I wrote a post last week on creating a “time emergency fund.” This is time set aside to absorb the unexpected. If you leave Friday open, a client crisis or snow day on Wednesday means that Wednesday’s tasks can be moved to Friday. If Friday is already packed, then you have to start “borrowing” time from other priorities, or the next week. That’s when the time debt stacks up.
There are parallels to money; a financial emergency fund means a big furnace repair can be absorbed without needing to rely on credit cards or taking money away from other needs.
There are also major differences. Money is there until you spend it. Time is gone the second it moves into the past. Furthermore, a high-income person can build up an emergency fund quite easily. But even a wealthy person has just 24 hours a day.*
This fleeting nature of time means it has to be stewarded in a different way than money. That said, I do believe there are some ways to “bank time.” Even if time itself is ephemeral, you can do certain things in the present to free up time in the future.
In Off the Clock, I discuss the concept of “time dividends.” These are regular time payments you get back because of investments made in the past. An example: Creating a video to talk new people through certain team processes. It takes time to make a video, but it saves time to be able to answer 10 minutes of well-thought-through questions after each new team member has watched the video, rather than explaining the same basic steps over and over again.
To turn up such time dividends in your life, when you do something, ask if you will ever do it again. If you will, ask if there’s some process you can adopt to make it easier or less time consuming in the future. Write that list of Frequently Asked Questions for people who seek to “pick your brain.” Create a signed W9 at the beginning of the year so you can send it to any new freelance client who asks for one.
Even getting better at your job banks time. You know what objections a client will raise; you don’t need to schedule an angsty meeting to sort these out. Writing and memorizing a speech takes time, but then every time you give it, you don’t have to repeat that investment.
Then: celebrate these time dividends! It’s easy to let these slip by, but you can feel quite “time rich” if you pay attention. I was reminded of one dividend recently when our school district sent around the information on kindergarten and first grade enrollment. Moving to our district many years ago was not hassle-free. But now enrolling my kids in our local public school takes an hour, total, including time in the car to get to the district’s main administration building with my property tax bill and the kid’s vaccine record. Friends who’ve gone the private school route talk about the admissions process taking months. And that’s before we even get to the time necessary to earn tuition.
Sometimes you can bank time by moving activities from high-opportunity cost times to low-opportunity cost times. Let’s say you are an accountant who is swamped from January to April each year. You could get your hair cut, schedule medical appointments, have lunch with friends, and get your car serviced in December. You could tackle non-urgent professional tasks during non-busy-season as well. Start that once-a-month brown bag lunch series in July. Book all the topics and guests for the next year. By February and March, the series will be running (mostly) on auto-pilot.
This is one of the reasons I plan my weeks on Friday afternoons. It’s great to be able to look at the whole week (including Monday morning!), but I’m also rarely doing anything of consequence by Friday afternoon. Setting up my upcoming week beats scrolling around on Twitter. Sometimes I’ll assign myself easy stuff for the following week and I’ll think “hey, I could do that right now!” This banks time; the time I would have assigned for that task in the following week is now open.
One caveat: I do think it’s important not to get carried away with this move-time-around philosophy. Some activities have to be done in the moment anyway, and your “low opportunity cost time” might not be as low opportunity cost as you think. Making kids’ lunches in the evening after they go to bed means you’re converting leisure time to housework time. Whereas if you’re in the kitchen making breakfast in the morning anyway, it might be just as easy to throw sandwiches together while you’re waiting for the eggs to cook. Same with cooking for the week on weekends. Making a meal that’s big enough to generate leftovers is one thing. That does save time. But cooking a meal that you’re not immediately eating consumes potential leisure time, and then you’ll still spend pre-dinner time heating those meals up during the week, and possibly adding side dishes, so then you’re not saving any time at all.**
The other way to bank time is more philosophical. There’s some interesting research on why humans take pleasure in giving gifts. Pre-refrigeration, there was no good way to store a big catch. But you could “store” meat in your friends’ and relations’ bodies. If you fed them when you did well, most likely they’d feed you when they did well.
Time has some similarities to pre-refrigeration wild game. (Anyone want to tweet that??) Thus you bank time by watching your neighbor’s kids on a snow day you can cover, knowing that they will most likely return the favor. You help out when a colleague needs help, knowing he will do the same for you. When the client crisis arises on a Wednesday, he takes on one of those Wednesday tasks, meaning that even if there isn’t space on Friday, the time debt doesn’t build up.
How do you bank time?
*There’s an interesting argument — advanced in the recent HBR series on time and happiness — that high-income people find it harder to leave time open. If an hour of your time is perceived as being worth $300, converting an hour to leisure seems more costly than converting an hour valued at $15. That said, I think there are counter-arguments; high-income people have more tools to buy time at their disposal, and people working two jobs to make the rent aren’t going to find it easy to create open time to deal with a sick family member or a car that won’t start.
**You might eat better, if you have a taste for complicated recipes. But I tend to think a lot of 20-minute meals — think salmon with a sauce and steamed veggies — are pretty good too.
In other news: Do you enjoy these posts? I’d appreciate if you’d share this blog post with a friend. You could also pre-order a copy of Juliet’s School of Possibilities. People who order before March 12 can join my book club and get access to a short guide I wrote, Laura’s Little Book of Life Hacks: 113 Ideas for Winning at Work and at Home. Just pre-order and then fill out the form on this page (scroll to the bottom) to get your free, downloadable goodies.