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The Externalities of Time Poverty

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“Time poverty is a common Western phenomenon.”

I vividly remember my co-worker saying that a few months ago. We were all discussing how busy we were, and it was the first time I’d heard someone use the phrase ‘time poverty’. It resonated because like many, I considered myself to be an extremely busy person.

At the time, I embraced this identity. I felt was a sign of the fact that I had ‘grown up’ and had a lot of things going for myself. But after hearing my co-worker, I did some research into what it meant to be time-poor, and the ramifications it might have on my life.

My research yielded no great insight.

The New York Times claimed it was a problem for the lower class while The Economist believed it was a problem for the richOne blogger considered it no more than a thought experiment for bored academiaThe only thing everyone seemed to agree on is that being busy is bad. There are even movements dedicated just to making us less busy.

But, I thought to myself, I’m filling my days with activities that are both productive and enjoyable. As long as I’m loving what I do, is being busy actually bad?

Accounting For Time

Let’s start by looking at how I spent my weekday time, circa July 2015 (I’ll leave out weekends for simplicity’s sake):

Assuming a 16-hour waking day, I would have 16 hours*5 days= 80 hours to live.Now, my regular time commitments:

  • Full-time job: 45 hours/week
  • Gym membership: 4 hours/week
  • 45-minute commute to work: 7.5 hours/week
  • Working on my startup: 7.5 hours/week
  • My roommate who insists on movie night: 1.5 hours/week

It’s worth noting again here that all of the above activities have Utility to me. I define Utility here as outputs that contribute to my quality of life. There are 2 broad types of outputs: productive and enjoyable. If things are productive and/or enjoyable, they are contributing positively to my quality of life.But all those utility-driving activities total to 65.5 hours of my 80-hour workweek, leaving just under 3 hours per day of uncommitted time. In that window, I also had to fit the following things (listed in order of how much I did them):

  • Eating
  • Hanging out with friends
  • Chores
  • Drinking
  • Girls
  • Reading
  • Writing

Empirically, I was busy. I often felt the sensation that there was never enough time to do it all. This lead to another phenomenon: a constant, relentless desire to maximize my utility.

Whenever going out to eat, I’d need to try the newest, best place. I often cooked, cleaned, and even drank at the same time. When watching a movie with friends, it was imperative that the movie be an epochal classic(and that I did my laundry while it was playing). When meeting a girl, I needed to round as many bases as I could in one night. In any instance, the more output I could squeeze into my time, the better.

On the surface, this seemed to me like a philosophically sound way to live life. Some might even call it “living life to the fullest”. But although I felt like I had a good quality of life, in reading the above paragraph you likely got a sense of slight uneasiness. Is there something wrong with making each moment count? If you asked me in July 2015, I’d have told you no.

It took a complete upheaval of my life to change my mind.

Shifting Geography and Perception

I moved to San Francisco for a new job about a month ago. Suddenly, my time accounting looked drastically different. My startup went on pause, I had no gym membership, I only worked 30 hours per week, and I didn’t really know anyone here. I went from roughly 3 hours/day of free time to up to 10 hours/day.

There are lots of things to do in San Francisco, and I’ve enjoyed re-filling my “committed” time with activities and events. But with that much free time, I regularly find myself in periods where I have nothing to do. The world suddenly looks like a sandbox instead of a tunnel.

This has had a clear impact on my actions. Since time is no longer my constraint for doing things I like to do, there is no need to maximize the utility of everything I do. I’ll find myself watching movies without doing laundry at the same time, spending an hour alone in the park, or writing a blog post without checking emails at the same time. It’s economics: there is no need to maximize when there is no constraint.

My total Utility output over time is likely lower now than before. But, curiously, my gut says my quality of life has improved. How could that be?

Because of the externalities of time poverty.

Building a Model for Quality of Life

I had previously defined Quality of Life (QoL) as equal to Utility (U) multiplied by time(T), where Utility was a determined by your productivity(p) and enjoyment(e) in life. So:

QoL = U(p,e) * T

Given that the passage of time is constant, to maximize Quality Of Life, you would simply maximize your utility within that time:

(Graph redacted)

Under this model, it made sense for me to commit virtually all my time to output-producing activities. The more I am being productive or enjoying myself, the more my quality of life improves.

However, as I described above my experiences in SF so far have refuted that model. I propose that our Quality of Life is also affected by our level of Busyness(B) – defined here as the ratio of committed hours to free hours:

B = k + free hours – committed hours

‘k’ is a modifier to indicate that the perfect “balance” of free time to committed time isn’t a 1:1 ratio. That exact number probably changes from person to person. The important thing to note here is that this externality is positive at low levels of Busyness – we all should have some structure in our lives. But as we commit more of our time, that externality eventually becomes negative. When graphed, it looks like this:

(Graph redacted)

This leaves us with the following equation:

QoL = U(p,e) * T + B

And the corresponding graph:

(Graph redacted)

In simple terms: when we get too busy, life gets worse.

“But Why?” Busyness: The Scourge Of Autonomy

I believe the externalities turn negative because when we hit a certain level of Busyness, our sense of autonomy is threatened. If you have no control of where you spend your time, you can’t switch from one output-generating activity to another. This sensation is a self-evident negative externality – everyone understands the value of freedom. This doesn’t apply to just working hours, either: imagine a vacation in which every waking moment is planned out beforehand. Torturous, no?

Furthermore, with no recourse to change our output-generating activity, we become acutely aware that the only option available to improve our QoL is to try and squeeze more and more out of our time’s activities.

Paradoxically, this relentless pursuit of productivity and enjoyment as ends unto themselves actually reduces our ability to experience them.

The end goal of working is not to be productive – it is to do great work. The end goal of friendship is not enjoyment – it is to be great friends. When we commit too much of our time, all of that is easily forgotten. I am reminded of my favourite quote from Victor Frankl:

“Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, as a result of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.”

So I challenge my fellow Type A’s: stop wearing your busyness as a badge of honour. When you feel the walls of temporality closing in on you, get less busy. It might surprise you what it does for your quality of life.

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