Giving Time Gives You Time

Americans today suffer from a “time famine” – that feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish what we set out to do.

January 9, 2013

As a sign of these busy times, twice as many Americans would prefer two weeks of vacation to two weeks of extra pay. And while there is nothing we can do to add even another minute to our days, we can change our perception of the 24 hours available to us.

Surprising new research by Zoë Chance at the Yale School of Management with colleagues from Harvard Business School and Wharton found that when people spent the time on others, they then felt they had more time. In one experiment, one group of participants was released fifteen minutes early to do whatever they wanted, while another group had to stay to help edit a high school student’s essay. Those who spent time helping reported having more free time in general than those who had actually gotten additional free time. It’s a counterintuitive conclusion: to feel less time-starved, take time to help someone.

To feel less time-starved, take time to help someone

To explain, think about how you felt the last time you helped somebody out. If you felt you had accomplished something, then you may have experienced this time expansion, even if you didn’t realize it. In Chance’s experiments, participants who spent time on someone else reported feeling more effective and productive than those who had free time, as well as other participants who wasted time and even those that spent time on themselves.

Volunteering to gain this feeling of “time abundance” – having enough time in your day to accomplish what you need to – isn’t just about creating the illusion of more time. Chance and her colleagues found that after spending time on others, the helpers actually accomplished more tasks during the next week. A week after the study described above, the people who had given time to edit the essay also spent 50% more time on optional paid work than those people who had received free time instead.

When you feel like a highly effective person, you’re more likely to say yes to the next thing that comes along – regardless of whether it has to do with helping someone else. When you give to others, you become inclined to take on more in the future, and this could mean you actually get more done in your already packed schedule. Brilliant.

If you can commit time to helping others – in manageable amounts – you can feel an expanded sense of time

So, while the stress of your harried schedule might leave you yearning to spend more time on yourself, think again about the effects of how you spend your time. Decompressing in front of the television or surfing the web are enjoyable, sure. But these activities are unlikely to increase your sense of accomplishment, and unlikely to alleviate your stress. Instead, if you can commit time to helping others – in manageable amounts – you can feel an expanded sense of time, an empowered sense of self, and perhaps even be able to do more tomorrow.

If you’re concerned about taking on more responsibilities outside of work, find a creative way to volunteer at work. You might “microvolunteer” during your lunch break—for opportunities, check sparked.com, helpfromhome.org, or the site inspired by this research, gooddeedtime.com. Alternatively, mentoring a junior employee will not only expand your sense of time, it’s a win-win-win for you, your mentee, and your company.