Cassie Holmes, HAPPIER HOUR: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most

Cassie Holmes, HAPPIER HOUR: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most

Guest host Allison Pataki interviews award-winning UCLA professor Cassie Holmes about her enlightening and joyful new guide Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most. Cassie discusses her groundbreaking research on time and explains the undeniable benefits of designing purposeful schedules and maximizing joyful and meaningful activities. She also teaches us how to turn tedious activities into worthwhile ones (like bundling errands with an audiobook!) and how to be more present in the happy moments.


Allison Pataki: Allison Pataki here with Cassie Holmes, the author of the incredible book, Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most. Cassie, thank you so much for chatting with me today.

Cassie Holmes: Good morning. Hi, Allison. It’s a treat.

Allison: The treat is ours. I can assure you. The humor is not lost on me that this a book, Happier Hour, about how to optimize our time for what matters most for a podcast called “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I think we have listeners who are primed and ready for this topic.

Cassie: Exactly. The good thing is that there’s also the audio version. While moms are driving kids around and folding laundry, you can also listen to it.

Allison: Perfect. Bundling activities, we’ll get into that. This is an incredible book. It’s an incredible tool. It’s a resource that I think people will just relish having. Thank you so much for writing it. Can you tell us how and why you came to write Happier Hour?

Cassie: It was born out of a day that I’m sure many can empathize with. Earlier in my career when I was a professor at Wharton, I had one of those crazy days. I had gone up to New York to give a talk. My presentation was sandwiched in between these back-to-back meetings. Then I had this colleague dinner. I was rushing to reach and catch the very last train that would get me home to my four-month-old and my husband, who were back in Philly. I did make the train, but I remember sitting on the train that night looking out the window as everything, the darkness, was whizzing by. I was like, I don’t know if I can keep up between the pressures of work, wanting to be a good parent, wanting to be a good partner, wanting to be a good friend, the never-ending to-do list and piles of chores waiting for me at home. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day to do it all, let alone to do any of it well, let alone to enjoy any of it along the way.

I now know what I was feeling was time poor. I’ve gone on to study this. It’s prevalent. It wasn’t just me on the train that night. It’s not just that particular day. We find that nearly half of Americans feel like they don’t have enough time, moms in particular, working moms in particular. It’s bad because it has these negative consequences, which I was feeling on the train that night, just stressed, overwhelmed, and unhappy. I remember thinking the answer is obvious. What I should do is quit my job and move to a sunny, slow-paced island somewhere where I’d have a whole lot more time. Then I would be happier. In fact, that is an empirical question. I was like, would I be happier if we had a whole lot more time? People who have endless hours to spend exactly how they want, are they happier? Our research actually suggests that, no, that’s not the case. Yes, having too little time is bad, but we actually found, on the other hand, there’s such a thing as having too much time. When people have all the hours of their days with nothing to show for it, they feel unproductive. That undermines their sense of purpose and satisfaction.

Actually, in the pattern of results that we found, there was a flatness. Too little’s bad. Too much is bad. In between, what we realize is it’s not actually how much time you have. It’s really how you invest the time you have that leads to happiness. I was like, okay, instead of quitting my dream job as a tenure-track professor, I will shift my research agenda to try to figure out empirically, how should we be investing the hours of our days so that we feel happy and fulfilled looking back on our days, looking back on our weeks as opposed to depleted and exhausted and dissatisfied? That’s what led me to do the research. Then I was like, nobody reads academic journal articles, but there’s a lot of insights here. I want to help spread this to folks. I developed a course that I’ve been teaching to our MBAs for the last few years and seeing the impact it’s had on their life. I was approached to write a book since not everyone can take my class. I was like, yes. There are these empirically based learnings. There are these assignments and exercises that we can do, anyone can do, moms can do to feel happier in their days.

Allison: Oh, my goodness, I’m so thankful to you that we all basically get to do a crash course in your class now. That is really what it felt like.

Cassie: It is.

Allison: You didn’t quit your job, but you did move somewhere sunnier. That was important to you, right?

Cassie: That was.

Allison: You did make a move while you were writing this book. Not to an island, though.

