Time Management: Is this 15 minute activity worth $5 to me?

by Mike Shea on 10 November 2009

Life is short. Time is the only commodity we lose and can never gain back. We all know this and we repeat the mantras to ourselves all the time, but few of us actually live like this. I see and hear people all the time spending their time on wasted activities and worthless efforts. We spin our wheels a lot doing things that seem important at the time but turn out to be pretty worthless. We treat time as a valueless commodity even though it is probably worth a lot more to us than we think.

I think a lot about Randy Pausch's time management lecture. If you haven't watched it, it is worth your time to do so. Randy was dying of pancreatic cancer when he did this lecture. I think about how time really was short for him, but it was worth his time to teach others how to better spend their own. This guy KNEW he was going to die and die soon, he could have spent his time with his kids instead of preparing for this lecture, but it was important to him. Time like that should be important to us.

But how do we quantify this? I've come up with an easy way to ask myself if the time I am spending is well spent. It's a single easy question that is usually pretty easy to answer: "would I pay $5 to do this?"

It's far from perfect, but pretend, for a moment, that 15 minutes of your time is worth $5 in cash. Some might argue that 15 minutes off of work isn't worth $5 but I'd argue it is probably worth a lot more.

$5 is a good number that isn't so restrictive we'd do nothing. Many of us DO pay $5 for 15 minutes of things we enjoy. Going to the movies with our family can quickly reach $5 every 15 minutes. Trips to the amusement park probably run about that.

If you find yourself doing any activity that might be a waste of your time, ask yourself if you would pay $5 to do what you're doing now. If the answer is "yes", your time is well spent. If not, why are you doing it at all? Your time is more valuable if spent elsewhere.

We probably wouldn't pay $20 an hour to watch random TV, but we might pay $20 an hour to watch a movie we really love. We'd probably never pay $20 an hour to surf the internet with no intention, but to enjoy a beautiful autumn day with the dog at the park? That's probably worth $20. This shouldn't eliminate all of our recreational fun. Instead, it should help us spend our recreational time on the activities we enjoy the most. I might be the only guy out of a thousand who would pay $20 an hour to build a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, but I would and I know its worth my time to do so.

There are probably a lot of holes in this philosophy, but it is a simple enough tool to gauge how much we are enjoying or making use of the time we have.

So there's my handy tool for time management: would you pay $5 to do what you're doing right now? If not, why are you doing it?