February 19, 2024

The issue isn’t time, but our measure of value


How much time do you think you waste on average per day?

It’s a seductive question, since there are so many definitions of the word time and the word waste.

Now, I found some research that aimed to answer this question. The survey revealed that a quarter of the respondents assessed that they wasted from thirty minutes to an hour a day, while other people wasted more than three hours a day.

To put this in perspective, researchers made a conservative estimate and multiplied the average time by the average hourly salary, only to discover that the average employee was costing their companies eleven thousand dollars a year in wasted time.

Staggering as this statistic is, it assumes a traditional understanding of words like time and waste. Whereas if you unpack the terms through multiple lenses, the implications are profound. Below, I’m going to make several arguments against wasting time.

The categories are existential, philosophical, scientific, spiritual and economic.

To begin, let’s view time with an existential lens.

Wasting time is physically impossible. Humans made this concept up. There is no wrong way to spend one’s time. That assumption is entirely personal decision, based on the perceived value of effort.

Contrary to popular conditioning, we live in a universe in which meaning is made and not found. Life has no predetermined purpose until we assign it. Waiting in line at the drug store can only be categorized as wasteful to the extent that a person have the tools to frame their subjective experience positively.

The people who have a healthy and abundant view of time don’t complain to the dude standing behind them in line what an injustice it is that they’re standing there waiting.

They take out a book and start reading. Or put on their headphones to enjoy some music. Or strike up an interesting conversation with somebody.

I personally used to fear wasting time when I was younger. My hell was investing hours, months or years of my life into things that ended up going nowhere, and then feeling like it was all for nothing.

But eventually I changed my existential intention to time. I decided not to let life slip through my fingers. I started looking for projects, endeavors, relationships and experiences that would be worth it, even if they didn’t work out.

I started shifting my locus of control internally, so that way my satisfaction at a good day’s work came long before the clock decided it was done.

Next, let’s view time from a philosophical and scientific standpoint.

Time is a social construct. It’s a psychological abstraction. Just because clocks exist doesn’t mean that this thing called time is real.

Time is merely a concept that’s been imagined by scientists based on the imperfect movement of the earth around the sun.

Philosophically, it’s no different. Buddhists say the calendar is around two thousand years old. Jews say calendar is just under six thousand years old. Atheists say the calendar is millions of years old.

Who’s right?

The short answer is, all of them and none of them.

Clearly, every culture marks time based on important events relative to their belief system or major political events. Hell, the calendar was only invented in the late fifteen hundreds. All because the pope had one of his big ides.

These numbers prove is that time is whatever we decide it will be. Because if you watch enough scifi movies, it’s clear that time can’t go anywhere except forward. Regardless of what someone decides to do with their afternoon, time itself will simply go on. 

As my mentor used to tell me, when you start your workday, your watch says it’s nine o’clock, but it’s still now. When you finish your workday, your watch says it’s five o’clock, but it’s also still now.

Because it’s always now. That is the only moment there is. Time is not something you can fast forward, rewind or pause. You can only benefit from it.

Next, let’s think about time from a spiritual standpoint.

To believe that time is something that can be wasted is to create an antagonistic relationship with the universe.

We’re essentially making time the enemy. Time is the bad guy we’ve set out to beat. And this is why so many of us feel a moral opposition to wasting time. This is why we brood over lost opportunities. This is why people treat so many of their tasks as a dead man’s errands.

If something can’t prove itself quickly of its own efficacy, then it’s not worth doing.

Americans in particular are bullish on this. Capitalism has conditioned that time is money, and wasting it is sacrilegious and unpatriotic.

Why? Because it means we’re losing. We’re behind the eight ball. Time is whooping our ass and we’re on a mission to fight back and knock its temporal dick in the dirt until we are victorious.

Now, I understand it’s tempting resent the effort we spent on things that don’t add value to ours or other people’s lives.

But maybe the issue isn’t time, but our measure of value.

Maybe we’re not casting a wide enough spiritual net. Think about it. How often do we do some activity that, in the moment, seems useless, until we realize, oh damn, that was actually exactly what we needed.

Proving, what the hell do we know? We’re all just guessing about everything anyway. If we defiantly believe that watching a movie is a frivolous and diversionary activity, then that’s exactly what it will be.

But if we gratefully believe that every breath is a gift, then we’ll just be happy to be here, regardless of the culturally agreed on value of activity we’re engaged in.

This brings me to the final view of time, which is the economic lens.

For example, say a company you’re interviewing for gives you a take home assignment. The task eats up six hours of your week. And you present your work to the hiring manager, who gives you polite but vague feedback, but ultimately ghosts you.

Was all that time technically wasted?

It depends on your mindset. Sure, it sucks when you bestow or expend effort on an unappreciative recipient. Makes you feel rejected and hurt.

But on the other hand, if you complete that work for your own edification, find ways to benefit from the journey itself, then you will come out on top regardless of the result. Whether or not you ultimately get the job is neither here nor there, since you already hired yourself.

You already won that game. Your mindset while performing the assignment guarantees that it’s economically impossible to waste time.

Remember, time is only wasted if the opportunity cost of what you do outweighs what you get from what you’re doing.

Listen, I have done dozens of take home projects in my career, and most of them were for jobs that I had no chance of getting in the first place. The companies either wanted to steal my ideas, needed to keep me around in case other candidates didn’t work out, or wanted to hit their quota for the minimum number of applicants.

Dude, I could have found a cure for pancreatic cancer and handed it in, and the hiring manager still would have told me, sorry, but we decided to move forward with candidates who are more junior whose work experience aligns with our core values.

Still, each of those projects left me better off as a person, despite not being commercial or critical successes.

In summary, these are my existential, philosophical, scientific, spiritual and economic arguments against wasting time.

I don’t know if my ideas are accurate or even interesting, and frankly, I don’t care. Because I immensely enjoyed spending the last two hours of my life writing them out.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my dog is pawing at my leg. It must be breakfast time.

How balanced is your time orientation?