How to Trade Your Time for Work and Avoid Slavery
The fact is that you invest your time. The same way famous investors like Ray Dalio, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are investing, so are you. But the most important resource you’re trading with is not financial capital, but your own time.
This is factual. It is not a questionable reality.
The only uncertainty is whether you are aware of it or not.
These lessons teach us one key thing – people are bad at managing and valuing time. We see this in all sorts of situations: in an exam, when piloting an airline, in negotiating their survival and of course, the big one, over an entire lifespan.
Today one Australian Dollar will buy me 0.73 US Dollars (according to Google). By the time you’re reading this, that rate will have likely changed, though it will be a straightforward conversion all the same.
After all, this is trading like-for-like currencies. Apples for oranges. The relationship is complex between currencies, sure, but in a simple way, the change depends on the demand for oranges compared to the demand for apples.
What is the Conversion Rate for Your Time?
As I argued in the kidnapping of Marshall Godeyemi, I do not believe that there is any appropriate conversion rate between money and time. Particularly your time. If you’re reading this, the reality is, I probably place more value on your time than you do…
Put it this way. Imagine you had five children. Ask yourself the question –
How many apples would you accept in trade for one child?
You’re no longer trading apples and oranges. Now someone wants one of your children, and they’re offering you apples in return.
What volume of apples would convince you to hand over a child? Two million? Two hundred? Twenty?
(If there is a numerical answer, then please do not feel obligated to keep reading. You are a special type of person and I wish you every success in your endeavours.)
This trade seems ridiculous, no matter the number. Even if the apple-merchant only wanted the child for eight hours a day, it would still be a poor deal right?
Now let’s change one variable.
Let’s pretend now that your family is incredibly desperate. There is a shortage of food in the land, leaving you and your children on the brink of starvation.
Desperation changes the equation. If people do not eat, they die. It doesn’t matter how principled you are, principles are not carbs, protein or fats, and they cannot be digested.
Now you have a choice. Find an acceptable compromise with the ruthless apple merchant or die out of principle. We cannot judge the answer either way, and everyone reading and imagining this now has a different threshold.
Some will elect to die out of principle. Others will settle for a number of apples, sacrificing one child to save the other four.
How many apples is a good deal?
It probably feels better to get two million apples in this deal, rather than two hundred. However, apples today are not worth the same tomorrow – they will eventually rot, just as money in an inflationary economy is worth less in the future than it is today.
For example, my coffee today cost $3.50. In the future, the same coffee will probably be worth $7 if inflation were to continue!
Truth be told – it feels more justified to have won a large excess of apples in this situation – say two million. But objectively, more apples than you need will simply appeal to vanity, and not provide a tangible value.
At this point it’s about appeasing your conscience, rather than filling your belly. We still traded a child for apples!
The Minimum Viable Lifestyle
This example dances around the borders of what we here call the Minimum Viable Lifestyle. I continually refer to this concept and its two central questions:
- What’s the least my life can be? (As a pose to the most)
- What’s the least income I need that I am still happy and comfortable (they are very different things), that my basic needs are met?
For example, when we first thought of trading apples for children there was no need to consider this ridiculous transaction for a single second. We assumed that all else was well, and that trading a child for apples would only have downside.
But when our Minimum Viable Lifestyle was under threat, when we didn’t have the least we needed, we had to make the smallest possible compromise to protect our MVL.
This trade-off would have been different for everyone – some wouldn’t have made it at all. In other words, everyone’s MVL is different, and not to be judged by others.
Money’s first role is funding survival and comfort (MVL)
People use money to do many different things. Most of these are inappropriate uses. The first and most important in my opinion is funding our MVL. When we cannot afford our MVL, then we are lower on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and urgently need food, water, shelter and safety.
Say your MVL is $25,000, $50,000 or $100,000 a year. It doesn’t matter. Once you have this MVL covered, money need not be as importantly weighted in your decision-making. Particularly if it distracts us from other things (we’ll get to those later, as everyone neglects them).
Now MVL is not to be misunderstood as ‘going it rough’. It’s merely the minimum you see as appropriate. Savings and having emergency funds are in all likelihood, things you should factor into your MVL.
What about after we’ve funded MVL?
After MVL is funded, money is in my opinion only a tool to do more things – for example supporting business and creative projects that need funding.
In my opinion using money to make “comfort upgrades” or “status upgrades” to your lifestyle is often counterintuitive and creates more headaches and decisions to make. These headaches and decisions in my experience actually make life worse – for example, a bigger house will be more work to maintain, requiring you to coordinate cleaning staff, which therefore means maintaining cleaning staff. That’s a new job you’ve just created for yourself, and it’s just one very simple example.
Hang on, what about investing in property or shares?
