Many of us feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day. We struggle to make time for all the competing demands at work and at home, and inevitably feel like we’re letting someone down. But what if there were a way to reclaim our time and, as a result, get more joy out of our lives? This week, psychologist Cassie Mogilner Holmes explains how we’ve fallen victim to the illusion of time scarcity, and what we can do to spend our time more wisely.
To learn about another way of dealing with time scarcity, listen to our episode on the benefits of doing less.
Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most, by Cassie Holmes, 2022.
Having Too Little or Too Much Time Is Linked to Lower Subjective Well-Being, by Marissa Sharif, Cassie Mogilner, and Hal Hershfield, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2021.
Happiness from Treating the Weekend Like a Vacation, by Colin West, Cassie Mogilner, Sanford E. DeVoe, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2020.
Effect of Retirement on Cognitive Function: The Whitehall II Cohort Study, by Baowen Xue et. al, European Journal of Epidemiology, 2018.
Giving Time Gives You Time, by Cassie Mogilner, Zoe Chance, Michael I. Norton, Psychological Science, 2012.
The Pursuit of Happiness: Time, Money, and Social Connection, by Cassie Mogilner Holmes in Psychological Science, 2010.
Mental Retirement, by Susann Rohwedder and Robert J. William, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2010.
The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.Shankar Vedantam:This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. The television series Never Have I Ever is a coming of age story about the ups and downs of high school. There's popular kids, unpopular kids and drama. There are lots and lots of crushes, and, of course, there's applying for college. One of the show's main characters is an overachiever. Ben is determined to get into his dream school, Columbia University. His schedule is packed with studying, extracurriculars and tests. Ben has no time for friends, socializing or even breakfast.Speaker 2:Time for breakfast, my little prince.Speaker 3:No time Patty, I'll just eat a jerky stick on the way.Shankar Vedantam:At school, Ben's time-starved schedule elicits eye rolls from his classmates.Speaker 3:I have some free time between 1:15 and 2:00 AM tonight to work on this.Speaker 4:Are you out of your mind? We're not operating on your psycho schedule. Both of you guys just come to my house after school.Speaker 3:No, I can't. That's when I Zoom with my Mandarin teacher.Shankar Vedantam:Even Ben's principal has become concerned about his constant battle with time.Speaker 5:Your schedule is untenable. You don't even have a lunch period anymore.Speaker 3:I don't need a lunch period.Speaker 5:Yes, I've seen you with your meat sticks.Shankar Vedantam:Eventually the stress lands Ben in the hospital. While Ben's character is exaggerated for comic effect, many people, including those who graduated high school years ago, can relate. Lofty goals, demanding jobs, and the pressures of parenthood leave many of us feeling burned out, on edge and overwhelmed. This week on Hidden Brain, how the solution to not having enough time might require us to rethink our relationship with time.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:When we're thinking about this resource, it makes us spend more deliberately in ways that are aligned with our values, in ways that make us feel happier.Shankar Vedantam:Most of us live our lives in a blur. We speed through our days, rush to drop off kids, battle work deadlines, squeeze in emails before bed. Lots of us dream of doing less, much less. We fantasize about striking it rich and quitting our jobs. At UCLA, Cassie Mogilner Holmes studies the relationship between time and wellbeing. Among other things, she has studied what happens to people who get their wish: to have all the time in the world. Cassie Holmes, welcome to Hidden Brain.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Hi Shankar. Thank you so much for having me. This is so exciting.Shankar Vedantam:Cassie, I'd like to take you back to a point in your life when you had just had a baby. Your maternity leave had ended and you were on your first work trip to New York. Can you paint me a picture of what your life felt like at the time?Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Yes, my life felt crazy at the time. And so yeah, when my son was four months old, I was invited to give a talk at Columbia's Business School up in New York and I said yes, and it was a crazy day, but not unlike other crazy days. It's just I remember it quite vividly. I woke up early, traveled up to New York to give my presentation, which was followed by back-to-back meetings and then a colleague dinner, and I rushed out of the dinner trying to make the very last train that would get me home to my son and my husband back in Philadelphia. And the cab driver, as you know, New York cab drivers are already driving very fast and too fast, but I was yelling at him, which I don't tend to yell. I was like, "Can you please hurry up to get me to this train? I cannot miss it."And I didn't miss the train. But when I was sitting on the train that night, I remember looking out the window and as the darkness was whizzing by and everyone was asleep in their homes and just like I should have been asleep in my home and my husband and baby were asleep in our home, and I was realizing just how fast everything was going by. And it was such a blur between the pressures of being an assistant professor. So work. The pressure or wanting to be a good parent, a good partner, a good friend with the never ending pile of chores that were waiting me at home, it all felt like too much. There was just simply too much to do. And I remember wondering, not only do I not have enough time to do it all, I wasn't feeling like I could do it all well or enjoy any of it along the way.Shankar Vedantam:So some time later, Cassie, you finally get to take a break. I understand you took a trip to Mexico. How did it go?Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Well, it was a trip to Mexico that I was so excited about because it continued to be on the heels of crazy days of the busyness of work and getting the kids ready and teaching and all that sort of stuff. And so I was so excited about the idea of just sitting on the beach with a book with nothing to do and that sounded more than delightful. And it was delightful until the morning of the fourth day. And I woke up and I was tapping on my husband's shoulder. I'm like, "All right, so what are we going to do today?" I was done doing nothing and I was eager to get going again.Shankar Vedantam:For many of us, this is a relatable experience. We look forward to going on vacation only to feel bored or antsy after a few days. Just like Cassie, we are unhappy when we are busy and we are unhappy when we have too much time on our hands. Cassie and her colleagues, Marissa Sharif and Hal Hirschfield, have studied the connection between having free time, or discretionary time as Cassie puts it, and people's happiness.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:What we found was interesting. The pattern of results showed an upside down U shape. So what that suggests is that on one end, people with too little time were unhappy. So that was me on the train that night. But what was surprising to us was the other side of that arc. And what we found was that beyond a certain amount, there was such thing as having too much time. So when people had a whole lot of discretionary hours in the day, they were also dissatisfied.Shankar Vedantam:So it's almost a paradox, isn't it? Because very busy people they dream about the day they can just put up their feet and do nothing. And of course, when that day actually arrives, very quickly, like you found, you found yourself frustrated, and it's apparently not just you, it's a widespread phenomenon. What explains the paradox?Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Yeah. And what our data suggests is that when people have too many discretionary hours in the day, they feel unproductive. And from that it undermines their sense of purpose. And with that, people are dissatisfied.Shankar Vedantam:A few years back, there was a study in the United Kingdom that looked at the cognitive function of thousands of retirees. These were people who had held a variety of different jobs at different salary levels, and the researchers gave people a cognitive memory test 14 years before they retired and then 14 years after they retired. Can you tell me what they found, Cassie?Cassie Mogilner Holmes:So what they found was that people's cognitive functioning decreased dramatically following retirement in terms of their verbal memory. And this is interesting because it suggests that when people have too much discretionary time on their hands, that it's less cognitively engaging and stimulating. And so what this is all pointing to, I think, is that work for many is a source of feeling engaged, feeling productive. With the retiree study it is cognitive stimulation, mental stimulation. And without that, we're not only bored, but we feel less purpose, we are less engaged. And with that less satisfied.Shankar Vedantam:Many of us live busy lives. We rush to work, check our email, ferry kids around. We feel our time is stretched thin and we fantasize about the day when we can finally do nothing. When that day comes, however, we often find ourselves confronting the opposite problem. We are bored, hungry for meaning and purpose. Being too idle, like being too busy, seems to make us unhappy. When we come back, Cassie's research examines how our perceptions of time influence the way we spend it. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When most of us feel overwhelmed by life and by work, we tend to locate the problem in our circumstances. We say, "I have too many deadlines staring me in the face. I have too many commitments on my plate. I have no time." When we think about the solutions to these problems, we often resort to daydreams and fantasy. "Maybe I'll win the lottery and won't have to work anymore. Maybe I could run away to a tropical island where my only responsibility is to sit under a coconut tree and sip margaritas."At UCLA, psychologist Cassie Holmes has come to believe that many people underestimate how much control they do have in making their lives less busy and stressful. A powerful moment of insight in Cassie's life occurred one day in 2017 as she was racing across campus with a preschooler in tow.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:I didn't have a long commute. I could walk through beautiful UCLA campus with my three-year-old to take him to preschool and me to work. And there was one morning in particular where the sun was shining, it was a spring day, and the birds were chirping and my son was skipping along as happy as could be. And I was charging ahead because I was thinking about the meeting that I was going to be late to. And also thinking about all the things that I had to do that day when I dropped him off.And I heard him, he was like, "Mom, stop." And I was like, "We don't have time to stop, hurry up." And he is like, "Mom, please. Stop." And I turn around and I see that his nose is buried in a bush of roses. And without thinking these words came out of my mouth, I was like, "We don't have time to stop and smell the roses." And when I heard those words, I did stop. I was like, "Oh my gosh, I am so in my head." I am so thinking about what's next that I was oblivious to this perfect scene that I was in that my son was absolutely noticing. And as a time and happiness researcher and expert yelling into the air that we don't have time to stop and smell the roses was definitely a wake-up call.Shankar Vedantam:In her lab, Cassie began to ask whether she had defined the problem wrong in her own life. When she thought about being a young working mom and the many pressures on her time at work and at home, it felt really stressful. But was the problem a lack of time or the way she was thinking about time? She decided to apply the tools of science to her own life and to closely track how she was spending her days.