28 February 2015

People measure time in lots of ways, mostly seconds that tick by on the clock, but there are other ways, and I think we should measure more things in soul-seconds—the number of seconds of joy something brings you in the future for what you did in the past.

Using time

The other day I received an email with three Microsoft Excel files attached; each file was formatted to look like a calendar, with a row of cells for dates in the week, then the following cells containing events, one per cell. It looks sort of like this:

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
      1 2 3 4
      event A1 event B1 event C1 event D1
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
event A2 event B2 event C2 event D2 event E2 event F2 event G2
    event C3        

That format isn’t helpful, because it isn’t a calendar. I’m not sure why the people who make the calendar don’t use Outlook, or Google Calendar, or something else that would be, for them, a calendar. I assume they maintain two copies, and email me the worse of the two.

Of all of the items on each monthly calendar, I care about 8 of them. Manually transcribing them onto my Google calendar takes about (at most) a minute each, so that’s 24 minutes of effort every quarter, which is, approximately, 0 minutes in the grand scheme of life.

All of that is measured in “wall clock” time, or time that ticks by on a clock on the wall.

In “soul time”, it is something like 50 hours. It’s awful. It’s drudgery for no reason. It’s error prone. It has no redeeming value. I couldn’t dislike it more. I dislike it so much that some quarters I don’t do it, then I spend three months being shocked when those events roll around, and annoyed when they conflict with something else I’ve scheduled. The whole process is the worst.

Wall clock: 24 minutes. Soul clock: 50 hours. You see the problem.

Investing in soul clock time

To solve the pain of my 24-minutes-per-three-month problem, I spend 6 hours writing a computer program to read the Excel file and give me back an ICS file that I can import into Google calendar (or Apple’s iCal, or Microsoft’s Outlook, or lots of other calendar programs, but not other spreadsheet programs, because the data isn’t fucking spreadsheet data).

At the end of my project, I was able to put the information from the Excel files into my calendar in a few seconds.

However, it took me six hours. That is about 12 quarters of doing this manually (30 minutes per quarter goes into 6 hours 12 times). That’s 3 years. There is no way that was worth the time investment.

My soul time estimate for doing it manually was 50 hours per quarter; in that case, my six hours was a great investment.

It’s all about perspective, and the clock on the wall shouldn’t be your only perspective.

Some people say that automation doesn’t save you time automation.png and that can be true (clearly not in most cases, or the foundations of the industrial revolution are in significant peril), but it is important for you (and other humans) to factor in the pay-off from the investment of soul-time, not just the investment of wall-clock time.

What is soul time?

Soul time is what you spend to make yourself happy in an on-going, or future-looking, way. Like anything you don’t “waste” time on, it’s an investment in the future. Soul time’s investment, though, isn’t the same as wall-clock time; often it looks like a bad investment when compared to a clock on the wall, but it makes you happy. It cases where it looks like a bad investment with respect to wall-clock time, you will get accused of “wasting” time, which is too bad, because who ever accuses you of that doesn’t understand: a) that not all investments pay off the same way and b) what makes you happy. Because those people don’t understand that, you are safe to ignore them (just be sure it’s your wall-clock time you are investing; if it is your employer’s, that decision isn’t up to you).

If you can find a task (or job, or hobby, or whatever) that has a ratio of soul time to wall-clock time that is 1 or less, guard that with everything you have, for you have won: you are spending less wall-clock time than soul-time, and thus coming out ahead on soul-time while not spending (or, in some people’s eyes, “wasting” time).


Some things just take time and are no fun and somethings are fun but not an investment in the future; both of those things are necessary and part of life. One step to being happy is maximizing that slice in the middle that is both: the balance between soul time and wall-clock time.

And good luck getting to:

\begin{equation} \frac{\mathrm{soul\ time}}{\mathrm{wallclock\ time}} \leq 1 \end{equation}