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Make your free time work for you

By Rebecca McCaffry CPFA, FCMA, CGMA, Associate Technical Director - Management Accounting

Are you investing your time wisely?

Sometimes, it drags (we’ve all been on those Zoom calls). Sometimes, we don’t have enough of it. Sometimes, it feels as if we spend more of it recording what we’ve done than actually doing it.

Time is egalitarian. We all start each day with the same amount. We may choose to exchange some of it for monetary gain, to care for others or simply to enjoy ourselves. Or, indeed, to sleep. Sleep is an undervalued asset. Studies show a lack of sleep has myriad negative effects, from crankiness to diabetes.

We accountants love time; it is, after all, a resource. Traditionally, we have worked against deadlines, recording business activities in defined periods. Time and motion studies form an important part of our mid-century syllabus. Our predecessors published a Measurement of Productivity report stating that ”…time study is the most suitable way of setting standards of performance and measuring effectiveness.”

Gone were the hard boundaries of train timetables and airline schedules, the coffee shop elevenses, and the commuter downtime I had never really appreciated the value of. I had never appreciated the value of commuter downtime. Without these structures, I became too easily distracted. I needed a new routine.

I was excited to read an article by Ashley Whillans based on her new book Time Smart. I could relate to the phenomenon of ”time confetti,” in which small interruptions conspire and consolidate to destroy our cognitive ability. The book introduces the concept of ‘time affluence’, the state of having and using time meaningfully.

Whillans urges us to consider the opportunity cost, in time rather than money, of our decisions. Yet I struggled with the book’s ”time versus money” polarity. We are advised to avoid long commutes and careers involving business travel, foregoing financial gain in order to improve our time affluence. But surely there was more to time affluence than this? I felt something was missing. Time, as the saying goes, is fleeting. Having time is one thing, but how can we get the best out of this valuable, yet easily dissipated resource?

I found my answer in another 2020 idiosyncrasy — lockdown weight gain. Inactivity, comfort eating and the lure of summertime freedom have led many to reconsider their eating habits. One of the healthier options is to choose low-GI foods, which help us feel fuller for longer, over the brief high of a sugary treat. It’s a trade-off between short-term gain and long-term sustainability, making choices that improve future prospects.

Perhaps the secret to time affluence is to apply a similar approach. With the return to full-time office work unlikely, how will we spend our reclaimed commuting time? We can spend it watching reality TV, the entertainment equivalent of candy floss. It’s fun while it lasts, but lacking in sustenance. It’s an occasional treat to give our minds a break. But there are other, more nutritious options. Learning something new helps us grow, develops competency and alleviates stress. We can participate in online learning for longer-term career benefits. We can teach or mentor future accountants or join the board of a charity. All of these bring longer-term benefits, both to us and to others.

Time, like money, can be squandered — but it can also be wisely invested.