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:What time tracking does is that you write down what you're doing every half hour, what's the activity you're doing and not being so broad like, "I'm at work," but in particular, what are you doing at work? What project are you working on? And not so broad as, "Oh, it's family time." What are you doing during that family time? And it's important to not just write what you're doing, but I also rate on a 10-point scale how happy, how joyful, how satisfying I feel on having spent that time.So one can look back and have their own personalized data set that captures how they spent their time, and it allows them to pull out what are those activities that tend to produce the greatest amount of happiness for them? What are those activities that tend to produce the least amount of happiness for them? And in addition to that, not just the particular activities, but what are some commonalities across those happiest activities and those least happy activities? And what this also allows you to do is see just how much time you're spending across these various types of activities.Shankar Vedantam:Now, when Cassie talks about choosing activities that produce happiness, it's not like she's saying that our only choices are to do things that make us happy or do things that make us unhappy. All of us routinely have to do things that are not fun. It's not like we can say, "Oh, I'm never going to clean my house or do the dishes or go to the dentist." What time tracking can show you is that you might not be allocating your time efficiently.Imagine your life was divided into different compartments. There are things that you do that are both fun and meaningful. Maybe time spent on a stimulating project at work. Then there's stuff you don't have to do but that you enjoy, like hanging out with friends or going on a vacation. A third group of activities might be things you have to do even if they are not enjoyable. Chores fall into this category. But as Cassie tracked her time, she realized she was spending more time than she needed to on chores.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Well, there was a lot of time that I would say was wasted. And in particular, my source of wasted time is the amount of time I spend on email and responding to my inbox and trying to get through it. Not just in the workday, but also in the evenings. And looking at my happiness ratings, I was not very happy spending my time on that particular activity. What I observed in my time tracking data is that I am happiest when I'm spending time one-on-one, having that good connecting conversation with the people I love. Whether it is my husband at the end of the week when we have gone out to dinner, away from the kitchen cleanup and are not going through the logistics of parenting in our lives and actually having the conversation that drew us to each other in the first place.When I'm hanging out with my daughter and we are chatting over a cup of coffee for me, hot chocolate for her, when I'm having a wonderful, enriching conversation with one of my research collaborators walking across the beautiful UCLA's campus to get coffee or my preferred bubble tea, hearing about their lives as well as talking about research. I mean there's nothing more joyful than that.Shankar Vedantam:As Cassie tracked her time like a scientist, she started to see the epiphany she'd had with her preschooler smelling the roses pointed to something much bigger. In all sorts of ways, she was not allocating her time to maximize activities that promoted happiness. She was allowing things she didn't enjoy but felt she had to do to intrude on time set aside for relaxation and rejuvenation. She noticed this acutely during a visit to Italy.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:We went to Tuscany, which was so wonderful and this was one week that we were carving out to not do work, to not be in that "do" mode and just be on vacation. Yet I found myself in the evening looking over the Tuscan countryside, this beautiful sunset, and what was going on in my head was planning for what we were going to be doing tomorrow and coordinating that and sneaking onto my phone to try to coordinate when we were going to be picked up to go to the next little town.Shankar Vedantam:Even worse than chores intruding on activities that promote happiness, time tracking can show how much time you are spending on things that are neither essential nor joyful. Spending time on such activities makes absolutely no sense.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:One of my students I remember in particular who, while working towards her degree on the nights and weekends, while working full-time, she was so busy yet when she looked at the data from her week, she realized that she spent a dozen hours on social media. And looking at her ratings, she's like, "Holy cow. That is so much." Particularly given how busy she is. And looking at the ratings that she gave, it's three and four, whereas the activities that she feels too busy that she doesn't have time to do, but gets a nine or a 10 in terms of happiness, is meeting up with her sister after work for dinner.And what I think that highlights with respect to the busyness, that we feel too busy to do these things that really matter to us and can really make us feel joyful, that we are too busy to do those, yet so many hours just get mindlessly filled scrolling. And it's one of those things on social media that people think, "I'm just going to check, it'll just be a couple minutes." But inevitably a couple minutes turns into tens of minutes, but then those tens of minutes, over the course of days, sum up to hours and hours. And for those of us who feel so time poor, this is important to recognize because it suggests where can we reallocate some of our time so that we can spend more on moments of joy.Shankar Vedantam:Cassie also noticed that when she was not mindful about how she spent her time, she would start to multitask. Even when she was doing things that she needed to do and loved to do, her mind would be somewhere else. One time, Cassie noticed herself doing this as she was listening to a scientific presentation on the risks of distraction.