How To Spend Less Time Working And Be Happy More Often

A happy woman

Constantly busy, mortgage to pay and not feeling like you're getting the most out of life? Career-shifter and coach Rosie Walford shows how you can re-shape your relationship between time, money and happiness.

Recently I watched an ad for BMW. It promised me joy.

Like many fine and costly things, driving that car would feel sleek and powerful at times, for sure. But in return for those moments, I‘d have to put in long late hours, month after month, doing stressful competitive work. I’d have to see less of my partner, ignore my garden and forgo the chance to swim daily in the afternoon sea. All of which bring me joy today.

I once visited an isolated village in Ecuador which was about to embark on an ecotourism scheme. Until this point, it hadn’t been part of the cash economy. Mornings, I observed, were hard: women tramped out into the forest to forage for fruit before breakfast and had to light a fire to brew their morning tea. But every afternoon, by two o'clock, the men of this village were playing ball and the women were gossiping around the community tap.

Back in the World of Convenience and Choice, we get to click the kettle and open a fridge at mealtimes – but how many of us spend afternoons chatting or playing with those we love?

Most people I know are stuck at work, paying off their mortgages and electrical appliances. Each morning clocks ring them out of their sleep, then summon them into meetings, hurry them back from lunchbreaks, and keep them away from home 'til late, even if they are exhausted or unproductive.

They have almost no time to call their own. 

Has advancement, technology and wealth really delivered us from toil?

A culture of 'busy'

As our individual hours of work have increased, so the general pace of life has sped up. An international study from the 1990s used walking speed as proxy measure for the pace of life, and found that sure enough, the very steps we take have accelerated annually, over the last 15 years.

Yet somehow the faster we go, the less time we seem to have. Almost everyone I know complains about not having enough time, as if it has been stolen from them.

We’re also consuming more quickly. We replace our sofas twice as fast as we used to. Electronics keep needing an upgrade. Clothes gallop through our wardrobes at unbelievable speed. Even our leisure is commodified: for any given hour of free time, research shows there’s more spectatorship and less participation than before.

Advertising keeps magnifying our desires. We are all, always, being invited to consume more new styles, extra conveniences and ‘better’ things. Which means we must either get into debt, or work more to earn more. Or both.

What we do today is what our life is, and as we join this consuming frenzy noone encourages us to ask whether being this busy is really the meaning of life.

Culturally we equate being busy – the state of being short of time – with goodness and success.

I’m often greeted with the question ‘Are you busy at the moment?”. To reply ‘No, not particularly” would be considered self disparaging – perhaps even evidence of failure.

We’re all born with roughly a billion heartbeats. According to the actuary tables and being in my mid forties, I may have 12,147 days left. Isn’t there something more? Aren’t there better ways to live?

Valuing time over consumption

Maybe our conventional work, long hours and luxury cars aren’t the smartest route to joy. Maybe there are better ways of producing and consuming that make more meaningful use of our short time on earth.

Economist Juliet Schor has ideas on this. In her book Plenitude, she proposes that there is a way forward, a chance to be rich in the things that matter to us most while producing, consuming and working in patterns rather different to these which we’ve adopted so far.

The first of Plenitude’s four principles concerns a new allocation of time. With impressive economic substantiation, Schor shows how whole societies would work if time-stressed households made trade-offs of income for time, and deliberately redirected those freed-up hours.

Some of the time could be deployed to replace higher priced food, energy and consumer goods with homemade or locally-produced alternatives. (That’s me with my fish smoker, and keeping my bees). Some time would go into social relationships – another form of wealth (Hello, neighbouring fisherman…). And some would be for all those leisure activities which aren’t commercialised (Can you pick me some lemons? I’ve got a cold…).

Reclaiming time at home, Plenitude style, would free up resources, reduce our carbon footprint, and replenish the local human connections that became so depleted in the boom years.

Plenitude reminds us what happens when we hop off the work-and-consume rabbit-wheel. Schor may sound pompous when she calls making, growing, repairing, and doing things for ourselves ‘self-provisioning’, but she restates a liberating truth – the less we have to buy, the less we have to earn.

The alternative: passionate consumption

We can reclaim our time, do things we enjoy (I LOVE my bees) and produce top quality products that wouldn’t necessarily be available otherwise. We can be high-tech and innovate: organisations like OOOBY employ internet connectivity to help people distribute and trade the fruits of their backyards. DIY can become an economically viable use of time.

Plenitude advocates a form of passionate consumption which is deliberate in the creation of rich, materially bountiful lifestyles. It recognises the value of time and natural resources like clean air and water, things that currently – and disastrously – are not incorporated in basic accounting today. It might require businesses to take back whatever they sell, while we revel in fabulous durable tailoring, low impact electronics, delicious local food.

This possibility of a materially bountiful world in which jobs take up less of our time may seem utopian, especially now, when a scarcity mentality dominates the economic conversation.

But there are already signs that a culture shift is underway.

We are tiring of rush and stress. We’ve hurtled from consumer boom to ecological and economic bust. Facing this period of stagnation especially, it makes sense for us as individuals to pioneer a new approach. As Gandhi said, "there is more to life than increasing its speed."

Leave a comment below: What are your thoughts on slowing down, and having a simpler lifestyle? Would you miss the thrill of the chase, or would it free you up to do activities you enjoy?

Rosie Walford's picture

Rosie Walford coaches people when they are approaching major decisions and turning points, helping them to make truly creative choices for the long-term. She runs The Big Stretch, which organises creative coaching weeks in the mountains of Spain and individual breakthrough walks in New Zealand. Find out more at www.thebigstretch.com.