Can We Improve Time Usage by focusing on the U-Index? Joe Abittan

Can We Improve Time Usage?

I believe that we can come together as a society and make decisions that will help improve the world we live in. I believe we can cooperate, we can improve systems and structures, and we can change norms, customs, and procedures to help make the world a better place to live in. I believe we can reduce the U-index in each of our lives.

 

Daniel Kahneman describes the U-index, a term his research team coined, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow by writing, “We called the percentage of time that an individual spends in an unpleasant state the U-index. For example, an individual who spent 4 hours of a 16-hour waking day in an unpleasant state would have a U-index of 25%.”

 

To a certain extent, the U-index is a measure of how well people use their time. Some of us are great at maximizing our waking hours and filling our time with meaningful and enjoyable activities. Some of us are not great at it, and some of us have serious limitations that prevent us from being able to use our time in a way that would maximize our individual U-index. “The use of time is one of the areas of life over which people have some control,” Kahneman writes, but still, there are larger structural factors that shape how we can use our time. Long commutes, limited child care, poor service quality in the public and private sectors, and limited spaces for socialization and exercise can all contribute to the amount of time people spend in unpleasant states, and are largely beyond the control of a single individual. Investments in these spaces will help improve the U-index for the people who get trapped by them. They are also areas where we can make public investments, come together as communities to improve the use of public space, and pool resources to develop new technologies that can reduce travel time, create more responsive and quicker services, and reduce the effort spent dealing with unpleasant people and spaces.

 

For things we can control, Kahneman has a recommendation, “The feelings associated with different activities suggest that another way to improve experience is to switch time from passive leisure, such as TV watching, to more active forms of leisure, including socializing and exercise.”

 

Watching TV, listening to podcasts, or reading a book can be great leisure, but we are social animals, and we need some degree of interaction with others. Unfortunately, we have become more dependent on TV and other fairly antisocial and isolating forms of entertainment. As each of us retreats into our homes (during non COVID times of course) for entertainment and leisure rather than spending time in our community with others, we reduce the opportunities for and the value of social activities. The more we get out and connect, the better our lives will be collectively.

 

And that is why I believe it is important that we believe that we can make the world a better place. There is an element of personal responsibility in making better use of our time and improving our U-index through our own choices and actions. Simultaneously, there is a social and public need for investment and collective action to help us make those choices which are more active and engaging. We won’t want to get out and take part in social activities if we have a long and difficult commute. If we can’t live in the city or in an interesting place with opportunities to interact with others because we can’t afford to live close by, then we won’t make the effort to get involved. If we don’t have safe, clean, and inviting parks and public spaces where we can engage with others, if businesses and public agencies can’t provide spaces with adequate and friendly services, then we won’t want to connect with the world. Kahneman suggest that even small reductions of say 1% to our societal U-index would be hugely impactful. Anything we can do to help reduce the time people spend in unpleasant states will mean fewer suicides, less depression and anger, and fewer negative interactions between people. Making investments to speed up travel, free people from menial tasks and chores, and make public spaces more inviting will help us connect and be happier as an entire society. At that point, it becomes easier to chose active rather than passive leisure and to be more involved rather than to retreat into our homes and Netflix accounts.

A New Kind of Problem Solving

Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s third highlighted feature of New Localism in their book The New Localism is that it, “reflects a commitment to a new kind of problem solving that is distinct from the uniformity of policymaking.”  American cities and metropolitan regions are leaders in innovation, diffusion, and development in the United States. The networks formed between university researchers, students, business and industry, government agencies, and local non/not-for-profits or charities help new research translate into real-world applications and eventually into new innovations. Crucially, this is not just true of new technological innovations. In medicine, material science, and communications technology we see new devices entering the market to change the ways we live, but outside these areas we are also seeing cities and metropolitan regions innovate thanks to dynamic networks and united stakeholders. New Localism is helping to drive new forms of governance, new forms of funding for local projects, and even new ways of engaging communities.

 

Katz and Nowak continue, “It adapts the risk-taking and attitude of individual entrepreneurs and investors to the collective sphere. It is experimental and tolerant of failure. It is the twenty-first century embodiment of Franklin Roosevelt’s words in his famous 1932 speech: It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another, but by all means, try something.”

