Overcoming "Time Poverty" & Valuing Leisure Time, According to Behavioral Scientist Ashley Whillans

Updated: Feb 16

Hear Ashley's take on the importance of taking time off, the impact of COVID-19 on professionals’ well-being, and the autonomy paradox.






We were recently introduced to the impressive behavioral scientist, Ashley Whillans, who is obsessed with all things applied social psychology. Ashley spends a lot of her time thinking about the intersection of time, money, happiness, and public policy.


Ashley received her PhD in Social Psychology from the University of British Columbia in November 2017 and started working as an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Business School in July 2017. In 2015 and 2018, Ashley was named a Rising Star of Behavioral Science by the International Behavioral Exchange & Behavioral Science and Policy Association. In 2016, she co-founded the Department of Behavioral Science in the Policy, Innovation, and Engagement Division of the British Columbia Public Service Agency. She is also part of the Global Happiness Thematic Council, and advises on the well-being strategy for various partners.


COVID-19 has definitely made an impact on her teaching and lab work. When we asked her about her go-to work from home lunch, she shared, “I’m a big fan of taking my own advice when it comes to spending money to save time. I order out a lot (especially at the beginning of the week) to save time and my favorite go-to lunch is a Kale salad with chicken from Sweet Green.”


Read on to hear her take on the importance of taking time off, the impact of COVID-19 on professionals’ well-being, and her definition of “time poverty”.



Ashley, how has COVID-19 affected your Autumn 2020 semester as an Assistant Professor at Harvard Business School?

AW: I have been teaching and running my research lab entirely remotely. As someone who used to travel a lot for business, this means I am lucky to have more time for family time, self-reflection and journaling, and exercise than usual.


What’s your personal mantra for staying focused and productive as you work from home?

AW: I have always been more than a bit of a workaholic (why I became interested in studying time vs. money trade-offs in the first place). Given the energy demands and stress of this ‘forced experiment’ in working from home, I have been trying to be much easier on myself. If I am feeling tired, I stop working at 5pm (instead of trying to squeeze in a few extra hours). On the weekend, if I am going to work, I choose fun and easy tasks like writing reference letters for my amazing students. My personal mantra especially right now is “Work Smart Not Hard” and I’ve been trying to work efficiently and in a sustainable fashion as WFH can be tiring!


As a behavioral scientist, how does your area of focus apply to the workplace, specifically, how professionals think about taking time off?

AW: My research shows that people who prioritize time over money report greater happiness, less stress, and better social relationships. They are more likely to exercise and less likely to get divorced. Despite the benefits of prioritizing time, most people do not take all of their paid vacation. In one data set I collected, 75% of employees did not take all of their paid and unpaid vacation. As I have discussed in a recent TedX talk, if our bosses left us a giant stack of money we wouldn’t walk away from it, but when we fail to take all of our vacation that is essentially what we are doing, we are walking away from a gift of time.


Based on your research, why are professionals reluctant to take time off?

AW: Our workplaces use our responsiveness as a yardstick for our commitment. As work has become increasingly creative and hard to measure, our managers look to the hours we work as an indicator of our commitment. With this in mind, it makes sense that professionals are reluctant to take time off. In our data, we see that all employees--especially women and junior employees--worry about taking time off and asking for more time to complete adjustable deadlines at work because they worry what signal this will send about their commitment. Ironically, workers who take less vacation are less productive and creative, so organizations would be best served by encouraging employees to take time off.


"If our bosses left us a giant stack of money we wouldn’t walk away from it, but when we fail to take all of our vacation that is essentially what we are doing, we are walking away from a gift of time."

In your opinion, why is it important for professionals to take frequent breaks from work (a few hours here and there or micro-vacations) rather than waiting to use all of their vacation days on a week-long vacation?

AW: Decades of research show that shorter, more frequent vacations are more relaxing and have longer term benefits that longer, less frequent vacations. Longer vacations mean more stress when we get back to the office. Shorter vacations allow us to recharge without a backlog of work awaiting us. We also habituate quickly to new activities. After a few days, the benefits of vacation start to wear off. So, it is best to take shorter vacations more often.


