Out of time? Give some away & it’ll feel like you have more

Like most people, I feel constantly rushed, and I often pass up small opportunities to help others because I think I don’t have the time. Well, last week, I decided to take the opposite tack. Where I normally might say no, I resolved to say yes. Would I critique a friend’s short story? Of course! Would I help a friend get set up in her new apartment? Absolutely! I might seem like a selfless Samaritan, but this giving was all for my own benefit. A recent series of experiments suggests that doing favors for others makes us feel like we have more time.

Cassie Mogilner, an assistant professor at the Wharton School of Business, divided subjects into two groups. Group A did good turns for other s— for example, editing a student’s essay or writing a note to a sick child. Group B either wasted time (by counting the letter “e” in a Latin text) or spent time on themselves. Afterwards, Group B felt no different. But Group A felt less rushed and perceived themselves as having more free time to volunteer.

Of course, doing good deeds actually takes time but nowadays, we all know that productivity is not about time management but about energy management: if you’re feeling energized, you can do more with less time. And why does helping others energize you, exactly? Mogilner’s explanation is that doing favors for others makes you feel “more capable, confident and useful.”

I certainly would like to feel more capable, confident and useful, but at first, my good deeds backfired. That’s because they were what I call “generosity black holes” — the kind of favors that spiral out of control. Moving my friend into her new apartment turned into a furniture-rearranging marathon as we struggled to get the feng shui just right. Critiquing the 12,000-word story absorbed half a workday, and then I had to give my thoughts on the revised version too. I felt that warm glow that comes from helping others, but I also felt more harried than ever.

In fact, I was overdoing it. Mogilner’s research suggests that giving away a mere 10 minutes of your time has just as positive an impact as giving 30 minutes. So instead of doing favors, I did micro-favors. I reached out to a friend who has just had a baby to see how she was doing. I introduced a colleague who is looking for freelance editing work to a friend who runs a publishing company. And this approach worked. Each small good deed gave me an energizing ping of satisfaction, and I did actually feel a little more relaxed.

So next time you take a break, instead of spending ten minutes getting a cup of coffee, try doing one of these things instead: email someone to recommend a helpful article; connect two people you know who might be able to help each other; check up on a friend who’s going through a hard time or on a colleague who is struggling with a big project at work; offer to help brainstorm solutions to a problem. Just make sure you walk away after ten minutes.

Helena Echlin
Helena Echlin has written for numerous publications, such as The Guardian, The Times, and The Sunday Telegraph in the UK, and Yoga Journal and The San Francisco Chronicle in the US. For five years, she wrote Table Manners, an etiquette advice column for CHOW.com.
Helena Echlin
Tags: Business,Downtime,Productivity,Tech Culture