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Three Ways to Spend Time

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”

William Penn

Theoretical discussions often address time management, but more often, life practice neglects its concepts and principles.  For personal finances, many people carefully consider how to spend, save, and invest for retirement, college expenses, or other large purchases like a down payment on a house.  Some are incredibly adept at managing money even in small day-to-day expenditures – we call them frugal, penny wise, or thrifty.  However, the person who has no concern for financial matters and budgeting may be called a free spender, a prodigal, or a squanderer.  These terms generally have a negative connotation, since few would advocate living life in this way, unconcerned and unhindered by an appreciation for a balance sheet.

What to do with Time

There are multiple parallels between managing money and managing time.  We desire time, as it is of value (“what we want most”).  We can trade or barter with it: “I’ll help you for an hour, then you help me later,” or “Do you have a minute?”  Furthermore, we can sell our time (and the labor associated with it) – just ask anyone who has a job.  However, we can’t truly save it.

One may argue that there are ways to memorialize and remember a moment, which is akin to saving. Still, the parallel ends there, because a saved memory can’t be withdrawn and used later – in fact, we must expend more time to withdraw a recollection from our memory bank and reflect on it.  A memory withdrawal doesn’t pay a time dividend.

We can spend time (“what we use worst”), and that is the focus of this discussion.  As with a child receiving an allowance, there are three ways that we can spend the time that we are given. And remember, our time balance sheet resets each morning but decreases predictably and inevitably with each passing moment.

Zero-Return Activity

Brockn clock image
Time management with a broken clock

First, we can spend time on zero-return activity.  There are things that we can spend time on that have no redemption value (like the statement on a coupon with no intrinsic value or representation of value, unlike currency or precious metals).  Once we complete these activities, there remains nothing that we can point to that is durable, memorable, or noteworthy. We are left with no lesson learned, no experience gained, and no knowledge expanded.

The complicating problem is that some non-wasteful activity, time spent that results in something of value, can masquerade as wasteful. Then, we don’t see the point of it, and conversely, there are zero-return meaningless activities that we dress up to pretend that their importance justifies the time expense.

Entertainment, while it may consume an inordinate amount of time in some lives, is not all waste.  There is a human need for recreation, renewal, and relaxation.  The problem occurs when we have completed our recharge and then continue to spend.  The batteries are full, and thus, the excess charge (which we continue to acquire at a cost) spills out ineffectually.

Required Activity

Second, we can spend time on required activity.  Perhaps this is the largest area of time-spending in our lives.  Required activity includes time to get the right amount of sleep, time to perform “executive function” activity (such as behavior, cognitive tasks, memory), and time for normal/expected routine (hygiene, dressing, eating, cleaning, and others). 

Family time is required time.

As noted above, we may try to tuck non-required activity into this spend category, claiming more importance for an item and thus spending freely.  It is these human desirements that creep into our actual list of life’s requirements, acting as a drain on our finite time resources. 

Other requirements may include:

  • Time to travel to and from our jobs, however, the duration of our commute often is the result of past choices;
  • Time spent on our jobs, but the type of job and the necessary time investment to earn money to balance our budget are also the result of previous decisions; and
  • Time to fulfil our life-roles, such as our position, place, or responsibilities in society, family, and community.

Investment Activity

Lastly, we can spend time on investment activity.  What is essential to understand is that not all such activity is equal.  Just as there are short-term, long-term, low-yield, and high-yield investments, the things that you can invest your time in have different rates, risks, and returns.  Some investments of our time take years to mature before they pay dividends (ask a parent).  Others act as an annuity, demanding a substantial initial investment, then providing a periodic, stable, and predictable return over the rest of one’s life.

We even can think of time spent on some activities as paying on a mortgage for a house.  Initially, the bank owns our time (we borrow it back), then with consistent payments, we gain equity in our lives (we own and control our destiny).  Think of the 12, 16, or 20+ years invested in education to gain ownership of knowledge initially held by teachers and books, ultimately possessed and wielded by graduates – this is an example of a time annuity.  The long-term commitment in a relationship, with frequent, small time deposits can provide an equity stake in marriage, business partnership, or another bond between people. In essence, this is an example of a time mortgage.

Further Information

The three ways to spend your time have been addressed by many others, with other models and methods of describing spending and investing.  In his book, Stephen Covey writes about the Production/Production Capability (P/PC) balance. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, uses the fable of the goose that lays the golden eggs to drive home Covey’s point. Additionally, other authors discuss the four quadrants of time management (balancing urgency and importance). They urge a move away from unimportant, non-urgent activity (quadrant four) to important, non-urgent (quadrant two).

Picture of book cover, The 4 Disciplines of Execution

Using a different approach, in The 4 Disciplines of Execution, Chris McChesney, Sean Covey (Stephen’s son), and Jim Huling discuss the whirlwind of life’s activities and the importance of selecting and committing to spend time on specific tasks aimed at “achieving your wildly important goals.”

With these examples (which just scratch the surface of literature that address the popular topic of time management, goal setting, and prioritization), there is a clear lesson.

We must be intentional and introspective with how we spend our time!

Bring it Home

Examine your use of time and observe your balance between the three areas outlined here.  Work to eliminate zero-return activity, know what is required for you and your situation in life, and then make a wise investment in a purposeful way.  Also, don’t ignore the power of making small changes over time, and the power of dollar-cost averaging on building wealth. Even small time investments made daily towards the right activity pay enormous dividends for the remainder of the time that you have on this earth.  Turn time management from a mental process into a way of living. When you do that, you can be an exception to William Penn’s observation:

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”

Three Ways to Spend Time – today’s ActionLink.  Be sure to look for more Leadership Principles from P H Tyson & Associates.

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