16th December 2016

Invest Your Time Wisely

A few years ago, a friend recommended that I read the book The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, saying, “Since you’re in the time-management business, you might like it.” My friend did not notice me cringe. She did not know that I try to keep my distance from “the time-management business,” since I think the standard prescriptions of that school of thinking have proven to be inadequate for dealing with the real problems caused by today’s busyness epidemic. The truth is that, unlike an employee or a team of workers, time cannot be managed. You can’t call “Time” into your office and give him a dressing down: “Time, your performance last week did not meet my expectations. I need another six hours out of you this week.” I started Working Simply in order to pioneer a very different approach to the productivity challenges we all face.

However, my friend’s book recommendation was well-intentioned, and I made a point of picking up a copy of The Last Lecture as soon as I could. Unfortunately, I was in the middle of a large project at the time, so it sat on my bookshelf for a few months until one evening when I pulled it down, saying, “I have a few minutes to spend—maybe I’ll read a few pages.” When I next looked at the clock, several hours had passed—I’d finished the book in one sitting. It was funny and entertaining, but more important: it challenged my perception of time.

Randy Pausch was a professor of computer science and human-computer interaction and design at Carnegie Mellon University. When he was asked to give his “last lecture,” as many professors are asked to do, he did not realized that it would truly be his last. In August, 2007, Pausch had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. But The Last Lecture is not morbid or depressing, nor is it about dying. It is about achieving your childhood dreams, overcoming obstacles, enabling the dreams of others and seizing the moment. It is about living – fully living.

Pausch’s cancer diagnosis completely changed his perception of time. He realized that time was all he had. It is an insight that applies to all of us. Time is what we all have, and we all have the same amount – 24 hours a day, 168 hours a week. What I learned in reading Pausch’s book is that life and happiness are not about having more hours in a day—they are about more purposefully and intentionally using the hours we do have.

After I finished reading Pausch’s book, I was curious and wanted to actually see him delivering his “last lecture.” I found the video on YouTube and watched it, then watched it again and watched it a third time. I kept coming back to one line in the video when Pausch says, “Do you know what your household time budget is? Probably not. See, you can go and earn more money, but you cannot ever get time back.”

I had never thought about my time as a commodity, like the dollars in my wallet. This was thought-provoking enough—to realize that time is a rare and precious thing, a resource that we must never squander but instead must spend with care, planning, and intention, just as we spend the money in our bank account. But Pausch’s comparison also emphasizes the difference between time and money. Unlike money, time is not a renewable resource. By working harder, building a business, or buying a fast-growth stock, we can earn more money. But once today’s 24 hours are gone, they will never come back, no matter what we do.

Like many young people, I had always assumed that I would always have more time—a seemingly infinite procession of tomorrows, as free and limitless as the air we breathe or the water that flows from the tap in the kitchen. Pausch’s video brought home to me the fact that, in reality, of course, that’s simply not true. Time is limited and therefore even more precious than money.

What does this mean to you?

The challenge is to shift the way you think about time. The goal is to start thinking about time as a commodity, and in particular as an infinitely valuable, non-renewable resource.

In my work with clients, in order to make time more tangible and to help them embrace this paradigm shift, I ask them to calculate the monetary value of their professional time. They divide their annual salary by 2,080 hours (52 weeks X 40 hours a week), and the resulting number is the value of one hour of their professional time. They now can quantify their professional time using a numeric, monetary value.

Do you know the monetary value of one hour of your time at work? If so, excellent! If not, determine your hourly rate. Once you know your hourly rate, you can quantify time – its value is no longer nebulous. The objective is to understand and use your time the same way you think about and use your money—only with even greater thoughtfulness and care, if possible.

More important, think about the various ways you use your money—and then begin to apply some of the same thinking to your time. For example, you spend some of your money on daily necessities and luxuries; you give away some of your money to support organizations and causes you believe in; and you save and invest some of your money in order to produce greater value for the future.

In the same way, you can use your time in a variety of ways. You can spend some of your time on activities that are necessary (like driving to work or cleaning your house) or enjoyable (chatting with a friend, watching a movie); you can give away some of your time to help others and make the world a better place (for example, by volunteering at a local non-profit, caring for someone who is ill, or mentoring a young person); and you can invest some of it in activities that will give you greater value in the long run (taking a class, exercising to improve your health, or attending a networking event to expand your professional network).

We don’t often think or talk about this last use of time. But since time is so limited and precious, this is probably the most important thing we can do with time–invest it wisely so it produces the highest possible long-term return.

“Time is money,” the old saying has it. But that’s wrong. Time is more valuable than money. You need to start treating it that way.