The Cost of Time - How Much Would You Pay to Have More Time?

The people I know who seem to have it all still lack one thing.  Time.

In just about every conversation I have these days, I hear people complaining about the scarcity of time. “I’m crazy busy,” “I’m grinding,” “I’m back-to-back all day,” “I’m slammed,” they say.

My life is no different. I often feel that I’m trying to cram 2 days worth of activities and events into a single 24-hour period – trying to make space for work, creative thinking, exercise, mindfulness, family time, basic life overhead, and something approximating a full night’s sleep.

Like just about everyone I talk with, my number one complaint in life is:  I don’t have enough time.


The Time/Money Trade-Off

There’s a passage from Henry David Thoreau on this topic that has always haunted me.  In his essay “Life Without Principle,” he declares:

If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for…There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.

Now, it’s easy to brush this off as the musings of an angry hermit who lived alone in the woods.  But his basic point is this:  most of us consistently trade our time for money.

This seems like a logical move.  It's also the move that most of us make most of the time. In a recent study at UCLA, for instance, 64 percent of people valued money over time.

And yet it's also an irrational move because, in many ways, time is far more valuable than money.  As psychologist Elizabeth Dunn points out, money is an elastic good. It's a store of value that can be saved, transferred, and exchanged. If you're good at making it, you can accumulate an almost infinite amount and then pass it on and on for generations.

Time is different, more ephemeral. You can't save it up or pass it on to your children. It's also radically egalitarian. Nobody, no matter how rich or talented, can have more of it than anyone else. We all get the same 1,440 minutes each day as everyone else.

Hence the irrationality of trading time for money. We're giving something away that we can only enjoy right now for something that we can use anytime we want.


The Status of Time Scarcity

There’s another paradox when it comes to time.  We revere the people who don’t have time and pass judgment on those who do.

We see the time poor - those who have not a minute to spare - as successful and accomplished. On the other hand, we see the time rich - those who have all the time in the world - as lazy, unproductive, free-riders.  

In fact, there's no greater sin in the modern world than showing up at a cocktail party and announcing, “I’m not busy at all.  My days are wide open and spacious.”  It’s akin to saying, “I have no drive or ambition.  And I basically suck at playing the game of capitalism.” 

Thoreau noted the same thing in his day.  A person who walks through the woods for the love of nature, he tells us, is seen in the eyes of the world as a “loafer,” while a person who sheers off those woods is seen as an “industrious and enterprising citizen.”


Valuing Time Over Money

The research on this trade-off is clear. We think valuing money over time leads to happiness. But it doesn't.

In that UCLA study I mentioned earlier, researchers found that those who chose time over money were statistically happier and more satisfied with their life. In another recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers gave subjects $40 to spend on a material purchase one weekend and $40 to spend on a time saving purchase during the next.

Which purchase led to greater happiness? When people used money to buy time, they reported significantly higher levels of happiness and satisfaction.

These studies reveal that, in spite of our habitual way of acting, perhaps time really is more valuable than money.


Becoming Time Aware 

This week's Mindfulness At Work Experiment is to see what happens when we flip this habitual script. What happens when we exchange money for time? Are we happier? Less stressed? More connected to the people around us?

The key to this experiment is awareness, seeing when we habitually sacrifice time for money and then choosing a different path.

And, of course, it's worth mentioning one obvious caveat. I'm not saying that we should go crazy here - that we should trade all our money for time and move to the woods like Thoreau.

There's nothing wrong with trading time for money, some of the time. After all, most of us need to keep some amount of money flowing in. We need it to buy food, pay a mortgage, or send our kids to college. 

So the practice is simply this: try trading money for time, some of the time. Then see what happens.

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