I had breakfast with a management consultant Friday morning. He had an enormous crab omelet and passed on some wisdom from management consultants past.
“Your time is expensive,” he said. I savored a spoonful of oatmeal, thinking of an appropriate response.
I currently live in a building that feels like a Soviet-era apartment complex. My room is a cinderblock with a hole cut in the side for a window. There is a security checkpoint in the lobby, where students show their identification cards before proceeding to a bank of elevators or out to a courtyard full of modular space-pod shaped townhouses. Each suite extends across two floors. The lower levels have five bedrooms and a bathroom. The upper levels include a living room and kitchen. When I moved-in, I was surprised to find a full-sized fridge, a gas range, an oven with digital temperature control, but no microwave. I am a pretty good cook. I can make chili of all varieties, tasty pasta sauce, and a luxurious pound cake. But I hate making oatmeal on the stove. I have stopped eating oatmeal altogether, out of laziness and protest. And so I was very excited to get a bowl of really creamy, nice oatmeal. I was enjoying my oatmeal. Talking about life in management consulting. A brief digression on structures of scientific revolutions. And then bam! Wisdom.
“My time is expensive to me, or to other people?” I asked.
“Both,” he said. “You shouldn’t spend your time on tasks that can be accomplished more efficiently by other people. You shouldn’t spend your time working through tedious tasks when you could be working on problems that command your full attention. For example, you shouldn’t spend six hours navigating library bureaucracy to pull a few research articles. Someone else can maneuver through the system better than you could, and instead you might devote your energy other projects.”
I understand “expensive time” to mean time with value-added. Time spent working should be time spent building stuff, making it rain dolla dolla bill, etc. Time spent working should not be time spent accomplishing intermediate and menial steps towards the building of stuff, towards the making of moneys, etc. The expenditure of “expensive time” should be producing value. If “expensive time” is being allocated to work that does not directly produce value, you are wasting time.
The “time is expensive” maxim is a tricky issue for tech start-ups. Oftentimes, early stage start-ups do not possess the capital or human resources to bypass red tape, administrative drudgery, and low-level coding exercises. But once it becomes financially and structurally feasible to delegate time wasting (and remember, value wasting!) activities down the chain of command, why do some start-ups refuse to adjust workflow? It seems to me that some start-ups are committed to a kind of egalitarian organization that forecloses effective task management. Some start-ups are unwilling to sacrifice resource-intensive objectives, like marketing, in order to free-up “expensive time” for more direct value-added projects. One of the biggest problems, however, is micromanagement. Upper-management needs to trust subordinates to carry out “cheap time” tasks with a sufficient degree of competence. Instead of looking over shoulders, upper-management should be working independently to produce value for the company.
Of course, all this analysis prompts the question, doesn’t boring, menial, and avoidable labor contribute to the final product? According to a certain narrative of the American dream, it does. Work hard, and you will succeed. Rarely do we hear, work smart, and you will succeed. The incorporation of backbreaking toil—blood, sweat, and tears—into a generic success story belies how avoidable those bodily fluids really are. Hard work is an undeniable component of successful businesses. Yet it is hard work channeled into smart tasks that separates butting your head against a wall from walking around the wall.
My usual running route takes me from one flat path up a steep hill to another flat path. I take the first section at a baseline effort level. I run as hard as I can up the hill. And I keep running at that same “hill effort” level on the second flat zone. Imagine funneling all the effort expended on frustrating, uphill tasks on smarter, value-added projects.
In summary, I should buy a microwave instead of whining about my lack of oatmeal. Or, I could wait for the next business breakfast, at which time someone else could make the oatmeal for me. I save fifteen minutes every morning by eating a granola bar instead of hot cereal. If only I could force myself to write or study or do pushups instead of reading a Thai cookbook.