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:It was just so on the nose. As a professor, one of the joys of our work is that we get to go to research seminars where other faculty will come and share the research that we're working on. And it's joyful because we get to learn what is happening in science. And there was this fascinating presentation where the researcher was sharing the dangers of being distracted on cell phones among drivers. So being distracted on the cell phone while driving is more deadly, more dangerous than even driving inebriated or drunk. And while he was telling us about the dangers of being distracted on our phones, I was distracted and on my phone.I was nodding, trying to pretend that I was listening, but instead I was on Amazon going through my to-do list of ordering a gift and wrapping paper for my son to go to a birthday party that week and emailing his soccer team about who's going to bring the snacks. So I was being pulled out of this experience that could have been really enriching and illuminating because I was distracted by my to-do list.Shankar Vedantam:The less mindful we are about how we deploy our time, the more we feel stressed out and over-scheduled. This has implications not just for our personal happiness, but how we behave toward others and how others behave toward us. A famous study in the 1970s demonstrated this. It's centered around a parable from the Bible: the Good Samaritan who stops to help another person in distress.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:This is a really interesting study and conducted among the kindest individuals one could come across, right? Seminary students. And their task was to present the story of the Good Samaritan to others in a room that was down the hall. On their way out, some of the participants were told that they were late, that they didn't have a lot of time, and on their way there was actually a man on the side who was coughing, clearly in need of help. Unbeknownst to the participants, he was someone who was hired as a confederate for this study. But what the researchers were looking at is whether someone who was told that they were late, who felt like they were in a hurry would be likely to stop and help. And indeed they found when people felt they had scarce time, they were less likely to stop and help someone.Shankar Vedantam:I understand that you've conducted a study and found a similar effect. Is that correct, Cassie?Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Yeah, well I conducted a study among college students simply leading them to think about how busy or not that they are. And I had them write a paragraph about how busy and how many things they have to do that day versus a control condition where they just wrote about their day. And then I asked them whether they would be willing to stay an extra 15 minutes to help out a high schooler by editing their college application essay. And what I found was simply thinking about one's busyness made people less likely to be willing to spend the time to help another.Shankar Vedantam:So we've looked at lots of ways that the feeling of time scarcity can change our attitudes toward others, change our behavior. One thing we haven't discussed is how time scarcity in some ways is a trap. It sets us up to make choices that will likely increase our time scarcity in the future. Psychologists described something called the Yes-Damn Effect. What is this, Cassie?Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Yeah, this is important. It's an important study to remember. Gal Zauberman and John Lynch, what they did was they asked people to think about today and all that they have to do today and the busyness of the day. And they also asked them to think about that same day of the month, one month from now. And inevitably people thought that they will have more time available one month from now than they do today. But that's absolutely not true, because what thinking that you'll have more time available one month from now does is that when you are asked to do things, you say yes. You're like, "Sure, I will bring the snacks to that event in a month because while I'm busy today, I will surely have more time then.""Yes, I will give a talk for that conference because I will have more time then. But of course there's no way I have time would have time to do that today." And by having this bias that we think we will have more time available in the future, that we will be less busy in the future than we are today, we take on these commitments that when the day comes that we've said 'yes', and then when the day comes we say 'damn', hence the Yes-Damn Effect.Shankar Vedantam:Several years ago I was interviewing Eldar Shafir at Princeton University and I was telling him how busy I was, how stressed out I was, and he said, "Let me give you a rule. If someone suggests you do something two months from now, you should ask yourself, 'Can I do that thing today? If it was today, would I be able to do it?' And if the answer to that question is no, you should say no to the thing that's two months from now, because presumably you are not going to be any less busy two months from now." So I said, "Okay, that's a great rule." I started calling it the Eldar rule, but then I asked Eldar, "How often do you follow the Eldar rule? And he said, "I never follow it." So it's one thing, Cassie, to know that the bias exists, it's another thing to actually do something about it.