Saving Time

Dennis E. Quillen

WE HUMANS CAN BE a bit irrational. We’ll struggle to the bitter end over potential losses of property, whether it’s fretting over investment losers, trying to recover money we’ve lent or wrangling over our parents’ estate. But strangely, when it comes to what may be our most valuable resource—time—we collectively shrug off losses as a mere nothing. That “mere nothing” can often have significant financial implications for future monies earned or lost.

Time has specific properties. It is fixed in amount, but the “expiration date” is unknown. It is highly perishable. Once used, it cannot be reused. Over the years, our time resource will become less and less, while being cherished more and more. Sadly, we cannot go back and reuse the time we misused previously.

We all have some time waste forced upon us. I’ve been kept waiting by individuals who value their time but not my time. Others, unwittingly, are just bad judges of time. Many time losses result from inefficient institutional practices, such as legal systems, government bureaucracy, medical care facilities and utility company dealings.

Some time loss is part of everyday life. Examples include traffic jams and airline delays. There are also things that just happen, like plumbing problems, storm damage, medical emergencies and school closings.

Want to make better use of your time? Consider four strategies:

1. Think carefully about time priorities. Try to avoid giving up truly unique opportunities for the more ordinary. To that end, think about which non-selected options would cause greatest remorse in the long run.

2. Develop a plan to maximize the best use of time. Develop new interests and new expertise. Discover new careers or part-time diversions. Use time to generate new sources of additional income or new ways to reduce expenses.

Improve physical fitness and favor a healthier lifestyle, which will translate to potential savings in future medical expenses, including hospital bills, physician treatments, and time in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Consider reading both fiction and nonfiction, taking college courses, developing hobbies, joining social and service organizations, and try to get in some truly memorable travel. Favor more novel, inspiring, educational or just plain relaxing activities.

3. Consider what time is worth to you. Pay for tasks that rob you of valuable time by hiring help in such areas as lawnmowing, housecleaning, household repairs, painting, car washing, leaf raking, tax preparation and so on.

I have adopted a contra-Ben Franklin philosophy of “don’t do today what you can postpone until tomorrow.” I’m generally inclined to give preference to something I really wish to do today, rather than use time for some mundane activity that could easily be postponed. With luck, I may even die before I have to do the darn task.

4. Minimize total time wasters. I refuse to stand in line for pretty much anything. I avoid lines for drive-through banks and fast food. I find that just parking the car and walking in can often save time and add a bit of exercise. I also build in a bit of self-defense for possible wait times: I try to bring along a book or magazine, as well as a legal pad for writing down ideas. I also have a specific plan for those habitually late: I build in a lateness cushion. An example: I’ll set a 4:45 pm appointment time when I want a 5 pm face-to-face meeting.

Do I ever make bad use of time? Absolutely. When I look back through my life, I still cringe at those occasions when I used my time on something unimportant, when instead I could have seized the unique opportunity to see Count Basie, Duke Ellington or Jimmy Buffett in concert. I don’t remember what I thought my “better time option” was, but I sure remember what I missed.

But there was one instance when the reverse was true. I made the “wise” decision to attend the lecture of world-famous inventor-thinker-futurist R. Buckminster Fuller. Bad decision. Yes, he was a genius, but also a terrible lecturer. Finally, I thought of a better use for my time. I walked out of the lecture and joined dozens of other early-departing scholars in going out for a couple of beers.

Dennis E. Quillen is a retired economic geographer and university professor. In addition to blackjack, he loves long-term investing. His previous articles include Food for ThoughtCutting the Bonds and Bouncing Back.

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