Yale happiness expert: Feeling too busy actually hurts your brain. Here are 3 easy ways to fix it

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There’s a reason you dread looking at the stacked blue, yellow and green blocks on your Google calendar.

Feeling too busy, or like you don’t have time to do what you want, can lead to “time famine,” according to Yale University psychology professor Laurie Santos. Time famine can lead to poorer work performance and burnout, and is just as harmful to your mental health as being unemployed, Santos told attendees at SXSW earlier this month.

It even makes you less productive, because it makes you less happy, she said: “I think we feel strapped for time because we think working … as much as we work all the time is essential for achieving the things we want to achieve in life.”

Four in five employed U.S. residents feel time-poor, according to a 2018 study. And Americans, particularly those under the age of 30, aren’t that happy these days: The U.S. was recently ranked the 23rd happiest country in the world by Gallup’s World Happiness Report, down eight spots from last year.

Happier people typically live longer, healthier lives, research shows. Companies that support employees’ well-being also are more profitable, according to a 2023 Indeed Survey.

The good news: There are three simple actionable ways to build “time affluence,” as Santos calls it, and improve your happiness. We should all think “about time the way we think about money,” she said.

3 ways to build ‘time affluence’

1. Limit time blocking

Plenty of productivity experts hail the practice of time blocking — transposing your to-do list onto your calendar, so you can give each task a dedicated amount of time. That includes calendar blocks for meal breaks and focused work times, alongside all your meetings and phone calls.

Santos isn’t a fan. A jam-packed calendar might look impressive, she said, but it can make you feel like there’s no time to eat lunch, chat with colleagues or even finish that day’s Wordle.

Some tasks that belong on a to-do list don’t deserve to take up space in your planner, Santos said. Giving yourself time, with fewer interruptions, to work on larger projects can psychologically make you feel less busy, less stressed and as result, more productive, she added.

2. Celebrate with ‘time confetti’

Say you’re in a meeting that ends early, or you finish a task ahead of schedule. Whenever you find a couple of unexpected free minutes, celebrate it.

Those tiny chunks of freedom are called “time confetti” — a term coined by author Brigid Schulte — and using them deliberately can also make you happier, said Santos.

Instead of finding a new task or scrolling on your phone, use those five minutes to do something that’ll make you feel better, she suggested. You could go for a walk, meditate or even exchange pet photos with a colleague.

3. Spend money, when needed, to get time back

Working hard is draining. Some of the best ways to rest, recover and reward yourself do cost money, Santos noted.

If you have to work late one day, don’t feel guilty eating leftovers or ordering takeout that night, she said. If you need a couple of extra minutes to get ready for an event, and public transit or parking is unpredictable, consider splurging on an Uber.

Extra credit: Limit your ‘yes, damns’ and track your ‘no, yays’

Everyone’s had a “yes, damn” moment. We accept meetings or take on extra tasks far in advance, and when the day comes, we resent how much time they eat up.

Instead, try a “no, yay” moment — an idea comes from a 2005 psychology study — Santos suggested. The next time you turn down a small opportunity for the sake of getting something else done, set a reminder on the day it was supposed to happen. Then, instead of dreading it, you can celebrate the time you saved.

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