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Time Limited

Jonathan Clements  |  December 19, 2020

OUR MOST PRECIOUS resource is time. I’m determined to waste as little as possible.

Unless we’re at death’s door, none of us knows how much time we have, but we all know it’s limited. Yes, money is also limited—but, if we squander money, there’s always a chance we can make it back. Time lost, by contrast, is gone forever.

My preoccupation with time and its dwindling supply has grown as I’ve grown older. I may be patient with my investments, but I’m not patient with much else. After 58 years of trial and error, I know how I want to spend my days—and what miseries I want to avoid. That’s led me to adopt nine strategies:

1. Fix problems quickly. Faced with a distasteful task, I’m often tempted to put it off until next week or next month. This is foolish. The distasteful task—calling customer service, dealing with my tax return, cleaning out the basement—is going to cost me time, but now I’ve compounded that loss by spending unnecessary days contemplating the need to do it.

I’ve tried to break myself of this habit, with mixed results. What if I can’t handle a distasteful task right away? I’ll add it to my to-do list. If I do that, I find I don’t think about the task quite so much, plus writing it down removes some of the problem’s perceived burden, perhaps because I feel like I’m one step closer to getting it done.

2. Don’t stop halfway. This is another bad habit. I’ll often start on a project, but then switch to something else and come back to it later. This works well when writing—time away from the draft of an article allows me to look at it with fresh eyes—but it’s usually a time waster with other endeavors, because stopping and restarting chews up precious minutes.

3. Search less. Thanks to the internet, we can spend countless hours finding, say, the perfect toaster at the best possible price. But how about capping that search at 10 minutes? To save time, I’m inclined to check out a few options and then make a quick decision.

I realize that shopping brings great pleasure to some folks, in which case they should take all the time they want. Along those lines, I like pondering possible vacations, so I’m happy to spend an hour scouring the internet for information. But toasters? Not so much.

4. Skip the line. In these pandemic times, when there are strict limits on the number of people in local stores, I see folks queuing outside Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, the local liquor store and elsewhere. You won’t see me standing in these lines or any other, unless it’s absolutely necessary. Yes, you guessed it: Airport security and the Department of Motor Vehicles are not my favorite places.

5. Don’t buy trouble. Like so many others, I muse occasionally about buying a second home as a weekend getaway. But then I come to my senses and realize it’s a terrible idea. Why would I want a second place that I’d need to waste part of my weekend driving to, and which would require regular cleaning and occasional home repairs?

Houses are the biggest drain on our budgets, accounting for a third of U.S. family spending. What’s No. 2? That would be cars and other vehicles. These, too, can be a source of headaches, but most folks have no choice in the matter, because a car is pretty much a necessity where they live. Now that I’ve returned to city life, I’m carless, which I consider a great privilege, especially when I see drivers circling the neighborhood, desperately searching for a parking space.

6. Drive off-hours. Because I no longer have a car, I occasionally rent one. But when I do, it’s always for trips that I take at odd hours. Just as I hate standing in line, I loathe sitting in traffic. Indeed, commuting ranks as a major source of unhappiness, which is why living close to work—preferably within walking distance—can be such a boost to our quality of life.

7. Offload chores. After spending the workweek staring at my laptop, I rather enjoy weekend chores, whether it’s incompetently re-caulking the bathtub or climbing a ladder to clean the gutters. But not all chores bring happiness—and, for those that don’t, research suggests paying others to do them is money well spent. Indeed, hiring others to do distasteful tasks is a double win: No only do we liberate ourselves from something we dislike, but also we create time for things we enjoy.

8. Lose the losers. We all know people who complain constantly, or never offer to pick up the tab, or only talk about themselves. I’m not very good at separating myself from such “friends,” because I’m loath to hurt anybody’s feelings, but I’ve become a tad more ruthless in recent years. If you’re going to spend time with friends, wouldn’t it be better spent with those whose company you truly enjoy?

9. Don’t dwell. This is perhaps life’s biggest time waster. We all know the drill: Somebody’s playing politics at the office, or we get into some silly argument, or the neighbors are once again being jerks. But then we chew up yet more time by letting the incident “rent space in our head,” as we replay the event in our mind and ponder all possible angles.

This is obviously a colossal waste of time and a prescription for further unhappiness. What to do? I don’t have a good strategy for avoiding such mental churning, except to be aware of it and to talk to others about it. What if there’s nobody around to talk to? I try to cut it off with a curt, “Shut up, brain, you’re being an idiot.” Sometimes, that works—but not often.

Jonathan Clements is the founder and editor of HumbleDollar. Follow him on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook. Jonathan’s most recent articles include Long Time ComingNext Year Foretold and Dialed In.

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