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What is Your Time Worth?

The Lecture After LastSchedule

In a talk given at the University of Virginia, soon after his famous Last Lecture, the late computer scientist Randy Pausch tackled an apropos subject: time management. Early in the talk, he revealed an interesting tidbit:

“When I meet with my new grad students,” he said, “I ask them how much their time is worth.”

His goal was to get them thinking about their time as a valuable commodity. It costs a university around $80,000 a year to support a doctoral student (sadly, only a small fraction of that is passed on in the student stipend). If you follow the standard grad student schedule, showing up in the afternoon and working into the night, then your time is being valued at around 30 to 40 dollars an hour.

As a wise advisor, Pausch wanted his students to realize that to justify this cost, they needed to think carefully about what they did with their day. Academic work should be dispatched efficiently. Research efforts should be focused on making real progress on important projects. Distractions, from long e-mail exchanges to installing the latest and greatest software (a curse among computer science types), should be left for non-work hours.

A similar cost equation exists for undergraduates. It costs a good university around twice the tuition cost to keep a student on campus, so, for an undergrad, a combination of parents, the school, the government, and perhaps the bank, are valuing his or her working hours around this same amount.

With this in mind, think about how you spent your time this past week. How many of your work hours were worth what they cost? How would your schedule and habits change if you eliminated low-value work from your life altogether?

I’m having an interesting time trying to answer these questions for myself. What I do know is that they’re intriguing ideas raised by someone who knew a little something about the scarcity of time and how to get the most from it. 

29 thoughts on “What is Your Time Worth?”

  1. This is really interesting, and it’s such a coincidence, I’ve just been thinking about ways to try to manage my goals and tasks using a sort of cash valuation method:

    What if you estimated how much you would pay to someone else to complete a task for you? Then, you arranged your tasks in order of price, and then worked on the more expensive tasks first, since obviously those are the most valuable to you (in absolute terms.) The idea is that this technique would allow you to objectively prioritize your task and goals queue based on what it is more valuable for you to be doing (“I’d pay $1,000 for someone to write this damn midterm paper for me”) versus what is more attractive in the moment (“I’d only pay $10 for someone to beat this video game for me… I’d better work on that paper”). Who knows it could conceivably be useful for farming out your work to others as well…

    Keep in mind, you have to imagine that you would pay someone else, they would handle it all and take care of all the details, and you would reap all of the benefits. How much would you pay them (your “assistant”) in each case? You’re rich and you can afford to pay whatever you feel like, whatever a job well done and plopped right in front of you is worth to you.

    It’s an exciting idea for a tasks management system, but I need to test it out first. What do you think?

  2. Hi Cal, Great Post. One of the biggest problems I get from students is that their is never enough time. I usually get students to perform time audits so they can find out what they think their priorities are vs what they spend the majority of their time on.

    Once you can’t check facebook 10 times, check your 10 favorite blogs, play PS3 or catch the latest episode of the hills many students understand that they have lots of time, but simply waste it on low value activities that aren’t rewarding and don’t make them happy.

    @ Jay, that’s what I do for a living (Virtual Teaching Assistant). Save for the academic plagiarism that you’re suggesting (don’t pay for your papers to be written that is academically and morally wrong).

  3. I’ve lately found that speed-reading helps me quickly get through the multitude of blogs I need to read every day. Also, instead of manually checking some sites, which can be tedious and unfruitful, add their RSS or ATOM feeds to a feed aggregator.

  4. Jay: that kind of makes sense, except wouldn’t you pay more for some annoying and trivial task you don’t want to do than you would for something more rewarding? I’d pay to have someone pick up my laundry, but I’d never pay a cent for anyone to write my thesis even if it were totally ethical to do so, because I’d rather do that one myself. I’d think instead of how much I’d accept in payment if someone decided to offer me money to get all the effects of that decision erased. That way the thesis commands a higher price than the laundry, even if you’d actually pay more to get the latter done.

  5. @Supergirl: What I was talking about has nothing to do with ethics or cheating — you would still be doing all your own work — it has to do with thinking about the ABSOLUTE VALUE you would place on a task being completed RIGHT NOW, so that you could pick and choose what would be better in your long term interest to work on right now.

  6. I know that. I meant that the amount you’d want to pay someone else to do it would probably be more about how much you don’t want to do it yourself than how much value you actually get out of it. Sorry if that was unclear. It’s really all semantics anyway, the basic point is the same regardless of which hypothetical you construct to explain it.

  7. Cal, I gotta say – this column just doesn’t apply in my mind to an undergraduate mindset. I understand your ideas and I think there is a good takeaway lesson here, but the idea of my time being worth it to the university just doesn’t work in my mind.

    I am well aware of the “real cost” of keeping an undergrad on campus, but since I see none of it (and give PLENTY of it away, to the tune of 35k a year from my family after nearly 15k in scholarships) it is hard for me to read and be anything but incensed at my school. As an upper-middle-class white male whose parents both went to college, the only scholarships I can receive are for merit and I qualify for no need-based aid.

