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24 June 2021

Observations around valuing time

by Florian

I’m going to posit here that we (read: people) are really, astronomically, bad at valuing time.


How do you define how much something is worth? It’s actually quite simple for accountants, it’s worth nothing until somebody is willing to pay you for it. Then, it’s worth something. If you make a widget and sell it for $10, it’s not actually worth $10 until somebody buys it at $10, then it’s marked as being valued at $10.

One of the worst things about modern economics/capitalism is that we’re constantly trying to apply monetary valuations to innately un-valuable things. And we’re terrible at it.

Take for example people who hire landscapers to mow their lawns. Their argument generally goes something like this: “I earn $X hundred dollars an hour, so it’s worth my time to pay somebody else to do it for me.”

First, time is not fungible like that. I’ll note that most people making this argument are salaried so more time doesn’t even equate directly to more money, but that’s not even the point. The point is: The time I’m not mowing my lawn is not going to immediately be replaced by time spent generating money. In fact, that free time will amost certainly be replaced with something less rewarding than the task you’re trying to get out of – notably, watching TV or messing around on your phone or both.

If you still think that certain domestic drudgery is all that bad, you’re probably conceptualizing it wrong. Mowing the lawn can be a great time to self-reflect, meditate, or listen to a podcast. Installing appliances can teach you basic DIY know how. Moving allows you to appreciate the space you’re inhabiting and is a great workout. Etc.

Finally, let’s flip the argument. If you make $300 dollars an hour at work, then your time is worth $300/hour by the original argument. In that case, you should logically be willing to pay $300 an hour to watch TV since that’s the opportunity cost you’re sacrificing.

Most people would be outraged to pay $300 to watch TV and wouldn’t do it. Essentially, they don’t mind invoking the “my time is worth X” argument when it gets them out of doing something they don’t want to do, but conveniently fall back to the “time spent having fun isn’t time wasted” (i.e. time has a subjective not objective worth) when it’s something they want to do. Of course, that gives up the entire premise of their original argument, but I would not be the first to suggest that people aren’t entirely rational.

I’d also like to linger for a moment on the original premise of worth. Remember, people are attempting to apply an accounting standard to their life. Just because somebody is paying you for something, does not necessarily mean it’s worth something. Snake oil, Bitcoin, junk supplements, advertising, etc. are all things people pay for, but which have dubious subjective value.

Point being: Just because some employer is paying for your time, doesn’t necessarily mean your time is really that valuable.

Subjective Measurements

So, let’s dispense with the “objective” measurement of time the way most people look at it, and switch to how we subjectively value time since that’s what we’re doing anyway.

Similar to moral relativism vs. moral objectivism I would wager most poeple land somewhere in the middle of this debate: There’s some clear objective wastes of time, but most everything else is pretty relative.

How do most adults value their time? It’s actually pretty simple, they ask the following: Is this what I want to be doing? If yes, it’s valuable. If no, it’s not.

Much in the same way that assigning monetary worth to your time is a terrible idea, this is also a terrible idea. I often want to sit around and play video games all day. That does not mean that’s a good way to spend my time. Our intuitions are not really to be trusted here: Having a child is probably the single most rewarding activity in any single person’s life, but most people don’t want to change diapers, feed a fussy baby, or be awoken by a crying child. It’s not particularly enjoyable.

And yet, if you compound those activities over the course of a person’s life, they come out as being one of the most meaningful things they did. The same is true of most professional skills - practice is dull or uninteresting, but the end result is more than worth it. You can’t simply say an activity is not valuable if it’s simply not something you want to do. That just isn’t true.


There’s been a lot of criticism of traditional education (I can’t find all the stuff I’ve read about it recently here) recently and I worry that we’re falling into the same time/value trap here that we do with the rest of our lives.

Education and learning is really just a function of spending time thinking and working on a subject, so the two are pretty interrelated. Being forced to learn something you’re uninterested in isn’t “subjectively” a good use of your time, but your definition of what a good use of time is is pretty terrible. This is doubly compounded by the fact that you don’t know what you don’t know. Lots of things appear uninteresting or dull on the surface but explode into a fascinating web of understanding and nuance the deeper you dive into it. Should you just stop learning about that because it’s “not something I want to be doing”? That almost seems to do more harm than good when you could potentially be really interested in a subject, just not in the basics of it.

The point I’m trying to make here is that you should look at your education (and life) with a grain of humility. You don’t inherently know what you’ll find valuable or useful because you don’t know what you don’t know and your method of assessing what’s worth knowing is pretty terrible.

That famous Richard Feynman quote is pretty applicable here: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

If we call this the liberal arts argument for education, you have an equally infuriating problem on the other side. People are valuing their education (read: time) as whatever people will pay for it. As I already pointed out, that’s a bad idea too because you’re essentially basing your life around an accounting principle meant to make balancing cashflows easier.

Some Solutions

Most importantly, though, determine how you’re going to spend your time and justify it, preferably to others. If you don’t do this, somebody else will and it’ll probably skew to the lowest common denominators - money and passive consumption.

tags: posts