How has COVID-19 impacted the professional decisions people have been making about time, money, and their well-being?

AW: The best data shows that despite the fact we aren’t commuting (which should save us time each day) our work days have become longer. We are working more and doing more chores around the house. On top of this, parents and especially working moms are feeling more distracted and less productive. These data suggest we are feeling more time poor right now, not less. As a result, it is more important than ever to find ways to prioritize time and happiness each day.


Congratulations on the launch of your first book, "Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life", available for order on Amazon. What lessons can professionals expect to learn from reading this book, specifically around time away from work?

AW: First, I define the concept of “time poverty” as the feeling of having too many things to do and not enough time to do them, the traps that make us feel time poor, and how we can gain more enjoyment from our leisure time. We need to treat our free time at least as important as work and my book strives to equip all of us with tangible strategies for putting time first, such as “finding time” “funding time” and “reframing time.” You can find out more about these strategies and how to put them into practice in your own life by ordering the book here.


For obvious reasons, vacation requests are down in 2020. You mentioned in a piece you wrote in October that, “We have more time for leisure than we did fifty years ago. But leisure has never been less relaxing.” It’s fascinating that technology is meant to save us time, yet it also takes it away from us. Can you speak more to this autonomy paradox and how it can potentially affect why professionals don’t jump at the opportunity to take time off, especially during COVID-19?

AW: The autonomy paradox is the idea that technology was supposed to free us from the office but now we take our office everywhere we go. As a result, we feel constantly connected to work, which could undermine our willingness to take time off. We might think to ourselves: Since I’ll likely be checking email anyway, why bother taking time off from work? This is part of the reason why it is not only to take your paid vacation but to unplug from email and Slack as part of the break!


"Ironically, workers who take less vacation are less productive and creative, so organizations would be best served by encouraging employees to take time off."

How have you used your vacation days during COVID-19? We need some inspiration!

AW: The most clever idea I have heard during COVID-19 is from a Partner at a major consulting firm that I spoke with in July. He took a few days off of paid vacation with his entire family. During the week, they pretended to be on a different family vacation each night. On one night, they ate fancy cheese, drank fancy wine and pretended they were in France. On another night, they ate chips and salsa and put on Mexican hats to simulate a tropical vacation. My fiancé and I are currently planning a COVID virtual wedding and planning a honeymoon in “Japan” where we will order our favorite sushi, drink sake, and take a virtual tour of Japan in our living room. The more fun and creative you make your stay-cation the more likely you are likely to follow through with the vacation. Research suggests that treating a weekend like a vacation can make you enjoy it more. So have fun with planning your staycation with your family, and let your imagination run wild.


How do you think COVID-19 will shift the way professionals think about their Paid Time Off (PTO), long after the pandemic is over?

AW: We see in our data that people are desiring even more flexibility than they did before. It is harder but more important than ever to take time off. I think it will be up to employers to start rewarding employees with flexibility and with paid time off (and mandating them to take it) to encourage top talent to stay and thrive.


"Research suggests that treating a weekend like a vacation can make you enjoy it more. So have fun with planning your staycation with your family, and let your imagination run wild."

Why do you think professionals should use a Time Off Optimization tool, like Sorbet, to help schedule and plan their PTO?

AW: One of my PhD students Ariella Kristal has some amazing research showing that we rely on will power more than we should when trying to accomplish our personal goals. We should all rely on tools to help us achieve our important goals in life--to facilitate commitment and to ensure we actually follow through with our hopes, dreams, goals and intentions.


What’s on the horizon for you in 2021?

AW: Writing cases on “Time Smart” companies, teaching a Motivation & Incentives Course to MBA students and Executives, and starting to teach Time Management Strategies to C-Suite Professionals and Companies worldwide. If you are interested in making “Time Affluence” an Employee Value Proposition in your organization, I would love to work together to make that goal a reality!


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