Value of Information

July 8, 2013

Part 1 of a 3 part series on time management.

How many times have you told yourself “I would love to do X, if I could only find the time”? If you’re anything like me, or the people I know, I’d be willing to bet even money that it’s more often than you would like. Are our lives really so busy that we can’t find time to do any of the things we love?

This rhetorical question doesn’t have an answer, because it’s the wrong question to ask in the first place. It’s framed incorrectly, because time is never found; it’s made. Unlike most resources in life, each and every day you are allocated a constant amount of time. Time is a currency, and it’s up to you on how you’d like to spend it.

Western society has a terrible habit in that it tends to value urgent work over important work. It doesn’t feel like a stretch to say most people consider things they love to be important. Unfortunately, because the things we love do not have deadlines, it feels acceptable to “get around to them later”. You likely know from experience that things we will “get around to later” are most often the things we don’t actually get around to.

The upside to all of this is that making time is surprisingly easy. What might be more surprising is that it’s easy to make time and not sacrifice anything in the process. It seems like a mathematical impossibility; after all, there’s no way to fit 25 hours into 24 hours.

Or is there?

It turns out that if we can come up with a way to compress 24 hours into 23 hours, that leaves us an extra hour - effectively getting 25 out of 24. Compression is the magic key to making this all work, and the best part is that it’s not very magical whatsoever.

Consider all of the things you do on a regular basis. Every day you do a majority of the following: sleep, shower, source food, eat, brush your teeth, put on clothes, commute, use the washroom, relax, read, and probably many other things that you don’t really care about. These are all integral parts of living (hereby known as upkeep), but they’re not things you do in-and-of-themselves. By my rough calculations, this menial upkeep costs you somewhere between 8 and 14 hours every day. I am not considering employment in these calculations.

On average, that’s 11 hours a day you spend on things you don’t care about. With a full-time job, we’re looking at wasting 80% of our lives away. Any time we can shave off of these every day tasks immediately turns into free time, and what’s more, it turns into a lot of free time very quickly.

Production vs Production Capacity

Consider the Acme Widget Factory, a manufacturer of fine doodads. Doodads are all the latest rage right now, and there is a worldwide shortage of them. Doodad market analysts project the demand to last for the indefinite future.

The ACF, operating at full capacity, can produce 500 doodads a year. However, the factory was built in the late ’90s, and manufacturing techniques have had major breakthroughs in the last ten years. If Acme were to spend a year offline, upgrading their facility to the newest technology, they would be able to increase their production by 300 doodads every year.

Assuming doodads are not expected to go out of style in the next three years, this is a good investment. The upgrades will pay for themselves (and more) in two years, so temporarily halting production to invest in increasing the production capacity makes sense. If doodads stay in style for ten years, Acme will have made 44% more money by increasing their production capacity than if they just continued producing at their original capacity.

This scenario is analogous to your life. If you can invest a relatively small amount of time right now (halting your production) and use it to reduce the amount of time you spend on upkeep (increasing production capacity), it will pay for itself almost immediately.

Especially when you consider that eating and sleeping aren’t going to go out of style in the next ten years.

Great. Is this actually a good idea?

Trigger warning: math

Almost always, it turns out. As long as you’re increasing the production capacity of highly-regular tasks, the production hitch will be reimbursed quite quickly. And I can prove it!

Better yet, I can teach you how to verify for yourself whether or not any individual production/production capacity (P/PC) trade is wise. The relevant math is called a value-of-information calculation, and it will help you determine whether or not an investment is a good idea.

The basic idea is we need to calculate a rough idea of how much this investment will cost, and a rough idea of how much we’ll save in the long-term.

To demonstrate the principle, we’ll consider whether or not it’s worth spending 10 hours learning how to speed-read. Let’s assume we read for 3 hours a week.

In this scenario, our production cost is evident: it’s 10 hours. If we expect to save more than 10 hours after learning how to speed read, then we should go for it.

According to wikipedia, the average normal reading speed is 230 words per minute, while that of speed readers is 700 words per minute.

Let’s pretend that we are skeptical that this will work. We assign it a probability of 20% of allowing us to read faster, but it seems unlikely that it will make us read slower. Our expected reading speed after the training is thus:

700wpm * 20% + 230wpm * 80% = 324wpm

Here, the equation is our probability statement. Our new reading speed is either faster AND unlikely OR the same and likely. The ANDs become multiplcation and the ORs become addition. Don’t let the math scare you, this really is easy once you get the hang of it!

At our original speed, we can calculate the number of words read per week as follows:

$3 hours * 60 \frac{minutes}{hour} * 230 wpm = 41400 words$

And at our expected new reading speed, we can read 41400 words in:

$\frac{41400 words}{324 wpm} = 128 minutes = ~2 hours$

Hey! Look at that! All of a sudden we are reading the same amount we used to in a fraction of the time! After learning how to speed read, we expect to save 1 hour per week.

After three months, the speed reading will have paid for itself. After a year you will have saved almost two entire days. Afer a decade, you’re pretty close to having saved a month.

And remember! This is a very conservative estimate - we are assuming fast readers, small improvements, and low chances of success. Assuming slow readers (200 wpm), bigger improvements (900 wpm), and better odds (50%), we gain 81 hours in the first year alone. 81 hours is a lot of time. That’s enough time to learn four new skills.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine finding ways to compress all of your upkeep. Simply becoming polyphasic will save you 60 days a year all by itself.

While finding time is impossible, making time, it turns out, is exceptionally easy.

I’d like to close this post with a few ideas of ways you compress your upkeep. Some of these ideas require spending money, but remember, you can simply turn money into time by dividing it by your hourly wage. Some of them will be harder to estimate than others, but they are left as an exercise to the reader.

Potentially High-Value Upkeep Compressors

  • hiring a maid to clean for you
  • getting laser eye surgery
  • finding a better route to work
  • moving into a smaller house
  • learning how to use a productivity system
  • getting a better job
  • finding a way to combat procrastination
  • developing the ability to switch emotions at will