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Time Is Money, but That Doesn’t Mean You Need to Work Non-Stop

The aphorism is so ingrained in us that, unable to trace back its history, we consider it a part of our collective subconscious, but a new class of company is pushing industrial attitudes aside in favor of a healthier work-life balance.
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(Photo: Zadorozhnyi Viktor/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Zadorozhnyi Viktor/Shutterstock)

One of the great laws of labor is that time equals money: The less time you waste, the more you can get done and the more money you can make. Don’t dilly-dally! If there’s time for leaning, there’s time for cleaning, as one popular barista equivalent goes.

The original phrase is often assigned to the great aphorist Benjamin Franklin, who wrote in his 1748 essay “Advice to a Young Tradesman,” “Remember that time is money,” before going on to remind his youthful reader of the opportunity cost of laziness. When you’re not working, he says, you’re really just throwing potential earnings away.

But the money-time equivalency had actually been a meme for quite a while before Franklin got his literary-kleptomaniacal hands on it. The connection between the two has never quite remained the same over the past two millennia, and in our own age of digital labor, we’re redefining the relationship between time and money yet again.

In Plutarch’s Lives, written in the first century CE, the Greek biographer makes reference to Antiphon, an orator who likely lived in the late 5th century BCE, describing time as “the most costly outlay”—the earliest recorded version of time is money. The saying is wrapped up in a description of the Roman politician Antony—of Antony and Cleopatra fame—as a finicky, hedonistic young man of leisure given to having vast feasts arranged that had to be ready at a moment’s notice.

Lifestyle companies "build a sustainable revenue stream," "stay as small as possible," and "work hard, but aim to minimize hours worked."

The maxim, already old in Plutarch’s time, was cited by the English rhetorician Sir Thomas Wilson in his 1572 essay, “A Discourse Upon Usury”: “They saye tyme is precious.” And in 1719, the phrase “Time is Money” was included in the British newspaper The Free-Thinker as an anecdote about “a notable Woman, who was thoroughly sensible of the intrinsick Value of Time.” The woman telling her husband, an excellent shoemaker who lacked a sense of urgency, that time meant money, but he failed to heed her (timeless) advice and suffered. “He cursed the Parish-Clock, every Night; which at last brought him to his Ruin,” the cautionary tale ends.

What’s most interesting about the history of time-equals-money is how, over the centuries, the idea has been referenced as coming from another era, place, or person. “Time is money” isn’t something we can successfully trace to any one individual; rather, it’s conventional wisdom, a formula that seems to float in humanity’s collective subconscious and surface every so often in a piece of didactic literature. “Time is money” embodies an omnipresent wish for success and perhaps a desire for a foolproof way to achieve it: Simply put in enough time, and the money will come.

PERHAPS THE PHRASE WENT viral, so to speak, after Franklin’s telling because of how paid labor was changing at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. The publication year of “Advice to a Young Tradesman”—1748—places Franklin in the very earliest stages of the Industrial Revolution, when new technologies like the Flying Shuttle overturned traditional manufacturing processes in the cotton industry. Rather than outsourcing manufacturing work to small operations (often in homes) spread over a wide area, it suddenly became more efficient to organize factory floors full of workers and build a centralized labor force.

As this trend of centralization continued during the advent of steam power and cheap iron production, the modern worker was born. Laborers began to organize themselves in shifts according to the rhythms of the machine rather than their own, putting in 12-hour days. Wages were based on the number of hours clocked rather than the amount of product produced, as it would have been the case in the old domestic piecework system. Time became money. Maybe Franklin foresaw this—he was known to rigorously schedule his days down to the minute.

Today, you can find “time is money” on a website called The 1st Class Lifestyle. It appears in Internet-meme-style text over an aspirational black-and-white photo of a swank executive’s office, billed as item number five of “The Entrepreneur’s Code.” But in Silicon Valley, the contemporary home of entrepreneurship and what some are calling the Third Industrial Revolution, “time is money” isn’t holding as true as it once did.

We’re witnessing the rise of “lifestyle businesses.” Unlike Ford, Facebook, or Google, the companies that fall under this new buzzword are designed by their founders not necessarily to change the world, but to provide for the owners, whose lifestyles presumably include expensive San Francisco homes, a healthy amount of vacation time, and plenty of travel. As Jun Loayza, an established Valley entrepreneur, describes in a blog post, lifestyle companies “build a sustainable revenue stream,” “stay as small as possible,” and “work hard, but aim to minimize hours worked.” That’s quite a departure from the earlier products of the Industrial Revolution.

With lifestyle businesses, workers aren’t trading time for money but flipping the equation and sacrificing money for time. Not working as hard as possible might mean, as Franklin suggested, an opportunity cost, but it can be deemed worth it if how hard you’re working seems to be ruining your ability to enjoy life, as employees in the finance industry and hard-working technology entrepreneurs, among others, have been discovering.

The economy has also changed drastically since the 19th century. While there’s an obvious advantage to working collectively for factory employees, “knowledge workers”—as we call employees whose capital advantage is in abstract abilities rather than routine physical labor—don’t necessarily receive the same benefits. Allowing office workers to come in whenever they want and work hours of their choosing, focusing on results rather than time accrued to earn a salary, might actually increase productivity, as one recent experiment found.

With our staggering technological conveniences and cheap prices caused by the easily exploited global labor market, we may finally be finding that we prefer having more time to more money—at least after the first $33,000 a year. In addition to that changing preference, profit, particularly in Silicon Valley, is connected less to salary than ever before. It’s not the paychecks that are bringing in the big bucks, it’s the stock options and the equity payouts when a company gets sold. So why worry about the clock?

It’s feeling like past time for me to wrap up this article, however. As a writer, I’m still operating under the premise that time is very much money.