A Counter-Intuitive Remedy to Feeling Short of Time

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Psychological research shows that, paradoxically, giving away your time can make you feel you have more of it.

Have you got enough time for everything you want to do? If this survey is correct then about half of us are ‘time-poor’, as the expression goes, or worse, are experiencing a ‘time famine’.

So, what if I said there was a solution to feeling continuously short of time, and it involved giving your free-time away to others?

No, you might say, quite rightly, that doesn’t make sense. If I give away my free-time to others then I will have less time for myself and so I will feel even more rushed. It doesn’t add up.

This is a perfectly logical response, except that it doesn’t take into account the weird way in which the mind works.

For the mind, time is not always perceived in exactly the same way. I have written an article on this (10 Ways the Mind Warps Time) but suffice to say here that many things like our emotions and attention affect our perception of how much time has passed. To repeat Einstein’s quote:

“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

No matter how much free-time we actually have, what really matters is our personal perception. So how can we change our perception of how much time we have?

Giving time gives you time

That’s what was tested in a new study which gave people some time and had them either (Mogilner et al., 2012):

  • spend it on themselves,
  • waste it, or,
  • spend it on others, whether friends or strangers.

What they found was that people who spent the time on others felt afterwards that they had more time in both the present and the future, compared with those who spent it on themselves or wasted it.

This seems odd and the opposite of how people intuitively deal with being short of time. A regular response to being rushed is to hoard spare time for ourselves. So why does giving it away help?

Here’s how the study’s authors answer this question:

“…spending time on others makes people feel like they have done a lot with their time – and the more they feel they have done with their time, the more time they will feel they have.”

It seems that time well spent expands in our mind, giving us the illusion of being time-rich. When we spend our time well, i.e. by giving it away, it makes us feel more effective and capable.

Of course there is an upper limit to how much giving time will make you feel you have more time yourself. Some people, like full-time caregivers, already give so much of their time away that giving more is detrimental.

But for the majority of us, when making decisions about how to spend our spare time, defaulting to ‘me-time’ may not be the best answer, either for others or for ourselves.

Image credit: themysteryman

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 19 September 2012

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License