Time is elusive and fleeting. We spend most of our waking hours remembering the lessons learned, trying to forget the tragedies, and more than anything, planning for our future. Days come and go, and we mostly ignore the presence of time.
Philosophers, scientists, and artists have debated man’s relation to time for thousands of years, yet it still remains one of the greatest mysteries of life. We’ve invented ways to track and measure time to advance our species and we’ve optimized our lifestyles with technologies that make us more efficient. For humans, time is viewed as a finite resource. The resource is not time itself, but how we focus our energy with the limited time we’re granted in life.
Our limited time holds the key to success or failure, happiness or despair, but time is so integral to our very existence that until we are reminded about its scarcity, we pretty much take it for granted.
Early on in life, we have such an abundance of time ahead of us that we barely notice the minutes and hours going by. As time passes, we reach reflective points in our lives, say after a loved one passes or when we encounter a near death experience. At those moments, our past gets condensed down to a few powerful emotions. We may either despair or rejoice for the life we’ve lived.
It’s at these junctures in life where we make bold decisions and radical changes that alter the path we’re on. It’s at these points when we decide to make that career change or to start a family or new business we’ve been putting off. It’s only when we begin to appreciate the scarcity of time, and accept the uncertainty of the future, that we begin to feel alive in the present.
“Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.” ~ Pope Paul VI
Pope Paul VI understood the deep relationship between our perception of time and our mental health. We’re living in the most abundant and magnificent era in all of human history, but we have record rates of depression and suicide among our populations. 18% of the US population suffers from anxiety disorders. The World Health Organization estimates that 350 million people worldwide are suffering from clinical depression. The cause of much of the emotional strife that exists, especially in the developed world, is directly related to the way we think about, value, and spend our time.
Time and Money
Value and values are personal and subjective. I may value my time more than money, and you may value money more than time. Furthermore, there are things that I can value that are difficult to measure, like the value of my freedom or the value of being honest. Each person has different aims and desires that shape what things they value and to what extent they value those things. The point is that any discussion about measuring value(s) is not going to be as easy as counting dollar bills, but it’s still a good place to start.
Whether we like it or not, it’s important to consider money when we talk about value. In our society, people place an extraordinary amount of value on things that cost money. Earl Nightingale, the best selling personal development author, summarized the relation between money and value extremely well in The Strangest Secret.
“The problem is that our mind comes as standard equipment at birth. It’s free. And things that are given to us for nothing, we place little value on. Things that we pay money for, we value. Everything that’s really worthwhile in life came to us free; our minds, our souls, our bodies, our hopes, our dreams, our ambitions, our intelligence, our love of family and children and friends and country. All these priceless possessions are free. But the things that cost us money are actually very cheap and can be replaced at any time. A good man can be completely wiped out and make another fortune. He can do that several times. Even if our home burns down, we can rebuild it. But the things we got for nothing, we can never replace.”
Time and the wonderful gift of life are things given to us for free. In fact, our time is what we trade to acquire all sorts of material goods. We invest our time in work, entrepreneurship, and other pursuits in exchange for money and wealth to acquire the things we value. It may be hard to comprehend time being more valuable than money since we often use money as a measure of the value of our time. Let’s take a closer look at the relation of money and time and how this plays out in our lives.
What Is Time Worth?
A useful and common way in which we measure the value of our time is by using an hourly wage. It’s worth doing this analysis if you haven’t calculated the number for yourself. It’s important to be honest and not simply use the 40-hour workweek assumption if you regularly work 60 hours per week.
Let’s say you’re currently 30 years old. The average life expectancy in the US is 78.74 years according to the 2012 World Bank study on life expectancy. That means you have 48.74 years of life left. That’s 17,790 days or 426,962 hours. In other words, your net worth, in time, is 426,962 hours. If you take away one-third of that for the time you will spend sleeping, you have 285,116 hours left to invest. Let’s assume you work until the age of 65 at an average of 40 hours per week. That’s another 72,800 hours of your remaining net worth that is accounted for.
Outside of work and sleep, you still have 212,316 hours. Keep in mind that the quality of those hours typically diminishes with time, as you lose health and vitality with older age.
Now let’s say the job you have pays you $80,000 annually at the age of 30. Let’s assume that you’ll increase your income by 3% each year for the full length of your career to adjust for inflation. The total future value of all your earnings, assuming you don’t invest any of your savings, is $4,836,966.54. That’s more than twice the average lifetime income for a college educated American worker, so you’re doing good so far.
Your lifetime average hourly wage is $66.44. Now, here’s the shocking part. The net present value of your future earnings, assuming you worked all those hours and received that $4,836,966.54 all at once in retirement, assuming a 8% annual discount rate, which is considered a good annual return on investment, would be $113,631. That’s right, in this example, we are effectively trading 72,800 of our most valuable hours at $1.56 per hour when we factor in the time value of the money.
Another way to look at the net present value calculation is to say that if you invested $113,631 at the age of 30, and earned an 8% annual compounding return on investment, you’d earn the same amount of money at the age of 65 as you would spending 72,800 hours at work for all those years earning a salary.
In reality, we all need to work to make a living and pay for our basic needs. It is not realistic for most people to decide to stop working and somehow still earn a living, especially if they have a family to support. The purpose of this exercise is to understand how much time we realistically have and to place some monetary value on each hour of our time. We can now start to make better decisions about how to prioritize and balance time with money and the other things we value in life.
