Years ago, my friend quit his job and decided to take some time off from work. We occasionally hanged out. In the beginning, he mentioned how he was playing tennis in the morning and meeting friends for lunch and dinner. As time went on, he seemed to be less and less busy. A year passed. One day he told me that the major accomplishment of the day was getting his laundry done. He wondered where the time was going.
When a major disaster occurs, first responders (firemen, doctors, nurses, volunteers) arrive to help from all over the country, maybe from a different country. They are trained and equipped to help, except their walkie-talkie radios, from different manufacturers, most likely are unable to talk to each other. So someone is assigned the task of being a message dispatcher. He is the man wearing the vest full of different radios. His job is to relay messages from one radio system to another.
A startup I joined, a decade ago, had the goal of replacing that man with an affordable and easy-to-use solution of hardware and software. It was a worthy goal because during an emergency, any delay in communication could cause additional loss of life and property. The faster we worked in the startup, the sooner we could get our product out into the field and the more lives we could potentially save. So we took it from concept to product in less than six months. I remember writing code until 3 am in the morning, driving home, going to sleep, getting up at 8 am, and driving back to work for months on end. I accomplished overnight what others might have taken a week or two to do. I wasn’t tired or sleep deprived. I was driven to wring out as much as I could from each waking hour.
Time seems to expand and contract. For my nonworking friend, time compressed so that his days flew by without much activity. In my startup job, time expanded so that I seemed to be able to do a whole lot in a little time. Alternatively, I could say that my friend’s time expanded to fill his day with laundry and my day compressed along with my day’s work into an hour. It seems that the amount of time required to do a task varies, and if you really want to, you can drastically reduce that time.
In the 2011 movie “In Time”, time is money. The more you earn, the longer you can live. If you spend all your time or run out of time, you die. The rich, with lifespans measuring in centuries or millenniums, had grown accustomed to lives of leisure. The poor worked hard to earn only enough to live another day, and any mishap (like a raise in bus fare) could mean their death.
After the authorities unfairly confiscated everything but two hours of his time, the protagonist escaped and robbed a rich lady of all her time but a day. She despairingly wondered what she was going to do with a day. Surprised, he responded that you can do a lot in a day; he thought he had been generous leaving her with a day. As the movie progressed, the protagonist ended up in increasingly worse situations; he went from having only hours to live, to minutes, and at the end, to seconds. Each time, he persevered and pushed onward. You can do a lot in an hour, in a minute, in a second if you don’t give up.
I Can Do A Lot
The movie reminded me that in the past, I could accomplish so many things in a day because I believed I could. I really can do a lot in an hour! Holding this conviction again has made me much more productive. It helps me to work smarter by looking for a more efficient approach. It forces me to focus on the essential part that needs to be done. It pushes me to think outside the box in coming up with ways to complete the task, even if one of those ways is to eliminate the task itself. It permits me to say no to requests. My time is precious and should not be wasted.
If “work expands to fill the time available for its completion” (paraphrased Parkinson’s law), then work should also contract to fit the time remaining for its completion. Procrastinators instinctively use the latter principle to meet deadlines, though usually with poor results. High performance teams have used the latter principle to focus and work together to pull off the impossible in record times. (Although, there are probably many more teams that have crashed and burned.)
“If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.” – Stock–Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s law
Given a choice, I would want to choose the principle that directs me to do more things in the same or lesser amount of time. I’m not suggesting to rush through and do poor work. I believe that we are capable of doing high quality work in less time that we usually expect to. We just have to believe and push ourselves to. We may just end up surprising ourselves.
Your Money or Your Life
More importantly, the movie gave me a kick-in-the-pants reminder that time is very precious and that earning money costs me time. In the movie, every cost is measured in units of time, specifically your lifespan. A cup of coffee costs 15 minutes of your life. A new laptop could cost half a year. A house, a couple of decades.
Except if I think about it, it’s not just in the movie. It’s the same in real life. If I earn $10/hour and a Starbucks drink costs me $5, then that drink costs me 30 minutes. Is the coffee worth it? Probably not. That $100/month cell phone plan costs 10 hours of life per month, more than an 8 hour work shift. And a $1500 Macbook will cost a hundred fifty hours of life. Actually, everything costs even more because taxes take a chunk of life coming (income tax) and going (sales tax).
“If time is worth more than money, then why do we spend time earning it?” – Lance
The above way of thinking about money was covered in the 1992 book, “Your Money or Your Life”, by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominquez. The book’s most important premise is that money is equal to your life energy, so it behooves you to increase what an hour of your life energy earns and to spend it wisely. Instead of spending it on a Starbucks Frappuccino, you may wish to spend it on a class to acquire a new skill or career. I think that if we can start thinking of costs in terms of life energy (a.k.a. time and effort), folks may be more mindful of how they spend their money.
Awesomely, from a certain viewpoint, earnings from savings and investments (interests, dividends, and capital gains) actually add time to your lifespan. If your investment earns you $500/month, it can be considered as adding 50 hours to your lifespan (if you make $10/hour) each month. Awfully, from that same point of view, the interest you pay on your debt deducts time from your lifespan. Hours, days, months, or years of your life may be needed to service your debts.
False Opportunity Cost
When thinking of whether you should do a task yourself or pay someone to do the task, you might decide to consider what the cost to you is. If you remodel the bathroom yourself, but it would take you 500 hours, then the money equivalent cost to you would be $5000 at $10/hour. If you can hire someone who can do the work for less than $5000, it may be worth it because it ends up being less costly for you.
There is a fallacy in the above calculation if you plan to include your non-money-earning hours. If you plan to remodel the bathroom on your free time, then the cost to you may not be $5000. It may be significantly more or less, depending upon how much you value your free time or the activity you would have spent your free time on instead. If you would have spent your free time watching TV, then maybe your free time is worth only $1/hour and the cost of the work is $500. Can you hire someone to spend 500 hours working for you for $500? Probably not – it’s better for you to do the work yourself. If you plan to spend the free time taking a computer class so you can become a software engineer and earn $50/hour, then the cost to you might really be $25,000. Can you hire someone to do the work for that money or less? I think so.
In Time, We All Die
Generally, people think negatively about time. They think that it can’t be done. That there isn’t enough time to do it. That time is running out. That time is going to kill them in the end (yes it will). I suggest thinking positively. Think about how much we can do in the time given. Even better, how much more we can accomplish.
Act as if you believe that you can do most anything in an hour. Sure, you could end up taking longer than an hour (maybe two hours or two months), but you did accomplish something and maybe even eventually completed the goal. The progress is what counts. Psych and motivate yourself to exert the fullest effort by turning time into an optimistic cheerleader, instead of a pessimistic slave driver.
Remember, you can do a lot in an hour!