Cassie Holmes shares powerful strategies for finding more meaning and fulfillment from your hours.
- Why more time doesn’t make us more happy
- Two tricks to make drudgery feel more enjoyable
- How to keep distractions from hijacking your attention
Cassie Holmes is a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, an award-winning teacher and researcher on time and happiness, and author of Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most.
Happier Hour was selected as a Forbes Must-Read and a Next Big Idea Club Must-Read for 2022, as well as an Amazon Best Business Book of 2022. It’s also been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Today Show, CBS Mornings, and much other media.
Holmes’s academic research has been widely published in lead academic journals and featured in such outlets as The Economist, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and more. The course that she developed and now teaches, Applying the Science of Happiness to Life Design, is among UCLA’s most popular for MBAs. Prior to joining UCLA, Cassie was a tenured faculty member at Wharton, and she has a Ph.D. from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and a B.A. from Columbia.
- Book: Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most
- Study: “Having Too Little or Too Much Time Is Linked to Lower Subjective Well-Being” with Marissa A. Sharif and Hal Hershfield
- Course: Applying the Science of Happiness to Life Design
- LinkedIn: Cassie Holmes
- Website: CassieMHolmes.com
Cassie, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Hi, Pete. Thanks so much for having me.
Oh, thank you. Well, I’m excited to talk about the wisdom in your latest work here, Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most. I understand you had some happy hours, hopefully, recently on vacation. What’s the story here?
Well, getting back from the fourth of July weekend, we had a great time up in Carmel Valley with good friends back from our business school days and their kids and our kids. And we picked up our kids from sleepaway camp. This is their first time away, and they were dirty but happy, and it was just fun to be outside in the sunshine with live music and yummy food and friends. What better than that?
Yeah, that does sound great. I was just going to ask, what are some themes associated with your happiest hours? And maybe you’ve already listed a few. Any other key ingredients?
Yeah, we’ll pick up on some of these, probably many times during our conversation because they’re sort of goes back to those simple things of those relationships with the people that we love, noticing those simple moments and making the most of them. And so, yeah, it’s people.
Okay. Makes sense, people. I hear you. So, tell us, as you’re putting together and researching Happier Hour, any particularly surprising or counterintuitive discoveries you made on the journey?
Yes. So, I think that what Happier Hour is, it’s sort of me pulling together my entire career of research on how we think about and spend our time for greater happiness and joy in our lives. And what’s interesting about that is that my relationship with time actually started off as not very happy at all. In fact, I felt, for me, for my own personal happiness, time proved to be this single biggest barrier.
And I share a story that I used to open the book which I think many can relate to and very much motivated my research agenda since, as well as writing the book to help others by applying what I found in my research to their lives, is that it was this day earlier in my career when I was still an assistant professor living in Philly. I was at Wharton at the time, and I traveled up to New York to give a talk that day.
And I was sandwiched between back-to-back meetings and then I’m rushing from those meetings, then to this networking dinner, and then rushing to catch the very last train that would get me home to my four-month-old and my husband asleep in Philly. And I made the train that night, but I remember it so vividly, I was absolutely exhausted.
And I was like, “I don’t know if I can keep up between the pressures of work, wanting to be a good partner, wanting to be a good parent, wanting to be a good friend, the never-ending piles of chores.” There simply were not enough hours in the day to get that all done, let alone to do any of it, while, let alone to enjoy any of it along the way.
And that feeling, which now in my research what we’ve been sort of unpacking, is what we referred to as time poverty. It’s this acute feeling of having too much to do and not enough time to do it. And it’s a really bad feeling in my experience of that on the train that night. I actually considered quitting. I considered quitting my entire sort of career that I worked so hard for, thinking that, “If only I had a whole lot more time, then I would be happier.”
But before I sort of marched into my boss’ office, and like, “I quit.” And before telling my husband, “We need to pack up our house. We’re moving to the beach,” where this relaxing existence that I was daydreaming about would occur, I was like, “Is it true? Is it true that people who have a whole lot more time are, in fact, happier?” And I recognize this is an empirical question and, one, as a social psychologist, that I could test and should test.
And so, I did, and I recruited a couple of my favorite collaborators, Hal Hershfield and Marissa Sharif, and we looked at, “What’s the relationship between the amount of discretionary time people have and their happiness?” And what we found across our studies, including our analyses of the American Time Use Survey data that looks at, for tens of thousands of working as well as non-working Americans, how they spent a regular day, and we could calculate how much time they spent on discretionary activities and relate that to their happiness.
