The Only Resource More Precious than Time

Tick tock

When I was a teenager I might have identified money as my most valuable resource.  I don’t think that’s extraordinarily naive, I mean it did always help to bring me the things I wanted: freedom, influence, power, comfort, beer.  It’s so versatile you can do just about anything with it.  More money meant more ease, more pleasure, more happiness.

As I got older and busier I learned, as many do, that time trumps money by a long shot.  One can use time not only to make money, but also to build the capacity for making more money in less time, by improving skills and setting up streams of income.  Not only that, but extra time gives you the temporal space to enjoy the privileges and powers you already have.  More time means more freedom, more options, and less stress.

Unlike money, everyone is ultimately on a level playing field when it comes to time.  We all get the same allowance of twenty-four hours a day.  Just as there are ineffective ways of investing your money, there are ineffective ways of investing your time. 

If we all have the same amount of this essential resource, why do some people achieve so much, and others so little?  Where we start from — in terms of economic class, skills and education — certainly has something to do with it, but there are just as many riches-to-rags stories as there are rags-to-riches stories, so obviously there is another factor at play here.

We could argue that some have more free time, so obviously it’s those without so many commitments and obligations who would have the distinct advantage as far as how much they can accomplish.

Well, I think ‘free time’ is a fallacy.  At the end of the day, there is no free time; we use all of it.  As I mentioned in a previous post, we all fill the same twenty-four full hours a day, whether you pass your days running six companies simultaneously, or eating Pringles and watching reruns of That 70s Show.

The Myth of Obligation

‘Free’ time is just time in which we don’t feel compelled to do a particular thing.  For example, you probably don’t think of your work shift as free time, because you probably feel a compulsion to do certain activities during that time (probably activities your boss wants you to do.)  The long stretch between when you normally go to bed and when you normally wake up is likewise cordoned off as ‘unavailable.’

But this is only a mental boundary.  The truth is, you always have the choice of what to do with that time.  Instead of working from nine to five, you could play mini golf between the cubicles.  Instead of going to bed at eleven, you could wander the streets in your pyjamas and bare feet.  These aren’t necessarily the smartest or most rewarding choices, but you do always have full liberty as to how you spend your time.  The world will not come to an end if you do something unexpected with time that isn’t previously labeled ‘free.’

Obligation is really nothing more than a nagging feeling of some kind.  It’s guilt or self-doubt or some other emotion; it isn’t a real, binding force.  No matter what we’ve promised others or ourselves, we all choose which commitments we will fulfill, and which we won’t, and life goes on either way.  So free time is an illusion.  It’s all free, and paradoxically, all taken.

Even those who leave little time uncommitted can still experience a frustrating lack of productivity.  Have you ever known someone who is constantly busy, toiling on multiple projects and working multiple jobs, yet they never get rich or become happy or fulfill their dreams?  Most of us have felt this kind of perplexity ourselves at one time or another.  Busy busy busy all day long, with little to show for it in terms of hard results.

Whenever I feel behind the eight ball on a project, I often resolve to invest two or three straight hours on it.  But sometimes, for some reason, by the end of that couple hours I’m not much further along.  Yet other times, I can get incredible amounts done in twenty or thirty minutes.

So it seems my time is just worth more in some instances than others.  What makes the difference?

Just like money, we value time only because we value the things we can exchange it for.  Money would be entirely useless to us if we were unable to exchange it for something.  So by itself it has no real value.

Time is no different.  We like to have spare, uncommitted time because then we can spend it on something we actually want.  We want enjoyable experiences, we want our work to be completed, we want our skills to be improved, we want our lives to be in order.  Time is the currency we spend in exchange for these rewards.

But as we’ve learned from countless unproductive workdays and boring meetings, the buying power of time fluctuates much more wildly than that of money.  Imagine being confined to an empty concrete cell for one year.  How much value would you place on your time then?  You’d probably wish you had less time, because in that dismal situation, there are few ways to exchange that time for something you value.

So your most precious resource is not time, not quite anyway.  The value of your time fluctuates greatly, depending on how you end up spending it.   How much value you get out of it depends on your application of the real precious resource: your attention.

Your attention is just as finite as your time, but it is the crucial ingredient that actually converts your time to something of use. If you decide spend an hour of time working on a project, and your attention is only focused on the work itself for half of that hour, you’ve only generated a half hour of complete work with your hour.

