09/09/2015 07:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

For Better Creativity, Don't Let Your Hourly Wage Dictate How You Spend Your Day

This article was originally published on

"What's that?" I ask myself as I pore over my time sheets. "I'm making hundreds of dollars an hour doing this, but only a few dollars per hour doing that?"

I've been working hard this year to increase my income, and this is my new hobby -- figuring out how much money the different things I do make over time. I use a timer to track and record each of my business tasks so that, every so often, I can look back and see what work is most productive for my bank account.

But just as interesting as peeking at the inner workings of my business is the effect it's had on other areas of my life. Unfortunately, it hasn't been great. The more I increase my hourly wage, the more irritable and stressed out I get when I feel like I'm using my time unproductively.

Not just at work; everywhere. Watching a movie with my wife. Wasted time. Taking the dogs out. Wasted time. Driving into town to see friends. Wasted time.

When you're working to increase your income, there are tradeoffs to make -- you don't get to just snap your fingers and make more money -- but what I didn't realize as I started this experiment is that I was falling into a subconscious trap: putting a dollar value on every hour.

Ever felt like you were in the same trap? The more you earned, the more stressed out you became? You're not alone, and here are some ideas to solve the problem.


Image courtesy of Ed Yourdon

How Big Pay Checks Stress You Out

When people talk about stress related to money, they usually mean they don't have enough. But, according to a simple but intriguing study, the opposite can also be true. [1]

The more money you make, the more likely you'll experience stress and anxiety. Sounds strange, but it makes sense when you consider how hard your brain works to create patterns (even when they don't exist). Without careful attention to how you train yourself to look at money and time, your brain struggles to distinguishing between hours spent doing different stuff -- thinking about work, doing work, or thinking about and doing fun, non-work related things.

Once you've focused yourself on your hourly wage, you'll be focused on it whether you're toiling at some difficult task or watching a sunset -- you measure your return in dollars per hour. Is watching this sunset going to make me $100/hour? No? Back to work!

Where Creativity Comes From

The problem, of course, is that there are things that help you work your best and are very valuable -- relationships, downtime, sunset-watching -- but can't be measured with money. They inspire creativity and actually make your work more valuable.

To understand the concept better, just ask yourself, "Will a painter create his best work doing nothing but mastering brush strokes or does he need to spend time thinking about the purpose behind the strokes too?" Or, "Will an accountant do better work by editing spreadsheets all day or does she also need to spend time better understanding her clients?"

In both cases, you get paid for one task, but it's the other that makes you more creative and allows you do that task better.

How To Restructure Your Work To Earn More and Be More Creative

I've learned for myself that if you want to make more money, you definitely need to pay attention to where your time is spent. You have to optimize for your more productive tasks.

But you should also do a few things to make sure your creativity doesn't plummet and your stress doesn't skyrocket as a result. It's hard to get this right, but here are two things I'm trying right now:

  1. Only track real work hours. To do this, you first have to set some. Easier said than done when you work for yourself. For me, it's critically important to set my hours and hold myself to them by not letting work slip into time that should be reserved for other things. The separation also keeps my pattern-seeking brain from trying to squeeze productivity out of time that shouldn't be optimized for that.
  2. Schedule downtime into your day. Whatever work hours you set for yourself, make sure you take frequent breaks to allow variety in your schedule. For me, this is a morning exercise session, a quick walk with the dogs, and a break to run errands in the afternoon. This makes sure I take time during the day to think about work and not just do it. Stepping back and looking at your work as a whole drives creativity.

Tyler Tervooren founded, where he shares research and insights about mastering your psychology by taking smarter risks. For more, join his Smart Riskologist Newsletter.


1. Do Higher Wages Come at a Price?