And what we found was, to answer your question, a surprising finding, was this surprising pattern of results, which was basically an upside-down U shape. And this is interesting because…
What it means is that happiness goes down on both ends of the spectrum. So, yes, people with too little time are less happy, those time poor amongst us. But what was also interesting was that other side, and that surprising side was that there is such a thing as having too much time, that we found that those with a whole lot of discretionary time were also less happy.
And, then digging into the data, they’re unhappy for different reasons, and we can talk about that, but I think it’s absolutely surprising and an important finding for us to keep in mind, in those sorts of hurried days where we do feel time poor, it sort of cautions us away from quitting, and tells us that, in fact, for greater happiness, it’s not about necessarily having a whole lot more time available to spend however you want. In fact, it’s actually how you invest the time that you have available.
And that’s actually then what propelled my research agenda since, it’s, “How do we invest hours of our days so that we feel more satisfied in our days, so that we feel joy along the way, so that, looking back at the end of the week, even if we’re busy, we feel fulfilled as opposed to just having an overly full schedule?”
Well, Cassie, there’s so much good stuff in here. Oh, we’re going to have fun digging into this.
Where do we start?
Well, Cassie, I don’t know if this surprises you but I’ve actually been on the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Time Use survey numerous times.
For my own fun. That’s right. I’ve researched things for fun. And so, first, let’s just confirm that this is legit, if I may, because you’ll know this so much better than I. Because when I’m up in there, I am surprised at certain numbers, like, “How is that even possible?” Like, the average amount, hours per day for civilian population, spent on housework is 0.57 hours.
So, can you maybe, first of all, for the sliver of the audience who has nerdly crawled all over the American Time Use Survey, can you confirm that it is more or less valid and legit and share why I see some numbers that I find hard to believe?
Yeah, it’s a great question, and when you do dig into the data, and I actually would say, even before you dig in, if you’re not digging in, if you’re just looking sort of at that first glance at averages and some of the maxes and means of the various variables, that’s where you’re like, “Well, what the heck? How is it possible?” For instance, in some of our analyses of the amount of discretionary time people have that they are spending 20 hours of discretionary time, which discretionary time are spending on activities that people want to do.
And so, I’m like, “Well, when do they sleep? They only have four hours of sleep and there are chores.” And for many of us, it’s more than 0.5 hours. So, what I would say is that this is based off of data averaging across a whole bunch of people, and it’s sort of capturing a particular day. And what you need to do is look at, “What are the patterns?” like, the overall patterns so that you’re not relying on one weirdo who has literally, I don’t know, watched TV for 20 hours in a row, discretionary activity, and slept only four hours and not done anything else.
It’s you’re looking at, “All right, what are some actual interactions and moderations? And who is feeling these particular ways? And how are they spending their time?” Now, what we wanted to make sure is that, so that we’re not sort of relying on any one idiosyncratic person and/or relying so heavily on just averages, looking at, “Okay, if we cut up the data in different ways, how does this pattern play out?”
But what’s so interesting is this pattern, this such thing, or this finding that there’s too little or too much that is bad and that is associated with less happiness, is quite telling.
And going to how we even calculate, “What does it mean to spend time on discretionary activities?” We didn’t want to rely on our own idiosyncrasies of, “What are activities that people want to do?” versus obligatory activities, activities that folks have to do. And so, what we did is that we took all activities from the American Time Use Survey, so it’s like 139 activities, and we presented them to a sample of 500 individuals, and we asked them, “Is this a discretionary activity? Is it something that you want to do?” and we said that we would count any activity that more than 90% agreed was discretionary.
And those activities that more than 90% identified as discretionary included passive leisure, so this is watching TV, relaxing. It is also, though, includes active leisure, like playing sports, engaging in a hobby, exercise. It also includes spending time with family and friends. So, this is what we calculate for each individual. Now we’re getting into the weeds. You have me start talking about data which people never ask about.
But actually, interestingly, this pattern emerges, this negative quadratic relationship, also when we use the sort of 75% of people agree, so it is robust. This having too little time is bad, and digging into the data for why with additional studies, the answer is that, for those who are time poor this is no surprise, it is heightened feelings of stress. How could it be that other side of the spectrum, how could having a whole lot of hours in the day to spend exactly how you want it be associated with less happiness?
