Valuing time (Mental Models X)

How do you value time? There is a series of questions related to this question, but the biggest of them all is an existential one: what should I do next, how should I spend my time?

Time is all we have.

When we value our time the first challenge is to choose the resolution, the unit of time that we value. This will turn out to matter. What usually happens is that we value time in the units we measure it:

  • We charge a price per hour. Surprisingly many people still do this and charge by the hour. This means that you value the hours you have accessible to you and try to price them. If you are expecting to live another 10 years, the total amount of hours available to you are – roughly 16*365*10 = 58400 hours.
  • We can also value our time in days, weeks, months and years. Months is interesting, since we still accept that our salary is set in monthly installments. This works in a couple of different ways. You can calculate what you are being paid by the hour and use that as a market value of your time – if you have a monthly salary of 50 000 SEK, you could say that you are getting the equivalent of 50 000 after taxes / 160 (a “man month”) = 312 kr an hour. Now, this is a bit muddled by retirement funds, insurance etc, but you could say that at that salary you are getting that order of magnitude of remuneration for your time. I can buy 10 years from you at that monthly salary at the price of 6 MSEK. Now, interestingly many people price-adjust: they look at their salary and adjust their work input to a point where they think the equation is more fair – they don’t work as hard or bring all of their creativity to work – but that work and that creativity risks being just withheld, not utilized elsewhere.
  • Other options include valuing our time in absolute terms – that is in our life time. We could say that the average person lives 80 years and the real question is what it is worth buying a portion of that. In reality noone is buying absolute units of time after all, they are buying relative portions of your life. So what is 1/8th of your life worth to you? That is the price you should charge for 10 years. Here people often get befuddled and start thinking that they are buying their own life – they work now to be able to retire later and then spend their own life. But the reality is of course that they are selling their life at a constant price, and are hoping that this means that they can refrain from selling portions of it later.
  • Another relative measure is what you can create. Say that you can test a reasonably complex project in 6 months to see if it flies and works and if it has value — this is optimistic, but this is sort of a minimum viable time to test something. If that is the case, 10 years represents 20 projects. How should you price projects? That is what the question becomes if that is how you measure your time and charge for it. How do measure the chance to write a first draft of a novel, start a company, learn the basics of an instrument or a craft? What is the list of projects you would try if you forced yourself to measure your time in this way?

All of these methods are provisional, since they are ignoring the fact that the value of life goes up in relation to how little of it you have left. We have all read about the people who completely revise their time plans when they survive an accident or get a diagnosis that sets a definitive limit on the time they have. Yet, we seem unable to implement the insight they had without a scare of our own. That has always seemed peculiar to me – we can simulate so many other things – why not simulate surviving a plane crash or getting a diagnosis of cancer? And how would you then value your remaining time?

In a sense these events have been dramatized to a point where we are kept back from seeing the real insights in them: the stories around survivors or those diagnoses with deadly diseases hide the fact that the equation they solve for time / value is the same equation we all face, just seen from a different angle. Maybe it is not too hard to understand, maybe it has to do with fear – as so many things in life do. Your fear of death at some time passes your fear of not being successful, rich or powerful enough.

It requires a special kind of courage to be time honest to oneself. To honestly assess what we are doing and change if it does not respect the time we have left – not left to sit on a mountain and watch sunsets (though that is nice), but time left to build, create and explore. Time to learn. It is not that we should stop spending time, it is rather than we should spend it differently. How we can spend it so that it compounds.

For Rilke work – the work – was the imperative, following Rodin.

I struggle with this, more and more lately. The pandemic is one reason, it forces a re-examination of the way we live our lives (we who are so immensely privileged that we can act on it). It whispers the Rilkean admonition to us:

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.“

Rilke, Archaischer Torso Apollos

You have to change your life. And the only way I know how to do this is to change the way we spend our time.

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