The Marginal Value of Time

Over the past couple of years I had the pleasure of meeting several highly ambitious high school students, for example undertaking early study (as I did), attending hackathons or even introducing themselves with the goal of founding a graphene startup.

As much as these pupils are dedicated to their respective passion, they had to come up with some effective way to make time for their own ambitions. Attending high school blocks out a large portion of time in pupils’ life by the sheer need to be present at school or to deal with some homework or exam preparation. So it’s interesting to see them developing efficient strategies for self-organization and time management, even going as far as cutting into their own sleep time.

In fact, it’s not unusual at all for youngsters to miss out on sleep time. Unusual is the fact, the these particularly ambitious pupils do not trade their sleep time primarily for playing computer games and attending parties, but rather for working on some student research project, reading university-level science books or refining their elevator pitch for their second startup competition.

So these few to many hours they gain from effective self-organization and sleeping less apparently provides them with extraordinary benefit, otherwise they wouldn’t employ such measures. Taking only time into consideration (!), it seems that an additional hour of productive works provides them with an extraordinary marginal value.

First, what means marginal value? Consider for a moment, what is more “valuable”: Water or diamonds? On the one hand, water is essential to life. If you were stuck inside a desert and running out of water, probably you would trade diamonds for a bottle of water, rather than dying of thirst. Thus, water has very high average value. But since water is readily available to us, having one more bottle of water adds generally very few value, if you can have a bathtub full of water right from the tap. On the other hand, having one additional diamond (or even a single one at all!) would add tremendous value to any of us. So diamonds have fewer average value than water, but they have a very large marginal value.

Let’s get back to the case of highly ambitious pupils. Given the large portion of time, that is occupied by school work, and the few hours left every evening to pursue your own ambitions, an additional hour to yourself adds a significant marginal value in two ways. On the one hand, if you are busy with school and homework for about eight hours and another four hours get taken up by day-to-day stuff (commuting, eating, …), it makes a whole lot difference, whether you have two hours, three hours or even four hours remaining to yourself. An additional hour provides a dramatic relative increase in your time being productive.

On the other hand, these pupils account for less than 1 % of all high school students, as most pupils dedicate their “free time” to other stuff. So one hour of additional study or work on some project easily gives you an edge over those spending an hour on leisure. My point here is not to judge pupils’ use of time. My point is, that one additional hour spent productively provides a lot of marginal value, that can contribute significantly to the accomplishments one achieves (alongside other factors such as support from other people, intrinsic motivation or the pervasive concept of “giftedness”).

I picked this “group of highly ambitious pupils” as an example, which I can fairly well relate to. But actually these considerations apply to anyone who is subject to a tight schedule that is dominated by external factors he or she cannot influence.

If you are generally flexible in managing your time, say you are for example a student or self-employed, an additional hour of work provides you with a moderate benefit, which is usually surpassed by the value of quality / family time. Focusing on better self-organization and management of the time already at your disposal probably has higher impact on your productivity than trying to get more time or even cutting into sleep.

But if most of your day is determined by external forces which you can’t influence, such as being stuck with school work or in mandatory meetings, an additional hour of being awake and productive might provide a substantial benefit.

And the same holds true if you start learning a new skill, for example a new language: Even just twenty hours of practice will clearly give you an edge over zero hours of practicing. The first few hours provide the greatest marginal value.