Did you ever have 30 minutes of free time seemingly disappear thanks to random distractions from other people?
Maybe you had plans to tackle that big project you’d been wanting to start, but instead got caught up in answering emails, reading a friend’s social media post, or responding to quick texts asking for information.
Collectively, those tasks took only a few minutes of your time, but somehow it was enough to reduce your excitement and leave you feeling, not relaxed from a peaceful break, but more stressed and anxious about having too much to do and not enough time to do it.
What you’re experiencing, some researchers say, is time poverty - something that can affect how stressed you feel. Data suggests our perceptions of time and whether we have plenty of it -- time affluence -- or too little of it -- time poverty -- can have a significant impact on our mental health and overall well-being.
“A big predictor of people feeling awful, like serious depression, is people’s level of time famine, this feeling that you’re really hungry for time, you’re just frantic about time, all the time,” says Dr. Laurie Santos, a psychology professor from Yale University and teacher of a class on well-being. “What’s amazing is that…the data suggests (time famine) is going up even though our free amount of time is actually going up too. It’s like the perception that we’re stressed for time is going up even as we have more free time.”
“We have more time, but it’s broken up into these tiny little chunks,” said Dr. Santos in a video interview with Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy. More from that interview here. “This is what researcher Ashley Whillans calls time confetti — little pieces (of time) here and there. It can feel like I don’t have that much time. I only have five minutes (so) I’ll just scroll on social media or I’ll do something stupid. I’ll get a little dopamine reward hit, but not achieve anything real for my nutritious healthiness.”
The good news is we can cultivate the feeling of time affluence by making better use of this “time confetti.” And it can be done by paying attention to the activities we’re choosing to do during those breaks and how they make us feel.
Dr. Santos described a technique she learned from Dr. Whillans to make a “time confetti” list of activities that feel good and refer to it during those quick breaks. The list shouldn’t include work tasks or school work, she said. Instead, it should list those activities that make you feel more connected, or help you de-stress, like calling a friend, experiencing gratitude, or concentrating on your breathing.
“Then you’ll kind of feel like you’re a little less time-famished and that can do wonders for your well-being,” she said.
The part that trips some of us up is understanding what makes us feel better and what doesn’t. That’s the individual data we each need to discover experientially for ourselves, because our brains don’t always get it right.
“This is hard (because) our brains are telling us to go after the wrong stuff,” said Dr. Santos. “When I’m having a bad day I’m like…sit and plop down and watch Netflix. It turns out those things will not nutritiously feel good for my well being, like calling a friend, doing something active, or trying to learn something new. Those actually are positive forms of leisure that will make me feel better. The problem is your brain doesn’t notice (that). It leads you the wrong way, and so mindfulness can help here.”
To figure out what makes her feel better, Dr. Santos pays attention to how she feels after she’s done an activity.
“Part of me actually just literally takes a view of when I’ve done an activity (and) think about what did that feel like? Was that nutritious? Was that good? Do I feel yucky now? Then that causes your brain, the loop that forms habits, to notice -- wait hang on, that wasn’t rewarding in a really nutritious way, maybe I shouldn’t do that anymore,” she said.
Part of the problem, according to Dr. Santos, is that we’re so busy, we don’t take the time to notice how these choices affect our well-being.
But it’s easy to start and the payoffs are worth it, because taking time to notice what’s feeling good can steer you in the direction of feeling better.