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:And I would actually put it through a different filter, which it's not only how busy do you think you are today versus or it will be then is, is that task something, or that request something, that you want to do today? That it seems worthwhile because it's very easy to say yes to things when you're like, "Oh sure. Later," because you don't value your time quite so much in the future. But using a purpose filter or a happiness filter of if I were asked to do this today, would I say, "No," not just because I'm too busy, but because it's something that I don't want to do and doesn't feel worth my time?Shankar Vedantam:So in other words, we not only discount how busy we're going to be in the future, in some ways we discount the happiness of our future selves by saying, "Yes, this is not really particularly enjoyable, but I'll just pass that off and my future self will take care of it."Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Exactly.Shankar Vedantam:When we come back, how to recalibrate your relationship with your time. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Most of us think about time the same way we think about money. We have a limited supply of it and life would be better if we only had more. At UCLA, Cassie Holmes has discovered a number of paradoxes in the way we think about time. First, people who have too little to do are often as unhappy as people who have too much. Second, when we feel we have no time, it changes our behavior. It makes us focus less on others. It keeps us from enjoying wonderful things around us. It prompts us to make decisions that more or less guarantee we will be overstretched and exhausted in the future.In her book Happier Hour, Cassie suggests there's a radically different way to think about time. Cassie, you once asked volunteers to think differently about their weekends right before the weekend started. What were your instructions to them and what did you find?Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Yes, among a sample of working adults leading into the weekend, we randomly assigned some to treat that weekend like a vacation. And the others we told them to treat that weekend like a regular weekend.Shankar Vedantam:What did you find?Cassie Mogilner Holmes:We followed up with them on Monday when they returned to work to measure how happy they are. And what we found was that those who were simply instructed to treat their weekend like a vacation were happier on Monday when they were back at work and they had enjoyed the weekend more. And we were interested in what drove this. Did people spend their time differently? And we did find that people ... there were slight differences in how people spent their time. So those who treated the weekend like a vacation did spend a little bit less time doing housework, a little bit less time doing actual work. They spent longer eating, so sitting at the dinner table, they spent a little bit more time in bed with their partner. So these are activities that are like being on vacation, but it's not like they didn't do any work and it's not like they didn't do any housework.What was interesting too was that the activities that they did over the weekend actually didn't significantly influence how they felt when they returned to work on Monday. What did drive that change in happiness was their mindset. So those who were treating the weekend like a vacation were more engaged in the activities they were doing. They were more in the present, which allowed them to enjoy that time more. And which then, having enjoyed their weekend more, being fully engaged, not being distracted by all of the work or all of the chores that are looming over, waiting for us, it allowed them to be happier when they return to work on Monday.Shankar Vedantam:I've often noticed when I travel overseas or to a new city somewhere, you are taking in everything and you are absorbing everything and your eyes are wide open. But if we look at the people who are the locals, they're often hurrying around, getting to work, bored with their commutes and they're seeing the same city that you are seeing. But of course your experience of it is completely different.And similarly, when you are in your home city and you see tourists, the tourists are standing around taking pictures of buildings that you walk by every day and you've never stopped to look at the building, let alone take a picture of it. And in some ways that's speaking to exactly the idea that you're talking about, Cassie. There's something about being a tourist in our own lives that in some ways opens us up and makes us pay attention and be mindful of what's happening around us.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Absolutely, and the thing that we're subject to in the routine of our lives is that we get used to it. Our tendency to hedonically adapt is called hedonic adaptation. That is, after repeated exposure, we stop noticing it as much. And this is good that we adapt when bad things happen, because it makes us resilient, but it's not so good in the face of joys in our life because we don't notice them as much.If you think about that first time your partner said, "I love you," your heart is bursting with happiness and then 10 years on in a marriage, 'I love you' it has been shortened to 'love you' as a way to sort of say goodbye in the morning and you don't even hear the words. So there is something that when things happen every day, they feel every day and we don't notice and we're missing out on the potential joy from those pleasures that are right there in our daily experience.Shankar Vedantam:Cassie started to ask, are there other techniques to get people to change their relationship to time? In one study, she gave volunteers a set of tasks and asked some of them to think about time and some of them to think about money.