It’s About Time

In their annual letter, this year Bill and Melinda Gates write about energy and time. Among other things they describe the importance of opportunity cost of time. Opportunity cost is the next best use of a resource. If instead of doing what you are doing right now what ‘other’ thing could you be doing? That ‘other’ thing is the opportunity cost of your time. The letter highlights opportunity cost of time for women, especially in South Asia and Africa, who are doing unpaid, menial chores instead of spending that time getting education, better health and pursuing income-earning opportunities.

Opportunity cost analysis of time is also very important for you. It can serve as a lens for introspecting about your life. Ponder on what you are doing vs what you could be doing different to enrich your life.

Usually when we think about time we think only of time management. How can we do more with the 24 hours we have in a day? How can we become more efficient, effective and productive? Then we come up with all kinds of strategies to make the most of our time like learning to prioritise, or as students we make a time-table and might adopt techniques like pomodoro or the wedge technique and most frequently we create ‘To Do’ lists.

This view of time management I think is a micro view of time. It is important but we also need to have a macro view of time. What organisational psychologist Elliott Jacques calls ‘Time Span of Discretion’ – the longest time a person is capable of spending on a single task.

At Level-1 of Time Span of Discretion are people capable of spending just a few months on a task. At Level 2 to 4 people can invest between one to five years pursuing their intent. At Level-6 are statesmen and business leaders who have a time horizon of 20 years to accomplish what they have imagined. Level-8 are people who have a vision that will have a 100 year impact. Finally, at Level-9 are people like Gandhi and Einstein whose work has an impact for centuries because they “planted trees under whose shade they did not expect to sit”. From Mandela to Obama, Gandhi still has huge influence globally and the recent observation of gravitational waves bears testimony to Einstein’s thought experiments done a century ago.

No doubt micro aspect of time is important, especially in today’s world where technology allows you to fill otherwise dead time productively. Like the time spent commuting in buses, trains and airplanes, or simply waiting can be productively filled by reading, listening or watching something on your mobile phone. Or, in such moments simply watching your breath, as advocates of ‘living in the moment’ will tell you, is a type of meditation that makes you more conscious and aware.

However, most of us seem to be losing sense of macro aspect of time – ability to have a life pursuit with a very long time horizon, with success not guaranteed. I think reasons for this are many. In our hurry to become socially successful (more money, power, fame) we have become slaves of time. Time is money. And FOMO or Fear of Missing Out makes the ‘time is money’ phenomenon even worse. “There is money to be made in the booming e-commerce sector in India – start-up today, IPO tomorrow. Don’t miss this opportunity.” This sort of peer-pressure escalated, comparative approach to life makes it extremely difficult to pause and ponder if we are making investing our time wisely.

To makes things worse we believe the way to live life is sequentially: “I will first make money, then have a family and after I retire from my active income generating pursuits I will do some socially relevant work.” Nurse Bronnie Ware, who worked for several years with terminally ill patients in the last weeks of their lives records “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” in a book with the same title. The most common regret her patients had was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Male patients who missed the growing up years of their children and their partner’s companionship lamented, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends” was another of the top five regrets.

Learn from the words of the dying! Life is better lived in parallel. The wheels of life turn more easily and smoothly if you give time and energy to all the spokes – social success, physiological success, psychological success and spiritual success.

Based on such an opportunity cost analysis of your time rewrite your ‘To Do’ list. Consider the importance of all the spokes of your life and whether you would like to reach a much higher level in the ladder of Time Span of Discretion.

And remember, success of your new ‘To Do’ list hinges on it being accompanied by a ‘Stop Doing’ list!