And what we found is that we are driven to be somewhat productive. We are averse to being idle. And so, when we spend all the hours of our days, day in and day out, this isn’t vacation, with nothing to show for, it undermines our sense of purpose. And from that, we feel less productive. And without that sense of purpose, we feel less satisfied.
And what’s interesting is that we saw, as additional sort of evidence to this role of purpose and wanting to be somewhat productive with the time that we spend, we found that those who actually engage in discretionary activities that they are “productive and worthwhile” like exercise, like engaging in an enriching hobby, actually, like investing in relationships, spending time with family and friends. You don’t see the too-much-time effect. It’s actually the too-much-time effect is driven by spending a whole lot of those hours in the day in ways that are discretionary, things that you want to do, but it’s more of that passive leisure.
That’s interesting. So, folks who are spending tons of discretionary time can break the rules of the upside-down U if that discretionary time is high quality, family, friends, hobbies instead of Netflix binging.
Okay. Cool. And then, also a quick data clarification, how are we measuring “happy”?
Yes. So, with the American Time Use Survey, it’s people reporting their…I think, it was on a five-point scale of how satisfied they are with life.
Okay. So, lay it on us then, on the upside-down U, what is the magic sweet spot that puts us in the top happy spot we want to be? How much discretionary activity time?
Well, we find that, and I don’t want to sort of hang my hat on these exact numbers, but in the American Time Use Survey data, we found that between two and five hours of discretionary time is that sweet spot, that is those with less than approximately two hours of discretionary time in the day, they were less happy because of those heightened feelings of stress. Those with more than approximately five hours of discretionary time in the day were also less happy because of a lacking sense of purpose.
But I would say that what is more, I think, the bigger takeaway here is that it is not so much about how much available time you have or how much discretionary time you have, it’s really when you’re engaging in activities that feel worthwhile. And they can feel worthwhile from different sources. They can feel worthwhile because they bring you joy. They can feel worthwhile because they give you that sense that you are being productive and contributing. They can feel worthwhile when rightly placed because they are rejuvenating and relaxing.
So, it’s about identifying for yourself what are those worthwhile ways of spending, but also when you’re spending that time, how you are engaged? What is your mindset? And that very high level is the answer here. And then I would love to talk about some of the strategies for folks to identify for themselves, “Okay, what are those worthwhile activities?” for you so we’re not relying on averages across people, or even averages across a particular example of any type of activity, but also some strategies that, when you’re spending that time, how do you make the most of it, how do you make it so that those hours that you’re spending are, in fact, heavier.
And yet another sort of answer for you. You asked me, whether it’s some surprising findings, perhaps even the most surprising. I think one was that too much time is a thing, and that having a whole lot more time isn’t necessarily better. But another is that there is incredible amount of happiness available to us in the time that we’re already spending but so often we’re missing and not noticing it.
And so, the extraordinary happiness that can come from ordinary moments, if you’re paying attention, if we are engaged in the activity in that time in such a way to make the most of it, can be so, so powerful.
Well, yes, that’s beautiful. Let’s do exactly that. First, let’s talk about worthwhile. How do we get really clear on what is worthwhile and not worthwhile for us individually?
Yeah. So, the research tracks people’s time, so how you’re spending your time over the course of the day, and whether you’re feeling across the day, so researchers can pull out, on average, whether those activities that tend to be associated with the most positive emotion, what are those activities that tend to be associated with the most negative emotion.
That research points to our happiest activities being social connection. So, whether intimately or physically, as well as spending time with family and friends. Our least happy activities tend to be commuting, work, and housework, which is a bummer because those three activities together comprise a bulk of our work week. But, again, as I said before, those are based off of averages.
So, the average person as well as the average example of any one of those activities, but, of course, within your work hours, there are some activities that are going to be more fulfilling and worthwhile, and others that are aren’t. So, what I encourage folks to do is to track your own time over the course of a week, writing down in those super simple PDF sheet that you can download from my website, if helpful.
Basically, for every half hour, writing down, “What are you doing? What’s the activity?” and being more specific than just working or socializing. If you’re working, what is the work task? If you’re socializing, whom are you with and what are you doing? And, as importantly, rating, as you’re coming out of that half hour, coming out of that activity, on a ten-point scale, how happy are you? And not the sort of, “Oh, it was just enjoyable.”
