Can We Afford to be Time Poor? The Hidden Tax of Time Poverty

read time - icon

0 min read

Jun 19, 2024

We are all familiar with the constant struggle to manage money. But what if there was another resource, just as valuable, that follows the same rules? You can spend it, save it, waste it, invest it, or even give it away. The twist? It's not in your wallet.

This elusive resource isn't a new cryptocurrency or a hidden stash of diamonds. It's time. We constantly juggle it like a budget—but, unlike money, there's no ATM for more hours. This pervasive feeling of having too much to do and not enough time to do it is what researchers call time poverty. This deficit of leisure extends beyond mere busyness; it is a sneaky tax on our well-being that's often overlooked in the pursuit of productivity.

From physical to mental health, the impacts of being chronically time-starved are profound and far-reaching. In this article, we'll explore the hidden costs of time poverty, why it should matter to individuals and organizations alike, and how rethinking our relationship with time could be as significant as seeking financial assistance.

But first… what exactly is time poverty?

The concept of time poverty isn't new. Back in 1977, economist Clair Brown brought attention to a critical oversight in traditional poverty metrics which focused solely on income.1 She argued that these metrics failed to account for the unpaid labor required to run a household—activities like cooking, cleaning, and childcare. This oversight means that our current systems only account for material poverty, not time. 

Imagine a single parent juggling two jobs. They might be able to technically "afford" basic needs on paper but lack the time to cook healthy meals, maintain a clean home, or maybe even spend time with their kids. These time constraints create a hidden burden, potentially trapping families in a cycle of "involuntary poverty." 

It's not just about being busy

Time poverty isn't just about feeling perpetually busy. It's about the quality and quantity of time you have. Imagine your time as a pie. A big slice goes to necessary time: 2 the non-negotiables like sleep, hygiene, and keeping a roof over your head. This includes physiological needs (eating, sleeping), safety needs (security measures, home maintenance), contracted time (work that generates income), and committed time (activities performed given previous life choices, like parenting). Committed time in particular can feel like a double whammy—it's essential but often unpaid labor.

The remaining slice? That's your discretionary time:2 the golden hours for leisure, hobbies, and social connection. This is where time poverty hits. Someone with a mountain of committed time might have all their basic needs met but lack the free time to truly recharge or pursue their passions. This means you could be cash-rich yet time-poor, constantly scrambling for the hours that truly matter. This imbalance can lead to stress, burnout, and a feeling of being constantly strapped.

Moreover, many studies demonstrate how time poverty hammers your well-being down, leaving you with a scarcity mindset and relentless pressure to be productive. Let's unpack what this means for your health, your happiness, and of course, your ability to make good decisions.

Behavioral Science, Democratized

We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices. 

At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.

More about our services

Why should I care about being time-poor?

The feeling of constantly lacking discretionary time goes far beyond the stress of juggling tasks. This has real consequences for the many people struggling with time poverty.

Physical health

Referring to the American Time Use Survey, researchers examined the link between time poverty and health choices3 and found that people who felt strapped for time were less likely to engage in “active travel” such as walking or cycling. Interestingly, they also reported fewer overall eating and drinking occurrences and less time dedicated to sports and exercise. 

In Canada, a different pattern emerged where time-poor individuals participated less in structured activities like gym sessions but managed to squeeze in unstructured exercise such as walking.4 This suggests that for many, the most significant hurdle to getting active isn't affording a gym membership, it's finding the time to get there in the first place.

Nonetheless, time poverty significantly impacts our daily habits, potentially leading to poorer dietary choices and decreased physical activity, both of which can negatively affect our overall health.

Cognitive Function

The impact of time poverty extends beyond physical health, influencing cognitive functions as well. Newly published research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology indicates that time poverty leads people to a more narrow and concrete style of thinking, focusing more on the immediate "how" rather than the broader "why."5

Interestingly, the impact wasn't uniform. It revealed a silver lining: those experiencing time poverty due to things they wanted to do (autonomous motivation) showed less of a shift in thinking compared to those pressured by external obligations (controlled motivation). This suggests that intrinsic motivation can act as a buffer against the cognitive narrowing effects of feeling time-crunched. These findings offer valuable insights for both personal coping strategies —focusing on the "why" behind our goals—and organizational policies that promote employee autonomy, potentially leading to better decision-making and stress management even under pressure.

Additionally, a study from Singapore reflects on the mental health toll of time poverty among young, low-wage workers, demonstrating how unpredictable work schedules exacerbate work-family conflicts.6 The research suggests a vicious cycle: low wages lead to non-standard work hours, squeezing out personal time and creating chaos in managing family life. This, in turn, chips away at mental well-being, highlighting the need for not just better wages, but also policies and support systems that offer young workers more control over their time and help them manage the pressures of work and family.

