Time - the most valuable thing one can spend

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. William Browne
  • 25th Flying Training Squadron commander
Theophrastus, a student of Plato and later Aristotle, said, "Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend." I like this quote for two reasons.

First, quoting a Greek philosopher will give this commentary an air of intellectual legitimacy. Second, I think he's right on the money.

Speaking of money -- "time is money" -- is one of the most familiar phrases we hear, originated by Ben Franklin, in case you're wondering. I don't disagree with the statement in general, but it tends to lead us to believe that we can manage time just like we manage money. I disagree.

Two aspects of time make it difficult for us to properly manage our future time resources. First, studies show that we consistently have difficulty placing a value on future time. In many cases we simply do not recognize decisions that will cost us our future time. When we do recognize a time commitment it is difficult to comprehend its worth. An academic would say "time is less fungible and more ambiguous in value."

The second aspect is that you cannot save time. Time is spent at a constant rate. We cannot stop it; we cannot bank it for later. But we can decide how we will spend it.

In terms of money, we call this spending plan a budget. In terms of time, it is our planner, or schedule, or calendar, or battle rhythm. Some of us do an adequate job of budgeting our time in the short term, but studies show that we generally fail to plan well for how we spend our time in the long term.

We habitually make long-term time commitments without realizing it. That is not because we care less about time than about money, but because we have less experience with transactions or choices dealing in future time.

And strangely, many of us operate as if we will have more time in the future - when of course that is not the case.

Since time is a zero-sum game, adding commitments must come at the expense of something else we were going to do, or not do, if you're one of the lucky, bored few -- like kids in summertime.

To a limited extent we can pay money to avoid some of those commitments - like paying someone to mow the lawn for us. But because those of us in the Air Force already have the majority of our time accounted for, what I believe happens is that we take time away from ourselves and our families.

Although neglect of these areas can have significant long-term consequences, like poor health and divorce, there is no immediate penalty so we tend to give up this time first. And let's face it, most of us are mission oriented folks, always willing to stay a little later at work so the Air Force doesn't fall to pieces.

Because the consequences of over-spending our time can be catastrophic in the long run, we should be on guard to recognize when we are making additional time commitments. More importantly, recognize when we are committing others' time.

Our superiors, co-workers, and subordinates are all under the same pressures. When we demand their time, we are asking them to spend less attention to some other area of their life. There's nothing wrong with spending others' time. To be effective as a leader you must. But it should be spent deliberately, with a full understanding of the cost.

This is the point in the article where I confess to not having a magic bullet for the problem I just identified. I share my thoughts with the small hope that in some way you will become more conscious of future time as a finite resource, and the care that should be spent in making commitments against it.

Stephen Covey, author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," noted, "The challenge is not to manage time, but to manage ourselves." And that is at the heart of the matter. We hold no power over the passing of time, only how we spend it.