When people are rating their happiness, it is picking up on how satisfied you feel, how worthwhile was it. And so, while, admittedly, it is tedious to track your time over the course of the week, it’s totally worth it because you have this fantastic personalized dataset that you can look for yourself, looking across your activities or your rating sheet, your time tracker, you can see what are those activities that got your highest ratings.
And what’s as helpful is not just looking at the particular activities that are sort of your highest ratings versus your lowest ratings, but what are some commonalities among them? So, you might find, for instance, like when I did this, I found for myself it wasn’t socializing per se that was necessarily fun. For me, it was one-on-one time whether with a friend, whether with a family member, as opposed to the whole group going out.
Also, I found in my work hours, actually going on a coffee walk with a colleague as we’re talking about research, that is super fun time versus the group lunches at work, or the group dinners at home, or cocktail parties. And so, I found that, for me, actually, one-on-one time was very worthwhile. And by tracking your time, you can identify, “Okay, what are the sources of fulfillment and joy in the way you spend your time?”
You can also see just how much time you’re spending on your various activities so you can pull out, “Holy cow, I had no idea that I was spending X amount of time on said activity that is not fun, and, in many cases, not necessary.” And this is, for those of us who are time poor, it’s very helpful to, like, “Okay, this is time that I can reclaim and reallocate.”
Can I share an analogy to highlight just how important this is?
Okay. Because our time is limited, and there’s an analogy that I love and I continue to touch back on in my own time spending decisions as well as I actually teach a course to our MBAs and executive MBAs at UCLA that is pulling the research together, Applying the Science of Happiness to Life Design is what the course is called.
And in the first day of the course, I share this short film which shows this analogy so well. And in the film, a professor walks into his classroom, and on the desk in front of the class, he puts a large jar. And then into the jar, he pours golf balls, and then he asked his students, “Is the jar full?” The students nod their head because it looks full, but nope. Then he pours pebbles into the jar, and the pebbles fill the spaces between the golf balls up to the top. He asked his students again, “Is the jar full?” the students nod their head, “Yes, it looks full.” But nope.
Then he pours sand into the jar, and the sand fills all the spaces between the golf balls, between the pebbles up to the top, “Is the jar full?” By this point, the students were like laughing, and, “Yes, the jar looks full.” But, no, there was one more step. He pulls out two bottles of beer, he opens one, pours it into the jar, he opens the other, and then he goes and sort of perches himself on the front of the desk, and he explains, and he takes a sip of the beer.
And he explains, “This jar represents the time of your life. The golf balls are those things that really matter to you, your relationships with your family, your friendships, the work that you do that is so in line with your purpose and your goals that feels really worthwhile. The pebbles are the other important things in your life, like your job, your house. The sand is everything else. The sand is all of that stuff that fills your time without you even thinking about, like, unintentionally, without you even choosing it.”
And what’s really important to know is that, had he poured the sand into the jar first, all of the golf balls would not have fit. That’s to say that if we let our time get filled, it absolutely will get filled but not necessarily with the stuff that matters to you. And so, what you need to do is put your golf balls into your time jar first, into your schedule of the week. Put those activities that are so worthwhile, those activities that do connect you with these people that are so important to you.
The work hours, like the work project or tasks that is so important to you and as fulfilling and will sort of propel you forward in what matters to you, put those into your schedule first because sand will absolutely fill everything else, but at least this way, at the end of the week, even if you were busy, you can look back and feel fulfilled because you’ve invested in those things that matter to you.
So, what the time tracking exercise does is it allows you to identify what are your golf balls, what are those things that you can put and should and must from a sense of satisfaction and offsetting burnout and a sense of fulfillment and happiness, is you have to put those into your schedule and protect time for them. Others won’t do that for you. You need to take the responsibility for that. And then, yes, this other stuff will fill in.
My sand is email. Others, when I have my students do this, their sand is whether it’s social media or meetings that are not all that necessary, but it’s so important that our weeks don’t just get filled with sand and keeping us busy but not necessarily spending our time on those things that matter. And then one of the students was like, “Professor, what’s the deal with the beer?” And I was like, “I’m so glad you asked.”
Yes, I wanted to ask. Glad you went here.
