Life After Full-time Work Blog

Learn about preparing for life after full-time work through posts from Don's upcoming book.

#177 Using Time To Improve Happiness

Cassie Holmes tells us how


After my recent blog post on many forms of wealth, reader Ted Harris remarked: “You and others have given us ideas of what ‘enough’ wealth is with regard to money, sleep, diet and exercise. I wonder if there is a measure for social wealth and a guideline for time allocation. I suspect all these combine to facilitate optimal mental health/wealth.”

I responded: “Re social wealth and time allocation, I don’t know, but I will soon be attending a conference at which a keynote speaker is Cassie Holmes, and I’m hoping very much that principles for increasing happiness by time allocation will be a subject she covers. (And if so, I’ll see if I can create a blog post about the subject.) I remember a paper she co-authored 11 years ago, from which I took these five hints: spend your time with the right people; spend your time on the right activities; enjoy the experience without spending the time; expand your time; be aware that happiness changes over time. If that sounds a bit cryptic, see Chapter 15 of my Happiness book.”

Here’s the blog post.


At the P&I DC West conference in Carlsbad, CA, in October, Cassie Holmes was the featured speaker in the evening before the conference opened. Her talk was based on her book Happier Hour and she told us how to use time to improve our life satisfaction. She’s a most engaging speaker, and I wish I could point you to a video of her talk. The best I could do was take extensive notes (and subsequently, read her book). Here are some snippets that stand out, as I re-read the extensive notes I took.

For most of us (a survey shows) the ideal number of discretionary hours in a day is in the 2 – 5 range. Less than that and we feel time poor, leading to too much stress. More than that and we feel we have too little purpose. So what’s important is how we invest our time: not striving to be time rich, but investing our time richly.

She used a lovely analogy of filling a jar with golf balls. Of course there’s still space in the jar, so you can add pebbles. And after that you can still shake the jar and fill the remaining gaps with sand. If you use the reverse order and start with sand, you’ll never get the golf balls in. Her lesson from this analogy is to identify the things that matter to you (the golf balls) and protect the time for them.

She is data-driven and has published extensively, but of course nobody reads academic papers, so in addition to her book and her website for the general public, she also developed a course at UCLA. It’s extremely popular (no surprise) and the data feedback shows that it has had an amazing impact on her students. Her book contains exercises for the reader, based on assignments that her students do.

One exercise is to track your time for a couple of weeks, and how you feel about each of your activities (a happiness rating: happy time, meh time, wasted time). Right, this requires some effort on your part! To get started you can reproduce the spreadsheet on her website.

When you’re done, you’re ready to productively analyze how you’ve spent your time. What activities sparked joy? Perhaps identify the 5 top ones. Now characterize them in three ways: (a) Thing: what type of activity was it? (b) Place: Inside or outside, bright or dark, loud or quiet, temperature? (c) Person: Alone? How many other people? How well did you know them? Formal or informal? What was your role?

From this you can identify commonalities across your happiest activities.

Then do the same analysis of your least happy activities.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, use this analysis to try to rearrange how you spend your time – and you’ve also guessed that she has guidance for crafting your time to create a canvas that reflects your best times to the extent possible.

Surveys show that, for most people, the happiest times are spent on social connection, the least happy times on commuting, hours at work, and hours doing house chores. So, how to make those least happy hours happier? Try to bundle those activities with others that are more fun. For example, listen to an audiobook while commuting. Or, more generally, try to add something from a list that you compile by completing the sentence that starts with “I don’t have time to …”


Of course she covered a lot more ground, and her book goes much further, with numerous anecdotes to bring to life the principles that underlie her teaching. But I’ll let you navigate all of that yourself.

There was space, after Cassie’s talk, for questions from the audience. Among them, two topics touched me.

How do you manage time vampires? (They’re often also emotional vampires.) Try to set boundaries: don’t let others prioritize your time. If possible, say “Sorry, no.” Or “I’m doing so-and-so; I can make time for you after that.”

Regarding retirement: When workers retire, often they go from too little time to too much, and their emotional wellbeing drops. After that, it’s retirees with a sense of purpose (which might be perhaps from volunteering or hobbies) who become happier. Yes, I identify with that! It took me three years to figure out for myself (there was no help available at the time) why and what to do about it (which then led to my Life Two book.)

And in turn that leads me to the observation that some recent blog post comments have been on the subject of purpose. I’ve been doing some research on that, and some time I’ll write a blog post on it.



Your happy times probably share certain characteristics, as do your less happy times. Cassie Holmes helps you to identify those characteristics and then rearrange your time to make yourself happier.



I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.

4 Responses to “#177 Using Time To Improve Happiness”

  1. Ted Harris says:

    Thanks, Don.

    Perceptions may change in retirement. I’m one of those people who likes some projects and chores. The difference is that now I can do them, usually, when I want and take as long as I want. What was a grind is now an enjoyable activity.

    I also find that occasionally doing nothing is gratifying and, probably, detoxifying. For me it can be sitting still and just looking at something peaceful, such as a forest or passers-by. Some people may call this a form of meditation. To me it also gives a sense of luxury, the luxury of having the opportunity to just sit there.

  2. Great article. I particularly like the analogy of the golf balls, pebbles and sand.
    I have been FIRE for nearly 5 years and I have found having a weekly routine interspersed with special projects like travel works for me.
    Once you know your gollfballs, the weekly routine can be based around these: walking, exercise, blogging. Then add the pebbles and sand.

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