To Feel More Productive, Take a Break to Do Something Selfless

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The problem with time is that it typically does exactly the opposite of what you want it to do. There are a handful of exceptions — vacation days, for example, tend to pass more slowly than those spent on your normal routine — but for the most part, the clock tends to speed up precisely when you want it to slow down. It doesn’t matter how many hours are in a day if they all seem to fly by before you can get anything done.

But in a recent column in The Wall Street Journal, behavioral researchers Cassie Mogilner Holmes and Michael Norton (of UCLA and Harvard Business School, respectively) offered a surprising way to stretch out the time you have: Donate some of it to someone else. In a study published in 2012 in the journal Psychological Science, the two found that spending a few hours on something altruistic warped people’s time perception for the better, making them feel as though they had more of it left in the day.

The study’s authors divided up their subjects into a handful of different groups: Some people would spend time doing something for themselves, others would waste it doing nothing in particular, and still others would use that time doing something for someone else. The instructions were purposefully vague, leaving the specific activities up to each individual participant. Some members of that last group, for example, cooked for members of their family, while others wrote letters to loved ones or volunteered for neighborhood cleanup.

And those were the same people, when the allotted period was up, who felt that the rest of the day stretched out the longest in front of them. The reason, Mogliner and Norton wrote, has to do with “self-efficacy, or that (rare) feeling of being able to accomplish all that we set out to do”:

As it turns out, focusing on the self doesn’t move the needle on self-efficacy: Massages are nice, to be sure, but they fail to increase our sense of being able to get things done. And while crossing an item or two off our to-do list has the potential to feel like an accomplishment, it can also simply serve as a reminder of the 31 remaining items still on the list.

In contrast, helping others makes people feel that they have made a specific, tangible impact — the neighbor’s porch is cleared, your grandmother is cheered up — and this feeling decreases the stress of not having enough time.

It’s a counterintuitive trick, but a simple one: If your to-do list feels endless, try adding a do-gooder item to the top of it.

To Feel Productive, Take a Break to Do Something Selfless