Cassie: Not to an island. Yes, there is a beach closer by than when I was in Philly. I’m now at UCLA. I’m a San Diegan, so moving back to Southern California and sunshine. While I am so happy here, in addition to the sunshine and being back closer to home, I’ve been implementing all of these learnings that I’ve discovered in my work. I live it. Yes, my life is busy. My days are hectic, but I am happy and satisfied.

Allison: You make a very strong case in this book why being happy and satisfied is such a worthwhile goal, why it matters to put emphasis on being happy in your life. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Cassie: Totally. It’s not indulgent, nor frivolous. Sometimes that term, happy, particularly for us moms who sort of put everyone else before us, it might even seem selfish to care about our emotional well-being. There is tons of data to suggest just how important it is for us as individuals to feel happy. When we feel happier, we are more creative. We are more adaptive in our problem-solving. It makes us more motivated in all that we set out to do. It increases our, even, confidence in all that we set out to do as well as it makes us nicer. To all those people around us whose interests we’re putting before ours, if we’re not taking care of our emotional well-being, then we’re not going to show up very nicely. It benefits them too. It is absolutely important. I used to have to motivate happiness more, particularly in a business school context, but it doesn’t require quite as much motivation now.

The last couple years have taught us just how important our emotional well-being — with anxiety rates as high as they are, depression rates as high as they are, burnout rates as high as they are, we are all recognizing, individually as well as within organizations and firms, but also at a societal level, just how important our emotional well-being is. What is great to know is that the research also shows that we have some control over our happiness. There are things that we can do. Yes, some of our happiness is not open to control. We have our inherited disposition, your natural personality. That has some influence, as do circumstances that we don’t have a whole lot of control over. What we do have control over is how we spend our time, what we think about and do in our day-to-day. There is research, including the research that I’ve done, to inform, okay, so how should we be spending our time? How should we be thinking about our time so that we can feel more joyful in our days and more satisfied about our lives?

Allison: How should we be? What did you find? What did you uncover? You’re teaching MBA students how to make money, but that our time is actually our most valuable resource in terms of the quality of our life. How should we be spending our time?

Cassie: While I leave it to my colleagues to teach their MBAs how to make money, I teach them how to spend their time so that they’re happier and will live careers and lives that are fulfilling. The goal is, the overarching framework is to maximize the amount of time you spend on worthwhile activities, so those activities that bring you joy, that feel fulfilling, minimizing the time you spend that feels wasteful, and also, while you’re spending your time on those worthwhile activities, on those joyful activities, not being distracted, paying attention so that you’re actually getting the happiness from that time that you’re already spending. Then the question is, what are those worthwhile activities? There is research that points to, on average, what activities lead to greater happiness. I think more helpfully are the exercises that lead you, each individual, to identify for themselves, what are those activities that are the most worthwhile and fulfilling for you? One of the exercises that I think is so helpful is a time-tracking exercise. This is over the course of a week. There’s a helpful worksheet on my website. You write down, how are you spending your time? What activity are you doing? Not broadly, like, I’m with my kids. I’m at work. More specifically, what are you doing with your kids? What’s that activity that you’re doing with your kids? What project are you doing for work?

Then in addition to writing down what you’re doing over the course of the week, as you come out of that activity, for each half hour, you rate on a ten-point scale, how do you feel? How did that activity make you feel? How happy, satisfied, fulfilled? At the end of the week, you have this amazing personalized data set that you can look for yourself. What are those activities that got your highest ratings? What are your happiest activities? Something you can look at is, what are the commonalities across your happiest activities? You might pull out, for instance, I really love one-on-one time. The research says socializing is our happiest activity. What type of socializing? There’s individual differences. What are those activities that really make you feel a genuine sense of connection and belonging? You can identify those. Maybe it’s like, oh, my gosh, I tend to be happy when I am outside. Across my activities, I tend to be outside, which is also in line with research that shows that we’re happier outside. It also allows you to see, what are those least-happy activities? as well as just how much time you’re spending across these various activities so you can identify, holy cow, I had no idea that I was spending ten hours each week on social media, say. That is one that it’s always a surprising thing. It’s like, I’ll just check for a few minutes here. Those few minutes turn into a half hour. Those half hours add up to a dozen hours over the course of the week. If you look at your own ratings, you’re like, that’s a four out of a ten. Oh, my gosh, I’m spending so much time on this thing that’s not even necessary, not even that fun. Yet I don’t feel like I have time to spend on the nine or ten-type activities, like meeting up with a girlfriend for drinks or dinner.

