my two cents

The Psychological Trap of Freelancing

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStoc/Getty Images

For most of my career, I was paid a salary. It was not very much, especially at the beginning, but it also seemed to exist on a different plane from my actual job. I worked as hard and as much as I could, and then twice a month a dollar amount materialized in my checking account. My time did not feel tethered to this money. My paycheck was just a byproduct of going into an office every day, and a pretty arbitrary one at that.

But once I started freelancing, things changed. I became hyperconscious of how much money I could (or should) charge for my time, and this made me unhappy and mean when my nonworking hours didn’t measure up to the same value. It was akin to the rage of watching cab fare tick up while you’re sitting in traffic, minutes and dollars dribbling away before your eyes. A freelancer friend recently commiserated: “I went outside to get coffee and ran into three different neighbors who wanted to chit-chat. I wanted to scream, ‘For every word that comes out of your mouth, I’m losing money!’”

The upside of becoming aware of the time/money connection is that I got better at managing my finances and asking for bigger fees — a good thing, especially when compared to how lackadaisical I’d been in this department previously. But I was also stressed out. I started sleeping less, and I stopped hanging out with my friends as much as I wanted. And I would sometimes fall apart completely, frittering away a Saturday in bed and feeling horrible about it.

New research explains the psychology behind my state of mind: People who attach dollar signs to their time — or “value time like money” — tend to be overwhelmingly less happy than those who don’t, because their nonworking hours suddenly seem less important. “Free” time gets tainted with guilt because there’s a cost associated with it.

Many Americans fall into this trap. A 2016 study found that 63 percent of respondents valued money over time, while the smaller percentage of people who valued time over money reported greater well-being than the larger group. This correlation was consistent even after researchers controlled for factors like income — which complicates the assumption that prioritizing time over money is a luxury that only rich people can afford.

As the economy moves away from traditional salaried jobs and toward contract gigs, more and more people are starting to feel like I did. Other studies found that billing by the hour — no matter how much people charged — compounded the tendency to view time and money as one and the same. Those who did so were less likely to take pleasure in leisure activities, because they were too preoccupied by the opportunity cost of their time. Again, these trends were similar across income levels.

While time versus money anxiety may be more acute for freelancers, we aren’t the only ones who struggle with it. In a recent survey of 2.5 million Americans across all socioeconomic strata, 80 percent of respondents said that they didn’t have enough time to do what they wanted every day. Psychologist Ashley Whillans, a professor at the Harvard Business School who researches “time poverty” (also known as the feeling of running 20 minutes late to everything in your life), attributes this to an increasingly volatile job landscape. “Most people don’t have the same jobs for 10 or 15 years like previous generations did, which leads to a feeling of financial insecurity,” she says. “It isn’t about how financially secure you really are, or how much money you have in the bank, but how financially secure you feel that predicts whether you are willing to give up time to have more money.”

If valuing money over time is making us sad and paranoid, how do we stop? The solution, Whillans suggests, lies in changing your approach to time “off.” It may be too late to decouple time and money in our brains, especially when finances feel tight, but we can lean into that. “If we’re already in the time-is-money mindset, we can reframe our leisure time as something that enables us to be more productive in the future,” says Whillan. “When we’re conditioned to think of all our time as ‘on the clock,’ leisure time feels abstract and unsatisfying. But if we tell ourselves that leisure time is another means to achieve that goal or financial outcome, that can make us more likely to take the breaks that we need, enjoy them fully, and be happier in general.” If it helps you to think of it this way, great. But you also have permission to just relax, without worrying about how to improve your productivity when you’re once again hunched over your laptop.

Another trick is to figure out what you’re willing (and can afford) to outsource and what you’d prefer do yourself, says Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia. She’s currently researching time-versus-money tradeoffs through an app called Joy that asks users to rate which time-saving expenses make them happiest. (Laundry services rank high, she says, while fast-food purchases do not.) Here, of course, is where income makes a significant difference; not everyone can afford the luxury of ordering out so they can finish another draft of a freelance project.

“Our work does show that buying time, or paying your way out of things that don’t bring you a lot of satisfaction, buffers people against the negative effects of time stress,” explains Dunn. What she does not recommend, however, is sacrificing healthy activities you enjoy in order to make more money, at least when you can help it. “If walking your dog is a fulfilling part of your day but you need to pay someone else to do it in order to work on a boring project, you might reconsider your priorities.”

The Psychological Trap of Freelancing