Make the Time to Fix Your Time Debt

You’re too busy to read more than this intro paragraph. We all are. Your interest might get piqued enough to skim, but you can’t read the full thing. Our lives all resemble the White Rabbit, constantly late for our next thing, never enjoying the current thing. You feel simultaneously super productive and yet never productive enough to be satisfied. You yearn for a Jarvis that can automate the mundane aspects of your projects, and yet the prospect of building a Jarvis causes anxiety about not having enough time for yet another project. You see another YouTuber showing off not only a great build but also impressive video production and editing skills. You are suffering from Time Debt, and the solution requires as much discipline and tenacity as escaping from financial debt.

Giving the Problem a Name

Time debt is defined as not having enough time to complete all your commitments before their deadlines. Your commitments are not only the projects you’re working on, but also the things you feel like you should be working on, or things you’d like to do; anything that’s causing you stress. I’ve been dealing with this for years, mostly unsuccessfully. Financially, I’m stable and savvy and make good decisions. Technically, I’m competent in my fields and generally choose solutions that are scalable and repeatable. How I handle time, though, has always been a challenge. I struggle to say no to new projects, and I underestimate the amount of time a project will take. Symptoms include:

  • Constant stress and anxiety
  • Always borrowing time from things you’d rather do to work on pressing needs or projects or chores
  • There’s never enough time to do what you want
  • Trying to optimize everything to fit it all in
  • Never enjoying the moment, always thinking about what’s next

How it Happens

“You know what would be neat? …”, “I bet you could…”, “I should fix this thing.” Around my house there is a mantra of “No New Projects” because I know that if I didn’t say that I’d be taking on WAY more than I’m capable of handling. When thinking about time debt, think about its equivalent in finance. You get into debt by spending or committing more than you have, and you solve that by either reducing your expenses or increasing your income. When you commit to a project, or underestimate how long it will take, you’re writing a big check that there may not be enough time to cash, and your optimism or confidence fool you into thinking it can still be done. Essentially, you are your own worst enemy when it comes to time debt.

Fixing It

Oddly enough, even though few people talk about time debt, the solution is exactly the same as solving financial debt, and all of the tools work exactly the same. Some of them even work in reverse (for example, you get out of financial debt by doing stuff yourself, and you get out of time debt by paying someone to do things you don’t have time for).

The first step is to determine the extent of your problem. List all of your commitments and their values; how much time are you expected to spend on this. Not how much you do spend, but how much would be the right amount. This list has to include everything, from sleeping to preparing dinner, to the solid hour of Hackaday browsing per day. This can take a few days to compile as stuff pops up. Every project you want to do, skill you want to learn, if it’s causing you anxiety that it’s not getting done, then it goes on the list. If you have more than 24 hours of commitments per day, you are in debt.

Next, identify your values. Your goal is to match your time to your values and eliminate the rest. This is things like sleep, stable income, friends, family, hobbies. There’s also overhead. In the finance world this overhead is taxes. In time debt, it’s the things like house cleaning and flossing.

Now comes prioritization. Everything gets categorized as important/not important, and urgent/not urgent. Things that are important and urgent get done soon. Things that are not important; why are they causing you grief? If it aligns with your values, keep it, and if not, then let it go.

Declare yourself time bankrupt. This is way easier than financially bankrupt because nobody is going to try to collect on your time debts. If you participate in an activity or project that takes more time than you want or isn’t bringing you the joy you want, change the terms of your participation. If that means the project dies, is that such a bad thing? Another aspect of time bankruptcy is not taking on new debt and getting comfortable saying no when people ask you for something because you can’t afford to say yes.

The Path Forward is a Budget, Not a Todo List

Every day we are inundated with advertisements and people asking us for our money, and we usually manage to say no and ignore it. The same applies when people ask for our time. It is a useful skill to be a minimalist when it comes to choosing how to spend your time, and to say no to projects that don’t align with your goals and values. We often don’t realize the extent of our availability to schedule something in, and we pack our schedules so tight that we don’t have room to capitalize on the opportunities that would most excite us. This is where the time budget comes in.

It’s called a calendar or day planner. A to-do list isn’t good enough, because it doesn’t take into account time. I used to keep a todo list. Then I tried putting time estimates next to each item, only to realize that even if I got everything perfect, my list would take me to 2am. You need to schedule all your commitments into time slots, and don’t be afraid to double your estimates. You only make the problem worse by scheduling less time than it will actually take. Create calendar events for the things you want to do, and prioritize the things that align with your values and goals. Everything goes in the calendar; eating breakfast, traveling to work, vegging for a half hour after work. Create a buffer slot to act as an emergency fund so that you can take care of unexpected important and urgent tasks. You are on a time budget now. While this sounds tedious, your friends and family might discover that they see you more than they used to because you are prioritizing them, and you’ll be able to more easily identify and eliminate the expenditures of time that are expensive with low yield.

Note that in order to stay healthy you can’t be a machine that goes for 18 hours a day of solid work. You have to build in time taking care of yourself. You were doing this before, but you felt guilty about it, and that guilt just led you to fritter away even more time. No. Schedule yourself enough time to catch up on reddit and YouTube and Hackaday, and stick to that. It’s likely less than you’d spend if it weren’t scheduled.

