Full text of author James Wallman’s talk: How to Hack Time to Be Happier & More Successful at TEDxManchester conference. In this talk James shares the 7 secrets to spending your time in ways that lead you to be happier and more successful.
James Wallman – Author of Stuffocation
So I’m James. I’m super excited to be here today. It’s a real honor.
And I’m going to be talking about time and how to spend it. And our time here is coming to a close, so I’m going to begin by introducing a person with a problem.
His name’s Woody. He’s my son; he’s five years old. And a few weeks ago, he had a specific problem. He fell, he banged his head on this step. And I kind of did as any parent would, and I kind of grabbed him up into my arms. I held him back, and he had blood pouring down here. I thought he’d banged his eyes, I was just sort of panicked.
But my wife calmed me down. We got into the car, and we did what… you know what any good parent would do. We took a picture.
And then as I was putting him into his car seat, you know doing it up, he looked at me, he said, “Daddy, am I going to die?”
And I did…. look to him, just… “Yes, but not today.”
And the reason I tell that story is we all have that same problem. We’re all going to die… hopefully not today. Hopefully not during this talk.
So imagine a bank account that gave you £86,400 every day. But at the end of the day, any money that you hadn’t spent was wiped, what would you do? You’d spend it all, no? Some people wouldn’t spend it all. Anybody know why it’s £86,400? It’s the seconds in a day, exactly.
The clock is ticking and there will come a day you’ll go to the time bank and there will be no more time for you. So how you spend your time is vitally important. If you don’t spend it well, it’s the same as burning money. And you don’t do that; do you?
Today’s world I think we’re surrounded by all sorts of distractions and things that take up our time. You know, one of the things is the emails that we get, the texts that squeeze, the 24-hour news coverage, it’s kind of constant incoming, you know the TikTok, the WhatsApp, the Facebook updates, all this incoming stuff we’ve got to keep up with.
And one of the problems is our mobile phones. I call them the weapons of mass distraction. How many people here check their phone within 15 minutes of getting up? One of the first things you do. Some of you are liars; that’s good. That’s healthy.
Okay, more than 85% of people check their phones first thing.
How many of you charge your phones in the bedroom? Let me see a show of hands. Okay, so you guys if you take nothing from today, apart from this, if you charge your phone somewhere other than your bedroom, this is what the data says: you will sleep better and you have more sex.
Okay, so we’re so addicted to our phones that one in ten people check their phones during sex. That was research conducted at a very well-respected university in the States and it was published in The Economist, which makes it a fact in my view.
So there’s about 2400 people here, that means it’s about 240 people here today who checked their phone during sex. Can those people stand up please and tell us how you do it; you weirdos.
I did actually give a talk somewhere, much smaller, about 50 people. And this guy said, yeah but you can’t cut it because the screen lights up. Let’s leave that.
Okay, so but the thing is get this: With food we know there’s a difference between junk food and good super-foods, healthy foods, right?
And because of that, we tend to eat… we try to eat more good foods, correct? But with time we don’t know the difference. If you didn’t know the difference between healthy food and junk food, you’d eat more Donuts; wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you? All right, only me.
If you want to be happier, spend more on experiences and less on stuff, okay. And people would say to me, “Okay, James, that’s great. I should spend more on experiences; what kind of experiences should I choose?”
And I didn’t know the answer. I had an opinion: there are things I like, things I don’t like. But I wanted to have a proper answer. So I did what any curious person would do, who doesn’t really know. And I went talk to people much cleverer than me: economists, psychologists, anthropologists at places like Harvard and Stanford and Cambridge and Oxford and the LSC and MIT and NYU and Tokyo University.
And what I discovered was that just as there are junk foods — so and there are super foods — there are junk ways of spending your time and superfood ways of spending your time. So there’s ways of spending your time, that will increase your odds of being happier, more resilient, more creative and more successful.
Now as you know, we may know that eating healthy food is a good idea. But when someone turns up at work and you thought I’m not going to eat too much, but someone turns up with a box of donuts and they’re free and says do you want one, we don’t always choose the right thing; do we?
And then there’s a Friday night, and you say I’ve got two drinks and go home. We don’t always make the best choice. So therefore we need like checklist things to be memorable, to help us, to not just think about the five a day idea, to encourage us to do the right thing.
So I put this together into a checklist, this idea and if you follow this checklist stories, as you can probably read their STORIES, if you follow this checklist, if you aim for each of these things, they’re all backed by science, you are more likely to be happy, resilient and successful.
I’d love to talk you through all of them, but we’re going to focus on a couple today. And we can focus on story. So but rather than just tell you about it, I want you to play a game.
So if you can stand up, in a moment, I’m going to get you to stand. And you’re going to talk to someone that you haven’t talked to before. And you’ve got one minute to tell a story. It should have a beginning, a middle and an end.
Okay, here’s the hard part. It should be about a time when something went wrong for you or you did something bad. Who here now wishes they hadn’t come to this talk?
