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.