Not Enough Hours in the Day? Spend More Time Helping Others

by Staff - Original publish date: May 9, 2012

You have a proposal due at 2 p.m., a meeting at 3 p.m., and a conference call at 4 p.m. Then, after work, there are kids to be shuttled to dance lessons, groceries to be shopped for and laundry that just isn't going to wash itself. And weren't you thinking about going to the gym sometime today?

Just about everyone with a job knows the feeling of trying to squeeze work, family and personal activities into a very finite amount of time. And the busier we get, the more the pressure builds. How can you focus on your monthly sales report when you are also mentally calibrating a car pool schedule?

But wait! There is some hope after all. 

A trio of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Yale School of Management, and Harvard Business School have discovered a seemingly unlikely way to make yourself feel less pressed for time: Spend some time helping out others. 

The basic idea is this: When we use our time efficiently, we feel like we have more of it. And when we take time to help out others, it increases our sense of efficiency, thereby boosting our perception of the time we have available. 

The study compared how subjects felt after using time to help others to their perceptions in three other scenarios: spending time on themselves, receiving an unexpected amount of free time, and wasting time on inconsequential activities. In every case, giving time to friends and strangers made subjects feel like they had greater stores of time to spend.

"To be sure, decompressing in front of the television and getting massages are certainly fun and relaxing, but activities like these are very unlikely to increase feelings of self-efficacy," the researchers note in their report. 

But, if you are looking to feel less harried, self-indulgence may not be the right choice. 

The results, the researchers write, point to "a specific choice individuals can make to lessen their experienced time pressure: be effective by doing something for others."

There are, of course, limits to the finding. The time-expanding effects of helping out others diminish if a person thinks he is spending "too much" time on other people. Driving a friend to the airport might make you feel efficient and full of spare time, but spending an entire day helping him move but just be frustrating. 

But the next time you are wondering how you can possibly juggle a client meeting, a pressing deadline and your son's baseball game, think about making a casserole for your sick neighbor or do a volunteer shift down at the community center. 

You'll find the time.