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:What I found was that those who were led to think about time compared to a control condition and a money condition actually plan to engage in activities that were happier activities. So involving social connection or those activities that made them feel fulfillment. Whereas when people were led to think about money, it actually led them to plan to spend more time doing work.Shankar Vedantam:In other words, one way to change the way you spend your time is to simply ask yourself how you are spending your time. Cassie has found that once people are put into a state of mind where they're thinking about time, their behavior changes too.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:In my work, I didn't just want to see how people plan to spend their time, I also wanted to see how thinking about time versus money would influence people's actual behavior. So I went to a coffee shop as a place where people are socially connecting and spending time with others, which is an activity that's associated with greater happiness. And people also are on laptops working. On the way into the cafe, I asked them to complete a survey which surreptitiously exposed them to time-related words or money-related words. And then, unbeknownst to the participants, we watched how they spent their time in the cafe.And what we found was that those who were led to think about time spent a greater proportion of their time at the cafe connecting with others. So chatting with others in line, talking to others in the space, versus those who are actually led to think about money spent a greater proportion of their time working. And so I think what this research shows is that thinking about our time, being more thoughtful and intentional about this resource that is our life, right? How we spend our minutes add up to our hours or years or decades in our life overall. And when we're thinking about this resource, it makes us spend more deliberately in ways that are aligned with our values, in ways that make us feel happier.Shankar Vedantam:I understand that you've sometimes had volunteers do a rather unusual exercise, which is to write their own eulogies. Why would you ask them to do this, Cassie?Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Yeah. What writing your eulogy does is it leads you to think ... take that broader perspective of your time. Thinking about your life as a whole. So it is how at the end of your life do you want to be remembered? What legacy do you want to leave? And by articulating that, writing out a eulogy that you would hope that will be presented about you, what it clarifies is what are those aspects of you that are really important? What are those words that you hope people use to describe you? What are your values? And by thinking about that, what life do you want to live? That can inform how you spend your hours today.Shankar Vedantam:Another technique along the same lines is called the 'times left exercise'.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:So if you reflect back on your past week and identify what was a moment of joy, oftentimes it's a very ordinary experience. And so what I encourage people to do is count how many times have you done that in your life so far? And then to count how many times do you have left to do it in your life. An example here is, I have my students do this, and one of my students who's in her late twenties, getting her MBA, counted her dinners with her parents. And what she calculated, thinking about from her childhood, other than the summer that she was studying abroad in high school, and then counting once she went off to college, visits home and then when she was living on the other side of the country for work when her parents would come out to visit, and then she moved back to California to actually be closer to her parents, and they had Sunday night dinners. And she counted all of those up and realized that she had had about 6,800 dinners with her parents thus far in her life.And then in calculating how many dinners does she likely have left, she counted that she had about 575 dinners left. That is, she had only 8% of her dinners with her parents left. And that's impactful because what it does is it leads her to A, make the time. No matter how busy she feels, that with that recognition, she is going to show up for the Sunday night dinner. But even beyond that, at the dinners, it changes how she engages in that time. What she used to view as nagging comments, she would just let roll off her shoulders, and instead she redirected the conversation to learn about her parents, recognizing that their time together is limited and more consequently is really precious. And so wanting to make the most of it.Shankar Vedantam:It's so interesting that I think once something is in the past, it's easy to recognize how precious it was. I mean, when you think about the walks you had with your son when he was going to preschool across the UCLA campus when you were too busy to smell the roses, you can look back on that now and realize it was really precious, but at the time you were like, "How do I get through this walk really quickly so I can drop him off to get to work?" There's a real irony there isn't it? Which is when we look back, we can actually see how precious things are, but when we look in the present, we often fail to notice that things in fact are precious and are finite.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Yeah. And that's why it's so important to recognize their preciousness before we've passed them by, so that we don't end up feeling regret.Shankar Vedantam:Cassie has also found another powerful way to help people achieve a healthier relationship with time: seek out moments of transcendence.