How to Spend Time on What You Value

We use our time to race against the clock of productivity—which may be the one thing that holds us back from enjoying the free time we crave.

Image of multiple floating clocks against a black background
Getty / The Atlantic

We try to use our time wisely—both at work and in leisure—but we often waste it. We may blame work for stripping us of recreation, but when valuable free time comes around, we can often revert back to more work.

What explains the gap between how we use our time and how we want to use our time? A conversation with Harvard Business School professor Ashley Whillans helps us analyze our complex relationship with time and how to orient our time use around what we value.

This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and is hosted by Arthur Brooks. Editing by A.C. Valdez and Claudine Ebeid. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Engineering by Matthew Simonson.

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Music by the Fix (“Saturdays”), Mindme (“Anxiety”), Gregory David (“Under the Tides”), and Yomoti (“Nebula”).

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Rebecca Rashid: Arthur, I have a question for you. If you had one extra hour today, how would you use it?

Arthur C. Brooks: How would I use it or how should I use it, Becca?

Rashid: How would you use it?

Brooks: I’d use it to work. I would work more. I love my work. It’s a well-established fact to any listener of How to Build a Happy Life that I’m kind of a work addict or a success addict or something like that, or whatever the pathology tends to be.

Thinking back to the episode with Anna Lembke, what should I do with the hour? I should use it to build love in my life. I should use it to pray. To spend time with my wife because now we live alone. To talk to one of my kids, to call one of my dear friends on the phone. That’s what I should do with it.

Many of us are stuck in a kind of vicious cycle with time. Our expectation, our hope, is that time is in our control and we’ll use it wisely, whatever that means. But it doesn’t work that way. The reality is that many of us don’t really know how to use our time at all.

Ashley Whillans: My name is Ashley Whillans, and I’m an assistant professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, and my research focuses on time, money and happiness.

Brooks: Ashley Whillans is a colleague of mine at the Harvard Business School and the author of Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life. Ashley studies one side of the time problem, the one that busy strivers face—those who try to make the most out of every waking moment.

She’s a fellow happiness researcher whose work covers time poverty, a term she uses to describe the modern epidemic of people with too much to do and not enough time to do it. Ashley walked us through her concept of time traps: the traps that motivate us to spend almost all of our time on work and productivity.

Whillans: As a happiness researcher, I was doing all of this academic research when I started my job five years ago on the importance of prioritizing time for happiness, for personal relationships. Meanwhile, my relationship was totally falling apart. I was inside crying about the dissolution of my most important relationship up to that point in my life, and then preaching about the importance of putting time first.

Eighty percent of working adults report feeling time poor, like they have too many things to do in a day and not enough time to do them. This affects our relationships, our physical health, our ability to feel like we’re making progress in personally important goals.

These are the time traps that can make us time poor. One of them is this busyness as a status symbol—this cult of busyness that’s pervasive in the United States in particular, where if we feel like we have any time in our calendar, we feel like a failure. We feel lazy. When we see our colleagues having a lot of things in their calendar. We confer to those people high status. Wow—if they never have a spare moment, they must be really important and valuable to society.

My data suggests that the most time poor among us are in fact those who are struggling to make ends meet. I’ve done research in Kenya, in India, in the U.S., among single-parent households, and we do see that individuals in those groups who make less money are more time poor, because the system is working against their time affluence. They live further away from their places of employment. They have shift schedules that are constantly changing. They have less reliable access to transportation and childcare.

So this is a whole other conversation: a whole line of work where I’m trying to move the policy conversation on not only thinking about reducing financial constraints, but also thinking about reducing time constraints to help those with less thrive as well.

Brooks: So it’s interesting, here in the United States, you go to a party, you meet somebody and the icebreaker is, “What do you do?”And it’s like, “Yeah, CEO; I work 80-hour weeks.” People think you’re a big shot. In Spain, the icebreaker question is, “Where are you going on vacation?”

It would be kind of odd, almost intrusive, maybe irrelevant to say “How do you make your money?” And yet you’re suggesting that this is really not about money. It’s really about time. It’s about the fact that we’re so busy, which is a way to show ourselves and others that we’re highly in demand. And so the root of this problem is philosophical. Because it’s the philosophy of how we value ourselves, right?

