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Posted: December 10, 2013

The futurist: Wasting our time should be a crime

How do we regain control of our lives?

Thomas Frey

(Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series.)

Every time I delete spam from my inbox, I feel a tiny piece of my life flitter away.

Sitting needlessly at stoplights, or watching the minutes tick away as I wait in some line, or being forced to fill out yet another form, our precious time is being co-opted by everyone from inconsiderate businesses, to overbearing government, to painful security checks at the airport.

This is what I call “time pollution.”

Little by little, whatever tiny amount of control we thought we had over our day becomes infested with some new life-sucking barnacle that congests our mind and adds surface-scratching aggregate to the smooth day we had planned.

Like a leaky sieve carrying our daily time supply, however much we started with is never even close to what we end up with. And while most of us enter life feeling like we have squanderable amounts of time to work with, as we get older, our rapidly dwindling years reveal a much different story. 

We live with two basic currencies – time and money – and we make countless time-vs-money decisions, each based on the running math equation we have going on in our head. 

If someone steals our money, it’s an obvious crime. So why isn’t it an equally obvious crime if someone needlessly squanders our time? 

Here are some thoughts on how we can rewrite what I’m calling the “Formula of Acceptable Interference” and regain control of our lives. 

Running the Numbers 

If you were to live to 80 years old, you have exactly 29,220 days, including leap years, to work with. But not all of those days are really usable. So subtract:

  • Your first 18 years of working through adolescence. (-6,574) = 22,646 days
  • Minus 8 hours a day, of those remaining, for sleeping (-7,549) = 15,097 days
  • Minus time at work. If we begin work at age 18 and work until retirement at age 65, 9-hour work days for a total of 47 working years with 4 weeks vacation a year (-4,230) = 10,867 days
  • Minus commuting to and from work – 60 minutes a day (-470) = 10,397 days. 

Suddenly two thirds of our discretionary life is gone. Now consider how much of our life is being eaten away by other notorious time wasters. These are only rough estimates but you’ll get the picture. (Note, I’m accounting for leap years):

  • Cleaning – ourselves, our homes, our cars, etc. – 60 minutes a day (-944*) = 9,453.
  • Staying informed – news, social media, emails etc. – 60 minutes a day (-944*) = 8,509.
  • Personal inefficiencies – getting dressed, makeup, delays, etc. – 60 minutes a day (-944*) = 7,565.
  • Viewing TV commercials – 18 minutes per hour X 2 hours a day (-566) = 6,999.
  • Deleting spam emails – 30 minutes a day (-472) = 6,527.
  • Waiting for traffic lights – 10 minutes a day (-157) = 6,370.

So in rough terms, each of us is left with a mere 6,370 days worth of discretionary time spread out over a 62-year lifespan (after age 18), with a large percentage of this discretionary time (2,679 days**) coming after we retire at age 65. 

Admittedly this is very crude math, but at the same time, it’s thoroughly depressing!

The point I’m trying to make is that our time is very precious and we should be very guarded against anyone who tries to mess with it.

* – ((62 years X 365 days) + 15 days for leap years)/24 hours per day = 944 days
** – 704 min flex per day after age 65 – ((15 years X 365 days) + 4) X 704 flex min per day)/60 minutes per hour/24 hours per day = 2,679 days

Every Time-Crime is a Math Problem

Whenever a petty criminal sits in front of a convenience store trying to decide whether he should brandish a gun and rob the place, he’s going through a series of math calculations to determine if the risk outweighs the reward. However skewed or demented his math abilities may be, virtually every criminal goes through the same process.

This is not unlike almost every other decision we make in life, “will the cost outweigh the benefits?”

  • Will the momentary pleasure this candy bar brings outweigh the weight gains that are sure to follow?
  • Will the group-envy I cause by buying this purse outweigh the hefty price I have to pay for it?
  • Is driving over the speed limit to get somewhere on time worth the risk of getting a ticket if I get caught?
  • If I throw this trash on the ground when no one is looking, is it really littering?

Few of us realize we have a rolling calculator that appears in our head whenever a decision is being made. While we may tack on a few emotional variables to override our first results, this image of clicking of calculator keys is a very close analogy to how we make decisions.

However, one element missing from most of our calculations is the cost of time. We live in cultures that have been universally dismissive of our time costs.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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Readers Respond

It is fascinating to think about wealth in terms of "discretionary time" rather than money and see how it changes your perspective! By Todd Ordal on 2013 12 10
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