 

Government is frequently criticized for being slow and unresponsive. Rules and regulations take over, and creativity, customer service, and improvements seem to disappear. Without a profit motive, it is hard to see why governments should feel a pressure to move quickly and why they should feel a pressure to be highly responsive to the public. Free markets on the other hand (and especially tech start-ups), seem to operate on a model of, “move fast and break things.” They feel pressured to always up the design and innovate, although they also face a pressure to provide gimmicks and overstate their level of innovation and fast-breakiness.  New Localism helps by finding a way to establish more of a common ground between these two extremes.

 

New forms of social and civic organization can help create quasi-governmental structures that provide the regulation and oversight necessary to protect citizens, but businesses can find profit and reward from working closely with those structures to innovate in a way that actually solves the local problem. Funding from associations and foundations help reduce the risk that government agencies would otherwise face, again providing a new avenue to help encourage innovation and development while avoiding typical roadblocks in a standard policy making process. These new ways to solve problems are a direct result of new networks and local action to address challenges in a cohesive manner.

Create Great Work

A real challenge across the globe in the coming decades will be helping people find ways to do meaningful work. A lot of our work today really is not that meaningful, and as more jobs can be automated, we will find ourselves with more people looking for meaningful work. Helping people find meaningful work will help preserve social order and cohesion and will be crucial for democracies, companies, families, and societies as a whole as we move forward.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the importance of meaningful work in his book The Coaching Habit and suggests that coaching people is easier and better when you are helping someone with meaningful work. When you give people tasks and ask them to do meaningless jobs, you will never get the most out of the people working with or for you. He writes, “The more we do work that has no real purpose, the less engaged and motivated we are. The less engaged we are, the less likely we are to find and create great work.”

 

The company I work for makes a real difference in the medical world. Our work leads to better health outcomes for patients and families and it is easy to see how our work has real purpose. But even within the work that I do, there can be tasks and items that seem like extra and unnecessary steps. These little things can build up, and even within a good job they can begin to feel tedious and disengaging. To combat this, my company encourages efficiency and automation within the important things that we do. We are encouraged to think about ways to improve systems and processes and to find new ways to do things better. It is the autonomy and trust from our leadership that helps us stay engaged by allowing us to continually craft our jobs to an optimal level.

 

Not everyone is in the same situation that I am in. Many companies hold people to specific processes and inefficiencies, perhaps just to see how conformist and loyal individuals are to the firm. This holds back growth an innovation and demotivates and disengages employees. As this happens to more people and as meaningless tasks are displaced to robots, we will have to find new ways to motivate and engage employees, because our employees are our fellow citizens, and because motivation and engagement can be thought of as a public good. We all rely on an engaged citizenry for our democracy, and work helps us feel valued and engaged. How we face this challenge as individual coaches and as companies will make a big difference in how engaged our society is in the future.

Activity Versus Passivity

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius believed that we existed on this planet to be active, creative, thoughtful, and engaged with the world around us.  At multiple points in his book Meditations he reminds us the value of action in our lives and the value of striving to work toward something.  Toward the end of his book brings up the idea directly stating, “Not in passivity, but in activity, lie the evil and the good of the rational social animal, just as his virtue and his vice lie not in passivity, but in activity.” In this short quote he is showing that on our own and without engaging the world our existence is a void. His thoughts in this quote can be better understood when looking at his view of the work we do (regardless of what that work is) which is summed up in a previous quote that I wrote about, “In the morning when though risest unwillingly, let this thought be present—I am rising to do the work of a human being. … Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed clothes and keep myself warm?—But this is more pleasant.—Dost thou exists then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? … and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?”

 

Combining the first quote from above with Aurelius’ outlook on work and human nature helps us see that he believes we are destined to be engaged social beings that strive to accomplish the work that is in front of us and asked of us.  We are not meant to simply keep our bed warm and to exist in isolation in our own comforts.  We may be unwilling to take action in our lives and may simply want to enjoy passivity, but we will not find our meaning in passive moments.  We can build ourselves up in a positive manner only through action, Aurelius explains, but our action also presents the option and chance for negativity.