What about that other 30 minutes of attention?  Where did it go?  Well it was certainly spent on something, probably a number of things.  Devices and people grab our attention quite easily: Twitter, RSS feeds, colleagues, family members, texts.  People commonly sequester themselves from these attention hogs while they work, by locking their door, turning off their phone, or closing their web browser.

These measures are useful for external distractions, but unfortunately the worst culprit doesn’t need a phone to get a hold of you, and it followed you in before you locked the door.

The Biggest Thief

It’s thoughts that steal the vast majority of our attention.  By sending you on aimless tangents and wild goose chases, they pilfer enormous amounts of your potentially priceless attention from your life, bit by bit.

Aimless thinking is incredibly pervasive in humankind.  I’m not talking about an inefficient hour here or there; I’m talking about years of your life, gone with nothing to show for it.  The 50% rate of wasted attention in the above example is probably very low.  Thoughts jump from one to another so rapidly and seamlessly that time just disappears.

Perhaps, in that hour, your attention was captured by thoughts you had about your deadline, which led to thoughts about your boss’ opinion of you, which led to thoughts about your future at your company, which led you to the worry that you will get passed up for the next promotion, which led you to a fantasy about working four hours a week and making a million dollars a year.  Then you look up and remember you’re supposed to be writing a report.  You begin to feel restless and go make coffee.

Now it’s seventeen minutes later and you’ve done nothing.

That’s just a simple example.  A real-life wandering train of thought is usually more complex, potentially visiting dozens of topics in a minute or two, each one leaving its own residue of emotion and doubt.  In addition to the considerable drain these attention-stealing thoughts place on your time, they can lead to troublesome, negative thoughts about yourself or your situation.  They can leave you in a bad mood, further taxing your capacity to be productive.

Thoughts are particularly dangerous attention thieves because all thoughts claim to be important, not unlike a teenage drama queen.  They scream “Hey!  Look at me.  I need you to deal with me right now!”

Be discriminate.  You don’t open up your wallet every time you see a For Sale sign, so be similarly thrifty when it comes to spending your attention.  Most thoughts are useless and repetitive and have nothing of value to offer you.  So get into the habit of returning your attention to the task at hand, rather than attending to thoughts that arise.  If the thought reminds you of something you need to do, write it down and continue with your work.

When something has your attention, recognize that you are making a purchase. You are spending a finite resource, so make sure you’re getting something in return.

Most people do not even think about where their attention is.  A thought occurs, and they jump right on it, either mentally, or with their whole body, rushing to do something as soon as they think of it.  Don’t make impulsive purchases; know what you’re getting.

You can spend all the time in the world on something, but if your attention doesn’t stay focused on it, that time is never converted into anything useful to you.

Leverage

Clever readers may have realized that other people have this precious resource too, and if you give them a reason, they can give it to you.  If you have captured someone else’s attention, you can employ it to produce something that is valuable to you or others.

The classic example is that of a hired employee.  As an employer, you can easily buy someone’s time for a flat rate.  But only if you are an effective manager can you direct their attention to activities that produce value for you and your clients.  If you are ineffective, you are paying for their time, but their attention may be mostly wasted.

Very successful people are ones who can leverage the attention of thousands of employees and clients to contribute tremendous value to their company, and subsequently give value back in the form of wages for employees and useful products for clients.

But your own attention is the only attention you have direct control over, so focus on that first.  I will explore the idea of cultivating the attention of others in a future post.  Remember, attention is more valuable than time, and time is more valuable than money.  Surely you wouldn’t toss around your money like it didn’t matter, so keep your eye on where your attention is going.

TRY THIS:

Frequently ask yourself: “Where is my attention right now?  Where was it before right now?  Where is the best place to put my attention, right now?

I think you’ll find that very often it’s been captured by something that isn’t doing you any good, like an irrelevant train of thought or some other distraction.

Attention loss is a serious habit that affects us all, but asking those simple questions begins to steer us in a much more effective direction.

Well, it looks like I still have your attention.  I’m flattered.  If you liked this article, please invest three seconds and Stumble It or click the ShareThis button below and leverage someone else’s attention any way you choose.

Photo by Unhindered by Talent

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Nadia - Happy Lotus March 26, 2009 at 8:36 am

Hi David,

About four years ago, I used to have a lot of free time on my hands. I was in the midst of a very difficult time in my life and I just was so unhappy and frustrated. I felt stuck.

