A Lesson in the Marginal Value of Time

It’s nice to see that someone understands the value of time, or should I say, the marginal value of time.

A recent article on Bleacher Report described Urban Meyer’s return to coaching football after health issues due to excessive work forced him to leave Florida, where his teams went 65-15 and won two nationals championships, after the 2010 season. Meyer is now the head coach at Ohio State, where he is reportedly in good health and happier than ever. According to Meyer the secret to his health and happiness is a balanced life. He’s replaced eighteen hour work days for nine hour ones and he spends much more time exercising and hanging out with his family.

Many people in the football world thought balance would translate to worse performance as a coach but in the last five seasons his Ohio State teams have posted a combined 52-4 record and a national championship. Despite working half as much, Meyer has been able to coach at the same elite level he did while at Florida. While there may be other variables affecting his success at Ohio State, this article made me think about the manner in which we all act as economists and consciously or subconsciously place a marginal value on our time spent doing something.

The ostensible correlation between working long hours and being successful is a common thread in most if not all professions. Individuals at the peak of their professions, particularly high profile ones such as Mark Cuban, Bill Belichick, and Steve Jobs, to name a few, are known for being high achieving because of their ability to put in long days at the office. Consequently, much credence is put in the “sleep when you die” mentality.¹

But what Meyer realized six years ago is something the “sleep when you die”ers don’t: there is only so much time a person can spend concentrated and working in a day. Sure, the amount of good work a person can do in a day varies from person to person but we all reach a point where enough is enough.

That’s because we can (and I’d argue we should) think of time literally as an input in our production functions for working; the more time we spend working the more we will accomplish. Just like any input in a production function, time has diminishing marginal utility. Each successive hour spent working is less productive than the previous one. Nothing groundbreaking here, we all know this is true, but I think many of us fail to really appreciate how steep the decline in the marginal value of time can be.

To exhaust the Meyer example, he cut his work day in half and has had no decrease in success. If we were to graph the marginal value of Meyer’s time spent working we would see it has a value of zero after the ninth hour. I suspect the rapid decline in the marginal value of time is true for more people than just Meyer. Whether or not my suspicion is actually true is really not all that important. What’s more important, and cool at that, is that Urban Meyer has had success because he thought like an economist, proof that unlike popular opinion, the world would be a better place if we all thought like economists.

¹Admittedly I subscribe to the belief that obsession comes before greatness. In order to be truly great at anything you do I think you need to obsess over it to some degree, simply liking it is just not enough. But this mentality can be dangerous as it cultivates anti-social behavior and, like in Meyer’s case, can have consequences on our health and happiness. More importantly, I think there is a clear distinction between being obsessed and spending gross amounts of time doing. Meyer is a great example of this distinction. He is no less obsessed with football now than he was seven years ago yet he spends less time working because he realizes the harms of working too much, obsession or not. Yet somehow society blurs the two such that they are almost one in the same.

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