Staying Free of Time Debt

You know how to avoid spending money; practice things that help avoid spending time. You get out of debt by paying off bills. That means completing projects or quitting ongoing things. You can get out of debt by increasing your income, too. Nobody gets more than 24 hours a day, but we can delegate tasks, ask for help, pay for others to do labor, or purchase tools that save time. I have to remind myself that I can do 1 hour of contract work to pay for a few hours of a cleaner, for a net gain of time and money. Finally, you get out of debt by spending wisely and investing in good habits and not wasting it away on cheap and temporary amusement that is ultimately unfulfilling.


After being strict for a while, this will become habit, and you won’t need to be so regimented. You’re not alone in this. Everyone has this problem. We all see all the work that our peers do and have anxiety that we’re not performing enough, and yet we don’t realize that our peers have the same thoughts about us. It’s not fair for me to compare my output against the combined efforts of the millions of other people doing projects that end up on Hackaday, YouTube, and other places. We should all relax a little, not worry about working so fast and so much, and instead prioritize and commit to just the things that are important to us. Good luck!

22 thoughts on “Make the Time to Fix Your Time Debt

    1. I’m not so sure it is. Being agile more often means throwing too many things on your plate without thinking about bigger picture and whether they should be done at all. Agile feels more like a ship going wherever the wind blows than a ship running on purpose in an intended direction. Agile may feel more fun and fast at first, but it’s exhausting and less productive and more busy work.

      1. You’re right. Being agile, without reviewing and re-organizing the backlog (with an eye toward budgeting and balancing the various threads of activity), will not help. Agile can be a good method of prosecuting what you put on your plate, but budgeting, “I will give this kind of activity 2 hours of my day today, and most days, until I decide to consciously adjust the mix”) decides what you put on your plate, periodically, which things get to move from the backlog to the the open iteration, or if they go on your “life backlog” at all.

      2. My agile team used to feel like that. Then I reread the manifesto. Your product owner should be preparing your backlog and maintaining it so that his priorities are clearly communicated during sprint planning.

    2. Agility is only a benefit if you have a clear goal. Otherwise you end up chasing butterflies instead of summiting your mountain. Agility (and by extension, agile management) should be used to overcome obstacles, not to widen your travel path.

        1. I looked it up, and you’re right that it wasn’t the Mad Hatter, but it turns out it was the White Rabbit who said “I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date! No time to say hello, goodbye! I’m late! I’m late! I’m late!”

  1. “Around my house there is a mantra of “No New Projects”…”
    Same in my house as well but alas I’m not the sole owner of my ‘todo’ list :-(
    … not that I’d stop it as I may have engineered some of the more interesting ones to occur in the first place O:-)

  2. This is why I sold my guitar. As much fun as I think it would be to learn to play, I finally asked myself, “Which hours of the week will I dedicate to practice?” And at that point in my life, there weren’t any hours to dedicate nor would there be in the foreseeable future. So it got sold.

    1. That entirely depends on how your guitar practice affects you.
      If, as it seems, your guitar was another task to complete that wasn’t giving you any benefit. Sell it. If on the other hand mastering that thrash metal or blues solo gives you a few minutes of moving meditation the benefit is a clear mind and regenerated energy.
      Guitars could be substituted for a number of other hobbies, cooking, dressing sharp, exercise, etc.

    2. Im trying to get back in as its a tension release and valuable. I havnt found something that feels as good as a brain blanker while not feeling guilty like watching youtube.

  3. After working for a few years I noticed that I needed a degree, but I didn’t want to drop my job either. I was really struggling to imagine myself working and studying at the same time, but then one day a colleague said to me: “If you want to do something you will find the time for it”.
    Guess what, he was right, in fact I not only worked and studied, but I also managed to do a lot more of my projects, mostly because of strict schedules, but also in the name of procrastination. It all went quite well for a few years after I got the degree, but now that I am recently single, and theory having more time freedom, I am finding myself again in debt of time.
    I find myself just spending a lot of time just sat at the computer looking up HaD and ordering parts for new projects, that I will never complete.
    I really need to schedule my time again, and be strict about it, otherwise my motivation will just vanish completely. In these days of the internet, it is easy to get stuck into this loop of cheap and easy entertainment. I am just glad that TV and social media are not really my thing otherwise I would be doomed.

    1. “I am just glad that TV and social media are not really my thing otherwise I would be doomed.”

      Back in the day that was called IRC and Newsgroups. Yeah we knew how to waste time back then too.

      1. And somewhere in between came things like AOL chatrooms and some of the early “tech” blogs (“How to hook up your GoPed with nitrous so that it will go 55+ mph until the engine melts”).

  4. I’ve been using TimeTune to solve this. Lets me see at a glance how I’ve distributed my time, which is a good affirmation that I’m putting important things first (e.g. time spent with wife & kids vs time spent fiddling with hobbies). And of course, make sure to schedule some time for managing your schedule :D

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