We all agree that time is more valuable than money.
At least, that's what we say.
Then we turn around and spend hours watching bad TV we're not even that interested in. Or 45 minutes on the phone with customer service fighting a $5 charge. Or years in a relationship or friendship we stopped feeling fulfilled by long ago.
But I'm convinced it's not for a lack of good intent that we often end up treating time as our most fungible asset. (Hey, there's plenty more where that came from, right? Well, not really ... ) I think we simply get too busy to think about it, or don't think we have the resources to make more time in our lives. We do have the resources, though. All it takes is a fresh look at how we really spend our days, hours and moments.
I've been thinking about time as a tangible asset not unlike money in many ways, and about ways to invest our time to yield higher returns—better memories, more hours well spent, even minutes that nourish us instead of fly by. After much research, experience and reflection, below are what I found to be the seven best investments you can make with your time. Think of these as blue-chip time investments that can't go wrong—and that will yield high dividends for a more fulfilled life.
1. Invest in "Life-Extending" Time
Investing time in caring for your health is an obvious one that will certainly yield you more time, literally—in days, months, if not years tacked on to your life. Yet we often take our health for granted until we experience a wake-up call. Proactively invest your time in your health by eating well, exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep and regularly seeing your doctors. Invest heartily in those non-physical markers of well-being as well: emotional, mental and spiritual health—you will reap many hours of well-lived life from them. Learn the habits of the Blue Zone people, from the regions in the world where people live the longest. Some common lifestyle traits they share? Building in natural movement and activity, lowering stress and being part of a faith-based community.
2. Invest in "Foundation-Building" Time
There's a little saying that goes, "A stitch in time saves nine." Create the time to make the right stitches, and you'll be spared much time, hassle (and usually expense) later. Stephen Covey refers to this concept in "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." According to him, we spend our time primarily on four types of activity:
- (1) urgent and important (crisis, deadlines, putting out fires)
- (2) non-urgent and important (building relationships, identifying opportunities, prevention, planning)
- (3) urgent and non-important (interruptions, phone calls, meetings)
- (4) non-urgent and non-important (TV, email, time wasters)
Covey says that we spend most of our time in sections (1) and (4), but the real area of personal growth is in (2). If you're spending more time putting out fires than building the right foundations, you'll never get out ahead of your to-do list.
3. Invest in "Do-Nothing" Time
Americans could use a little dose of "La Dolce Far Niente," or "the sweetness of doing nothing," something the Italians and many other cultures have mastered. In America, we don't feel our time is well spent unless we're either producing or consuming, says social psychologist Robert V. Levine, author of "A Geography of Time: On Tempo, Culture, and the Pace of Life," which is a limited (and frankly, stressful) perspective. In other parts of the world, such as India, it's normal for people to enjoy each others' company without activity or even conversation. Investing in do-nothing time will help us slow down and experience a different pace of life, in which time's value is not measured by its productivity.
4. Invest in "System-Creating" Time
It's well-established in happiness psychology research that making small improvements to your life pays out exponentially in happiness. For example, putting a keyhook by the door so that you don't spend five minutes every morning hunting for your keys. Or rearranging your closet so you can actually see everything, and not spend 20 minutes each morning figuring out what to wear. Or coming up with a better filing system for your digital photos, or your expenses (check out LearnVest's My Money Center), so your personal admin time can be cut in half. Investing some up-front time in creating better, more organized systems will reap you lots of time in the long run.
Where Do You Get the Best Return?
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5. Invest in "Cushion" Time
This is one of those time investments that's so simple, but can yield such great results in your life. In the famous "Good Samaritan" study from Princeton University in 1973, researchers John M. Darley and C. Daniel Batson put an injured person in the path of several groups of people, to see who would stop and help: those running late, those who had just enough time, and those with plenty of time to get to their destination. They also controlled for people's religious affiliation. The results: religious affiliation had no impact on whether the individual stopped to help the person—but whether the person was in a hurry had a huge impact. Only 10% of those in a big hurry stopped to help the person, 45% of those in a medium hurry did—but 63% of those not rushed at all stopped to help. This means that being in a rush may be preventing you from being the kind of person you want to be—the kind to stop and help someone in need. Building in lots of cushion time in your schedule and preventing "constant hurriedness syndrome" is a great investment in yourself and in the quality of life of those around you.
6. Invest in "Savoring" Time
A recent 2010 study published in the Association for Psychological Science found that wealthy people are unhappier because they have a lower "savoring ability" (the ability to enhance and prolong positive emotional experience), like taking in the colors of a sunset or the taste of a cold beer. Apparently, having access to the best things in life may actually undermine your ability to reap enjoyment from life's small pleasures. It's not a coincidence that savoring requires slowing down—taking a few extra seconds to really look at the colors of the leaves, or munching slowly to enjoy the texture of a bite. Investing time in savoring all the unique sensorial moments of your day will guarantee your moments don't flash by in a dull blur.
7. Invest in "Time Assessment" Time
You wouldn't keep spending or investing money without assessing how well things were going every month, quarter or year, and the same thing should apply to your time. How frequently you decide to take stock is up to you—but a good system might be:
- Five minutes a day to make sure you've invested time in at least one thing on this list
- 15 minutes a week to review your past week's schedule and what you wish you had made time for, and what time investment made you happiest
- One hour a month (or two to three hours a season) of quiet time with a journal to assess the past season, how your time felt and how you'd like to invest your time in the coming season—this can pair nicely with the tempo of the period. For example, holidays may mean more family investment time, the new year can be career-focused, summertime may have a big leisure time component, etc.
- One day a year of time alone or with a friend or partner (best if you can physically go somewhere peaceful and different from your daily routine), assessing the past year and where your times and energies went, setting goals for the new year, and whether you are closer to achieving what is truly important to you in life
Follow Maria Lin on Twitter: @marialinnyc