Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Time is money – except when it’s not

Posted by digglahhh on 16 January 2008

Time is money. The cliché stems from the world of per-hour labor, but in a more metaphysical sense as well, time is the “currency” of our lives. We have social obligations to spend time with people in our lives along with our professional obligations to our employers. Much as our bills await our paychecks, most of our time is already spoken for in advance. We all have endeavors, mundane and illustrious, we’d like to undertake… time permitting.

Perhaps the above was a grandiose introduction for the question I plan to pose. Money is not the only thing we trade time for. How do we determine what a minute is worth in comparison to some abstract concept, like comfort or convenience? We don’t break these “transactions” down into a mathematical formula. Any putative formula needs to be constantly tweaked by an infinite set of variables.

Here is a simple dynamic many New Yorkers can relate to. (Car commuters face similar choices.) I live in Queens and work in downtown Manhattan. There are various combinations of trains I can take to and from work. By strategically switching between local and express trains, I can make it to work in about 35 minutes of subway time. This would involve taking three different trains, each of which is inevitably very crowded. I have almost no chance of having a seat at any time on the trip. Instead, I usually take the local all the way. I have about a 50% chance of getting a seat from the beginning and at least an 80% chance of having a seat for at least half of the trip. This trip keeps me on the train for about 50 minutes.

Raw-time-wise, I’m sacrificing 15 minutes for a seat. Percentage-wise, I’m accepting an approximately 40% longer trip for a seat. I’ve often asked myself what the tipping point is; at what set of respective durations would I choose the uncomfortable ride?

Surely, there are too many variables to pin this down to a strict, “when difference is greater than X, I take uncomfortable route” axiom. If I’m running late, and I have an early morning conference call, I really have no choice. If I’m supposed to meet a friend for dinner and I get stuck fifteen minutes late at the office, once again I have no choice. There are varying degrees of obligation that cause one to reassess the choice.

I’m fascinated to think that these types of decisions are rarely micro-analyzed, at least fully consciously, yet, people make these time vs. comfort decisions all the time. Elevator on sixth floor, I’m on first floor and have to go to the second floor – wait, or take the stairs?

As complex as these decisions are, we rarely shy from assessing the ones other people make. Have you ever been in a car with somebody else who keeps passing over parking spaces you think are reasonable distances from your destination, in order to get closer and you begin to think to yourself, “Geez, what a lazy ass this guy is.”

We never really try to pin down the exact formula, maybe because we just don’t know. In objective terms, 40% longer seems like a substantial sacrifice, substantial enough that I would decide against it. In reality, it’s a no-brainer the other way. Like so many social experiments, analyzing this behavior makes me think how unpredictable my behavior is, even to myself.

What does it say about me, that I’m the type of guy for whom a seat on the subway is worth 15 minutes of commute time? After all, that’s fifteen fewer minutes I have to spend with my girlfriend, fifteen minutes later I’ll eat dinner, ten fewer baskets I’ll see the Knicks’ opponent score – two fewer I’ll see the Knicks score… On the other hand, if I’m in the middle of a good novel, the fifteen minutes would be similarly spent on the living room couch, so there’s hardly any trade-off at all. Maybe it says nothing at all about me; maybe the very complexity of the decision process immunizes me from your harsh judgments.

7 Responses to “Time is money – except when it’s not”

  1. Emily said

    I think one of the reasons we don’t analyze these trade-offs is because they’re often fairly complex, with many more variables acting than appear at first glance. With your commute example, for instance, having a seat is worth far more than just the bum-resting factor. Many people view a commute as potentially productive time — time for working, studying, reading, sleeping, meditating, preparing for the day, etc. All that is impossible or at least much harder to do hanging from a strap squished between a gajillion other strap-hangers. A seat gives you a lap for your laptop and leaves your hands free for your book, and a transfer-free ride gives you uninterrupted time to devote to them.

    By that analysis, having a seat for a longer commute actually gives you *more* time in your day, because you can use those 50 minutes for something useful or pleasant, whereas the shorter, more hectic commute is simply lost time.

  2. Tiltmom said

    Ah, digg, some of us make these calculations all the time. Just recently, a friend who will be visiting NYC asked me which airport she should fly into. My reply:

    Now that we’re in the city, none are really bad. (Before, JFK was a nightmare.) That said, Newark is easiest. My personal calculus is that, all other things being equal (convenient flight times, frequent flyer miles, etc), it’s worth $75 extra to come into EWR. The train from EWR to Penn St. is fast, cheap, and never a long wait.

    (And yes, I know about the A to JFK, and about the LIRR option.)

    On one of my poker mailing lists, you witness these sorts of calculations constantly, particularly when analyzing risk. And if you read the frequent flyer mailing lists, you’ll see that there are people who choose their flights based on which particular seats on the plane are still available. (Exit rows and seats with power outlets often trump price or more convenient flight times.)

