Valuing time

I’ve previously mentioned using your hourly wage as a quick and dirty way to evaluate whether something is worth spending your time on. In a serious discussion this would be highly conditional1, but I’ll stand by the assertion that making a minimal effort to put things in perspective can help you lead a fuller life.

Working hard

Yet for those of us who have semi-concrete plans for the future, I don’t think current wages are the best choice (even for a rough measure). My thinking goes like this: Let’s say I intend to get a degree in medicine and become a neurosurgeon. We’ll also assume that this goal is not totally unrealistic, and that there’s a more or less well-known set of challenges I need to overcome to make it a reality. In that case, it’s safe to say that if I don’t fuck around I could become a neurosurgeon within a number of years, which would coincidentally include being paid as a neurosurgeon (~$400,000/year starting out).

From that point on I’ll be earning at this level (or higher) until some age of retirement or death, let’s say 62 (this timeline being true whether or not I become a surgeon). So assuming that I really do want this vocation, I could see my professional career as a phase leading up to this accomplishment, followed by a phase as a surgeon. Since the end point for the latter phase is fixed, every hour added to the first phase costs me (over the course of my career) not what I could be making right now, but the hourly wage as a surgeon (~$200). Would you hit the library instead of watching a movie if someone was paying you three hundred dollars to do so?2

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Of course this doesn’t apply if you’re struggling to fund your basic needs, in which case your horizon needs to be much shorter (a good example of the ephemeral value of a dollar). And it’s mainly relevant when your goals would generate paychecks. But just as importantly, the reasoning only works if we actually dedicate all our free time to whatever our goal is. For this reason the time valuation model presented here might not be immediately useful for most of us, either because we don’t have a clear goal or because we’re unwilling to pursue it wholeheartedly. In the former case these cogitations have nothing to offer, except perhaps the realization that the value of time saved strongly depends on having something you want to spend it on3. But in the latter case, perhaps calculating the value of your time as I’ve suggested might help put the consequences of such an unwillingness into perspective (at least a narrow-mindedly economical perspective).


[1] For one thing, it’s obvious that not every cost/reward can easily be converted into dollars. And in any case the value of a dollar depends on how many of them you already have, as well as the amount of dollars that would be required to achieve all of your goals.

[2] Realistically I doubt we’ll be able to utilize present time to bring our goals closer with perfect efficiency. But even at e.g. 50% efficiency the neurosurgeon example would value your time at $100/hour.

[3] Which might not be totally useless for a culture obsessed with convenience. Do you need a bread machine if you’ll end up watching TV instead of baking? I suppose, if whatever you watch is more valuable than learning to make bread. Do you need to do cardio at the gym if you have a bike and there’s a shower at work? I suppose, if work is more than 5 miles away…

2 thoughts on “Valuing time

  1. Very interesting read-I never think in this way maybe that’s why I still not sure what I really want to do in life!!
    As a side note who has a bed with hello kiddie sheets with a top sheet of danish kroner???? very luxe!

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