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When time is money, misery can follow

For hourly employees, the calculations come almost instantly. How much did that 20-minute traffic jam cost me? What about the 15-minute wait at the coffee shop? When you’re used to being paid by the hour, it's all too easy to equate these time expenditures into dollars lost.

However, new research out of the University of Toronto has shown that such attitudes are detrimental to a person’s happiness. Making a direct correlation between time and money can make people impatient and hurt one’s ability to find joy in leisure activities.

“It prompts a mindset of maximizing the economic value of your time,” study author Sanford DeVoe wrote in an e-mail. “Consequently, when this goal is obstructed, you feel your time is being unprofitably wasted causing you to feel more impatient.”

According to DeVoe, thinking about time in terms of money can actually change an individual’s perception of time. Call it Einstein’s theory of relativity for the busy-headed. The study will be published in the next issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

In the three-part study, DeVoe and PhD student Julian House of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management prompted a sub-group of participants to think about time in terms of money through a series of survey questions. During the unpaid leisure activities during the first two trials, this group subsequently showed increased impatience and greater dissatisfaction. However, in the third trial, when each group was explicitly told it was being paid for a leisure activity (in this case, listening to music), the experimental group reported enjoying the music more than the control group.

The results appear to show a correlation between enjoyment of leisure time among those who think of time as money. This association can be positive, when it’s known that money is being earned. 

“This is evidence that the time-money association can be positive if it is felt that the time is economic profitable,” Devoe wrote. “You can think of the analogue of a lawyer billing their time on a plane while watching a movie or an hourly paid assistant attending a concert on the clock—they are freed up to enjoy it knowing that this time is economically profitable.”

“By contrast, the same activities where they are off the clock might be less enjoyable if they are thinking about the economic value of their time,” Devoe added.

With the increase on hourly jobs over the past several decades, DeVoe believes it’s important to understand the effects these hourly jobs have on the psyches of the employees. In 2009, 72.6 million American workers age 16 and over were paid at hourly rates, representing 58.3 percent of all wage and salary workers, according to the United States’ Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The advice that comes out of these studies is that you want to be aware that putting a price on time can have these effects,” Devoe wrote. “It can help you make good decision about your time at work, but when you’re thinking about when you’re off the clock it’s going to get in the way of you being able to full enjoy your leisure time.”

Something to think about the next time you stare impatiently at your watch in traffic.  

Do you live by the "time is money" maxim? Are there benefits to that idea, or does it only stress you out?