    Full disclosure: You caught me in the middle of looking for scholarships, sorry for the bitter.

  8. @Ezra: Have to agree with you regarding the undergrads. I am paying the university my X amount a year in tuition and books PLUS putting in tonnes of man hours into papers and assignments. To me it feels like I am paying double.

    I understand that at the end of it I will get a Comp-Sci degree, but with respect to my cost-vaule, the things I need to do feel like an additional NEGATIVE value displacement.

    The best analogy IMO would be that I am donating AND volunteering to the same charity. I guess you can tell I am feeling bitter too.

    My full disclosure: Looking for a new job to help juggle the mess. 🙂

  9. This definitely seems to be a common topic in my life this month. Everyone has their own way of how to handle tasks and managing your time but I have narrowed it down to two actions which are really reciprocals of each other, but are worth saying separately. Eliminate low value tasks (LVT) and pick two or three things that will give you the most value to your life and do them immediately or the next day. Eliminating low value tasks frees up time that you could put towards the things that really matter. For an undergrad this might be laundry, cooking food, buying books etc. Though you can’t really eliminate LVT’s all the time I’ve found ways to reduce their impact such as having someone else do my laundry, eating protein bars, and buying books online. When picking my most important tasks (usually from a list) I use the “I can only do three things tomorrow” idea and really stick to it. Also, Instead of trying to ignore my LTV’s I incorporate them into my day like when I get super fatigued from doing some “high value” research I’ll go walk my dog or find songs to fit into my iPod when I work out. Sometimes I can get a little distracted but I always try to remind myself that I only have 3 things to do today. I’ve only done this for a short while but I feel it could be better any suggestions?

  10. A quick note: I have been reading these comments, and really enjoying them. I haven’t had time to respond yet (I’m on the road right now), but will soon. Keep them coming!

  11. Thanks for this post. I grapple with this concept in a slightly different manner. Being a graduate student in medicine, I feel that the money I get paid (and behind the scenes the university pays to keep me) comes from people donating to organizations hoping for ‘cures’ and ‘treatments’. Cancer research, for example.

    Given this, I go through terrible periods of extreme guilt when I sleep at night knowing I haven’t spent my time in the most efficient manner. Not only the guilt for procrastinating, but also for squandering people’s hard earned dollars.

    You would think this strong sensation of guilt would help me better my time management — but only negligibly, unfortunately.

  12. @Jon C: That’s an interesting perspective, and I can say that’s similar to how I organize my days.

    I don’t think LVC’s ought to be eliminated all together, as was said in the post. Despite the high costs to the society, I think few of us are hardworking enough to work ALL the time. A similar analogy can be used for sleep – it’s such a menial task, if we cut 1 hour of sleep each day, we’ll still wake up next morning. That’s $40 an hour (or a similar figure) that you’re sleeping away!

    I think it all comes down to efficiency. Whatever you do, be it the laundry or your senior thesis, do it efficiently. Don’t fold you laundry and read a textbook – you won’t learn as well, and the laundries won’t be fold as well. Don’t watch TV and do homework (look back at high school days). We all know that’s a bad idea – homework doesn’t get done/gets done sloppily, and you didn’t enjoy your show to its fullest potential. Do one thing at a time, and make an absolute effort to do it efficiently.

  13. i’m cursed..although i’m not a computer science major. if i think about how i would be paid according to how much i do-the studying..i don’t think i will be paid, consider that they paid me for nothing, i can’t imagine how much many have i wasted by doing nothing here in school

  14. My time is worth infinity because I believe in the Hereafter…

    So, I actually skip lectures despite the expensive tuition costs, I feel my time is worth that much.

    With such a high value for time, you can imagine how easy it is to make drastic changes to save time

  15. Cal I used your advice and I can say that it is getting me through my first semester at Cornell amazingly. I am taking 5 sophomore level and/or honors science/math courses, a 200-level humanities course, and a writing seminar, and I currently have a 4.1 GPA (A+ = 4.3 here), get 8+ hours of sleep a night, and I have a great social life. Study efficient, not long – that’s the beauty of it. Everyone thinks I am a genius but it’s your method that is genius. Although being smart certainly helps.

  16. This was a big help in helping me realize how much of an asset our time really can be. By equating that essentially time=money, it puts into perspective what is really important to get accomplished, when to accomplish it, and if I should even spend time or not doing something. Sometimes, even though the things that we fill our time with aren’t bad, there are more important tasks out there that should take priority in our agendas.

  17. I absolutely loved this post! I once had my coworker put in mind this same concept. Saying we are selling hours of our lives away, but when were are in school if we have the right perception, we are investing in ourselves, in our dreams and in our future. It’s YOUR time, everyone has the same amount of hours in a day, but it’s our decision how we choose to spend those hours.


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