Time is Elastic

One of my university professors told me a secret about how he would decide how much homework to give his students. The secret was: it doesn’t matter. Students will complain that any amount of homework is too much, and then they’ll find time to do it. A student with only one class and very little homework will somehow fill her schedule such that the very little homework seems to be taking too much time, but is still possible to complete. And a student with five classes all with extensive homework will somehow clear her schedule such that the homework seems to be taking too much time, but is still possible to complete. Time is magically elastic for university students.

When I worked in an office, I would go to work in the morning, then back home for lunch, then back to work in the afternoon, then back home at night. During those trips, I occasionally imagined how much more time I would have to do things I should be doing more often (e.g cooking, reading, exercising). Four trips a day at ten minutes per trip, plus time packing up and unpacking on each end, must be at least an hour of every day I spent in transition.

Now that I’ve been working from home for a while, I have almost no time lost in transition. Yet I notice the extra time hasn’t materialized. I can now work in the kitchen, and somehow I still feel like I don’t have time to cook a good meal for lunch. My time appears to be just as elastic as it was when I was a university student.

Where does time go when it stretches? For a full time student, I think the time goes primarily to socializing. When your friend invites you to go somewhere and you don’t have pressing homework, it would seem rather unlike a student to decline the invitation. And a university is full of friends inviting each other to go places. Socializing is a black hole, endlessly sucking in all student time not otherwise attracted to a mass of homework.

For me, the black hole is web work. I try to restrict myself to close to forty hours a week for my full time employer, and though I almost never reach that goal, that’s not really the problem. My time sink is largely freelance work. When someone offers me money to work on an interesting project, it just seems odd to decline. What would I even say? “No thanks. That sounds interesting, and I like money, but I’d rather read books and cook better meals.“ Maybe I should say that, but I don’t.

Your black hole is what you won’t regret. When your university friends come back from the bar, and you’ve just spent a few hours making sure you understand the subject really well instead of just okay, you’re going to regret the missed opportunities at the bar. But they won’t regret the missed studying. And when that really neat website launches after I turned down the opportunity to work on it so that I could learn to make Pad Thai instead of Mac and Cheese, I’ll be regretting the missed opportunity on the web, but I don’t yet regret the Mac and Cheese.

So it turns out time is elastic for everyone, not just students. And we all just choose a different black hole to suck it up. Some day I hope to be the kind of person whose black hole is the simpler things in life: good food, good books, health, a sunny day. But right now my black hole is interesting web work. I don’t need more time, and most likely you don’t either. What’s your black hole, sucking up all your free time? TV? Books? A sunny day?

What about that black hole called sleep? That's 8 hours a day!
Yeah, but sleep doesn't tend to expand to suck in unneeded time. At least not for me. When I have nothing to do, I don't sleep all day. I get up and work on web projects.
You can apply this logic to many things. Income. Jackie and make more 10x what I made working 30-40 hours a week at $4.25 an hour when I was 16. Do I really have 10x the stuff (or stuff that's 10x the quality) to show for it?

Another thing I've found to be elastic is student understanding of technology. Ask them the ftp a file to a server, they'll complain that it is impossibly complicated. I'd really like to know who wrote the documentation for P2P clients like KaZaa. Students seem to have no problem figuring out how to use those application to transfer files. Even something as simple as a browser based uploads become more difficult when uploading to WebCT or Blackboard than when uploading to MySpace!

As for sleep, I've been know to completely invert my schedule when I have contact programming work that I just couldn't get motivated to do after working all day. I would get up at 2 or 3AM and bang out some code when I was fresh. By the end of my normal work day I was shot. I'd go home and be asleep by 6 or 7PM.

IMHO, it's all about motivation. I like to break the things I want to buy down into the number of hours I'd have to work to get them. A trip to SXSW is a week of work. An Audi TT cost me 3 months of 2AM mornings. Uploading your homework is a grade. Uploading the photo of your friend passed out at the big party? I'm really sure what that's worth, but it must be more than the price of a college education.

Be number 4:

knows half of 8 is