April 17, 2017

Time is not money, revisited

A couple alert readers responded to yesterday’s message in which I refuted Ben Franklin’s “time is money” quote.

They suggested that what BF was really talking about was “opportunity cost” (i.e. the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen).

I understand where they’re coming from, BUT... we have to talk ;-)

In case you missed it, here’s the Franklin quote again:

Remember that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, it ought not to be reckoned the only expence; he hath really spent or thrown away five shillings besides. —Benjamin Franklin

I agree that Franklin is alluding to opportunity cost, and I suppose that his quote is true for a factory worker who punches a time clock or a waitress who works for tips. i.e., You are either working and making money, or idle and not making money.

But people like you and me don’t work for tips and don’t have to punch a clock. We deal in knowledge, expertise, and creativity. The value we create for our clients has nothing necessarily to do with how much time or energy we devote to the work that we do on their behalf.

Sometimes we expend a lot of effort that creates little value for our clients. Other times, we expend a small amount of effort that creates a lot of value for our clients. In my experience, the “idleness” that Franklin seems to be warning us against, is often exactly what we need to bring out our best (i.e., most valuable) work.

Here’s a small example:

Every once in awhile, I’ll get stuck on a particularly complex programming challenge. In my younger days, I’d waste hours banging my head against the wall trying to brute force a solution, only to wake up the next morning and realize I was coming at it from the wrong angle and that the solution has become obvious to me.

Now that I’m older and wiser, I skip the “hours of head banging” part and go for a walk, read a book, go to the gym, etc. Most times the solution comes to me the next morning just the same.

Now imagine that this “stuckness” and “head banging” can happen at every level of your business. Marketing, sales, product development, service delivery, and so on. Banging your head against each of these areas of stuckness is certainly more work than stepping back and sleeping on it, but in my experience, it’s often less effective than engaging in what Franklin would refer to as idleness.

Correlating labor with income and idleness with cost (as I believe Franklin is doing in this quote) is terrible handicap.

One of the biggest mental hurdles my students have to get over is to stop equating work (toil, really) with income.

The thinking goes something like this:

“The harder I work, the more I’ll make.”

...and its insidious corollary:

“I’ll make less if I don’t work as hard.”

This is a terrifying concept.

Not only is this thinking harmful to your clients - because you expect to be paid for “hard work” instead of delivering value - but it is harmful to you because there is no way to increase your income without working harder.

If you increase your profits, you can work less and make more. Another way to say it is: Work smarter, not harder.

(BTW - No one would question increasing profit margins in a product business. Why do people question it in a service business?)