Then I had an unexpected event happen in my life, and that caused me to make so many changes. I now have an extremely busy life but I love the life that I have. I do not love my day job in the sense I want to do it forever but I love what it allows me to do. I have some other career goals which I am working very hard on but it is so much fun, it is not work.

I think when you have a life that you love, then time is not something you think about because each moment is great. I am not saying that you love paying bills but the joy you have in other areas outweighs the thrills of paying bills.

Roger - A Content Life March 26, 2009 at 10:09 am

Insightful post!

I think you’ve identified a good lesson in mindfulness. We are not our thoughts and we can decide to follow a thought or let it go.

Oldnewsguy March 26, 2009 at 3:20 pm

David, the most precious part of time is the time you spend with someone who matters to you. It’s one of the few occasions we don’t have to look at our watch, or wonder if we might be better off spending that time doing something else. Time spent with someone who matters is a priceless commodity that can never be repeated and never measured. Because it’s not about the hours, minutes, or seconds…..it’s about the moments. A wise man once said “never let the minutes count more than the moments”… to me, that is the true measure of time.

David March 26, 2009 at 9:17 pm

Absolutely, I agree. There is no time worth more than the time I spend having coffee with friends, or dinner with family members. But cultivating that tremendous value does require the application of attention. Often, these wonderful people are so compelling, my attention is captured anyway, but there are certainly times when I squander those great moments by letting attention wander to my thoughts instead.

In this article, I’ve framed attention mainly in terms of work and productivity, but I did not mean that’s all it’s good for. I too find the most value in the moments spent with loved ones. That is why keeping track of your attention is so important. If my attention leaks into my thoughts while I’m with my friends, I am losing the immeasurable value to be found in being with them, because I’m not really there; I’m attending to my thoughts.

That’s how you know when you are investing your attention in what you are doing: when you have no sense of the passing of time at all.

Angus March 27, 2009 at 6:47 am

Great post, thanks for sharing. I’ve often said that if I worked just three hours a day (‘m self-employed) I’d be wealthy. But you’re right; I mean that if I paid attention to income generating activity 3 hours a day I’d be wealthy.

cheers,
Angus

David March 27, 2009 at 7:03 am

@ Angus — It really does make all the difference. Are you familiar with the Pareto Principle?

@ Roger — Hi Roger, welcome to Raptitude. Yes, mindfulness is what it’s all about. Thoughts do try very hard to wrest our attention from our senses. I explored mindfulness more specifically in this post.

@ Nadia — I’m kind of in the same place as far as my day job. I do enjoy it, I enjoy interacting with my boss and my clients, I enjoy the field work too, but it is clearly not my calling. And at this point in time it does enable me to do the things in life that are truly important to me, and I use the time to refine my people skills and mindfulness skills.

Paul de Wit March 27, 2009 at 7:38 am

Thanks for the post, very inspiring. I’ve said many times to people who claim to have no time for something, that it is the only thing that they really have. Between my birth and the only other certanty I have apart from paying taxes, my death, all there is is time.

About being confined for a year in a concrete cell, the frase “Doing time” sums it up nicely.

Kim March 27, 2009 at 9:05 am

Ah time…something we never have enough of when we are enjoying the moments and that we have too much of when immersed in unpleasant tasks. It’s really all the same thing though isn’t it?
Personally, I need to focus more on the Now and much less on the later. I agree that spending time with the people I love is among the more meaningful ways to spend that precious time. So is quietly contemplating flowers, lakes and trees.

Now if only I could convince myself that the moments I spend studying school subjects I dislike are as meaningful as those…

That said, I am newly inspired to try because I am nervous and resentful about writing one of my exams (with accounting equations-yuck) tomorrow morning. Something tells me I would be far more successful working with the moment rather than against it.
*Sums up every ounce of confidence and attention*

David March 27, 2009 at 9:44 am

@Paul — Welcome to Raptitude. Great way of putting it: “Doing time,” that’s exactly right. Thanks for reminding me to get my tax documents together, BTW.

@Kim — Yeah, that’s true. When you hate the moment it seems to hate you back. Jon Kabat-Zinn said “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.” Good luck, you’ll do great.

Elisabeth Kuhn March 28, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Hi David,

Wow, I love your post! Found it through that link in your post on Steve Pavlina’s forum!

You’re so right about the importance of attention (and it’s no accident that that word is so similar to intention).

I’m going to post a link to it in a (yet-to-be-written) post on my blog http://www.MyFavoriteSelfHelpStuff.com, especially since I’m currently discussing issues about managing time and stress relief, so this will fit in nicely.