That information alone is really helpful to, going forward, how do you, given that you now know what types of activities or even specific activities that are so important and worthwhile for you — prioritizing those, putting those in your schedule first. Then everything else will fill. Also, it’s helpful for you to recognize, which, actually, we already alluded to, there are just some activities that aren’t so fun but that you do have to do, like the chores, like driving around, whether commuting to work or driving your kids to school. One strategy to make those activities that feel sort of like a waste of time that you’re just trying to move through — how do you make them more fulfilling, something wasteful feel more worthwhile? You bundle it with another activity that is worthwhile. Actually, when people feel time poor, I have people complete this sentence. I don’t have time to… One of the primary things they say they don’t have time to do, which is very in line with the name of this podcast, is, I don’t have time to read for pleasure. If you bundle listening to an audiobook every time you’re in the car, then every week, you get through a book. It turns that time that you’re trying to get through, wasteful time, into worthwhile time. Also, in the car, actually, if you have kids in the car, we have a lot of fun listening to audiobooks together. Then there’s other strategies of turning something that’s a routine into a ritual. You could even make the car ride with your kids, something that’s just sort of a mindless routine, if you can ritualize it, then all of a sudden, it makes it more special.

Allison: The time-tracker exercise you put in the book is so helpful and so illuminating. You also include, for the reader’s benefit as an example, a sample of your week. You went through and you got very granular too. That was so, so helpful and amazing. You also talk about the importance of being present in what you are doing and being present when you are with other people or you’re doing an activity. You talk about the fact that a lot of us are walking around distracted for a full half of our lives. Forty-something percent of the time, people admit that they are distracted. What do we do about that, Cassie? How do we help ourselves to be less distracted and to be more present in these moments and, as a result, in our lives?

Cassie: It’s such an important question because, as you noted, the research shows that we are distracted about forty-seven percent of the time. Also, we are less happy when we are distracted, which is bad. Then also, when you’re recognizing that you are spending time in ways that actually are really potentially joyful, but if you’re not paying attention, then you’re missing the happiness that’s right there. One way to make this really salient and poignant is, if you reflect back on your past week or two weeks, even, what was an experience that brought you incredible joy? Oftentimes when people think about that, it’s these really simple moments. They’re such simple everyday moments that we expect they will continue to happen every day, and so we take them for granted. Of course, we are distracted. Yet if you were to count how many times you have left to do that activity — in the book, as you noted, there was a lot of stories from me as well as anecdotes from my students, mostly to bring the empirics to life to make them really feel concrete and relevant.

Allison: It’s so good.

Cassie: One of the examples from my life is my morning coffee date once a week, my coffee date with my daughter Lita. This is something that’s super regular. We do it once a week. It’s really joyful because it is thirty minutes where it’s just the two of us hanging out. Amidst the busyness of everything, this is just time — she has her hot chocolate. I have my flat white. We have our croissants. We’re at a coffee shop. It is just this time that we are together. I calculated. It’s regular. It could be like, of course, we’ll always have our coffee dates, but no. I calculate it. The first thing is, count how many times you’ve done it in your life thus far. I calculated, including when I was on maternity leave and I would bundle her up, throw her in the stroller and to go the coffee shop. That was my way of sanity. Then adding those with our weekly coffee dates since, we’ve had about four hundred coffee dates together so far. Then I calculated how many we’ll have in the future. Knowing she’s seven now, in about five years, she’ll probably rather go to the coffee shop with her friends than me. Then she’s going to go off to college and then probably live across the country. I calculated we have probably about 230 coffee dates left together. The percentage, we have only thirty-five percent of our coffee dates together left. That’s less than half. She’s only seven. What does that lead me to recognize? It makes me prioritize that time, carve out the time, that no matter how busy a week is, yes, we are going to go to the coffee shop together. I make the time.

