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Will You Spend or Invest Your Time in the New Year?

Hadley’s intro:  What’s the best way to make it a great

New Year?  Decide how you will spend or invest your time

with insights courtesy of a Wall Street Journal article

written by Joe Pinsker

When it comes to time, we are born rich and then
spend down our fortunes over the years. It may not
grow like money in a bank account, but there are
ways to get time to pay out a similar kind of

The go-to verb for what we do with time is
“spend” it. Researchers say it might be better
to think of time as something we invest, using our
precious hours to accumulate a wealth of
fulfillment and meaning that our future selves can
draw on.

This shift in thinking is particularly important
because it might help us think longer term. Recent
research by Hal Hershfield and Cassie Holmes, both
professors at UCLA’s Anderson School of
Management, and their collaborators indicates that
those who think about their time over longer
horizons—say, years or a lifetime—tend to be
happier day-to-day and more satisfied with their

“If we start thinking about investments of time,
rather than expenditures, maybe we’ll start
focusing on allocating time toward the things that
are more closely linked to our longer-term
well-being,” Prof. Hershfield says.

He is currently investigating whether cuing people
to think about “investing” their time, versus
“spending” it, might prod them into that
longer-term mind-set and affect what they choose
to devote their time to.

Our anxieties about misusing our limited time have
deep roots. Among the earliest written uses of the
verb “spend” with “time” is from a
14th-century poem, according to Kory Stamper, a
lexicographer. The regret-tinged line, originally
composed in Middle English, roughly translates to
“The lifetime that I’ve been lent / in
idleness I have spent.”

When we invest money, we tie up our present
resources in exchange for future gains. But
investments of time have the advantage of paying
out in both present enjoyment and far-off
benefits, says Prof. Holmes.

For someone creating a temporal portfolio, an
important task is to figure out which activities
deliver the best return on investment. Studies
have found that some reliably gratifying ways to
use your time include deepening social
connections, exercising and getting absorbed in
meaningful work, says Prof. Holmes.

Prof. Holmes recommends determining your own best
investments by performing an audit of your time
use for a week or two. This exercise, which Prof.
Holmes details in her book “Happier Hour,”
consists of recording, in half-hour increments,
what you did and how happy you felt while doing it
on a scale of 1 to 10.

When Prof. Holmes has her business-school students
conduct a self-audit, some of them are surprised
to find that they spend more than a dozen hours a
week on social media.

“When they look at how they feel having spent
time scrolling, they see, ‘Holy cow, on a
10-point scale, it’s like a four,’” Prof.
Holmes says. “Meanwhile, going out to dinner
with their sister or friend or partner is like a
nine, but often, it’s like, ‘I don’t have
time to meet up with my friends for dinner because
I’m so busy.’ ”

Having a time-investing mind-set means being
proactive, Prof. Holmes says. It means committing
in advance to rewarding activities rather than
attempting to squeeze those things in only after
doing whatever seems most urgent at the moment.

A proactive move she recommends is to block off
time on your calendar for the investments that are
important to you, just as you would a business
meeting. In her own life, these high-priority
weekly events are a couple morning runs, a date
night with her husband, and going to a coffee shop
with her daughter (who is 7, and orders hot

What has been helpful to shift your mind-set from
“spending” time to “investing” it? Join
the conversation below.

Prof. Holmes maintains that even highly
time-crunched people can benefit from an investing
mind-set, because the value of small time
commitments can compound. The recurring coffee
date with her daughter, for example, is only 30
minutes a week, she says, “but the impact of
that 30 minutes on not only my relationship with
her, but on my satisfaction with my life overall,
is profound.”

When choosing between different ways you could
allocate your time, it can also help to imagine
what your future self might hope you chose.

“Who am I, what am I going to be doing in five
years, 10 years?” asks Prof. Hershfield. “When
we look back, we don’t want to regret finding
that our time slipped through our fingers, being
spent on stuff that turned out to not be all that

Prof. Hershfield is the author of the forthcoming
book “Your Future Self,” and writing it led
him to take the perspective of his own future self
more often. Recently, when he had a few open days
on his calendar, he was torn between focusing on
an important work project and taking time off to
visit his 99-year-old grandmother with his
3-year-old son.

Looking at the situation through the eyes of his
future self made the decision to spend time with
family an easy one. “It’s not clear to me that
in 10 years, I’ll even remember what progress I
would have made on whatever project it was,” he

Even a year or two of imagined hindsight can help,
according to Anat Keinan, a marketing professor at
Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

Prof. Keinan has conducted surveys of college
students after they returned from winter break,
asking them if they wished they had spent more
time working and studying, or more time traveling
and enjoying themselves. The group that was asked
about their latest winter break was more likely to
regret not doing more of the former, more
productive activities. Meanwhile, the group that
was asked about their winter break a year prior
was more likely to regret not doing more of the
latter, more meaningful and fun activities.

One force that can stop people from doing things
their future selves would appreciate, Prof. Keinan
has found, is guilt about not doing something

“It’s not idle time,” Prof. Keinan says.
“It’s actually a great investment in your
future memories.”

Write to Joe Pinsker at [email protected]


How will you invest time to create the life you love?

Hadley Finch

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