 

Aurelius interestingly seems to favor the chance for us to be evil and to face danger and peril as opposed to being comfortable and disengaged from the world while passively lounging in our bed.  In his explanation we simply do not exist, neither in good terms not bad, when we don’t engage the world. We don’t have the ability to show the world our virtue if we don’t engage, but we also hide the parts that are evil. Keeping any part of ourselves to just ourselves and not the world, Aurelius would argue, is selfish and against human nature. In his view we should strive to fulfill ourselves as humans by action, even if that produces both positive and negative results. I think Aurelius would further develop the idea of our action leading to both good and bad by encouraging us to focus our thoughts and reflections back upon ourselves, so that we can understand whether we are using our talents in a positive way for ourselves and society, or if we are simply advancing ourselves at the expense of others.

Human Capital

Many employees in companies across the country do not feel very engaged in the work they do.  As a result, they don’t feel inspired to do their best, and they do not provide the most value possible to the companies they work for.  Fred Kiel argues in his book Return on Character that this is because employees know when they are truly being treated with respect and when they are simply being treated as “human capital”.

 

Kiel’s book focuses on morals, ethics, and how leaders who display strong moral character habits shape the companies they oversee. By creating teams that match their values and support their moral goals, a company’s top leaders can create a system that better engages the workforce. When describing a common feature of workforces that engage their employees, Kiel writes, “They treat their employees with respect.  Employees experience the culture as one that cares for them as people—where they are not treated as “human capital.”” What he is showing is that those who we expect to work for us and provide value for us need to know that they are valuable as human beings and individuals, and they need to feel a sense of purpose and appreciation from their leaders.

 

When a leadership team or a supervisory team does not expand respect to all levels of the workforce, then the work that each individual does will not become a sense of pride and will suffer.  The employees become disengaged causing productivity and quality to diminish.  If a leadership team broadcasts strong moral values and guides supervisory teams to truly respect and value their employees as more than warm bodies, then the employees can develop meaningful relationships with their leadership and with each other. These relationships will stem from respect and encourage everyone, not just the employees but management level workers as well, to commit to their work to maximize their potential.

A Full Life: Challenges, Failures, and Successes

Writing about facing life’s challenges and accepting failure Colin Wright in his book Act Accordingly states, “Living life to the fullest is not about winning every time and avoiding the aspects of life that prove too onerous.  Its about unabashedly facing challenges, failures, and yes, even successes with a smile, moving ever-forward toward a more ideal lifestyle and a better version of yourself.” This quote addresses progress and maximizing our life by not shying away and avoiding the difficult parts of life that we think we may not be ready for or that we may want to avoid because we know they require a lot of hard work.  Achieving goals and building connections and relationships with others lead to a more fulfilling and happy life, but often times it is a lot of work to reach our goals or put ourselves in situations where we meet new people.

 

In my life I have struggled with the idea of moving toward goals and ideas that I know will require a lot of work and effort.  It is hard to find extra time to put in the work that is required to be engaged in extra projects that help build meaning in our lives.  For me, there have been many times where I have feared the hard work required to overcome a challenge or work toward a goal, and I have instead moved in different directions. I first recognized this in college when looking at what majors I would chose, and it has continued to haunt me in smaller decisions and ideas ever since.  What Wright would suggest for me is that I do not focus so much on the outcome or how challenging it will be to reach the point I am shooting for, but understand that regardless of whether I succeed or fail, the important thing is that I am engaging.  Wright would tell me that in order to grow I need to recognize challenges and understand the difficulties associated with them, and move towards them with a strong desire to perform well. His message is a bit trite as we tell ourselves that not everyone will win every time, but actually applying that and accepting it in our own lives is important if we want to accept that we won’t always be ready to perfectly handle all of our challenges.

 

What Wright explains in his chapter about failure is that it is never permanent.  We hit roadblocks and challenges that we are not always ready for.  We should not expect that we are always going to be able to handle every situation we face, but by putting ourselves out in the world and accepting the hard work instead of running away from it, we will build more skills through experience.  These skills which may develop from failure will allow us to make better decisions in the future. It will be challenging but by not allowing ourselves to quit we can learn and move forward as a better version of ourselves.