebook friends” weren’t necessarily the same types of good friends I’d call if I was feeling depressed or if I wanted to meet for coffee and an in-depth conversation. But was I even being a good digital friend anymore? As I sat in front of my computer, I realized I no longer had the capacity to be “friends” with seven hundred people, and I had to start fresh. I could barely keep up with my friends in town. Today, I have a Facebook Fan page for RowdyKittens.com, and I post updates when I add new content to the site. I don’t use my personal Facebook account, so I don’t have any “Facebook friends.” When I want to talk with my friends, I make a phone call or write a letter.

I still struggle with balance. I’m a blogger; by definition that means I have an online presence and persona. I use email and have a Twitter account, and it’s tempting to check them and respond every five minutes. However, I’ve been down that road, and it’s counterproductive. So I’ve put a few rules in place. Typically, I check my email around 10 am and then again around 3 pm, and the same goes for social networking sites. Sometimes I adjust my timeline depending on my schedule. Now I unplug every Sunday, and I recommend the practice. In a way, it’s more relaxing and balancing than taking a month-long sabbatical, though that is eye-opening as well.

Then again, I’ve been known to fall off the wagon. When I do, I use a program called Freedom. Freedom is an application that locks you away from the Internet for up to eight hours at a time. It’s ironic, perhaps, that I need my computer to restrain my own social media impulses, but maybe it’s no different from sticking your TV in a closet. It’s about making choices that improve the quality of your time and not letting it be filled with mindless distractions. 


• Track your time for a week. Print out a calendar and fill in the blanks as you move through your week. Make note of how much time you spend working, watching TV, commuting to and from work, surfing the Internet, exercising, and more. For example, in 2005, tracking my time — and discovering that I spent between twenty and thirty hours each week just commuting and watching TV — helped me see what I was missing and reprioritize activities that I enjoyed.

• Write down your activities. Writing down all your activities will help quantify the balance in your life. To increase your joy, which activities should you cut back on or eliminate, if possible? Some will be easier than others. In the time you free up, what activities can you add that increase your happiness and well-being?

• How much time do you spend with your car? Add up the hours you spend with your car every day. Include the time spent commuting, getting gas, dealing with maintenance issues, and looking for parking spaces. Are there ways you can decrease the amount of time you spend with your car? Can you carpool, take more public transit, or join a car-sharing program?

• Do a test run and park it. Not sure you can go car-free or car-lite? Test it out for a week or a month. Find out exactly how much this change will affect your life as you go through everyday tasks. Then weigh any inconvenience against the money you’ll save if you sell your car. 

• Give yourself thirty days. Researchers note that incorporating any kind of new habit into your life requires between twenty-one and thirty days. If you’re trying to kick an obsessive habit, like checking email every half hour, start small and persist for at least a month.

• Change your work flow by single-tasking. Multitasking erodes my mental circuitry. Now I focus on single-tasking. Practice doing one thing till it’s finished, and eliminate all distractions till it’s done.

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