In praise of laziness

Research suggests that wasting time isn’t as bad as it sounds.

Productivity is the holy grail. Advocates of the ‘5am club’ extol the virtues of rising before dawn to get more done in the undisturbed early hours. Self-help classics like Stephen R Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, tell us how to create a personal vision, break it down into goals, and prioritise. Even downtime is purposeful, with meditative practice encouraged to fill the gap between bursts of output. Implicit in all of this is the idea that if we want to achieve success, then we need to fine-tune every aspect of our lives in service of this goal.

But the pressure imposed by this idea of permanent productivity can be corrosive. What about the pleasure of an afternoon nap after a glass or two of wine at lunch with family? Or a long bike ride with friends to nowhere, exploring the country? Or time lost in the latest work by your favourite author? So I was delighted to learn about the concept of time affluence from Laurie Santos in her course The Science of Wellbeing.

Time affluence

Time affluence is the sense of freedom to do what you like, unbound by the constraints of diurnal obligations. Any new parent having their first weekend away without their baby will know the feeling. The luxury of not having to do anything. Research shows that people experiencing time affluence are over half a point happier on a five point scale. A significant uplift.

In part, the improvement in wellbeing seems to come from what we do with our time when we have a feeling of time affluence. We are more likely to create or reinforce social connections, which are of themselves known to increase happiness on a more sustained basis than the short-term high of ticking off another achievement.

Easier said than done

How do we create this feeling? It’s easier said than done. Ad hoc attempts to grab a moment for oneself require a mental constitution of iron to avoid intrusion by nagging worries from our to do list. I have found that the key is habit formation: creating contexts in which your mind learns that it is time to switch off and give some time to yourself. Here are some things that worked for me:

  • Regular babysitter. We booked a babysitter twice a month when the kids were young to go out for a meal or to the cinema. It was always a Thursday evening, so nearly the end of the week which naturally helped the relaxation vibes. Getting out of the house on a regular day is one way to create a relaxation habit. After a while, simply hearing the babysitter ring the doorbell was enough to trigger the sense of time that was just for us. Like Pavlov’s dogs, but for time-starved parents.
  • Separate personal and work phone. I found I had to be able to switch off completely. I was never one of these people who could dip in and out of work on weekends or holidays. I had to stay away completely. For me the practice of switching off my work phone and iPad created a psychological division that enabled the feeling of time affluence to emerge.
  • Create more time just for you. When a young family and professional success coincide, it can feel like there just isn’t enough time. I remember when I’d been a partner a few years, the weeks were all about work and the weekends were all about family. My wife and I had precious little time for ourselves. I therefore traded money for time, moving ever more part-time as my career progressed, first to a nine-day fortnight, then a four-day week, and finally, for my last three years at PwC, a three-day week.

Going part-time was an interesting experience for a man around 2010. It certainly caused some raised eyebrows. People asked if something was wrong, questioned whether I was checking out, expected me to have some grand project that I wanted to use the time for.

In fact, although I wouldn’t have named it such at the time, I just wanted a sense of time affluence back. Time for my wife and I to remember what it was like to interact as adults rather than as diary managers and taxi service for children’s activities. Time to go cycling with friends or just fall asleep on the sofa after a nice lunch.

Choose to be time rich

Ironically, the higher your earnings, the more expensive these luxuries become in terms of income forgone. But, at the same time, the more affordable and essential they are. I found it vital to ignore any attempt to cost the free time I was creating for myself. Because it’s priceless. I would say without doubt that going part-time was one of the top handful of decisions I’ve made in my life that have had an enduring positive effect on my wellbeing and the quality of my relationships.

As successful professionals we choose to be cash rich and time poor. We think it’s not a choice, but it is, almost entirely. We kid ourselves that we need to reach the next career milestone before we can prioritise time for ourselves and family. But we can almost always improve that trade-off right now.

We’ve reached financial freedom when we’re prepared to choose time affluence, without worrying about what it costs.