How ‘buying’ time can make you a happier doctor

By John Murphy
Published June 1, 2020

Key Takeaways

It’s a familiar refrain: “There just aren’t enough hours in the day.” But, if you could acquire more free time, would you be happier? Turns out, you probably would. Researchers have found that people who “buy time” have greater life satisfaction. 

Consider this: Before the COVID-19 crisis, doctors were spending more time at work but less time with patients. In addition, 64% of physicians reported having less free time than when they had started their medical careers, according to one survey. At the same time, physicians were spending more hours doing paperwork and digital documentation. Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic—and its ensuing effects on life, work, and health—may be causing doctors to rethink how they apportion their work time and personal time. 

But, how exactly does one “buy time”? 

“A great deal of attention has been devoted to reducing financial scarcity, but there is relatively little rigorous research examining how to reduce feelings of time scarcity, which in fact may offer a particularly difficult challenge given that time, unlike money, is inherently finite,” wrote the researchers mentioned above in an article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

“Could allocating discretionary income to buy free time—such as by paying to delegate common household chores, like cleaning, shopping, and cooking—reduce the negative effects of the modern time famine, thereby promoting well-being?” the researchers posited. 

Outsourcing household chores is but one way to buy free time, the researchers noted. Their definition encompassed paying someone else to complete any unenjoyable daily task, or simply any way to spend money to achieve more free time. 

“People who hire a housecleaner or pay the kid next door to mow the lawn might feel like they’re being lazy,” said study lead author Ashley Whillans, PhD, assistant professor, Harvard Business School, who carried out the research at the University of British Columbia (UBC). “But our results suggest that buying time has similar benefits for happiness as having more money.”

Buy your way out of drudgery

For this study, Dr. Whillans and coauthors surveyed nationally-representative samples of more than 6,000 working adults in the United States, Denmark, Canada, and the Netherlands (as well as a sample of millionaires in the Netherlands). Respondents were asked if and how much they spent each month to buy themselves free time. They also answered questions about life satisfaction and feelings of time stress.

Respondents who spent money on time-saving purchases reported greater life satisfaction, the researchers found. The majority of respondents reported spending money to buy themselves out of cooking, shopping, and household maintenance. 

The opposite was also true: Respondents who did not spend money on time-saving purchases had more time-related stress, which was associated with lower life satisfaction. 

These results remained even after the researchers controlled for income and other spending, which suggests that people from different socioeconomic backgrounds benefit from making time-saving purchases.

“The benefits of buying time aren’t just for wealthy people,” explained the study’s senior author Elizabeth Dunn, PhD, professor of psychology, UBC. “We thought the effects might only hold up for people with quite a bit of disposable income, but to our surprise, we found the same effects across the income spectrum.”

To test these findings, the researchers conducted a 2-week experiment. They randomly assigned 60 adults to spend $40 on a time-saving purchase on one weekend, and $40 on a material purchase the following weekend. The results revealed that people felt happier and had less time-related stress when they spent the money on a time-saving purchase than on a material purchase.

Time well spent

Despite the benefits of buying time, the researchers were surprised to find that many respondents did not spend their money on time-saving purchases in daily life, even though they could afford it. In the sample of 850 millionaires, for instance, almost half reported spending no money outsourcing disliked tasks. 

In an additional survey, the researchers asked a separate sample of 98 working adults how they would spend an unexpected, extra $40. Only 2% said they would use it to make a time-saving purchase.

“Although buying time can serve as a buffer against the time pressures of daily life, few people are doing it even when they can afford it,” Dr. Dunn said. 

She added: “Lots of research has shown that people benefit from buying their way into pleasant experiences, but our research suggests people should also consider buying their way out of unpleasant experiences.”

In their article, the authors described a small pilot study conducted by researchers at Stanford University in which doctors were rewarded with vouchers for time-saving services. 

“Doctors who received these vouchers reported better work-life balance and retention rates increased, suggesting that organizations may benefit from rewarding employees with time. More broadly, in the face of an increasing time famine, organizations and policymakers could move beyond their focus on promoting financial affluence to promoting time affluence as well,” concluded Drs. Whillans, Dunn, and coauthors. 

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