We’re All (Probably) Going To Die
If we knew our natural life span at birth, based on genetic testing, and we had a clock that counted down the hours, minutes, and seconds to our death, time would suddenly have new meaning. If we could then trade our time directly for things like shelter, food, and other necessary goods and services, instead of first trading our time for money, time would be the de facto currency. We’d begin to think carefully about how we spend and invest our time, this precious and non-renewable resource, with the same or greater care that we use when we think about how to invest our hard earned money. The movie, In Time, starring Justin Timberlake, does a fantastic job of portraying such a scenario and putting time in its proper perspective.
When you look at most self-made people, whether they are famous, rich, and/or powerful, you will notice that they all have one thing in common: They are extremely conscious and protective of their time. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the 10,000 Hour Rule of mastery. The theory is that it generally takes 10,000 hours of practice to become great at something. You can’t buy mastery. It requires a significant investment of your time. Gladwell’s theory may not hold scientific weight, but it’s obvious to most people that smartly investing time is a key element for achievement.
Wealth and material things on their own don’t provide meaning. This is most easily understood when people face a life-threatening illness or disease. In most scenarios, people that suddenly learn that they will not be able to live out their natural lifespan due to health issues will usually trade all their money and possessions for a cure; for more quality time. Time becomes infinitely valuable in the face of death. You wouldn’t trade an hour of your time to earn $66.44 when you know death is around the corner. In reality, you’d be willing to pay as much as possible to extend the length of your life and to get some hours back.
The people that value time in this way, when they are completely healthy, regardless of their level of wealth, are the ones that we typically envy. They are the great scientists, athletes, inventors, and entrepreneurs of the world. They don’t value their time highly because of how much they are worth in dollars after the fact. The wealth and fame they generated was a result of the way they think about and value their time, from the beginning, when they had nothing.
These lyrics from the appropriately named song, Time, by Pink Floyd, may sound dark, but to me they are inspiring. They are a reminder that time keeps going, with or without me. It reminds me that there is urgency in making good decisions about how I should use my time if I have worthy goals I’d like to achieve and to immunize myself from the disease of despair.
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way
Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun
And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death
Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say
Putting Time in Perspective
As far as determining what you value and how you should spend your time, again, that’s personal. One thing that has significantly helped me in my journey is the following definition of success, which I heard from Earl Nightingale: Success is the progressive realization of a worthy ideal. Say that over a couple of times and let it sink in. Success is the progressive realization of a worthy ideal. It’s a journey toward realizing something we really care about. It’s not about achievement, but about believing in something that inspires us to take action. If we invest our time in ways that help us realize our ideal vision, even if it never comes to fruition, we will experience success and be successful every day we live.
Figuring out what you care about is your job. My goal in writing this article is to help put time in perspective and to help the reader understand how their values and perspectives may change given the increased scarcity of time as we age.
Here is a helpful visual representation of this idea:
The gray shaded area in the chart above represents a common way people value their time throughout life. They start off not valuing time very much and maybe floating through their teens and twenties. Then in their thirties and forties, they dedicate all their time on their careers, often sacrificing other areas of their lives. Then they may value their time slightly less as they head into retirement age, simply as a response to their aging body. Then there is a final push in the latest years where they want to make sure they leave a legacy for their families and to experience some final memories.
If we were to average the value we place on our time across all our years, we’d have a straight line that is steady and high (the red line). We’d spend time in high-value ways earlier on in life to avoid the despair that comes with reflecting on our past at old age and regretting the decisions we did or didn’t make, or the things we could never achieve. At the end of our lives, we wouldn’t fear death. We’d accept our fate and know we lived a rich, fulfilling, and meaningful life. What the red line shows is that by placing more value on our time earlier in life, we’ll be able to achieve similar results without the added stress and depression many people are facing today. Now, if we shift the red line up higher, we are simply aspiring to get the most out of our time, consistently throughout our lives. And we’ll be able to achieve even more of whatever it is we desire.
You’ll notice the Point of No Return along the Hill of Wasted Opportunity on the way to Stress Peak. This is the point where it becomes extremely difficult to reduce the risk of despair if we haven’t valued our time well up to this point. This is usually when people have families and cannot take the risks necessary to materially alter the path they are on. This is when it begins to feel like it’s too late to make a difference, even if it may not actually be too late.
You Are In Control
It’s easy to fall into the trap of climbing a corporate ladder, competing in the entrepreneurial rat race, and exchanging our valuable time for the promise of financial freedom in the future. Step back and consider for a minute all the things in life that truly matter, the things that money can never buy. If you don’t feel wealthy now, more money can never fill that void. This is an important point to realize about the effect money will have on happiness and personal fulfillment. It will help a little, but it is more likely that it will intensify our existing emotional states, whatever they may be.
There is nothing wrong with acquiring money, power, wealth, or fame in life. However, if those are the things that we are pursuing with our time, we may wake up one day in despair, so we need to be completely conscious of our pursuits, aims and desires, and our personal definitions of success.
Statistically speaking, it is very unlikely that any individual reading this will reach the level of success we see in top artists, athletes, scientists, or business people. The people that do make it, typically focus on their art, craft, passion, or field of interest, and not necessarily the secondary benefits of the wealth and fame that come with being great at something.
We must try to pursue things in life that are genuinely meaningful to us. We must spend the time to master something that even if we never created wealth or fame in pursuing, we’d have no regrets about. By becoming great at something, the world will notice and we’ll get our fair share of fame and fortune if that’s what we want.
After reading this, my hope is that the phrase carpe diem, or seize the day, will provide you new meaning and urgent consideration. The late Steve Jobs famously said, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Next time you look in the mirror and ask yourself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”, and if the answer is “no”, you’ll know what to do.