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Awe is this state where your perspective expands well beyond yourself. When we feel our time is scarce, we behave in very limiting ways that we pull into ourselves that we don't think about ... we don't have confidence that we can complete all that we sort of want to and ideally would like to do. Whereas by shifting our perspective, expanding our perspective, then it also expands our sense of how much time that we have.Shankar Vedantam:Not all of us of course can hang out at the Grand Canyon with mouths agape. Most of us are not astronauts who get to see the earth from outer space. But Cassie argues that there is a simple way for each of us to get out of our own head.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Exercise is this activity that, unfortunately, we often don't do when we feel that we don't have a lot of time. I often ask people to complete the sentence, "I don't have time to blank." And exercise is often one of those things that people don't feel they have time to do. And that is not good, because research has shown that exercise is wonderful. It increases our cognitive functioning, it increases our self-esteem, so making us feel like we can accomplish what we set out to do. And it's a mood booster. It makes us feel happier in our subsequent activities. How we experience the limiting nature of time. When we feel that time is scarce, we don't feel like we have enough time to complete what we set out to do. But by exercising, through increasing our sense of self-efficacy, it actually expands our sense of what we can complete within our given time.And I am absolutely subject to this. When I don't feel like I have time, my early morning run is the thing that I sacrifice because I'm like, "Oh, I need to get ready for the day. I need to catch up on email." But in those moments, or at those times where I do make the time out on that run, as the sun is rising and I am in flow, I all of a sudden don't feel constrained. In fact, I approach the day ... I come back running up the steps ready for the day, nicer to those around us. We talked about how being time-poor makes us stingier with our time with respect to others. And so it is a very expanding activity.Shankar Vedantam:Well, so many of these ideas really speak to the notion that when we are in some ways thinking expansively about our time as opposed to in this very, "I'm stressed out, I'm burned out, I don't have time." When we don't have this 'the walls are closing in' mentality, in some ways almost it opens up the possibilities of what we can do with our time. Does it seem that way to you, Cassie?Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Yes. It opens up the possibilities of what we can do with our time. It also makes us think about our time from a broader perspective, from a bird's eye view, where we're thinking more about our years and less hour-by-hour. And with that broader perspective, then it's more of these questions of what do I value in life? And that influences where we spend our time. Spending more on things that are important rather than just urgent.Shankar Vedantam:In some ways, Cassie, so much of this work has been about the idea that we miss the forest for the trees when it comes to time. And in many ways, when we step back and look at the big picture of time, it changes our relationship to time in really profound ways. I'm wondering whether you've taken this insight to heart yourself. How has this changed the way you lead your own life?Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Absolutely. It influences both how I spend my time, spending on activities that are, no matter how busy I feel, on those activities that are truly important to me, that connect me with the people I love, that allow me to engage with work that does feel purposeful. But I would say, even more than the types of activities that I engage with, is really how I approach that time. And it's not even so much about how much time you spend, it's really how engaged, how not distracted I am so that I'm not missing out. An example that is so precious to me is my morning coffee dates with my daughter. Once a week, my daughter Lita and I go to a coffee shop. And this started actually as a very routine functional activity, where after dropping off her big brother's carpool on the way into dropping her at her preschool, which is next to my office, we would stop for coffee because I needed caffeine and she was just tagging along.But what was routine, we turned it into this special tradition. And during that half hour, we would sit and delight in each other's company. I would drink my coffee, she would drink her hot chocolate. We would munch on croissants and we would just be together. And it was 30 minutes in the week, but that 30 minutes, when you ask me how happy I am in life, I am absolutely happy because that 30 minutes is time that we look forward to. So we anticipate. While spending it, we're happy, and reflecting back, we remember it and we think about it as this source of true connection. And I feel I have a wonderful relationship with my daughter that, from this 30 minutes, it colors my week and really the joy that I feel in my life overall.Shankar Vedantam:Cassie Holmes is a social psychologist at UCLA. She's the author of Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most. Cassie, thank you so much for joining me today on Hidden Brain.Cassie Mogilner Holmes:Thank you.Shankar Vedantam:Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Annie Murphy Paul, Laura Kwerel, Kristin Wong, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor.Our unsung hero this week is Peter Ricchiuti. Peter is a listener and a supporter of the show. He listens to Hidden Brain at the gym and in an email, he wrote that the show helps him get a better workout on the ellipticals. He said, "I can't get off the machine without finishing the episodes. Thus Hidden Brain also has health benefits." Thank you, Peter, for making Hidden Brain part of your workout routine. And thank you also for your support of the show. If you'd like to join Peter and hundreds of other listeners who've told us that they have our back, please go to support.hiddenbrain.org.I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.
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