Whillans: Yeah. I’ve talked to so many colleagues about my findings, and they say things like, “I thought when my kids moved out and went to college that I would finally get around to doing those hobbies that I always had wanted to do. And instead, I just filled those additional hours with work, and I don’t know why.”

And then we would have these conversations about how productivity has become our habit, and we don’t even know how to enjoy our free time. And it is like we have to almost retrain ourselves to have leisure as a habit, so that our defaults are not work emails, work meetings—but instead our defaults are family, friends, exercise, active leisure activities. And we really, especially in North American culture, need to be pushing against work as our default mode of operating.

Brooks: This is the key point that you’re making, that work is within boundaries because you’re setting up your budget and you’re living within your budget. Treat [time] like a scarce resource the way that you would if you were on a fixed income, because you’re really on a fixed income on time. So has it hurt your work, or has it made your work better and made you more efficient?

Whillans: So one thing that I learned early on—and there’s research to substantiate this—is that it is better to compare yourself to yourself, as opposed to compare yourself to others. So for me, I think something I did was really heavily guard my attentional resources as well.

What am I going to pay attention to in terms of other people’s successes? Because in my field, there is no “good enough.” Nothing you’re going to do is going to feel like enough, is going to be enough, is going to guarantee success and awards and accolades. In terms of net productivity, yes, I do get less done now. Especially since having a kid. No question I am not as fast.

My ideal self used to look like working all the time, being on a plane every week and publishing as much as humanly possible. That was my ideal self, and my actual time use looked pretty close to that. And then I realized: That might be good on one dimension of my life productivity and really hurt other dimensions of my life—well-being, social relationships—that I know as a happiness researcher matter a lot for happiness.

Brooks: For my last book, I was interviewing this woman who was doing what you were doing five years ago at the beginning of your career, but never stopped. And she’s confessing to me that she’s got a cordial relationship at best with her husband. She doesn’t know her adult kids very well. She drinks too much. She hasn’t been to the gym in a long time. And furthermore, that her young colleagues don’t trust her decision making, because it’s not as crisp as it once was.

She’s like, “What do I do?” And I said, “You don’t need me to tell you what to do. You need to use your time differently than you are!” And I said, “Why don’t you do what you know you need to do?” And she kind of stops and says, “I guess I prefer to be special than happy.” How much of that is going around?

Whillans: At least she admitted it. I feel like something that’s very difficult is that to have this realization, right? You have to understand what you care about and want, like truly, what you value. Maybe for this woman that you talked to, she did truly value being the richest and having this productive life more than she valued gaining or improving in these other areas of life. And she seems like she’s actually somewhat self-aware about that, right?

My economist colleagues say: Write down a model. Ashley, write down a model of exactly how I should spend my time to be happy. I say I can’t do that because I don’t know what you value. So for us to be spending time in the so-called “right ways,” we have to know what we truly value. So we have to do that self-awareness, reflective component first.

Brooks: You know, for a lot of people—they might say they wish they had more free time and they could relax more and spend more time with their families, but they don’t actually know how to do that.

Whillans: Going back to behavioral-science literature, you want to be thinking about setting a concrete goal. In my research, we often trade money for time—so we’ll go after money instead of going after time, because money is concrete. We know the value of $1,000, and we know how to count or track three hours, five hours, 10 hours, and turn that into productivity in our minds. What does it mean to have more free time? That is an abstract concept.

What does having more leisure time even mean or look like? So when we’re trying to actively set ourselves up for success in these domains that are more abstract—like spending time with friends and family—we need to concretely write down what that means.

We like to maximize measured mediums. This is work by Chris Hsee at the University of Chicago. We go after the things that we can count and track. That is the way our brains are wired. So we do that for work. Why can’t we do that for our leisure time, too?

Active leisure is particularly good for positive mood. Active leisure is things like exercising, socializing, volunteering 15 to 30 minutes—mapping out what 30 minutes more of social-connection time looks like for you and being very specific about it and putting it in your calendar. We need to be a little bit careful with that suggestion, because as soon as we start counting our leisure, we enjoy it less.

Brooks: You can overschedule your leisure in such a way that it becomes a task. Now, when I schedule my leisure too rigidly, I find that I start to get stressed out when things start to impinge on it. Part of the benefit that you’re getting cognitively and psychologically is more flexibility in your life and less rigidness in your life, right?

