Time Debt and Harvard’s Addiction to Over-Commitment

My Economics professor made an interesting analogy last week, comparing time commitments to “time debt.” Harvard students have a tendency to “promise” time to other parties that will be collected at a future point in time in exchange for things like grades, money, fun, etc.

Unfortunately, we too suffer from time inconsistencies regarding our time use. We commit to too much now, but have to perhaps renege on our promises later. Time inconsistencies are generally used by economists to explain things like addiction to procrastination, but at the core of it all, is a self-control issue. Whereas some people cannot help but to pull out their credit card to buy that new pair of shoes, we cannot help but to say yes to an awesome opportunity that will only maybe just take 2 hours a week.

The funny thing about “time debt” — a promise to pay back time/effort at a future date — is that the interest compounds. Time commitments snow ball, people expect and demand more from you, and soon your 2 hour a week gig ends up 3 or 4 hours a week, during a week, of course, of midterms.

So what is this “time debt,” and why in the world is this a problem of many successful people?

1) What is time debt?

Time debt, for the purposes of this analogy, refers to the time that you owe to some other party in the future. For instance, if I take on a new job, then I am indebted to commit a certain number of hours per week for however long of duration to this job. Some agreements are formal (e.g. a contract), some are informal but socially binding (e.g. agreeing to be the treasurer of a student organization).

Harvard kids tend to over-commitment. I’ll define over-commitment as, taking on too much time debt that one later persistently regrets. One defaults on time debt if you break the agreement, and just say, screw this, I quit, etc. etc.

2) Why is this a problem even?

It’s easy to trivialize time debt because it usually reaps awards for the “indebted.” For instance, an ibanker who has a time debt of 80 hours a week for 2 years is rewarded by thousands and thousands of dollars for the fulfillment of his obligation.

Time debt, like financial debt, is not a problem (and is a good thing) if you can pay it off. You get a student loan, and you get to go to school. You get a credit card, and you get new shoes.

Time debt is a problem when you cannot pay it off or you cannot pay it off in a reasonable manner. If you’ve agreed much of your life away to various organizations and then realize you’re sleeping 3 hours a day….well, equate this maybe to a Post Doc working two jobs to pay off his mountain of school debt. (Then again, the Post Doc is probably both time and financially indebted.)

Thus, time debt is a persistent problem for many people on campus. It is not on common for people to quit organizations or jump ship or drop classes etc.

3) What are the consequences of defaulting on time debt?

In some easily related instances, e.g. quitting a club, there are very few consequences. You quit, others are sad (maybe), but ultimately they understand that life as a Harvard student is plagued with defaults.

However, in other instances, failing to commit the time has real significant consequences — e.g. losing your job, failing a class etc.

Overall, negative externalities abound. Take quitting a club for instance. You may not be harmed, except for maybe a bit of ill will, but if the organization was depending on you for your financial acumen, then the organization bears the cost of your default, rather than you yourself. Compound this with the fact that everyone is doing this, and that it is a widely accepted practice.

I’m sure many freshmen don’t enter college thinking they’re going to quit every third club they join.

4) Why are we doing this? Time inconsistency

Why do you set your alarm for 7 am the night before, but then hit snooze until 8 am? Because our preferences change by the very fact that time has passed. In other words, your preference for waking up on Thursday is different for you Wednesday night than it is Thursday morning.

Why do people buy gym memberships that they never use? Why do we say we’re going to work on a paper tomorrow, but don’t? Why do smokers who try to quit find it hard to succeed?

Time inconsistency is one of the ways that economics tries to explain this “irrational” behavior. Applying this to time debt, and you get, people prefer to spend X amount of time doing Y in the future, but in the future, they actually want to spend think I want to spend 4 years in Med School, but once I’m in Med School, I want to spend none of my time there.

5) Math is a problem for us

Another explanation, my founded on the union of psychology and economics, is that we just don’t quite behave rationally, entirely.

It’s OBVIOUS that I don’t want to spend 12 hours a week coding C, and it’s OBVIOUS that I wouldn’t ever choose to commit to coding for 12 hours a week at any point in time in the future. (Duh)

However, at the time that I’m deciding on my classes, I’m not calculating exactly how much of a time commitment taking CS 50 actually is. You can blame our lack of knowledge as to how much time things will actually take. But, this isn’t a problem. You just insert probability in your utility maximization functions, eat a cheeseburger, and figure out calculus on your napkin.

What’s more to blame is that we don’t really think about how much time we are actually committing to. It’s easy to generalize, 10 hours a week on psets = 2 hours a day for 5 days, not too shabby. But, add in your 3 hours of lecture, 1.5 hours of section, the 40% probability that you’ll have to go to office hours for 2 hours, an extra 10 hours of studying per midterm, 40 hours on that final project that will actually have a 70% chance of actually working, 10 minutes of travel/transition time for every section/lecture, and it’s easy to see how lame the math is.

It’s also lamer when you have to add in your projected time commitments for all your other classes, extra curricular activities, probabilities of getting sick at different points of the semester etc. etc. etc.

In short, craziness. While it is (sort of) absurd to go through all these calculations and figure out the actual true accumulated cost of a time debt, Harvard folk generally seem to underestimate the cost, consistently.

Obviously, no learning takes place at this institution.

6) Why is this bad?

Being nearly over-committed is still incredibly hard to balance. And then, WHOOOOSH, you get sick, and the whole deck of cards topples. There ain’t no insurance for this sort of thing.

(Although it would be great if there were insurance. Imagine paying into a fund a certain number of hours of your time — e.g. picking up the slack for someone for half an hour maybe once a month — in exchange for the assurance that when you do get sick, other people will pick up the slack for you. Insert all the economic blahbityblah about insurance.)

And then you have to file for “bankruptcy” — lots of stress abounds.

7) What about those you owe the time too?

The people/entities/courses that you are committing your time to can also be at fault. They may lie and assure you that it’s really a 2 hour a week commitment, but then smack you with hidden, small print time commitments later.

Obviously, they’re taking a risk that you might default. But on the other hand, they can still milk you for all your worth while you’re vacillating between quitting and staying.

8) Is there hope?

Perhaps, perhaps not. I’ll lean towards perhaps not for the institution overall. The culture here is that of racking up the time payments in exchange for titles, responsibility and resume padding. Alas.

However, for someone like me — who hates being ridiculously stressed out and grumpy because of having too many things to do — the key points are:

  • It will take you twice as long as you think it will.
  • Don’t do things you don’t give shit about.
  • Continually re-evaluate, and renegotiate (e.g. let others know if you’re going to have to slack off for a week or two)
  • Be indebted to yourself. You owe yourself some time too.

Obviously, you can’t get better if you don’t admit that you have a problem.

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1 Response to “Time Debt and Harvard’s Addiction to Over-Commitment”

  1. 1 KC

    Nice Luyi. A very very accurate description.

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