Just so you know I’ve done this quite a few times over the past year and it works, you are going to enjoy this. Just so you’ve got a little chance to think about the story you’re going to tell, I was at one event and this girl, about 23 year old, told a story about how she was in a boardroom with her boss. And they were presenting to their key client. She had their presentation on a laptop. She plugged it in, she opened it up, and what was on her laptop came up on the big screen. What do you think it was?
There are some people in this room with some very bad ways of thinking. It was a letter applying for a job.
Okay so you have one minute, you’ll then hear a bell and you swap round to the second person tells their story. Ready, if you can stand, please stand, let’s go.
[Audience talking each other]
Okay, and the second person. Second person telling their story. Yeah.
[Audience talking each other]
Okay, sit down. Thank you. And sit… now you thought that was going to be awful; didn’t you? But wasn’t that fun?
There’s a very simple reason for that. We are hardwired as humans to love story. It’s an evolutionary adaptation. Just as we love salty fatty foods, the thrill of the chase and sex, so we love story. This works. Neuroscientists have figured this out it works in a very simple way.
When you tell a story, the person who’s listening to you, the neurons in their brain fire the same as yours; they call this mirror neurons. That’s the basis for empathy. Empathy leads to connection, connections to relationships, relationships to happiness, happiness to success, and all that stuff makes you more resilient, too. Isn’t that awesome?
Story is a superpower. It doesn’t matter what story you tell, if you tell a story, you will connect with other people. You are more likely to lead them to war, in business.
But there’s a type of story that you can tell that is more likely to fire up their mirror neurons; it’s called the hero’s journey. This is how it works. Good fortune, ill fortune… good fortune when you’re rich and healthy; your family love you, your team has just won the Premier League.
Ill fortune is when Liverpool is about to win the Premier League. All your team has just been banned from the Champions League.
Okay, so what happens in these stories is classic story… every culture in the world tells stories in this shape, it’s the story of the Battle of Britain, it’s the story of Thanksgiving, it’s the story of Cinderella.
So think about Cinderella. She has a mom and a dad; she’s the hero. Then her mom dies; remember the story? Then her dad remarries, remember that bit? And then he dies too. Awful, she’s in the whole thing, it’s terrible, she lives with a stepmother and sisters. But then you know a bit of fuss with the slipper but she meets the prince and happy ever after. You’d know the story, yeah?
Now just imagine for a moment. If Cinderella hadn’t had lost her mom and dad, and they just lived with her mom and dad, met the Prince happily ever after. What kind of story is that? It’s a rubbish story.
And the thing is, the reason that every culture in the world tell stories in that shape is because it resonates for us. It’s the story of our ancestors who had to cross rivers and oceans, who had to deal with cold nights and ice ages, or fight off enemies. And it’s all of our story, because we’ve all messed up; things have gone wrong for all of us.
Just got to intensity. So we make a mistake when we think about happiness. We will have this kind of fantasy that life’s going to be great when we’ve done the work and our feet are up on the sofa or on the Sun Lounger. But it turns out we’re wrong.
We’re much happier when we’re going through some sort of really intense experience, like surfing, like being in a jazz band, being intense and in the moment and focusing.
The awkward thing about this is you can’t always be surfing. You can’t always be in a jazz band. You might be doing something else. But you can design flow. There are eight tools you can use.
So the first one is: delete distractions. It’s the dark funk rules. Makes me think of Daft Punk have at you and dancing in a massive hall with loads of people. So delete distractions, put your phone down, turn your phone off. A) be active, especially if you’re physically active, like if you were dancing today in this hall with everybody today, you know where this is going, yeah?
The hour is really important, because the lights are going to come up in a minute and this is about risk. Risk is key: creative risk; physical risk, like when you’re climbing or something; and social risk like you might embarrass yourself.
Now I’m a British man, so you know I can’t dance. And some of you will also feel that you can’t dance too. But that’s okay. We’re going to do this together.
And to make it less awkward and more fun, we’re all going to dance the same. You with me? I don’t know the guys at Daft Punk but I know this guy so we’re going to… everybody if you can stand up, if you can please, we’re all going to dance together, you’re all going to copy me and then I’m going to choose someone else that someone else is going to lead us. Are you clear?
We are going to do silly dancing together, because this is an experience of intensity, which will lead you to be happier. Okay.
Okay. So a happy ending is what he’s fine, you see this I also dressed, the eyes okay. We waste too much of our time today. There are junk food ways of spending our time which wastes your time, the precious seconds hours and days you have.
But there are super food ways of spending your time can make you happy, resilient and successful. It’s the stories checklist. Thank you. Great dancing by the way.
Resources for Further Reading:
- Agoraphobia: The Fear of Fear – Linda Bussey (Transcript)
- Why Politicians Shouldn’t Appoint Judges: Aziz Huq (Transcript)
- Human Complexity Simplified: Jennifer Sorensen (Transcript)
- How Sci-Fi Informs Our Climate Future — and What to Do Next: Zainab Usman (Transcript)
- Phobia Relief: From Fear to Freedom – Kalliope Barlis (Transcript)