Whillans: Yeah. I love the research that shows that if you schedule too many leisure activities in a day, it literally feels like work and it sucks you out of the present. And then you worry if you have enough time to drive across town and meet your friend for brunch after you’ve had coffee with another friend or family member, and so you want to actually capitalize on this idea of building in flexibility.

It doesn’t matter as much what the activity is, and some leisure activities are generally better for well-being—like exercise, socializing, volunteering—which tend to be better on average than things like passive leisure activities. Like watching TV, resting, relaxing, which aren’t as enjoyable or don’t produce the same gains in mood. But, it also matters how you feel about that activity.

So these people who are walking around convincing themselves to go to church because it’s good for their productivity, are not going to enjoy the experience of church to the same extent as someone who’s going because they truly enjoy it.

When you’re in the moment of the leisure experience, you will enjoy it less if you think you’re doing it for extrinsic reasons. And extrinsic motivation is, definitionally: You’re doing something because someone else told you, or you’re doing it for an external reason like you think you should because it will be good for your productivity.

Brooks: Now say something to our listeners here who might be saying, I don’t know what I intrinsically enjoy. I can’t think of anything intrinsically enjoyable to me because I’ve been so extrinsically motivated for so long. I’m a homo economicus. What do you tell that person on the voyage of discovery? It sounds like you had to go through this, Ashley!

Whillans: Yeah, do a time audit. At the end of the day, ask yourself: What things did you do across the day, and how did you feel while you were engaging those activities? And then look at which activities brought you the most positive mood. You could also do this through gratitude—so there’s research showing that people who take time to reflect on what they’re grateful for tend to be more self-aware.

So at the end of every day, just think of a few things that made you feel grateful. And in that day, maybe that was a quick conversation with the neighbor. Maybe that was, in my case, hanging out with my kid and thinking That was pretty great.

And then you’ll be like, Oh, it seems that I must enjoy those things. I should probably try to do more of them! It seems simple, but honestly, it wasn’t really until I started to create some separation in my life—such that I wasn’t just getting up every single day, working, and then trying to decompress at the end of the day by drinking. Because let’s be real. That’s what happens.

There was no space in that schedule that I used to have of “work, work, work, drink, go to bed, work, work, work, work, drink, go to bed” to even have a thought about what in that day to day enjoy. Because I wasn’t even taking a second to pause, reflect, and think about what was bringing me joy and satisfaction on any one particular day.

Brooks: Thank you to our How To listeners who help make this show what it is. We asked: How you would spend one extra hour per day doing something intrinsically rewarding? And here’s what you said.

Listener Submission: If I had an extra hour each day, I would go home to my studio apartment. I would close the door, put on the little bolt lock to make sure I’m safe. And then I would just sit in that silence and do absolutely nothing.

But I think that within life there are all these things you need to do just to survive and maintain some level of relative sanity. Like eat (which means you have to cook food), and sleep, and connect with people (which means driving your car to see your friends and calling your parents), and doing all these things that I guess we tell ourselves we want to do because we have to. And in a way, it creates happiness, whatever that is. But like, I feel like all of that keeps us from actually sitting in the moment and thinking, What is happening? Why are we here?

Brooks: If you look back in the old days before we were so unbelievably distracted by tech, we were doing something in those days, too. You know, when I rode the subway in the 1980s in New York City, I always had something to do with me. I had a book, I had a newspaper.

Would and should are very different when it comes to our time. So the question is: What’s the disconnect between what we feel like we should do and what we probably would do with that extra hour? And that has everything to do with our expectations for ourselves.

And this is one of the reasons that meditation is really hard for people who are beginning practitioners. People are sitting in meditation, and the only direction that they get is to “Think of nothing; empty your mind.” Well, it’s hard to do.

Rashid: Why is it so hard?

Brooks: Because we’re not made for it. Humans are not wired to do nothing. My colleague and friend, Martin Seligman, is one of the pioneers in the Science of Happiness field.

He says that we shouldn’t be called Homo sapiens. We should call ourselves Homo Prospectus, because our state of nature is for our brain to engage in all of this incredibly complex stuff about how to build a better future. What am I going to eat for dinner? What am I going to do for a living next year? What am I going to say to my spouse? And that occupies us so much that even when we’re trying to do nothing, we’re not doing nothing.