Why are you paid to go to work? To make something? Provide a service of some sort? You may not realize it, but if you’re paid a fixed salary to be in a specific place for a specific number of hours, you’re actually in a pretty common trade these days. You’re in the business of selling time.

As a time merchant, you don’t get to go home early if you complete a task early. Instead, you’re rewarded with another task. And another. And another. And another… until time runs out. Sound familiar?

The harder and more efficiently a time salesman works, the more he works.

Sure, there are places other than 9-to-5 jobs where one’s time is spoken for. Grade school and prison are two that come to mind.

At least when you’re on the job, you’re getting paid for your time. But are you happier than being in those other places?

The time for money transaction

Every day, legions of knowledge workers sell their time, and countless employers buy it up. Unfortunately, trading time is almost always a bad deal for the buyer and seller.

Suppose Joe and Jane are paid exactly the same to sit in one place for eight hours a day. Joe averages ten completed tasks a day; Jane, five.

Joe and Jane each make the same amount per hour, but Jane makes makes twice as much money per effort. Who has more incentive to move toward the other?

It’s no great head-scratcher why people learn to waste time in a time-based economy. It’s really simple, actually. Time that’s sold doesn’t belong to the seller. If you buy a used car, and it falls apart, it’s not the seller’s problem. Time is no different.

Work should supersede time spent working

People create more value when time spent is a consequence of the task.

In economies simpler than this knowledge-based gig we’ve gotten ourselves into, time spent working is a function of the work that needs to be done. It simply isn't natural for work to be a function of available time. In a truly efficient, rational world, need necessitates work, and time is merely an input to the process.

Time should not be a predetermined container in which work happens.

Let’s spend a few pennies of our time recasting Joe and Jane in a simpler economy. Let's say they're stranded on an island. Suppose Jane happens to be really good at climbing trees.  She'll go into the coconut business. And maybe Joe is really good at fishing. His feet are going to get wet.

The lessons of this simple economy are many. Joe and Jane do what they do best. Both get to enjoy the results of the other’s work through trade. And, I’m pretty sure that the time each spends in trees and surf will be determined by their hunger and efficiency, not the amount of time available.

Putting time back in its place

Obviously, selling the product of work makes more sense than selling time to do work. So how can our society find its way back to logic again? I’m not sure. And honestly, I’m not sure I care. My (and your) time is better spent controlling more feasible things.

Here are a few ways to get started.

Work remotely more often.

I feel more productive when I work remotely. It’s not because I don’t like working with people. I do. Especially smart people that challenge me to be better.

But when you step off the corporate factory floor, it forces you to think more about each action you take and the value it creates. When it no longer matters that you fill each and every moment with work, you begin to naturally choose work that makes sense. In short, you put time back in its place in the production process.

Get better at ignoring forgettable tasks.

When you sit down with your boss for your annual review, there are many things that neither of you will remember you did. But those many things consumed plenty of your time. What if your time had been spent doing things that you did remember?

Assume that if you won’t remember a task, your boss won’t either. Act accordingly.

Think in terms of projects.

Projects tend to be more goal-oriented than individual actions. Attach individual tasks to projects as often as you can. There’s lots of great software to help you here1.

Whether it’s through tagging items, grouping items together, or just routinely thinking about why you’re doing something, it’s much better to think of tasks as rungs on a ladder than random obstacles in your path.

If your task list consists mostly of miscellaneous things, then you’re just going to be playing whack-a-mole all day. You may be really good as a fireman, but come review time, you’ll be a lot better off if you can point to the one or two really valuable projects you executed than if you try to recount all the little fires you stamped out.

Think in terms of value creation, not work.

This is admittedly abstract, but it’s worth pursuing. Ideally, every task you take on should satisfy one of three things:

  1. create marketable value,
  2. produce a stepping stone that gets you closer to creating marketable value, or
  3. be something that makes you happier than you were before.

We can argue about the order of these, but let’s agree on this: Don’t work for the sake of working.

Use Parkinson’s Law to your advantage.

In his book, The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss suggests putting tighter time frames around work. “Identify the few critical tasks that contribute most to income and schedule them with very short and clear deadlines,” he says.

If you sell your time, your work will always swell to fill that time (Parkinson’s Law). Tim’s reasoning is perhaps a bit counterintuitive on its face: If you allow less time for a work, you’ll get more work done.

Crazy? Not really. Just think about how your productivity rate naturally increases as deadlines encroach. Tim’s technique is just a way of harnessing this natural energy source.

Tie your work up into neat little time bundles, get things done, and get on with your life.

Time’s up

Now go move closer to an important goal. And don’t resign to sell time.

  1. This post would have exploded into a rambling ball of fire if I had gone into detail about project management software and techniques. Search this site for info, and stay tuned for future posts along these lines. “Note to self” is a past series you may also want to check out.