Yup. And the beer goes to show that no matter how busy you feel, how full your schedule is, you always have time for a drink with a friend. So, whether it’s beer or soda, it’s just to make this point that, absolutely, amidst the busyness of our lives, it’s those people that we do and can and must sort of make time for.
Beautiful. Thank you. Well, I also have to hear about, when you talked about how we engage with things in our mindset can improve anything and everything, maybe even…
No, overstatement but not, actually.
Well, even the commuting and the work and the housework, even if you’re only spending 0.57 hours on that housework, like the “average American.”
I agree with you. Who is that lucky person?
Well, I’m putting my hat on those lots of zeroes from folks who are traveling, like, “Hey, I don’t have to clean my hotel room.
It’s also averaging. Yes, there’s a lot of zeroes because this is picking up the American Time Use Survey data. It’s picking up on a day, and you might be catching people, whether they’re on a holiday or on the day that they’re not doing housework.
But, that aside, there are, of course, ideally, sure we would spend all of our days and our entire schedule on golf balls, but that’s not the reality, right? We do have work to do. And there are strategies to make these times that are less fun more fun.
Bundling is a super easy one. So, this is taking from some of the motivation research by Katy Milkman and her colleagues, and it’s such a simple idea that is so effective is taking an activity you don’t want to do, like commuting, and bundle it with an activity that you do want to do so that that time itself feels more fun.
Like, commuting. Instead of sitting in the car and, like, mindlessly flipping through radio stations, if instead you turn on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
There we go, Cassie. Well-played. Thank you.
Yup. Then, all of a sudden, that time in the car feels more worthwhile. Or, one of my readers, she reached out, she’s like, the bundling strategy was so awesome because her husband, all of a sudden, ironing was his favorite activity of the week because, what he did, Saturday afternoon, he would set up the ironing board in front of the TV, and that was when he watched sports. So, it was bundling the chore of ironing with watching sports. And then, all of a sudden, that time was his sort of delectable time that he got to watch sports and nobody got to bother him about it.
There’s also bundling during our work hours. So, I talked about social connection is so important for happiness. For many Americans, a lot of their hours spent working are not particularly happy. And figuring out, “Okay, how can we bundle social connection into our work days?” And this is so important. Gallup has a funny question in their poll, which asks, “Do you have a best friend at work?” And I say it’s funny because it sounds like something my fourth grader would ask, like, “Do you have a best friend?”
But it is so predictive. And I’m sure the numbers aren’t too far off, but pre-pandemic, only two out of 10 Americans said that they had a best friend at work. Those who did were more than twice more engaged in their jobs. They’re better performers on their jobs. They’re more satisfied at work. And job satisfaction is a very big predictor of overall life satisfaction.
If we can infuse friendship into our work hours, then that is, like, I’m framing it as bundling, but then that work itself becomes more fun, you look forward to the work day because you get to see your friend. When you are sort of confronted with challenges in work, which, of course, we all are, you have that person that you can rely on and sort of find that social support. So, it’s like wins are more fun and losses are less painful when you have friendship in the workplace. So, that’s one way.
Another is identifying your purpose. So, I know it sounds so lofty but, actually, in the book. So, Happier Hour, as I mentioned, I teach this course Applying the Science of Happiness to Life Design, and each week I give my students an experiential assignment so that they can apply these empirical findings to their own lives and feel the benefits of it. And every time I’ve taught the course, I see significant boosts in the sense of meaning, happiness, a sense of connection, a sense of accomplishment.
And in Happier Hours, since not everyone can take my course at UCLA, is I share those assignments as exercises in the book so that readers can apply them. So, the time tracking exercise is one. There’s another exercise that helps you identify your purpose, and it’s called the Five Whys Exercise. And so, what it is it’s you asking yourself, like, “Okay, what do you do for your job? Why do you do that?” And then your answer for that, you ask yourself, “But why is that important?”
And once you ask yourself why, five layers into really why you do the work that you do, what it uncovers for you as an individual is what really motivates you, “What is your purpose? Like, what is your why?” And the reason that this is so helpful is because it makes even those un-fun parts of your job more fun because you feel better because they feel more worthwhile, you know why you’re doing it.
So, when I did this exercise, I found it so helpful because it helped me identify my own purpose. So, what is my job? I’m a business school professor. Why does one do that? Well, to create knowledge through research and disseminate knowledge through teaching. And then I ask myself, “But why is that important?” And then my answer to that, why is that, and what I uncovered is that, for me, the purpose of my work is to create knowledge about what makes people happy, and to disseminate knowledge about what makes people happy.