Even more so, what it makes me do is pay attention. This time is precious. It is not so everyday that it will continue to happen every day. These are these moments that are our life. When you ask me, am I happy? I’m like, yes. Why? Because I have a really wonderful relationship with my daughter. I also do with my son and my husband. This is just one of the examples of how this plays out. These thirty minutes bring me such intense joy. On our coffee shop, my phone goes away. That to-do list that is always cycling through the back of ours minds as moms, that gets quieted because this is our time together. One thing is turning something routine in a ritual. Recognizing that our time is, in fact, limited draws our attention to it and makes us savor it more, recognizing how precious, making us pay attention. Another really practical thing is putting the phone away. Research shows that simply having a phone on the table when you’re dining with friends makes you enjoy that experience less because you’re more distracted, the mere presence of your phone, not even being on it. Doing these things, like putting your phone away to remove the distraction, like mentally carving out that time that this is time for me to be with my daughter, that also removes the distractions.

Allison: Unbelievable, yes. You’re talking about meaning and what makes life meaningful. You give this great zoom-out where you say when we have these encounters with our own mortality or the finite nature of life, it prompts us to put everything in a focus and take a bird’s eye view of life, you say, and think about how you want the eulogies to be at the end of your life. You should live every day sort of informed with that as one of your guiding lights, that our time here, as you said, is limited. We do want to get the greatest meaning from life.

Cassie: It’s super important. While the title of the book is Happier Hour, it is actually the perspective — our research shows that when you take that broader perspective of time, thinking about your years and your life overall instead of hour by hour, what that does is it helps identify, what is important? On the eulogy exercise, some of my students are like, this is super depressing. I thought we were in a class about happiness. Here you are having us think about our death. I’m like, no, this is actually not an exercise about death. It’s about life. What life do you want to live? At the end of it, how do you want to be remembered? What legacy do you want to leave? Articulating that highlights what matters to you. What are your values? What are your goals? Thinking about your life overall, how you want to live the years of your life, that then informs how you spend your hours. The decisions that we make are hour by hour, but it is informed by what we want in our lives overall. There are also exercises in the book that helps you uncover what does matter.

It’s so easy to forget and make decisions not in line with what matters because we’re just reacting to what feels urgent and these incoming requests. It’s reactive as opposed to proactive. Making sure that we prioritize and spend time on those things that matter — what that broader time perspective does is it makes people spend in line with what’s important to them, not just what feels urgent. Interestingly, the times-left exercise that I just shared, what that highlights is that something that is absolutely important, for me, that thirty minutes with my daughter, it’s so easy for it to get neglected because it doesn’t seem urgent, but when you count the times left, it highlights just how urgent these really simple pleasures — that’s the joy in our life. It’s these little moments that are right there in front of us that we’re so — it’s not like we’re bad people by not noticing and being distracted. Our psychological tendency to hedonically adapt explains why we’re subject to this. Then how do we make choices and, not trick ourselves, but remind ourselves to pay attention, to notice those joys, to be in the moment, to be with the people that we’re with while we’re with them as opposed to distracted and missing out on the happiness that’s right there in the time that we’re already spending?

Allison: So beautiful. So important. So inspiring and helpful to have you reminding us of that. Knowing, Cassie Holmes, how mindful and purposeful you are about your time and your phone and social media and distractions, how can readers get in touch with you, connect with you, follow you?

Cassie: Unfortunately, I practice what I teach, and I’m not really on social media. I am on LinkedIn. I know it’s frustrating because it’s harder to find me. I do have a website, There, you can find out more about the book as well as the research that underlies the book and where I am. It’s a good landing page. I’m really happy that Happier Hour is out in the world so folks can get the insights right there.

Allison: Wonderful. What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Cassie: Carve out the time. Make the time, the couple of hours in the day. Close the door. Put your phone away. Close out of email. Maybe put a pretty thing of flowers next to you to make it feel like a joyful space. Make the time if it’s important to you.

Allison: Make the time. Beat the distraction. Focus on what matters most with Happier Hour by Cassie Holmes. Cassie, thank you so much for writing this important and inspiring book.

Cassie: Awesome. Thanks so much for having me.

Allison: Thanks. Bye.

Cassie Holmes, HAPPIER HOUR: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most

HAPPIER HOUR: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most by Cassie Holmes

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