bookmark_borderThe Marginal Value of Time

Over the past couple of years, I had the pleasure of meeting several highly ambitious high school students, for example undertaking early study (as I did), attending hackathons, or even introducing themselves to found a graphene startup.

As much as these pupils are dedicated to their respective passion, they had to develop some effective ways to make time for their own ambitions. Attending high school blocks out a large portion of time in pupils’ lives by the sheer need to be present at school or deal with some homework or exam preparation. So it’s interesting to see them developing efficient strategies for self-organization and time management, even going as far as cutting into their own sleep time.

In fact, it’s not unusual at all for youngsters to miss out on sleep time. Unusual is that these particularly ambitious pupils do not trade their sleep time primarily for playing computer games and attending parties, but rather for working on some student research project, reading university-level science books, or refining their elevator pitch for their second startup competition.

So these few too many hours they gain from effective self-organization and sleeping less apparently provide them with extraordinary benefit. Otherwise, they wouldn’t employ such measures. Taking only time into consideration (!), it seems that an additional hour of productive works provides them with an extraordinary marginal value.

First, what means marginal value? Consider for a moment, what is more “valuable”: Water or diamonds? On the one hand, water is essential to life. If you were stuck inside a desert and running out of water, you would probably trade diamonds for a bottle of water rather than dying of thirst. Thus, water has a very high average value. But since water is readily available to us, having one more bottle of water generally adds very little value if you can have a bathtub full of water right from the tap. On the other hand, having one additional diamond (or even a single one at all!) would add tremendous value to any of us. So diamonds have fewer average value than water, but they have a huge marginal value.

Let’s get back to the case of highly ambitious pupils. Given the large portion of time occupied by schoolwork and the few hours left every evening to pursue your own ambitions, an additional hour to yourself adds a significant marginal value in two ways. On the one hand, if you are busy with school and homework for about eight hours and another four hours get taken up by day-to-day stuff (commuting, eating, …), it makes a whole lot difference, whether you have two hours, three hours or even four hours remaining to yourself. An additional hour provides a dramatic relative increase in your time being productive.

On the other hand, these pupils account for less than 1 % of all high school students, as most pupils dedicate their “free time” to other stuff. So one hour of additional study or work on some project easily gives you an edge over those spending an hour on leisure. My point here is not to judge pupils’ use of time. My point is that one additional hour spent productively provides a lot of marginal value that can contribute significantly to the accomplishments one achieves (alongside other factors such as support from other people, intrinsic motivation, or the pervasive concept of “giftedness”).

I picked this “group of highly ambitious pupils” as an example, which I can fairly well relate to. But actually, these considerations apply to anyone subject to a tight schedule that is dominated by external factors they cannot influence.

If you are generally flexible in managing your time, say you are, for example, a student or self-employed, an additional hour of work provides you with a moderate benefit, which is usually surpassed by the value of quality/family time. Focusing on better self-organization and management of the time already at your disposal probably has a higher impact on your productivity than trying to get more time or even cutting into sleep.

But if most of your day is determined by external forces which you can’t influence, such as being stuck with schoolwork or in mandatory meetings, an additional hour of being awake and productive might provide a substantial benefit.

And the same holds true if you start learning a new skill, for example, a new language: Even just twenty hours of practice will clearly give you an edge over zero hours of practicing. The first few hours provide the greatest marginal value.

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bookmark_borderSleeping Well in Times of Wakefulness

Since finishing high school (back then, a time of rather high workload), I have been intrigued with sleeping multiples periods a day, so-called polyphasic sleep, which promises a serious increase in the amount of time being awake, i.e. that can be used productively.

The idea is based on the observation that toddlers and some animals sleep multiple times a day, and even people locked inside a bunker beneath ground zero tend to adopt a biphasic sleep cycle: waking up around midnight, staying awake for a few hours, and then continuing to sleep.

Now, the argument goes like this: If you are taking into account that a lot of sleep is spent on light sleep and that REM-sleep has the greatest effect on physical recovery, it should be possible to cut sleep down to the essential amount needed by spreading sleep periods across the day, covering only REM-sleep.

Various systems have been proposed for polyphasic sleep, the most extreme versions being the Uberman system (20-minute naps every 4 hours = 6 x 20 minutes = 2 hours of sleep per day) and the Dymaxion system (30-minute naps every 6 hours = 4 x 30 minutes = 2 hours) and more moderate systems such as the Everyman one, including 3 hours of core sleep after midnight and three 20 minute naps spread across the day.

Despite the promise of “more time,” these systems might seem at first glance strange and impractical, as most of us are used to monophasic sleep during nighttime. This also corresponds to the recommendation of the National Sleep Foundation. And as Matthew Walker points out in his book “ Why we sleep,“ sleep is one of our most important basic needs, and sleep deprivation makes us less conscious, hampers our ability to learn new things, or even makes us more susceptible to heart diseases.

That’s also why he advocates keeping regular sleep hours of 7–9 hours a day, alongside some general recommendations such as controlling room temperature ( 2–3 degrees lower as compared to during the day), avoiding blue light before sleeping, and staying away from alcohol and marihuana (a nice summary of his ideas can be found in this blog article by Bill Gates or by this Youtube video).

But despite all the recommendations for 7–9 hours of core sleep a day, insomnia is one of the most widespread problems of modern society, which means sleeping regular hours every night does not reflect the reality for most of us either. Especially during these troubled times of the Corona crisis, people might find it difficult to detach themselves from day-to-day matters and sustain regular sleep hours.

So most likely, you currently got different issues than theorizing about sleep systems. But when you think of it, now might actually be a good time to do such sleep experiments in practice! Despite not all, but at least some of us (including Ph.D. students in theoretical physics!) have gained far more flexibility during these times, working from home and thus being able to schedule working hours and leisure time to one’s liking.

There is also no need to go straight after the Uberman system and be disappointed if it doesn’t work out of the box. Only very few people sustain such a sleep pattern over an extended time period, including PureDoxyK, who coined the term Uberman in 2000 and has written a book about it, and the American self-help author and motivational speaker Steve Pavlina. These systems are, as intended, pretty rigid, and you need to allow for some adjustment time, just as you would, when traveling between different times zones — it’s basically like traveling between social time zones.

But experimenting with biphasic sleep or a moderate Everyman sleep system might help to fall asleep more easily, feel more refreshed during the day and thus sleep more “efficiently.” This said, polyphasic sleep is mostly promoted by bloggers rather than bullet-proof, randomized clinical studies. So most importantly, you need to figure out what works for you: What is your demand for sleep? How to make multiple sleep periods compatible with daily life? And what would you do with the time you could gain from sleeping better and less?

There is no single scheme that fits all. But doing some self-experiments probably won’t hurt.

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