Nutrition

Time poverty also plays a significant role in food security, particularly affecting women in agricultural settings. One study highlights that time-poor women, burdened by agricultural and domestic tasks, often struggle to balance income-generating activities with preparing nutritious meals.7 This forces them to resort to two coping strategies: non-food-based coping, like working extra work hours, or food-based coping, like meal stretching or skipping, both impacting their ability to care for their families' nutritional needs. Children are particularly vulnerable in this situation, facing negative health and educational consequences due to their mothers' time constraints. 

Thus, in the age of hustle culture, reclaiming discretionary time is more than just wanting to binge-watch your favorite Netflix show.  The research presented here underscores the far-reaching consequences of time poverty. It is crucial for mental recharge, self-investment, maintaining social connections, and avoiding isolation.2

How is this society’s burden?

Drivers of Time Poverty adopted from Giurge, L. M., Whillans, A. V., & West, C. (2020). Why time poverty matters for individuals, organisations and nations. Nature Human Behaviour, 4(10), 993-1003. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0920-z

For policymakers, behavioral scientists, and key decision-makers alike, addressing time poverty is critical because it directly influences the efficiency and well-being of the workforce, impacting economic stability and societal health at large. Much like material poverty, time poverty is a pervasive force impacting everything from individual well-being to organizational productivity. A 2020 perspective piece by Giurge, Whillans, and West (2020) called “Why time poverty matters for individuals, organisations and nations” highlights why time poverty matters not just for individuals, but for entire societies.8

How so? For starters, societal pressures play a big role. Glorifying the "always-on" worker creates a sense that leisure is a luxury, not a necessity. Meanwhile, the acceleration of daily life, with its constant barrage of information and experiences, leaves us feeling perpetually behind.

This pressure intensifies at the organizational level. Jobs are more complex, requiring longer hours while often rewarding time spent instead of actual output. Work structures also contribute, fragmenting our time with inefficiencies like forced idle time or low-level administrative tasks.

Beyond work, bureaucratic burdens like endless paperwork and long commutes due to poor urban planning eat away at our precious hours. We often undervalue time itself, prioritizing income over time savings, even though those small "time costs" accumulate and erode our well-being.

This illustrates how the impact is multi-level. As mentioned earlier, individuals experience increased stress, reduced happiness, and poorer health due to a lack of time for self-care.  Organizations, as a result, grapple with decreased productivity and creativity. And when institutions struggle with inefficiency, society as a whole suffers from a lack of well-being and social cohesion.

Research on time poverty is still in its early stages.6 However, the evidence of its effects highlights the need for interventions that address time constraints, such as childcare and healthcare support for women, increased access to healthy, convenient food options, and promoting ways to integrate physical activity into daily routines with minimal time investment. This could include infrastructure improvements like bike lanes and sidewalks that make active travel more feasible for busy individuals.3, 8 

In fact, a longitudinal field study also found that providing time-saving services, like vouchers for cleaning and cooking, improved psychological well-being among working mothers just as effectively as direct cash transfers.8 This suggests that interventions aimed at reducing time poverty through practical support could be as impactful as financial aid programs in boosting mental health.

For policymakers, measuring time poverty could reveal the immediate benefits of interventions or technological advancements, potentially transforming long-term outcomes across various domains. Targeting interventions specifically toward the time-poor, especially those lacking discretionary time, could yield significant benefits.

What does an ideal relationship with time look like?

Is this solution to time poverty simply making more free time? Not quite. The latest research suggests a more nuanced concept: time affluence.10, 11 Forget chasing that elusive eight-hour workday dream. Time affluence is about having enough time to fulfill your personal and professional needs without feeling constantly constrained.

Think of the financial equivalent: financial affluence doesn't mean being a billionaire, it means having enough money to support your needs and live comfortably. Similarly, time affluence isn't about retiring ten years early; it's about having control over your schedule and feeling like there's enough time for what matters, like friends and family, passion projects, or exploring new destinations.

The surprising thing? In a series of four studies conducted by psychologists Tim Kasser and Kennon Sheldon, they found that time affluence, not just money, is a key factor in happiness.10 Even after accounting for wealth, those with more time affluence reported higher job satisfaction, better health, and even more sustainable choices.

Why? Time affluence allows for mindfulness.12 With the constant pressure of "busyness" lifted, you have space to focus on the present moment to identify and connect with your core needs. This, in turn, fuels feelings of autonomy, competence, and connection—the psychological pillars of happiness identified in Kasser and Sheldon’s study.10

The implications for businesses are huge. Flexible work schedules, mandatory paid leave, and limits on overtime are more than simple perks—they are critical investments in building a happier, healthier workforce. Imagine a world where companies prioritize time affluence, not just the bottom line.

This transformation extends beyond individual well-being to become a win for society as a whole. More time affluence could lead to increased civic engagement, stronger family bonds, and a general sense of life satisfaction that ripples outwards.8, 9 So, the next time you feel like you're drowning in to-do lists, remember: the solution is not simply cramming more in. It's about cultivating a relationship with time that allows you to live fully, not just make it through the day.

So, can societies afford for us to be time-poor?

