Time value of time: Create more time in the future by investing it now

We often hear about the time value of money. A dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow because of its potential to earn over time. But let’s introduce the time value of time. To me, it is the idea that one unit of time and effort spent on a pursuit now, will yield more results than the same unit of time and effort spent later.

Compounding interest - you get more time from investing time now

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now”. - Proverb

Since the concept of time value of money means that you end up with more money in the future, due to investment returns, it follows that time value of time suggests that you earn more time. Objectively this seems impossible, as we are endowed with the same hours a day, the same days a week, and so on.

But to use an on-the-nose example for our thought experiment: if one’s ultimate career goal is to become a director by age \(N\), an average amount of time in the industry, and they accomplish that goal by age \(N-2\), could it be said that they have gained 2 years of time?

As is common in my posts, I pose the above example as a simplified exercise. There is much more nuance in every person’s life, and in this post I will also discuss how I deal with said nuances when examining which pursuits to invest my present time into.

To use the example of this blog, let’s say my goal is to grow the reach to \(N\) (readers, subscribers, etc.). I know that week over week, and year over year, as long as I continue to spend several hours weekly creating these posts, I will eventually accomplish my goal of \(N\) reach.

Here’s where starting now yields more results for me than starting, for example, 5 years later. As blog readership grows, more people might recommend it to their friends (and I encourage you to if you found the posts helpful! It really helps me keep this blog up.) This network effect is compounding in nature - which is what really creates the potentially large gains from investing time now, rather than later.

Examples of investment now saving time and effort in the future:

To sum up, many pursuits requires time to build up, and this blog is one example of how my investment of several hours a week right now could help me save and earn back time in multiple ways in the future, demonstrating the time value of time.

One unit invested now means you can’t use that unit on something else

This brings us to the next point, which is about trade-off, or opportunity cost. To use a more human term, this is sacrifice. To preface, and I mention this often in my posts, I absolutely will never sacrifice health, due to difficult lessons learned. Everyone will have their own untouchable priorities.

In terms of projects to pursue, I have quite a few options. For example, should I grow the blog, develop my video game, practice LeetCode, learn Golang, grow my Twitch channel (1-3pm EST every Saturday), or…?

I generally use my prioritization method* to sift through these many ideas, with the aim of narrowing it down to high ROI items. For those that missed the free download, the ebook is also free with the newsletter, which notifies you when I write something new. But no pressure to get it from the above channels - I will also write a blog post version in the future.

If the outcome from my prioritization exercise is that I will focus on: this blog, ML livestreams, and developing a video game, this means I will have to discard all the other ideas, for the time being. This is because I have a limited endowment of time to invest now.

Optimization under constraints will always be a fact of life. Accepting responsibility for my own time investment choices and not comparing myself with others is key to my own happiness. For example, if one makes the choice to start a new family later than average, they might later wish they had started earlier, so they would have had more years to spend with said new family.

On the other hand, someone that prioritized starting a new family earlier, might be envying those that pushed for career growth instead, or feel left behind. Since the investment amount into career is different, the return in career growth will necessarily be different, ceteris paribus. Because one unit of investment can only be used for one pursuit at a time, it causes the situation where the grass is always greener on the other side.

My choice is to accept that I can’t always have it all, and avoid irrational comparison to others. It’s proven to be much more fulfilling in the long run - I choose to invest in a new pursuit according to my own timeline, and not society’s. After all, my time is limited, and once I decide on a priority, the time investment will be locked in.

Time value of time doesn’t work if you pull out your investment

The final point is what makes the time value of time a difficult “investment instrument”, and conversely, how to make the most of this fact.

Time value of money assumes that the money is invested somewhere, and continuously so. If you take your funds out of investment, and put it as cash under your pillow, the interest is 0, and after 10 years, you’ll still have the same dollar amount.

Likewise, one can only receive compounding returns from invested time if the time is continuously invested. For example, this means that once I have decided to prioritize investing time into my blog, I should continuously work on it to get maximum results.

To elaborate: if I wrote articles starting today, for 1 year, and then stopped, it is as if I pulled out my investment. This could be overly simplified in the blog case, as old content is still on the internet for people to explore, but the growth would be less, and the compounding interest will be greatly reduced or wasted.

Another example is working out - if one stops a consistent exercise schedule, they lose the stamina and strength they had once built up. While it might not return to a complete 0% (total sedentary level), it would likely take a hit and reverse to 30%. Setbacks like this negate the compounding interest of time value of time.

Maintaining a cadence for time investment is also a type of return - you are avoiding wasted time to rebuild what you already had (effectively spending double the time retracing steps).

The snowball effect and compounding interest of time value of time requires a large amount of discipline and effort, which is why many don’t get to reap the benefits. Pulling out the investment could cause a reset, which one needs to spend extra time rebuilding the next time one wants to invest in the same pursuit again.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we’ve discussed the concept that investing time and effort in some pursuits can have compounding returns. The key is starting as soon as possible (20 years ago, or today), while balancing the fact that one has limited time to invest, so it needs to be invested in the highest priority pursuits.

It’s a framework I use to think about decision making, and it was the first time I tried to put it into words, so I welcome any thoughts or comments to further round out the framework - you can find me on LinkedIn or hello@susanshu.com!

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