Openomics 2018

Like Clockwork: The Market Value of Time

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New responses to time scarcity are redefining how we tick

IN JANUARY 2017, Prateek Kumar, then 42, was assigned an infotech project in Hyderabad. It required him to travel to the city once or twice a week from his home in Bengaluru. Despite having been a software consultant for nearly 15 years, this was the first time he had taken on an outstation offer. A couple of months into the job, Kumar had three new entrants to his life, a life he once used to describe to his friends as “extraordinarily peaceful”—a marriage counsellor, a spinal therapist and a hypertension specialist. He initially attributed the stress he was perpetually feeling to the change in his work routine. But he soon came to realise that it wasn’t work that was the culprit, it was time. The six-hour commute from home to office was leaving him with very little time for himself, and sometimes even for his work. “The whole purpose of going to Hyderabad was getting defeated because I kept arriving late for meetings or I would be too tired to complete the needful assignments,” says Kumar. In May 2017, Kumar decided he didn’t need people to guide his health and personal life, what he really needed was someone to manage his time.

“We have all heard the excuse, ‘I don’t have enough time for this.’ When my marriage and health began to fall apart, I decided I wanted to make time,” says Kumar. The first thing that his time manager, Anushri Goel—a management graduate from Pune and now a time consultant—did was convince Kumar to invest Rs 4,000 a week on a seat in the Heli-taxi service from Bengaluru IT City to the airport. The commute that once took Kumar two hours was now done in 15 minutes. Goel also made Kumar cut short his bathing time from 40 minutes to 15, eat one meal on-the-go while reading the newspaper alongside, subscribe to app-based taxi services instead of his local taxi (which always arrived late), and buy a new pair of formal shoes.

“Managing time effectively isn’t simply about scheduling tasks differently. It’s also about finding what it is that’s slowing you down—the bits and pieces of your life that can be improved to speed things up. I realised after a few weeks of working with Kumar sir that no matter what time you asked him to arrive, even if the car reached on time, he would be late because he used to walk terribly slowly. I then realised that his shoes were incredibly tight for him. It might sound trivial that a change of shoes can make a significant change in someone’s life, but guess what, in our rushed lives, every second counts,” explains Goel, 38. The time he saved every day, Kumar invested in 10-minute pilates workouts, 12-minute breathing exercises and 15-minute conversations with his wife. Within four months, he no longer needed any help with his marriage, spine or blood pressure.

With ever-increasing urban congestion, new social demands and a blurring of boundaries between private and professional lives, time is no longer just money for Indians. It is now one of our most fiercely protected and valuable resources, the scarcity of which is calling for new responses. Lack of time is one of the most widely cited reasons for failing relationships, poor health, faltering work output, low interest in hobbies and civil awareness and even poor self-esteem. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of community service. It is no longer money, food or clothing that charities now request; it is time.

According to economic literature on time, there are three broad activity categories on which time can be spent, each fundamentally different from the other: time for personal care activities; time for economic activities, education and care of household; and time for leisure. Some economists argue that finding the right balance of time to invest in all three could hold the key to long-term satisfaction and an improved quality of life.

Lack of time is one of the most widely cited reasons for failing relationships, poor health, faltering work output, low interest in hobbies and even poor self-esteem

Writes Nicoleta Caragea, a social researcher and academic based in Romania, in her paper Time Allocation in Economics and the Implications for Economic Development: ‘Due to [its] characteristics— scarcity and irreversibility—time could be regarded as [having] an important economic value… The recent economic theory considers time not only as an accumulation of moments or a benchmark between two or more events in time, but a production factor, like labour or capital. These theories start with the premise that time is a scarce resource; therefore, a central question is the optimal allocation. Also, time spent outside work arrangements has a significant economic value, both at micro (individual, household, or firm) and macroeconomic (national economy) level.’ Others have had similar conclusions.

