Before you answer, consider your personal life. How do you spend your time? Many of us feel time-constrained with all the things that we believe must be done throughout our busy days. A survey from a few years ago showed that twice as many Americans would prefer two weeks of vacation over two weeks of extra pay!
According to noted psychologist Abraham Maslow, once we have satisfied our basic needs, we pursue the need for self-respect. We also have the desire to be accepted and valued by others. Ironically, our efforts to achieve a certain level of esteem often results in a great deal of time spent on a daily “to-do” list. This leaves us with the feeling that we do not have enough time for ourselves, let alone others.
However, a recent study by Cassie Mogilner and others suggests that our perception of how much time we have available is related to whether we spend time helping others. I found this study fascinating because of its relevance to my personal and professional life.
The authors conducted a series of studies to measure something termed time affluence, which is defined as “the feeling that one has sufficient time to pursue activities that are personally meaningful.”
In the first study, participants completed small tasks in which they either gave their time or wasted it. Participants in the giving-time condition were asked to write an encouraging note to a child who was suffering from a serious illness. Participants in the wasting-time condition completed the non-value added task of counting the letter “e” in multiple pages of text.
After these tasks were completed, the participants were surveyed to determine their time affluence. Those who gave time by writing to a gravely ill child felt like they had more time (they had more time affluence) than those who counted the letters. The authors concluded that although both giving time and wasting time could signal that one has an abundance of time, only giving time led participants to perceive their time as more abundant.
In the second study, people were randomly divided into two groups. One group was instructed to “spend 10 minutes doing something for yourself that you weren’t already planning to do today.” The other group was asked to “spend 30 minutes doing something for someone else that you weren’t already planning to do today.” Spending time on others provided a greater sense of available future time in contrast to spending time on oneself. (Note that these results were obtained even though the group who did something for others spent 3x the time of the group who did something for themselves).
In another study, some participants spent 15 minutes helping an at-risk student from a local school by editing his research paper. Others who showed up for the study were told all the papers had been edited. These participants were allowed to leave early — thus essentially being granted “free” time. When polled afterward, participants who gave their time helping felt as though they had more time than those who received an equivalent amount of “free” time.
The authors conclude that the impact of giving time on feelings of time affluence is driven by a boosted sense of self-efficacy (belief in one’s ability to succeed). This research shows that spending time on others makes people feel like they have spent their time wisely. It also explains the finding that giving time increases perceptions of having more time.
One of the aspects of my consulting role is to provide mentoring or coaching to clients. While I really enjoy serving in this capacity, it can be very demanding of my time. It is not unusual for me to spend more time on coaching or advising than is expected by the client. Even though I am not compensated for this additional time, I can honestly say that after these sessions I feel like I have more time, not less. The same holds true when I donate time to my local church. Spending time helping others feels liberating, not constraining.
It is disappointing to see a leader who believes that he is too _______ (fill in the blank) to serve as a mentor. Often, this person sees himself as someone who has too many things to get done (for himself) than to spend time on others. And yet, the research cited here suggests that taking a small amount of time to spend assisting someone else can yield greater time affluence.
There are still only 24 hours in a day. But the message is clear. If you want the perception of having more time, give it away.
Psychological Science February 21, 2012. Giving Time Gives You Time. Cassie Mogilner, et al. The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
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