The Poverty of Time

In his groundbreaking work on the psychological implications of poverty, Sendhil Mullainathan found evidence that many lawmakers and social critics were mixing up cause and effect. Namely, it wasn’t necessarily that people were poor because of bad decisions or a lack of intelligence. No, instead he showed that even the idea of poverty could lower a person’s ability to make good decisions:

“Simply raising monetary concerns for the poor,” they explain, “erodes cognitive performance even more than being seriously sleep deprived.” They attribute this result to the maelstrom of problems poor people must suddenly confront in the face of a large unexpected expense: how will I pay the rent, buy food, take care of my kids? This round of mental juggling depletes the amount of mental bandwidth available for everything else.

It highlights what I think is one of the biggest differences between a scarcity and abundance mindset: in an abundance mindset, you expend your resources to get what you need, and there’s no worry about whether or not you’ll have enough. With scarcity, though, every thing you acquire means you have to give up something else. Colloquially it’s “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul“, and it’s part of the reason why check-cashing loan businesses are so successful.

“This type of high-risk borrowing seems ridiculous,” Mullainathan says, but “we wanted to prove that thinking like this doesn’t come from a lack of financial understanding or foolishness—it comes from putting out fires.”

In my opinion, he more than proves it (and thankfully many other organizations such as the U.S. Government and the World Bank think so as well) but you’ll have to read the excellent article over at Harvard Magazine to see what you think. That’s not what I wanted to talk about right now, though.

Wasting Time

What time is it?I had a bit of a eureka moment recently when I was trying to figure out why I have such difficulty creating leisure time for myself. I’m not alone; just recently a friend finished her PhD defense and asked me What does one do when you’ve reached the goal you’ve been focused on for the last six years?

I told her Pretend to rest on your laurels for as long as you can while sneakily looking around for the next goal. I knew better than to tell her to just rest, as she proved with her next message:

R. E. S. T…I don’t understand.

I put on my Personal Development Blogger hat: So, it’s kind of like pretending to be dead. As long as you can.

She, being an overachiever, gave the only reply she could: F*ck. Sounds horrible.

Why horrible? Simply enough, like me, she’s accustomed to the idea that any time spent on relaxing means time not spent doing something else. What is that something? Ah, that’s just it: the list is endless! Things that need to be accomplished, that need to be learned, that need to be fixed, that need to be acquired, or that need to be done to get the money to acquire the thing that will finally help us relax…that’s the drill.

And I can’t help but think that there’s some correlation to what Mullainathan talks about with the way our decision making gets worse the more we feel that time is scarce. It leads to impulse buys and drunk texts and Facebook updates that are regretted later, but that at the time had to be done.

Like many of my posts, this one is not going to end with a “here’s how to solve the problem” section. Not like I’d know! I’m sitting here wondering if I’m spending too long blogging and should instead be doing a yoga workout to stretch my bike-sore muscles while listening to the Japanese for Dummies audiobook. Or maybe I should be finishing up the upcoming LLP Guide to Meditation, or making packing lists for my upcoming trip to L.A. this weekend…no, I’m not one to say how to escape the Poverty of Time.

But I can tell you where I think some positive directions might lie: Meditation – for a half-hour or more. S.T.O.P. definitely helps with that. Cigars and fine port. Also spending time with grandsons making cardboard swords. Pick your remedy, and let me know how it works for you.

And hurry, ok? I’m not sure how long we’ve got…

4 thoughts on “The Poverty of Time”

  1. Reading this makes me wonder what time-spends you think you’re supposed to consider relaxing. Yoga, blogging, and listening to audiobooks all sound like leisure activities to me. So does building a robot, changing one’s own oil, or going for a swim. If something concrete happens to come of it, that doesn’t make it not-fun, and I’d suggest that the difference is in the attitude with which one approaches the activity.

    The other thing I’d add is novelty, or out-of-the-ordinary-ness. Sitting around your own house reading a book, you feel the pressure of all the other stuff you could be doing at home instead of staring at paper. Sitting in the Caribbean, or in the woods, doing the same thing feels refreshing. Partly it’s because you’ve deliberately carved out the time to be in the new place, sure, but another part of it is you carry different associations about those surroundings. Doing just about anything in a pleasant place you haven’t been before, or have only been occasionally, feels more like leisure because it’s 1) a new environment tickling new parts of your brain, and 2) comparatively free of mental associations that make you Should all over yourself.

    1. Vinegrrl,

      I’m going with the definition of leisure as follows: “freedom from the demands of work or duty”. I do yoga, blogging, and listen to non-fiction audiobooks with a purpose or goal in mind of self-improvement. What I’ve been missing is “purposeless time”: time when I’m doing things just for the enjoyment of them, not towards some end goal.

      I can see how the “novelty” thing works for some, but as you know I travel a lot; it doesn’t matter where I am, I feel like I should be working on something else. This week is vacation; we’ll see if I can manage some relaxation for realz.

  2. I am probably not the best person to tell others how to get over the “not enough time” mindset. I am of the “there’s plenty of time” crowd with a healthy addition of whatever gets done is what gets done. (This bothered my previous boss to no end when she had me helping with parties and events.) But when I feel need to relax I tend to knit. It’s my go-to brain numbing activity (especially now in the midst of buying a house. So much stuff to do!)

  3. Downtime is something I am still struggling with. I too have the silly thought that “any time spent on relaxing means time not spent doing something else.” I have to keep reminding myself that I am working VERY HARD at relaxing…my body is working very hard to reset itself.

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