Time Versus Money: What We Really Want

Last Updated Sep 30, 2011 10:10 PM EDT

Would you rather have a job that pays $80,000 a year that lets you get 7.5 hours of sleep a night, or a job that pays $140,000 a year and allows you time for only six hours of sleep a night?

According to a recent study from researchers at Cornell University and the University of Michigan, the result may depend quite a bit on whether you're a student or whether you're working full-time. Here's what they found:

  • Adults want sleep. A representative survey of 1,000 adults, conducted by researchers at Cornell, found that 75% of respondents preferred the $80,000 job that let them get 7.5 hours of sleep.
  • Students want money. Some 69% of them said they'd take the job that paid more but allowed them less sleep.
The researchers actually asked two sets of questions, along the lines of, "Which of these would make you happier," and "Which of these would you actually choose?" They were trying to see if people actually chose the things they thought would make them happy, or if they were willing to trade their own happiness for status, a legacy, or their family's happiness.
  • About seven percentage points of the adults who chose money over sleep did so even though they said they thought sleep would make them happier.
  • The students were more willing to vote against their own happiness. Of those who chose money, 23% did so even though they thought sleep would make them happier.
The researchers didn't address the dissimilarities in these findings. My own view is that more students would take the less-sleep job mostly because they've never gone a prolonged period without sleep. Most parents can tell you what it's like to go months or even years without getting enough sleep, and it's ugly.

Students may also think they'll get a high-paying job for just a few years right out of college, pay off their debt, sock some money away, and then get a more mellow job. Of course, once they get used to a big income, relatively few young people willingly jump off the treadmill.

These results also suggest that companies' work/life initiatives and perks might have a bigger impact on older workers than on those fresh out of school.

Cheap rent versus a long commute
The researchers also asked adults if they'd rather have a short commute or low rent. One hypothetical apartment was a 45-minute drive to work, and rent was 20% of the respondent's income. The other apartment was a 10-minute drive to work, but cost twice as much. The apartments were identical in every other way.

  • Having more money-this time in the form of low rent-won out over more time. Some 63% of people chose the cheaper apartment with the 45 minute commute.
This question is more similar to the first than it might appear. Both ask people to trade off money versus time. In the first question, 75% of adults chose time (sleep). In the second. 63% chose money (low rent).

The difference, of course, is that while your commute may eat into the amount of time you could spend sleeping, most people probably don't see it that way. They figure they'll make up the time somewhere else. But being told flat-out that you won't be getting enough sleep is too much to take. Unless you're a student.

Would you prefer a high-paying job that didn't let you get more than six hours of sleep, or one that paid less but let you sleep 7.5 hours a night?

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Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.