ahead of the times

Americans are benefitting from a rising industry

Designed to save people time

ahead of the times


Lisa Woodruff reached her breaking point on her 40th birthday.

Although she considered herself a stay-at- home mom, Woodruff also had filed Schedule Cs on that year’s tax return for nine different odd-job income sources, and was overseeing her dying father’s care and estate. “The eye opener for me was when I made a list of all the household related tasks my husband and I shared, and it came out to 36 hours a week, which is a full-time job,” said Woodruff.

Adding in the 20 hours per week she spent driving her kids around, she realized she couldn’t physically get it all done. “Something had to give. I had to stop and look at my entire life and figure out what was the most important thing, and then reorder things based on priority, not necessarily based on frugality,” she said.

Some changes didn’t cost a penny. Woodruff began outsourcing grocery shopping to her husband (as well as internet delivery services) and she asked her mother-in- law to carpool her kids from school twice a week. The Ohio mom and entrepreneur started a personal organizing business to help other people live efficiently, and found that hiring a house cleaner and a personal assistant was worth the extra time it bought for her. Woodruff isn’t alone in making that calculation.

The wellness movement and gig economy, where jobs are freelance and temporary, have together facilitated a cultural shift in how we value time—and what we’re willing to invest to reclaim a few extra hours. In fact, an entire industry has emerged dedicated to outsourcing chores to help people optimize their time.

The growing industry

Around saving tme

If you’re struggling to set aside time for an inevitably long customer service call, a Fancy Hands’ remote personal assistant can handle that for you. Planning a marriage proposal? Your Hello Alfred home butler can take care of buying and setting up your apartment with flowers, balloons and your favorite wine. There’s an outsourcing app as well for walking your dog, building your new bookshelf, doing your laundry or finding parking.

The founders and owners of these businesses believe they’re filling a need in a new market where increasingly-busy Americans expect to have at their fingertips solutions for virtually any problem.

Fancy Hands chief executive officer Joshua Boltuch said his company’s assistants, who can complete a variety of tasks, are handy when people need to do something that’s too nuanced for an app. Take making a dinner reservation.
Although it’s easy to book for four online, Boltuch said, “When the restaurant reservation actually requires an extra level of cognitive customizations—like if you need a private room for a party of 10, or you need to research prix fixes or drink specials—that’s when Fancy Hands becomes this killer tool to use. Where someone has to make the calls, and you can’t quite do it on an app, that’s where we thrive.”

Customers submit their requests, and a rotating staff of mostly college-educated personal assistants will complete those tasks, ranging from researching cheap hotels to…breaking up with significant others. “We wouldn’t force any Fancy Hands assistant to do that, but the request did get picked up,” said Boltuch.

In-home concierge service Hello Alfred takes a more luxe approach to outsourcing by pairing clients with a specific “Alfred” to complete various customizable chores—from laundry to grocery shopping to in-store returns. The top of its website states the company’s mission clearly: “Time shouldn’t be a luxury.”

And while that particular service may not be an affordable option for everyone, alternative outsourcing tools are becoming more widely available. “We believe that time- saving services are going to become more and more prevalent,” said Hello Alfred co- founder and chief executive officer Marcela Sapone. “Time has always been the one thing you can never get back, and everyone could use more of it.”

identify yourself

The economy and

Psychology of

While the concept of outsourcing chores may once have seemed frivolous, scientific studies have found it could actually be economically and emotionally advantageous.

Mathematician and ClearerThinking.org founder Spencer Greenberg created an online calculator that can evaluate the personal-time-versus-money conundrum. “There are all these opportunities people have to save time for a price less than what their time is worth to them, and yet people are not taking them,” said Greenberg. “It’s an inconsistency if you say someone has to pay you $30 an hour to complete a neutral task, but then you're not willing to pay someone else $20 to save yourself an hour.”

“There really is something powerful to putting a monetary value on your time,” said Sanford DeVoe, an associate professor at the UCLA Anderson School who studies the psychology of time. Though he doesn’t think people should view time only in terms of economic return—which could take away from experiential activities or volunteer work—DeVoe said it’s an effective decision-making tool.

“The upside of this is, I don't think people value their time sufficiently when you talk about the sort of more utilitarian, materialistic type,” he said. “Are people willing to wait in line for a sale or drive an extra mile to get a $20 savings on a purchase?”

There are scientific arguments for the emotional benefit of buying time, as well. In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, people were given $40 and instructed either to spend it on a material purchase or in a way that would save them time.

“What we found in that experiment is that consumers derived more satisfaction at the end of the day (so they were happier and felt less negative) when they spent this money on a time-saving purchase as opposed to a material purchase,” said Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School and lead author of the study.

“People also told us they were savoring their daily experiences more. They took that free time from getting the groceries delivered, and they went for a walk with their partner, they hung out with their family and had a picnic,” said Whillans. After conducting the study, Whillans decided to apply the findings to her own life. She moved to a more expensive apartment within walking distance from her new job—she’d previously opted for a long, unenjoyable commute to save money on rent.

But in spite of these positive results, the same study found people hesitant to choose time over money. When given the option, only 50 percent of respondents chose to buy time. How could this be?

“People don't always act in line with their best interest, and I think there are a lot of psychological barriers of why people don't give up money to have more time,” Whillans said. “Though I think that there is more research to be done, looking at just how simply framing money as a way to have more and better time, could help us reevaluate why are we making money in the first place.”