How to use time bundling to be happier

Written by Ellen Scott

Life is full of stuff that doesn’t bring us much joy but has to be done. Cassie Holmes proposes time bundling as a way to make this reality a little better. 

If you were to track every minute you spent in a day, what percentage do you reckon would be spent doing stuff that actually brings you joy? 

If you’re anything like us, we’d estimate the balance of joyful time and meh time – or even outright ‘I hate this’ time – would be skewed heavily towards the latter. It’s inevitable, really. There are so many tasks that simply have to be done but aren’t exactly fun. Think washing up plates after dinner, attempting to wrestle back control of your email inbox, or getting the Tube to work. 

In a dream world, you’d be able to just ditch these timesucks and fill your 24 hours a day with only wonderful things. But do that and your kitchen would quickly look gross, you’d miss an important email and your overdraft would shout at you with every Uber you took. You could outsource these things, but that’d cost an awful lot of money that we simply don’t have. 

So how do we navigate this unfortunate reality? How do we live happier lives when so much of our time is dedicated to uninspiring drudgery? 

Time bundling is a simple technique that can make a big difference. In short, it’s when you attach a meh, un-fun activity with something that brings you happiness. 

“There are, unfortunately, activities that we have to do, which aren’t particularly fun, like household chores or commuting,” explains Cassie Holmes, a professor of marketing and behavioural decision-making at UCLA Anderson School of Management and the author of Happier Hour: How To Spend Your Time For A Better, More Meaningful Life. “One way to make the time you spend on these chores feel less like a chore and more fun is to bundle these activities with activities you enjoy. 

“For example, when faced with the task of folding your laundry or cleaning the kitchen, turn on a podcast or stream a show.  This time will then feel inspiring or entertaining, instead of like a chore. As another example, while commuting, instead of scrolling radio stations or social media, listen to an audio book or open an actual book. Reading for pleasure is an activity that many regret not having time for. Yet if you spent your commute time reading, you’d be able to get through a new book every week or two.”

Easy, right? You could get super strategic and time your errands and admin for when you know the latest episode of a TV show drops, or have a book you only get to read when you’re on the bus to work. That way, you might actually start looking forward to these tasks. 

The science backs this up. Research from the University of Pennsylvania found that bundling up something you don’t typically enjoy with something you find tempting, you do that un-fun activity more frequently. In the study, when students were able to listen to an audiobook they looked forward to when they ran on a treadmill, their gym visits increased by 51% and the time they spent running upped, too. 

What can also be helpful is bundling up meh time with things you find personally fulfilling and meaningful. So perhaps you would find real meaning in learning a new language or writing a book. How can you bundle that in with chores? Could you do an audio lesson in Spanish as you wash up? Ponder plot-lines while you meal prep? 

Be warned, though: do not go ahead and bundle up every single wonderful thing in your life with something rubbish. “It will distract you from truly experiencing enjoyment from that primary activity,” Holmes notes. 

Multi-tasking only works if both tasks can be done without full mental focus. There are some things that deserve to be savoured, without the encumberment of an errand attached to it. There are also some potential bundles that could be considered quite rude – chatting to a friend on the phone while you tidy up is fine, but bringing a stack of paperwork to your mate’s house when they want a deep meaningful chat, not so much. 

You might also want to use time bundling to link up two fun things, in order to make yourself more likely to do them. Say you want to exercise and also want to socialise, for example. If you were to agree to go to a dance class with a pal, you’d be ticking off two desires in one time slot, which not only makes you feel very efficient and productive, but also gives you two nudges to carve out time for this event. 

Time bundling is not a prescriptive thing, but a tool you can use in any manner that works for you. Use it wisely, remembering, as Holmes puts it, that this “is an exercise in being intentional to spend time on what’s worthwhile and not merely efficient”. 

“Despite what you may have been led to believe, the hours you spend doing housework, working and commuting are indeed yours,” writes Holmes. “And you have a surprising amount of choice in how you spend them. With a tiny bit of intention, you can turn this time from seeming worthy of the trash bin into a treat. You have strategies to make what have traditionally been the least happy hours of your day-to-day life significantly more meaningful, connecting and fun. The changes are little, but the effects are great.”

Happier Hour: How To Spend Your Time For A Better, More Meaningful Life by Cassie Holmes (£14.99, Penguin Life) is out now 

Main image: Getty.

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