    Unfortunately, emotional bias makes us not very good at this. My husband had a lightbulb moment some years ago when, at 10:45 PM, he realized that our rented video was due back that evening, and Blockbuster would be closed in 15 minutes. He got out of bed and started to get dressed; I was dumbstruck for a moment. Then I said surely he must be kidding, right? Nope. He asked me why I was so willing to let Blockbuster pick his pocket for $3. In response, I asked, “If your son called right now and said it was going to cost him $20 if he didn’t get his library book returned by 11:00, and he was willing to pay you $15 to return the book for him (saving him $5), would you get out of bed to do it?”

    He got undressed and got back into bed.

    On a different note, my husband’s over-the-top irrational fear of missing planes is matched only by my nightmare scenario of having to be at a gate more than 30 seconds before the plane leaves. He will gladly give up three hours of his life to eliminate the stress of possibly missing the flight, while I will accept missing one flight in ten if it means never spending more than 15 minutes in a boarding area. (No, we don’t travel together very often anymore. Why do you ask?)

    I’d have so many more brain cycles to give to important things if these micro-analyses weren’t taking up so much energy. Maybe I ought to consider what those trade-offs are, exactly…

  3. Tiltmom said

    Only one of those paragraphs was supposed to be italicized in the previous comment — the one that begins, ‘Now that we’re in the city…’

  4. digglahhh said


    Great point. I usually use my commute time just to do leisurely reading. Rarely do I have to work on the train. But assuming you do, it can be an efficient form of multitasking.

    I did this a lot in high school. My commute from Queens to the North Bronx was over an hour, and whatever percentage of homework I actually did (or bothered to copy) was done on the train.


    I’m not sure seat anything vs. price really applies here. At that level, you are making what is essentially a consumer decision, paying for a luxury or sorts.

    The boarding area thing is interesting. Going back to Emily’s comment, a lot of being “worth it” is determined by how you use the time. If you miss your flight because you were doing something that could just as easily have been done in the airport, then I guess that does go down as time wasted.

  5. Tiltmom said

    But I noted that seat availability will sometimes trump a more convenient flight time. There are eight daily non-stops from West Palm Beach to Newark on Continental. Arriving at 2pm means my dad can take a nap when he gets in, and still take his grandkids out to dinner, no matter where he’s sitting on the plane.

    If, however, he can guarantee himself an exit row, he’s fine arriving at 5pm because he knows he will be able to rest on the plane.

    It’s not very different from your subway calculus. But isn’t there more? Does the effect of having had a seat on the train leave you more relaxed and ready to work than if you’d stood the entire way? If there’s a longer-term effect on your day, doesn’t that have value?

    Given the choice between an office that’s five minutes from home, or fifteen minutes, I choose the latter. The walk to work leaves me energized and ready when I arrive; the walk home gives me space to decompress before engaging with my kids. I could, of course, choose the closer office and just commit to taking a ten minute walk before and after work, but that involves a level of discipline that I’d rather not sign up for.

    People who engage in activities that involve constant economic calculuses (read; gamblers) extrapolate in unimaginable (and often embarrassing) ways. For a bit of the latter, let me introduce you to the concept of Implied Tilt Odds

  6. digglahhh said

    The seat availability vs. departure time I fully understand. I only questioned the seat availability vs. ticket price.

    I’m not a big gambler, but I am a pretty serious fantasy sports player. In a successful year, I can take home a nice chunk of change.

    Risk management and other gambling pillars are often not considered enough in fantasy sports.

    At what point does one gamble on the high-ceiling, potential-stud young guy instead of taking the known quantity veteran. How do you manage risk (injury risk included) when building your overall team. In football for example, RBs are usually the highest valued commodities, but top tier WRs are better bets to stay healthy. That seems like something people rarely discuss.

    Tilt-wise, I know that some of my worst draft picks are made when somebody drafting before me drafts the player I had at the top of my board. I consider the possibility of disrupting other’s draft strategies with my picks. If I snatch up the last top tier closer, there’s a good chance somebody following me will reach on one of the next level guys in the next few picks.

  7. ClaireDePlume said

    I’ve intended to add a thought to this post, but couldn’t seem to pencil in the time. I’ve bought my time from big business, this by paying toll fees for the electronic toll route and have consequently squandered precious moments mulling over the value of the time I bought to save time by spending money to buy 60 minutes each day x 5 days a week x 50 weeks a year. I should have a credit of 300 minutes per week, but gawd knows how long it takes me to work my butt off (the one less flat from being in my car too long) which has been spared by the grossly over-priced payment for the aforementioned toll fees which. It theoretically saves me 2500 hours per year. Where do these stolen moments go I wonder and what is this in dog years anyway?

    It all makes my head hurt and the cost of headache relief comes at a cost. So perhaps I will reply to your post on the morrow…

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