“Why, yes. It’s 8:45.”
“Thanks, Dad, but I was actually wondering if you had time to help me with my school project.”
“Sorry, son, but I have a board presentation tomorrow and need to concentrate on that right now. Maybe later.” I almost always had priorities at work that took precedent over family activities. Once the family understood, I didn’t get many more requests for my time.
Life places many demands on your and my time, and every day we make decisions on how to spend such a precious resource. No one is exempt from the pressure to do the most with what little we have, as we are all allocated the same amount—no more and no less. What we do with the time we’re given plays a crucial role, guiding the course of our lives and, potentially, the lives of others.
For me, it was my dad who taught me to think about the costs associated with such decisions. My dad possessed a lot of wisdom, but like many sons, I didn’t seek it out. One gem I do remember was about managing my time. It was 1969 and I was a freshly minted MBA working at my first job out of grad school—as an analyst for Enjay Chemical Company in Baytown, Texas. My wife and I had recently purchased our first home for the then large sum of almost twenty thousand dollars. One weekend shortly thereafter, my parents travelled from Phoenix to visit—to see our home and spend time with their first grandson, Paul.
It was a Saturday. I was busy with my normal weekend chores: mowing the lawn and washing the car. My dad came out as I was finishing the lawn and asked me, “What is your time worth?”
I said, “Gee, Dad, I don’t know. It’s the weekend. I’m not sure it’s worth all that much. I can calculate my hourly rate at work, if you want to know that.”
“No, son. But have you thought about what other options you had for spending your time today? You could have spent it with us, your son, maybe learning something that would have advanced your career. These chores, on the other hand, could have been done by someone else for a small amount of money.”
“I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but you’ve persuaded me. I guess I’ll skip washing the car today.”
His perspective was an insight I didn’t fully appreciate until later in life. As an MBA, I recognized Dad’s wisdom as a simple business principle: for every investment there is an “opportunity cost” for not investing in an alternative. If I invested my time in an advanced degree, I paid the opportunity cost of not having a full-time job. In 1964 I looked into sailing around the world on a freighter, which would have given me a great experience, but then I wouldn’t have met my wife and my career would have taken a different path. Opportunity costs always come into play when you spend time. You can go to the movies, or you can work on the report that’s due on Monday. Going to the movie, in that case, can mean a significant opportunity cost to you.
Keeping opportunity cost in mind has always been helpful for me in deciding how I spend my time; however, I’m strongly “left-brained’ and rely primarily on logic, not emotion, to make my time management decisions. Although emotional investments are hard to evaluate, they often represent the highest opportunity cost if ignored for more “logical” time investments. I realize now that relationships are the most valuable asset one can possess and worthy of large allocations of time. When ignored, the opportunity costs can be life-changing.
Figuring out how to make time for relationships is difficult if you’re an ambitious professional who places work as a high priority. I was one such professional. I needed a lesson in balancing work and family. I learned one lesson on that topic when I was working in Canada.
I was transferred to Toronto, Canada, in 1977 to serve as employee relations manager for Esso Chemical Canada. George Morton, the president of the company, was my boss, and he shared his time management tip for spending more time with family.
I had been in Canada for about a year. I asked George how he managed to never take a briefcase home. Mine went wherever I did.
“Doug, I used to, but I eventually realized that if I opened the briefcase and worked, I felt guilty. If I didn’t open it, I felt guilty. The solution: Don’t bring a briefcase home. This meant I needed to complete any important work while I was at the office. I used to procrastinate, and throw memos and reports into my briefcase, thinking I would read them later at home. I stopped that practice and became much more productive during the day.”
“Wow, George, that takes a lot of discipline.”
“I guess, but it’s been a wonderful practice for me and my family.”
Lesson understood. But did I apply it? No, because it seemed too risky for a person so intense about work and as risk adverse as I was. As far as appreciating the opportunity costs associated with “spending” my time is concerned, I still have a ways to go. I try to spend more time building relationships, but my left brain still gets in the way.
Doug Gehrman teaches transformational leadership at Houston Christian University. He had a 40-year corporate career in energy and financial services. He can be reached at email@example.com.