Absolutely not. Time affluence isn't simply a personal luxury—it's a societal imperative. From 1977 when it was first conceptualized to now, time poverty research suggests a paradigm shift: prioritizing time affluence alongside material affluence.

This means a call to action for policymakers and businesses alike. Imagine international development programs not only focused on income but also on policies that empower time ownership. Think beyond financial aid: consider interventions that minimize time-consuming burdens like long commutes to access services, lengthy waiting periods for assistance, and excessive paperwork requirements. This could involve investments in local infrastructure, streamlined application processes, and mobile technology solutions.

Companies could rethink their obsession with busyness, implementing generous paid leave, and flexible schedules, and fostering a culture that values well-being over relentless hours.

Ultimately, achieving time affluence isn't just about individual well-being—it's about fostering a more sustainable and fulfilling future for all. By prioritizing time as a valuable resource, we can create a world where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, not just survive.

References

  1. Vickery, C. (1977). The time-poor: A new look at poverty. The Journal of Human Resources, 12(1), 27. https://doi.org/10.2307/145597
  2. Williams, J. R., Masuda, Y. J., & Tallis, H. (2015). A measure whose time has come: Formalizing time poverty. Social Indicators Research, 128(1), 265-283. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-015-1029-z
  3. Kalenkoski, C. M., & Hamrick, K. S. (2012). How does time poverty affect behavior? A look at eating and physical activity. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, 35(1), 89-105. https://doi.org/10.1093/aepp/pps034
  4. Spinney, J., & Millward, H. (2010). Time and money: A new look at poverty and the barriers to physical activity in Canada. Social Indicators Research, 99(2), 341-356. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-010-9585-8
  5. Yuan, Y., & Sun, X. (2024). Can't see the forest for the trees: Time poverty influences construal level and the moderating role of autonomous versus controlled motivation. British Journal of Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12730
  6. Ng, I. Y., Tan, Z. H., & Chung, G. (2024). Time poverty among the young working poor: A pathway from low wage to psychological well-being through work-to-Family-Conflict. Journal of Family and Economic Issues. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10834-024-09951-1
  7. Chaudhuri, S., Roy, M., McDonald, L. M., & Emendack, Y. (2021). Coping behaviours and the concept of time poverty: A review of perceived social and health outcomes of food insecurity on women and children. Food Security, 13(4), 1049-1068. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12571-021-01171-x
  8. Giurge, L. M., Whillans, A. V., & West, C. (2020). Why time poverty matters for individuals, organisations and nations. Nature Human Behaviour, 4(10), 993-1003. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0920-z
  9. Whillans, A., & West, C. (2022). Alleviating time poverty among the working poor: A pre-registered longitudinal field experiment. Scientific Reports, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-04352-y
  10. Sharif, M. A., Mogilner, C., & Hershfield, H. E. (2021). Having too little or too much time is linked to lower subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 121(4), 933-947. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000391
  11. Kasser, T., & Sheldon, K. M. (2008). Time affluence as a path toward personal happiness and ethical business practice: Empirical evidence from four studies. Journal of Business Ethics, 84(S2), 243-255. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-008-9696-1
  12. Schaupp, J., & Geiger, S. (2021). Mindfulness as a path to fostering time affluence and well‐being. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 14(1), 196-214. https://doi.org/10.1111/aphw.12298

About the Author

Celestine Rosales

Celestine Rosales

Celestine is a Junior Research Analyst at The Decision Lab. She is a researcher with a passion for understanding human behavior and using that knowledge to make a positive impact on the world. She is currently pursuing her Master's degree in Social Psychology, where she focuses on issues of social justice and morality. She also holds a Bachelor's degree in Psychology. Before joining TDL, Celestine worked as a UX Researcher at a conversion rate optimization company, where she collaborated with a variety of B2B and SaaS clients to help them improve their websites. She also participated in an all-women cohort of scholars trained to do data analytics. Outside of work, Celestine enjoys taking long walks, listening to podcasts, and trying new things.

Read Next

Insight

The potential and pitfalls of AI in healthcare

The use of algorithms and chatbots in medicine holds immense promise, from easing the burden on healthcare workers to improving patient outcomes and accessibility. However, the path to fully realizing this potential is paved with serious equity considerations that cannot be ignored.

Group of employees smiling in an office setting
Insight

Yes, You Are a Cog in the Machine – But, That's a Good Thing

Sometimes, feeling like a cog in the machine feels terrible, but today, we examine why that shouldn’t be the case. Explore how feeling undervalued in 'invisible' roles can lead to imposter syndrome and what organizations can do to foster a culture of recognition and inclusion.

African woman using advanced technology. She is interacting with a holographic display
Insight

Rooted Revolutions: Innovating for Africa's Future

How is Africa transforming its education systems with homegrown tech solutions? Explore the journey towards decolonizing education, the challenges faced, and the revolutionary potential of African EdTech innovations.

Notes illustration

Eager to learn about how behavioral science can help your organization?