Thanks so much for sharing.
Elisabeth

P.S.: I love that quote in the previous comment: “When you hate the moment, it seems to hate you back.” Can I use that as a quote? If so, I should probably add your last name to give you full credit. Please email me. Thanks.

Elisabeth Kuhn March 28, 2009 at 4:11 pm

P.S.: Just realized that I already have all the info I need to quote you properly since your full name is on the forum ;-)

David March 28, 2009 at 6:08 pm

Hi Elisabeth, welcome to Raptitude. Yes, you can link and quote me all you like!

Alex Schleber March 30, 2009 at 12:13 pm

Well argued post, though I would caution that looking upon one’s thoughts as the enemy may be taking it a little too far. It is ultimately about the amount of guidance that our conscious minds can provide our unconscious minds by way of intention setting, asf.

Looking overly negatively upon your thoughts, most of which arise spontaneously within the unconscious based on all of your prior experience, conditioning, programming, whatever you want to call it, is a form of badgering yourself that is quite often unhelpful in the larger scheme of things. You NEED the cooperation of your unconscious mind, so just focus on what you want, don’t install additional hang-ups/guilt/etc. over what you don’t want.

David March 30, 2009 at 1:42 pm

Well argued post, though I would caution that looking upon one’s thoughts as the enemy may be taking it a little too far.

Yes, I agree. I did not mean to characterize thoughts as any kind of enemy. Making enemies with your thoughts is a sure road to hell. But I don’t think there is any question that they are the biggest source of distraction for most of us. I only suggest people be discriminate about which thoughts they spend their attention on.

Just as there is nothing wrong with spending money, there is nothing wrong with spending your attention. But most often we’re not even aware that thoughts don’t require the attention they ask for, so it is really hard to get a good rate of return on investment.

It does not need to take the form of badgering, just the habit of asking “Where is my mind right now? What is it doing for me?”

By the way, welcome to Raptitude, Alex, and thanks for the feedback.

GetJef April 5, 2009 at 3:16 pm

This is brilliant! Utterly brilliant and compelling. I endeavor to read all that you have written, eagerly awaiting more. The student has arrived!

Thank you very much,
Jefe’

David April 5, 2009 at 10:07 pm

Thanks, Jefe! Welcome. And thank you for stumbling my article, by the way.

Raptitude is very young… three weeks today. There are ten articles so far, many more to come. I’m happy to teach you everything I know. Feel free to share what you know too!

-David

Kalaj November 2, 2009 at 3:49 am

Hey…
What’s wrong with eating Pringles and watching That 70s Show?

But yeah, this article definitely makes alot of sense and I tell you that as a casualty of bad spending habits. I have ADD, which says right there.. attention.. deficit. My attention span has been in shambles for as long as I can remember, and it seems to only get worse. I’ve been a big daydreamer ever since I was little (4 or 5). Now I’m 23 and guess what? Still living with my mom, still haven’t made anything of myself. I’m better off than I was a year or two ago, but not by much. Even when I’m doing the best I can, I still can’t help but feel that there is not enough time. That I’m running out of it, and will never catch up. So learn to spend wisely at an early age.

Adelina December 1, 2011 at 8:52 am

ok, attention. Having no thought or hanging in somewhere thoughtless (meditation is perfect for this) brings such a great purpose! I found it easy to regroup and concentrate afterwords…so let me go now! I love your blog too much!!!

Alex DeKeyser June 12, 2012 at 6:05 pm

I agree 100%, your thoughts drive who you are, if you are constantly focused on the wrong ideas, then you will constantly get the wrong results. We have to train our minds, in a sense, to think and have the right thoughts as often as we can. Our natural train of thought is to lean toward the negative side.

Most people don’t realize that your conscious mind stimulates only 2000 neurons when a thought occurs, but your subconscious mind stimulates 4 billion neurons. It is our subconscious mind that drives us anywhere we go in life. So it is our job to constantly put the right information into our brains on a daily basis.

If most people would change the way they are thinking, and build new better habits, and then let those habits compound over time, they would be a lot more happy with the direction their life is headed. Unfortunately it is too easy to fall victim to all of the garbage media, whether it be online, tv, radio…

The downfall of society really fires me up! So I am sorry to have rambled on for so long. I just can’t stand the world as it is today, most people are “given ups” not “grown ups”, and they need to start acting that way.

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