Research Brief

Not Now: Correcting Imbalance in One’s Schedule Takes Planning and Time

People across studies want to change their lives, but are more inclined to do that in the distant future

Wouldn’t it be nice to achieve some semblance of balance between work commitments, family time, personal activities and sleep?

The problem? Many of us feel we’re too busy with our imbalanced lives to make life less busy, more balanced. So we try to muscle through, figuring — hoping — things will get better eventually.

A working paper from University of Colorado Denver’s Meng Li and UCLA Anderson’s Sanford DeVoe suggests this tendency reflects “an unrealistic expectation that one will always have more extra time, or ‘time slack,’ in the future than at the present.”

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Reality often proves otherwise, of course. How, then, to harness the desire for change and move it into action?

Li and DeVoe surveyed three sets of adults (2,385 in total), a mix of workers and non-workers, parents and non-parents. Two groups were recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform. The third came through Qualtrics, market research firm, which the researchers tasked with recruiting a group more broadly characteristic of the U.S. population in terms of age, gender and income.

Participants were asked how they allocate time in a typical week now, divided among five domains: work, family, personal (self-care, socializing, leisure), sleep and other activities (whatever doesn’t fit elsewhere). Then they were asked to allocate time to those categories for a typical week in the month ahead versus a typical week in the distant future (one year, five years, 10 years).

Across the board, regardless of age, gender or parental status, people put off balance until later.

“Life is like riding a bicycle,” Albert Einstein is said to have told his son. “To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” And so it is with finding balance in the first place, perhaps. To get there, keep moving.

Visualizing future change “frees you up to make decisions about time allocation that are more consistent with your values,” DeVoe wrote in an email exchange. Once you acknowledge what you’d like to do in one year or 10 years, you can “be more intentional about putting those priorities into your day-to-day life right now.”

Thinking about time in the long run might help individuals better allocate hours and days.

Family and friends can help, DeVoe said, by holding people accountable. Employers, too, can help, by offering work-life policies that let people plan ahead for future time reallocation; for instance, by pre-committing to a different work schedule, or to parental leave or the use of vacation days. Just keep moving.

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About the Research

Li, M., & DeVoe, S.E. (2019). Putting off balance for later: A temporal construal approach to time allocation.

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