Time Assets and Debts

5 minute read

Time is the scarcest resource for many people in industrialized countries, and no matter what, it’s the only resource we can’t directly get more of. Yet we often find ourselves with no time for things we care about: it seems either we’re bad at managing our time, or “management” isn’t even the right concept to begin with.

I want to present two ways of addressing the problem of having insufficient time to do something. The first approach is an analytical one. We know we always have exactly 24 hours every day – time is a zero-sum game – so we solve the problem by finding somewhere else to take the time from. We can do that in several ways:

  1. We can stop doing something else that we consider less important entirely, or do less of it.
  2. We can try to do some things faster or more efficiently, so as to get the same things done in less time.
  3. With a subset of tasks, we can ask or pay someone else to do them for us.

Option 1 is effective and important but often undesirable or even impractical (sometimes everything on the list is critical).

Option 2 is great, as far as it goes, but unless you come up with a life-changing technological innovation, you can only do the same thing so much faster. I can type about 120 words per minute, which is an indispensable skill that saves me a great deal of time, but I’m still only four times as fast as someone typing 30 wpm, and I’m never going to type, say, 300 wpm. Worse, typing is an outlier: most things you might want to do faster are not nearly as amenable to this treatment. Typing is a skill you can straightforwardly practice, you get better quickly, words don’t come out messier on the computer when you type them faster, and there’s little inherent enjoyment to be lost in typing. You can read a book faster, but you won’t remember as much and you probably won’t enjoy it as much. You won’t be popular if you try to optimize hanging out with your friends. And you can’t make some things, like driving in heavy traffic or attending a concert or game, any faster at all no matter how hard you try.

Option 3 is also great as far as it goes, but again, most of the things you do you probably don’t want to delegate (and for many of them, it wouldn’t make any sense anyway). Plus, you then have to find the money or social capital to get someone else to help you.

The problem with this first approach to finding time is that it’s obvious. While applying it can sometimes give good results, particularly when you already know what you need to do but don’t want to admit it, it’s just as often completely unhelpful. You probably nodded all the way through it (if you didn’t get too bored to continue reading).

Here’s a different way of thinking about time. It’s also not going to solve anything all by itself, but it offers a different complementary perspective, one where everything you do is an opportunity to find or lose time in the future. I find it refreshing.

In his blog post “Running a Software Business on 5 Hours a Week”, Patrick McKenzie introduces the useful concept of time assets and time debts. These are simply defined in about the same way they are in finance: a time asset is something you do or create now that prevents you from having to spend time later (it stores time for later), while a time debt is something you do or agree to doing now that obligates you to spend additional time later. Time assets are things like automating boring and repetitive tasks, getting organized so you don’t lose track of where your stuff is at the most inopportune moment, finishing routine tasks ahead of time, stocking up on food at the grocery, or even getting your bag ready to go the night before work. Time debts are things like doing a shoddy job that you’ll have to repair soon, agreeing to serve on a committee, skipping out on sleep, or leaving dishes in the sink to clean the next day.

Before anyone gets the wrong impression, time debts are not inherently bad, just as taking out a mortgage can be a smart financial move. Society would collapse if we never committed to doing things in the future, and sometimes duct-taping something with the understanding you’ll need to come back to it soon is exactly the right choice. But like loans, time debts need to be entered into with caution and with a full understanding of the costs you’ll be paying later. The fastest way to become overly busy and have your life spin out of control is to carelessly take on large amounts of time debt, often without realizing you’re doing it.

Time assets, on the other hand, are just great, provided that you acquire them ethically and at an appropriate price. The more time assets you can develop, the better, especially those of a kind that keep on giving, like monetary investments. If I get my bag ready in the evening, that’s great for tomorrow, but all I’m doing is moving the task to a time when I know I’m not running late. On the other hand, if I set up autopay for my rent so I don’t have to mail in a check every month, I save a few minutes every month without putting in any more time at all (plus I don’t have to worry about forgetting).

Wherever you go, be on the lookout for time assets you can make for yourself – and beware of lurking time debts! If you start looking, you’ll start seeing as well, and you just might realize some things about the time landscape of your life that can help you take better control and direct your time to more useful, meaningful, and enjoyable pursuits.