“Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.”
Have you ever tried to make up for lost time? How did you do it? Did you hop into Wells’s Time Machine and go back? No? Why not?
It’s because you can’t actually make up for lost time.
When we stop to consider the assets we have in our lives, we think of the usual laundry list of items:
- Our bank accounts
- Our retirement accounts
- Our house
- Our car
- Valuables and collectibles
- You get the point
One asset that we have which never makes the list is
- The number of days we have remaining on the earth
There are four main reasons why we don’t consider time as an asset in our lives.
First, facing up to the fact that we have a finite number of days remaining on the planet means that we’re forced to face our mortality. All of us, no matter how healthy we eat, how much we work out, and how many sound preventive medical practices we undertake, will peel the garlic and find out what lies on the other side. Monkey Brain, our limbic system – the part of the brain that taught us to run away from woolly mammoths and that wants all pleasure now, future be da(ahem)ed – doesn’t like to think he’s anything but immortal and indestructible. Forcing ourselves to count time as an asset makes us stare into the realm of the ultimate uncertainty: what happens after we die. That uncertainty scares the bejeezus out of Monkey Brain, so he refuses to acknowledge it.
Second, it’s not a known number. We really have no idea when Death will knock on our door (“There’s a Mr. Reaper at the door!” “GRIM Reaper!”), so, because of the uncertainty surrounding just how long we have left, we don’t really think about it. It’s easier to think of an infinite future than it is to come up with a rough estimate of how long we have left.
Thirdly, time is an asset that shrinks as the days pass. Most of us have a pretty reasonable expectation that if we invest our money wisely in the markets and in other intelligent assets that, at some later point, we’ll have more money than we had when we first invested. It’s why we invest, after all; otherwise, we’d spend it all now on stuff. Time is the opposite. We’ll have less time left on the planet tomorrow than we did today. If we think about it too long, then it will be quite the bummer, and we’ll never look forward to anything.
Fourthly – and this one just came to me – we’ve never really thought of it that way until we started reading this article. Once you start to think of time as another asset you own, it makes perfect sense to include it in the list.
If time truly is an asset, does Monkey Brain treat it the same way he does money?
MIT’s France LeClerc and others set out to study how we treat time and when and how we’re willing to spend it.
We can group their findings into three main categories:
- Time is subject to mental accounting. We try, where possible, to group aspects of time into different buckets. As we saw in “Counting Money Isn’t the Same As Making Money,” Monkey Brain likes to create separate mental buckets for spending money. He does the same thing with time. As LeClerc’s team demonstrated, an example of this is when we have two errands to run in a weekend. We’d rather run both errands on the same day – ostensibly to get them over with – than do one errand on Saturday and one errand on Sunday. Even if the errands take the same amount of time, we’re mentally better-equipped to knock them out all at once than breaking them up. Running the errands involves a mental construct known as switching costs, and those lead to ego depletion, which we discussed in “How Ego Depletion Allows Monkey Brain to Buy Junk.” If we experience too many switching costs, we’ll run out of brain juice, and then we’ll wind up taking a side detour to go buy that 183” flat screen TV on the way home.
- Time is subject to price anchoring. When we look at prices, we always compare them to other items to create a comparison, and then we look at the relative prices rather than the absolute difference (to read more about this, check out “Monkey Brain Confuses Rates and Raw Numbers”). For example, if you went to the store to buy a pair of jeans, were in line to buy your $50 pair of jeans, and someone told you that 5 minutes down the street, another store was selling the jeans for $45, you might stop your transaction, get in the car, and head to the other store. However, if you were buying a $15,000 car and someone told you that the dealership down the street was selling the same car for $14,995, you’d almost never contemplate going to the other dealership. The reason is that the perceived savings, the rate of discount, isn’t enough to justify leaving. In the aforementioned MIT experiment, people were willing to pay $2 more to take a train that only took 45 minutes rather than 60 minutes, but if the trip was 7 hours, they would not pay $2 to get a train that took 6 hours and 45 minutes.
- We do not show loss aversion. As we saw in “Past Performance Indicates Your Future Investing Actions,” when we have lost money, we’re much more likely to gamble to try to get back to even; however, when we have gained money, we’re much more likely to take a certain outcome than to gamble to increase our earnings. The same does not hold true for time. The experiment the MIT team used was a situation where you’re waiting for a bus at the bus station. The bus will depart in 60 minutes. At another bus station, there’s a bus that will depart in 30 minutes and a bus that will depart in 90 minutes. You have a 50% chance of getting to the other station. Do you take the chance? The MIT experiment’s results showed that 70% of people stayed right where they were, as the fear of loss was greater than the joy of gain. Regardless of whether the subjects had gained or lost time, they were unwilling to gamble.
One striking difference arose from the last category. When asked why they were not willing to gamble to gain time, a vast majority of respondents said that they valued being able to plan for their time. Few people provide the same response about monetary gambles – they don’t talk about being able to plan for the money as being valuable.
Why, then, is planning for time so valuable when planning for money is not?