The Secret Relationship Between Time and Happiness

Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing. – Miles Davis

TIME. That’s really all we have, isn’t it?  I spent this last week focused on time. To be more particular, time management, the science of timing, and the money-time tradeoff. And the theme that brings these disparate topics together is none other than happiness.

A Simple Tool for Time Management

When I was working at a crazy career, I simply worked as hard and fast as I could – day after day after day. And since I’ve never been a procrastinator, I didn’t really have to think about time  management at the office. But now I’m home all day building content for the Early Exit Academy. Instead of focusing on one unit at a time, I found myself leaping from one idea to another. By the end of the day, what did I have to show for all my work? There had to be an answer to my productivity stalemate.

Somehow, when you begin to ask the question, the answer soon shows up. Enter the Pomodoro Technique. What a simple concept! Here it is:

  1. Pick a task.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes and do nothing during that time but work on the task.
  3. Take a 5 minute break.
  4. Repeat. After every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break.

That’s it! I gave it a try and now unit 1 is cruising full speed ahead. I’m more than happy with my progress. Before you jump in, there is one caveat. The Pomodoro Technique works great when you have concrete tasks. But don’t use it when you are peaking at your most creative level – you don’t want the interruption.

I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of this simple technique until now. I downloaded an app (FocusKeeper) that automates the timing. And there’s a neat little online tool called “tomato timer” that does the same thing on your desktop. A great find!

The Science of Timing

In my quest for productivity, I discovered a book called When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. The author – Daniel Pink – uses research from psychology, biology, neuroscience, and economics to uncover the hidden pattern of the day to reveal the ideal schedule (listen in on NPRs All Things Considered). Sounds promising, doesn’t it?

Larks, Owls, and Third Birds

You might be familiar with the terms “larks” (early risers) and “owls” (night people), but there’s a third group referred to as “third birds.” Here’s how to figure out which chronotype best fits you.

  1. Think about your “free days” when you don’t have to get up to go to work or have any scheduled events.
  2. Write down the time you usually go to bed and the time you usually wake up.
  3. Calculate the middle of these two times – the midpoint of sleep. For instance, if your bed time is 10:00 and your wake-up time is 6:00 your midpoint is 2:00 a.m. (definitely “lark” territory). If you go to bed at midnight and rise at 8:00 your midpoint is 4:00 a.m. (“third bird”).

You can use a rough guide to figure out where you fall. A midpoint between midnight and 3 a.m. is a “lark”; between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. “third bird”; and 6 a.m up to midnight “owl.” It turns out that just 14% of us are “larks” and 21% owls – almost two-thirds (65%) of the population fall into the “third bird” category.

Timing is Everything

Why does your chronotype matter? Well, if you’re a “lark,” the best time to make a decision is early morning. For “third birds,” it’s early to mid-morning, and “owls” make their best decisions in the late afternoon and evening. Amazingly, regardless of chronotype, there’s a universal pattern (a three-stage day) in which people feel happier, more balanced, and empathetic throughout the morning, less so in the afternoon, and a resurgence in the evening.

Perhaps less surprisingly is the almost universal afternoon trough (about 7 hours after wakening). Scientifically, the hour between 3:00 and 4:00 is the absolute most precarious – never schedule surgery or anything important in the late afternoon! Take a colonoscopy for example. At 11 a.m., doctors found an average of 1.1 polyps per exam. By 2:00, they were detecting barely half that number, even though the patients were no different. That’s a huge difference that impacts patient outcomes. Restorative breaks and even short 20-minute naps (“siestas”) are critical to afternoon productivity and performance. So consider this to be your permission to nap!

The Money-Time Tradeoff

“When you understand money as YOUR life energy, the hours of your life you invest to put dollars in your wallet, you translate it into something knowable… and limited: the hours of your life.” – Vicki Robin

One of the books that has been instrumental in the FIRE (financial independence retire early) community has been Your Money or Your Life. The original, written by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominquez, was published in 1993. The equation is simple: MONEY = LIFE ENERGY. How much of your life energy do you want to spend at the workplace? The book strikes an anti-consumerism anthem – before you make a purchase, ask yourself if it merits the hours of your life that you invested to get it. If you just have to have that $300 handbag, how many hours will you have to work to pay for it? Is it worth it?

On the money side of life, many of us ask “how much is enough?” Sure, it might be great to have a beach house or spend a month in Paris every year. But if you are miserable in your job or it’s chewing up too much of your personal time, how much is really “enough”? Do you keep working – and risking your health and happiness – to get the beach house? If you knew your life would end next month, would you spend it at the office? And this is the heart and soul of my Early Exit AcademyFinancial freedom comes at a price, but it beats working to death. And there’s definitely a strong correlation between happiness and choosing the life you want to lead.

The Convergence of Time

At first glance, time management, the science of time, and the money-time tradeoff seem to be three stand-alone topics. But then I began to think of how it’s all tied together to the concept of “happiness.” Yesterday morning I found myself on my old route to the office. An office where I no longer work. I found myself at a familiar intersection, and instead of taking a right, I turned LEFT. And just like that I was driving down the parkway on a Friday morning with the windows rolled down and the breeze playing in my hair. I smiled as I thought about the freedom of the day ahead of me. It wasn’t a coincidence that it was morning – by far my happiest and most productive time of day. And all my years of saving and investing had purchased me TIME. I knew when I returned home, I could use my Pomodoro timer to crank out some more high quality material. It was the best kind of convergence.




About the Author Brenda

Dr. Brenda is a financial coach, educator, researcher, and sociologist. In addition to blogging at The Five Journeys, she is the founder of the Gutsy Women Club. Her passion is guiding people on their journey to financial freedom through coaching at DrBrendaMoneyCoach and online courses at

  • Glad to find your post on rockstar finance today. Our career paths and sudden semifire are quite similar. I’ll be imterested to see how your business venture goes.

    I haven’t tried the pomodoro method for time management. I like to work in bursts and blocks of time naturally so I may not ever try it.

    I wrote about my style in a post called 3 Big Rocks. It might be worth reading sometime if you get stuck.

    Best of luck and congrats on your new adventure.

    • Brenda says:

      Hi Steve, I’ll check out your post. Perhaps you’d like to share your story as part of the Early Exit Academy? I’m planning on adding some interviews with a variety of people like yourself. The course is really for those just starting out on their journey. Best of luck to you as well!

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