This is helpful for a couple of reasons with respect to time, is that it helps me filter out what are those activities, work activities, that I should be saying yes to or should be saying no to if it’s something that is in line with helping me create knowledge about what makes people happy or disseminate knowledge about what makes people happy, then I will do it. Like, joining you and our time today, this is about disseminating knowledge about what makes people happy.
But not only does it help me decide what activities to spend my time on, it makes even un-fun work activities more palatable and more fun because I know the why of it. So, email, I do not like. That feels like sand. It can absorb my entire work day, work week, and I feel like I got nothing accomplished. But when I’m like, “Okay, actually, email with a research collaborator, that’s about creating knowledge about what makes people happy. Emails with my students, oh, that’s about disseminating knowledge about what makes people happy.”
So, all of a sudden, that particular activity of email feels better because I know the why of it.
And so, with the five whys, so you lay it on your purposes to discover and disseminate knowledge about what makes people happy. And I don’t know if we landed there from the third or the fourth why.
That’s the fifth one.
So, I guess, if I may, what happens if I say why again to that? Why does that matter?
Because I want to spread happiness. And, for me, that’s really important. And what’s really helpful about this exercise is that what you identify for your purpose, it is unique to you. It doesn’t have to align with other people’s notions of what is the sort of ultimate worthwhile metric of success, which is so helpful because this idea of what success means, there are so many dimensions that go into it, and there will always be individuals who are doing better than you on one of those dimensions, but those are things that might not actually even matter to you.
So, what this, by identifying your own purpose, that’s what you should use when you see a gap between what you’re doing and what you aspire towards, that should be the motivator. When you actually see that you’re making progress, it’s so much more fulfilling compared to what we generally do is rely on social comparison, and like, “How am I doing in life?” or, “How am I doing in my job?” By looking at how you’re doing compared to others, which through social comparison, it’s one of the cognitive biases, or, in this case, our cognitive tendencies, our psychological tendencies that can really serve to undermine our happiness.
Now, if your question of like, “Well, why is spreading happiness important?” then I can tell you my seventh why of pointing to research that shows that happiness, while some might think as sort of this frivolous or even selfish pursuit, research shows that when you feel happier, when you take care of your emotional wellbeing, it allows you to show up better for those around you in the work that you do.
Being happier has positive consequences across our domains of life. Study shows that it makes us perform better in the office. So, when we are made to feel happier, it makes us more creative, we become more adaptive in our problem-solving, we’re more collaborative. Happy employees are more engaged, they’re more likely to show up at work, they’re less likely to call in sick. And so, it helps in not only you in your work but organizations.
It also helps us in our interpersonal relationships. When we feel happier, we like others more, we are liked by others, it makes us nicer, and there’s even work that shows that when we feel happier, it has positive health benefits, too, that we’re more likely to stick to our treatment routines, we have higher thresholds for pain, we react better to physiological stressors. Happier people live longer.
And so, by helping people be happier, based off of the research not just by opinion, based off of the research, then it allows them to not only feel happier, which is such a wonderful outcome, but also it allows them to show up better within their organizations and within their family, so it’s sort of spreading this goodness. So, that’s, like, my eighth why.
Well, that’s cool. Well, I guess what I’m driving at with the whys is that all sounds super awesome. But just to illustrate the technique, I will say, and why do all those things matter, Cassie?
I felt very satisfied with my fifth layer. But, yes, it’s really helpful because when individuals do this, it uncovers for them what drives them in their work. And, oftentimes, that first layer of why is your job description, or it can be some people are like, “Well, it’s to make money.” It’s like, “Well, why is that particular job the way that you’re looking to make money?” Or, it can even help uncover what’s really driving you in wanting financial security. If it’s like ultimately to make it so that your kids are less stressed, or if you’re going in the job description route, like, “Well, why does that matter to you?”
So often, in just two layers more of whys, folks identify for themselves, like, “Oh, the thing that actually matters to me is this.” And in recognizing that, that can help you figure out, all right, what are those work projects that you want to take on because they are going to help propel you in your particular direction that is “success” for you and are in line with your goals and values.
One of the most painful ways, actually, in the time tracking exercise when people are looking across those least happy activities of theirs, what the dimensions, the sources of the unhappiness, a common one is a waste of time. That is, like, you spent your time on something that just felt meaningless and unnecessary. Those are the same things but they show up.