In my opinion, we’ve already mentioned this. Many will disagree, so let’s discuss.
I’m not sure that investing in property or shares is something that people find spiritually rewarding. The income benefits of investing are merely relevant to your MVL and go into that bucket. I don’t care if you fund your MVL through shares, investment properties, a business or salary. Money is money, and your MVL is your MVL.
It does make sense to spend as little time possible having to fund MVL though.
This process requires you to boost your leverage. All-in-all, I maintain that money’s first role is to fund our MVL, and the how behind that MVL funding can be continually optimised (reduce amount of time, effort and energy required to maintain it) over time.
I don’t see the return on spending more time on pursuing status and comfort upgrades though, and there’s a crucial difference. A lot of people buy assets like properties to tickle their own vanity, and it is unnecessary. Why not try loving yourself instead? It’s cheaper…
Investing in property or shares can also be fun, and it can also be a hobby. Despite still being involved in property as an industry, I do invest in shares, but not property at the moment. I want the shares to perform well because a) I can use that money to fund my projects and lifestyle and b) it’s exciting.
In general, most people invest to optimise their MVL, so it still does not make sense to obsess over acquiring an endless army of assets and trading away all one’s time to do so. Unless, of course, that actual journey is the most rewarding and worthwhile thing you could be doing with your time.
Tips for Trading your Time:
So let’s get to it. How do you trade your time for work and avoid slavery?
1) If trading time for money only, do the least amount of work required to cover your MVL.
This is the situation of the desperate parent having to trade a child for apples. It is not ideal, but we are made to exchange parts of our life for a currency. Sometimes we just have to do it.
This decision is like paying rent. When you can’t own your home, you want to pay the least amount of rent possible because at the end of the day, you need somewhere to live for life to be comfortable.
If there is no work available to you to fund your MVL that is interesting or enjoyable, then the biggest mistake I believe can be getting into full-time work. This leaves limited opportunity to explore other avenues and side projects. It is not impossible, but it is needlessly harder when all you really need to do is fund your MVL.
If you enjoy your work, by all means do it full time – whether you are an employee, freelancer, business owner or entrepreneur.
2) Have a contractor mindset
Whether you are an investor, entrepreneur, self-employed, freelancer, creative or employee, I suggest it is best to think of yourself as a contractor on the open marketplace.
You might settle into a long-term contract at one company (as an employee) or work for ten on an ad-hoc basis. You might be an employee on paper but still contract your other skills doing other work or tasks.
Regardless of your position, think of yourself as a business-of-one. You can buy into and support the visions of others, but you boost the quality of your business-of-one over time.
When you are in a team, be the best in a team. Create more value than your MVL payment so you are creating huge value and continue to win work.
Don’t commit to complacency at one role or company forever, but by all means end up staying that long if the terms of the contract stay good.
Most of all, you must enjoy running that business. Why run a business that does not serve you? If it’s not appealing, diversify what your business-of-one does, or change the plan altogether.
3) Assess all the worthwhile returns.
These are some of the key risks and returns to consider:
- Interest and Curiosity Satisfaction
- Feelings of Meaningfulness
- Time ROI (Quality and amount of time you get back, which relates to the above)
- And More…
Remember our investing metaphor from before? Investors put one or more resources in and hope to get other resources back.
For example, when I work for four years saving up money to buy an investment property, I’m hoping to get a financial return from the property (growth in value over time, as well as rent paid by the tenant), but also, that income might reduce or remove my need to work.
That buys me more control of my time
Now is that not better than working unhappily for forty years to acquire a fleet of ten investment properties, only to die before I’ve decided to stop sweating and start living?
Most people believe the work marketplace is driven by money but it is much more about status. I’ll leave you to ponder that. Money is for most people a marker of status, the rewards of a warped game.
One must take a holistic view of these key areas every time they invest their time into work. Why have heaps of time on your hands and income if it causes you continual stress? Why pursue status instead of your interests? Why earn more than you need for your MVL but not get any other returns?
Optimise your Time ROI
I summarise all these returns together as ‘Time ROI’, or ‘Time Return-on-Investment”. In other words, it is not just the amount of time we get back on these investments but also the quality of that time that matters.
We each want meaningful, stress-free time that we can reinvest intentionally into more great rewards in life. It is a very holistic view. The same way those famous investors like Buffett, Munger and Dalio will keep reinvesting money (capital) over time to get higher returns, we must do the same thing.
But we must do it with Time
People are bad at weighing up all these factors, all these returns, and they poorly invest time that they can never get back.
Step 1: Fund your MVL as efficiently as possible.
Step 2: Have a contractor mindset
Step 3: Assess all the worthwhile returns.
Who do you think of when you read this? Would this piece ‘open a door’ for someone you know?
Why wouldn’t you share it with them?