Christopher C Klein, an economist at Middle Tennessee State University, notes the importance of effective time allocation in his paper, The Economics of Time as a Resource: ‘A series of thought experiments on time travel demonstrate that a constant irreversible rate of time usage underlies the concepts of opportunity cost, time preference, and interest. This leads to the startling suggestion that the root question in Economics concerns the choice of how to spend time.’

While choosing how to spend time impacts our longer term goals and life, research also shows that finding or saving time has a direct impact on the immediate experience of pleasure. Even the illusion or notion of having saved or lost time is enough to affect a person’s health and happiness. For example, consider the European practice of daylight savings. Researchers D Kuehnle and C Wunder outline the findings of a study in the Journal of Happiness Studies: ‘Our results show that individuals in both the UK and Germany experience deteriorations in life satisfaction in the first week after the spring transition (where individuals lose one hour of time). We find no effect of the autumn transition (where individuals gain an hour of time). We attribute the negative effect of the spring transition to the reduction in the time endowment.’

Given the correlation between saving time and personal gratification, it is little wonder that Indian markets are flooded with a vast variety of devices, apps and services that promise to save us time. ‘Instant’, ‘express’, ‘quick’ and ‘speedy’ are some of the most heavily deployed terms in marketing campaigns today. “Convenience can be sacrificed, but time cannot. Even if there is a more convenient or indeed faster way to shop, market research shows that customers prefer to choose the option where they feel they are left with more time at their disposal. For example, buying standard groceries on an app [which may only come the next day or after a few hours] instead of physically crossing the street and going to the store,” observes Ahmedabad-based app designer, Tushar Gupta, adding that the most common brief he gets these days is to devise an app that will save time. “A few weeks ago, a client who works with couples wanted me to design an app that will help couples sort out fights and arguments by instantly connecting them to a third-party counsellor. The idea was that we will save people time by having someone sort out their problems as soon as possible,” says Gupta. He hopes to launch this app, Fix-That-Smile, later this month on iPhone and Android. The app will quote some studies in support of its proposed tagline: ‘Saving couples 12 minutes of wasted time per fight’.

Interestingly, Fix-That-Smile seems to be just the tip of the iceberg. We can now save time on just about anything. We can save time—for health (quick workouts, express recipes, 30-minute food delivery), for love (speed dating, same-day delivery of presents), for learning (personal news boards, quick feed services), for money (pre-scheduling investments, bills and business emails), and even for personal grooming (reminders for applying sunscreen, step-by-step guides to tying a tie, virtual avatars for trying different looks and hairstyles). But is time saved through any of these modern inventions of any value? Does that one minute saved in express airline check-in help us relax? Can instant slow-cooked food have the same taste and benefits of slow-cooked food? Will a 10-minute desk workout replace a walk in the park? Or are we simply slaves to the thrill of having shaved a few seconds off the clock?

“Time is more valuable than money today because it invokes private emotions. When I have to take time away from my newborn child, an ageing parent, a hobby I hold dear to my heart or even something as basic as sleep and relaxation, that time becomes doubly more valuable to me. So the fact that someone is telling me, ‘Here, I can save this precious resource for you,’ will never fail to strike that psychological and sentimental chord,” says Dr Vikas Gaur, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist. “One should be careful, however, of not letting this emotional appeal of time get in the way of sensible allocation of time. Don’t fall prey to giving less time to seemingly less enjoyable tasks that could be more beneficial than enjoyable ones. For example, a student might wish to play more video games. It might be a ‘quick’ game. But it would still eat into study or school time. And it would also be short enough to not allow proper rest and relaxation. Sometimes it makes more sense to devote proper time to recreation and work, so that one can get the full benefit of both.”

With its spiralling socio-economic value and simultaneous scarcity, its fleeting nature and civil worth, its emotional appeal and tricky utilisation, time is a gift both to ourselves and to those around us. How we choose to save it, manage it and spend it could well determine the quality of our life.