And so, in the workplace, for example, those meetings that are like, “Oh, my gosh, that was such a waste of an hour,” those are the work hours that bring those averages way down because it’s like, “Ugh, my time is precious.” All of our time is precious. The hours of our days sum up to the years of our lives, so how we spend our hours is how we spend our lives. And when those hours are wasted, that’s the thing that’s sort of a soul sucking.
And so, whether during the work day or even outside of work, the social media often gets picked up as the sort of like people reflect back, it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, that felt such a waste and it felt not good.” And this isn’t someone else being like, “You shouldn’t be on social media, or you shouldn’t spend 10 hours a night watching TV.” This is in their own ratings.
And what’s interesting is also in the time tracking, like one student in the reflection piece afterwards, they’re like, “I thought an activity that would be really fun was actually less fun than it was.” So, they thought that TV was their happy time, but they realized that after that first hour, all subsequent hours were actually quite unhappy.
And then there were these activities that they dreaded, that in their ratings, they actually got nines and tens, like socializing. This person dreaded socializing. This person dreaded exercising. But then, in coming out of these activities, they’re actually, apparently, according to their own ratings, actually made them feel really great and fulfilled and is worth the time even when we feel like they don’t have a lot of it.
Absolutely, that is powerful when we have those surprises come up. And I’m thinking about Dr. David Burns’ Feeling Good. There’s a lot of exercises along those lines which, “Hey, surprise, this thing you were procrastinating wasn’t that horrible, was it? Hmm, how about that?” Or, “Surprise, exercise and socializing is amazing.”
What I think that would be yet another helpful strategy in terms of where, as I mentioned, so like we want to not only identify and spend our time on those activities that are worthwhile, but also how when we are engaging in those activities make them worthwhile because a whole lot of the time we’re distracted.
So, research shows that we are distracted, not thinking about what we are currently doing, almost 47% of the time, that is almost half of the time. And so, in this research, what they did was they would ping people over the course of their day, and ask, “What are you doing?” as well as “What are you thinking about? Are you thinking about what you’re currently doing? Or are you thinking about something else? And how happy are you?”
And, as I mentioned, people are not thinking about what they’re doing a whole lot of the time. More than half of the time, or almost half of the time, they are not thinking about what they’re currently doing. And also, what was interesting is that people are less happy when their mind is wandering than when they are engaged in their activity.
And so, if you’re thinking about, like, “Oh, my gosh, we’re just at this so much of the time.” And if you’re spending time on the golf ball, on something that matters to you, but you’re missing it because your mind is somewhere else, like planning for what’s next or stressing about what’s next, then you’re missing that moment and the time that you’re spending.
One of the big sources, a huge source of distractions are our cellphones. These are these very handy devices that allow us to get so much done, and by being able to constantly do other things and be aware of what other people are doing on social media, because you’re like, “Oh, my gosh,” at every moment, there are other things that you could and maybe should be doing, it draws us out of the moment.
And so, something that is very effective is actually carving out time as no-phone zones, as in putting the phone away, out of sight, which makes it more out of mind so that you can be more engaged in what you’re doing. This helps during the work day, like for that important work that you’re doing, that needs your deep thinking.
Put your phone on silent away. Close out of emails so that you don’t get those interruptions that are pulling you out of the moment, that are keeping you from getting into flow, that flow state where you’re so engaged in what you’re doing you lose sense of time, and that’s when you’re most creative, that’s when you’re at your best. But it’s not just during the work day, it’s like on in the evenings when you’re with your family, or weekends, us carving out, putting your phones away, making them no-phone zones so that when you’re spending that time, your mind isn’t somewhere else.
So often, something I mentioned earlier is another really important and perhaps surprising finding is that a lot of our happiest moments are in very ordinary activities. So, even if you forget time tracking, just reflecting, thinking back over the last two weeks, when did you feel the most joy? So often when I ask people to reflect, their joyful activities are so mundane. One of my most joyful activities is my weekly coffee date with my seven-year-old daughter.
And this started when she was really little, borne out of a very functional routine on my way of dropping her at her preschool, before going into the office, I wanted caffeine. And so, we would stop at the local coffee shop, and it was just 30 minutes that was time for the two of us. She got her hot chocolate, I have my flat white, we munch on croissants, and we’re chatting. It’s like the two of us together.
And this routine, we turned into this treasured ritual. And we actually went, today is Thursday, we went this morning. Four years later, we still do this. And it’s just 30 minutes but it’s so powerful in affecting how satisfied I am and how happy I feel in my days. And what’s interesting is often though happiness comes out of these ordinary moments, so often we miss them because we’re distracted or because we’re subject to hedonic adaptation, that is our tendency to get used to things over time.
When we do the same thing again and again, we are with the same person over and over, we stop noticing them so much. They don’t have as strong of an emotional impact on us. Now, it’s good that we adapt in the face of negative experiences and activities because it makes us more resilient, but it’s bad when we adapt to the good stuff because we stop noticing, because it leads us to miss out on the joy that’s right there in the time we’re spending.
And I share a couple in Happier Hour a couple of exercises or strategies to help offset hedonic adaptations so that we do continue to find joy in our joys in life, and one of them is counting times left. Because, so often, because these are everyday experiences, we assume they will continue to happen every day just in the way that they are, but that’s not true. Time passes and our circumstances change.
And so, in counting times left, first identify this activity that brings you joy, then calculate, “How many times have you done this in your life thus far?” So, for my coffee days with my daughter, Lita, we’ve done it for over a bunch of years now. And then counting that as well as during my maternity leave where every day I would bundle it up and go to the coffee shop for sanity. I calculated we’ve gone on about 400 coffee days together so far.
Then the next step is, calculate, “How many times do you have left in your life to do this, accounting for factors that will change in your circumstances?” And if your joyful activity involves someone else, accounting for factors that will change in their circumstances. And so, I calculate it, so Lita is now seven. When she’s 12, I suspect she’ll probably rather go to the coffee shop with her friends instead of me. And then she’s going to go off to college, and then she’s going to go live in New York, wherever it is. I calculate we have about 230 coffee dates together left.
And then the last step in this exercise is calculate, of your total times, what percentage do you have left. I realize that Lita and I have 36% of our coffee dates together left. That’s way less than half and she’s only seven years old. Now, what’s the effect of this? It is, at first, you’re like, “Meh, sad.” But the positive effect far outweighs any initial sadness because what it does is it motivates me to make the time. This is a golf ball, I put it in my schedule. I am not taking meetings before 9:00 o’clock on Thursday mornings. Actually, it’s summer so we could do it on Thursday now that she’s not in preschool anymore and school starts earlier. It’s moved to Saturday mornings, in general.
But it makes me make the time. No matter how busy the week seems, that we spend this half hour together. We prioritize it. Also, it affects how I engage during that time because, knowing that this time is precious, knowing that these dates, these minutes that we have together are, in fact, limited in this sort of lovely connecting way, I’m like my phone is away. So, this is a no-phone zone.
And, also, that sort of constant to-do list that runs in my mind, always thinking about planning for what’s next gets quieted because I’m like, “This is the time that matters, not what’s happening next.” I draw my attention back to the here and now so that I don’t miss it.
And, as I said, from the outset, it is those connections, those relationships that are so crucial to our happiness, whether it’s having a best friend at work, or having those people in our lives whom we love and who we feel loved by, that it absolutely makes it feel worthwhile.
All right. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
I love the quote by Abraham Lincoln, or he’s said to have quoted, “People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be,” because what I think that shows is that happiness is a choice, and if we’re intentional with how we spend our time, we can choose to be happier.
All right. And a favorite book?
Well, my own book, Happier Hour but also, I love reading fiction. And there’s a book called The Hours by Michael Cunningham, which references the life and work of Virginia Woolf, but it’s actually I love the novel because it picks up on sort of what I said today where there’s so much life that is lived in those moments, lived within the hours of our days that color our sense of satisfaction and purpose and the story of our lives.
All right. And if folks want to contact you or get in touch, where would you point them?
I would point them to my website, CassieMHolmes.com, and there is where my research is, you can find more information about my book Happier Hour. And then I am on LinkedIn, so you can connect with me and follow me on LinkedIn. I’m not on other social media because, in my time tracking, I found that wasn’t fun time for me.
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
I would say identify those hours or those activities within your day that bring you that sense of purpose and joy, and invest in those times wholly and protect time for those times.
All right. Cassie, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you many happier hours.
Thank you so much for having me, Pete. This was fun.