Buying Time

“Thank you for buying us the time to say goodbye.”

No one had ever said that to me before, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. My patient had just passed away at far too young an age. I hadn’t been able to diagnose the problem killing them in the brief time they were my patient, and the ICU team couldn’t help either. The only thing any of us had done was crush bones inside a chest during CPR, place lines and tubes into a lifeless body, and pump a fading patient full of fluids and medications in a desperate attempt at keeping the heart beating . . . for another twenty hours.

Twenty hours.

From the time the patient arrived to my emergency department until the very last heart beat, less than a day passed. It was just long enough, apparently, for the family to come from all around the country, and say goodbye.

We had bought the family time to say goodbye. That was all.

Those words stuck with me. “Thank you.” Thank me? For what? In my estimation, I had failed. The patient died. It’s over. I’m not even sure their goodbyes were heard. Don’t thank me. And “buying time?” What time? Twenty hours? Twenty hours after only less than forty years – the last three of which were spent in agony, fighting desperately to overcome a raveging disease, and losing every day. What time did I “buy” this family and their beloved lost? And how much is twenty hours worth, anyway?

“Thank you for buying us time.”

Those twenty hours were – apparently – priceless.

That moment stuck with me for a while. And I began to wonder: if time was all this family wanted, after decades of experiences, things and memories, what would my own family say one day when it’s all over for me? Will they ask for more time? Will I? And, if so, how can I get it?

I enjoy finances. I read about retirement strategies, interact on blogs and forums with others and debate tactics and ideas, I even manage my family’s retirement investments on my own, for better or worse. One of the themes I come across often when interacting with the professional/financial world is the perpetual drive that so many have to stop trading time for money. They treat time as a commodity that has value all it’s own, and want to find a way to protect and save it as if it were currency.

And, in a way, it is.

Like many who are attracted to good fiscal management, our family has a budget. Periodically, my wife and I review our spending, discuss our financial goals for the future and assign a certain amount of money to each category of spending we have in an attempt at creating a system built to help us meet our obligations as well as achieve our desires. It keeps us on track. It keeps us focused.

We have no such budget when it comes to time, and I suspect that most are like us.

Time is finite for each of us, that much we all know. We can’t know how much of it we will have, but we each know that someday we all will run out. For some of us, it will be sooner than we expect, or want. Lately I’ve been wondering, how would my “time budget” look if I were to write one out?

When I think about the time I spend in a day, and how I spend it, it is interesting to me to try and see where I can find more. Where I can buy it back, if you will. Some things in my life are basically mandatory and can’t be changed – at least not without repercussions or consequences I’m unwilling to accept. Sleep, for example, is a time consuming activity that I refuse to concede. I spent enough years during a combination of my education, my training, and the vigors of youth giving away my sleep in exchange for more time. I’m done with that now. Sleep is precious, and I will hold on to it to the bitter end.

There are other parts of my life where the time it takes is the time it takes, and I can’t adjust the numbers. A daily shower, for example, would afford me another 15 minutes a day, should I forgo the event. But I’m not sure those 15 minutes would be spent with anyone I cared about when you consider the stank that I’d carry, so it needs to stay. Eating, brushing my teeth, and pretty much all aspects of personal hygiene are included in this category of “don’t adjust.”

But, much like making a personal budget, my day/week/month/life has many areas where I can make reasonable changes and find much more time to devote to those things that I feel a desire for, rather than simply a duty toward. So, I decided to take a look at my routine and find the places where I can create time for myself, and in turn progress toward achieving the goals important in my life.

If you’re anything like me, these four places are probably big time wasters, and just the tip of the iceberg:

  1. Social Media

I spend a lot of time on social media. Added up, I’m sure I spend more than an hour each day scrolling feeds and watching videos. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, you name it. Some of my engagement stems from a genuine desire to keep up on news and current events, to see how my friends and family are doing or to keep this blog going and interact with those who read it and to encourage more to do so. But much of it involves looking at memes, gifs and pics that don’t have anything to do with anything related to my life. Worse yet, I’m a debater, and I find myself engaging in debates over health care related topics, political topics, even sports topics. This is time lost, and provides me with no meaningful content for my life. In all, I’m sure that I could spend no more than 20 minutes per day perusing my social media accounts and achieve everything I wanted or needed to both personally and professionally.

facebook pie chart
I love this meme. So true…

Time spent: 60 minutes/day

Time wasted: 40 minutes/day

Alternative activity: workout 40 minutes/day


  1. Television

I love Netflix. We all do, right? Who doesn’t love having a plethora of entertainment and time consuming media at your fingertips constantly? And it isn’t just Netflix, but also Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube and Vine that give us the ability to no longer feel awkward in an elevator or on a bus. Neither eye contact nor conversation with actual humans need burden us when forced to be amongst people without any other clear direction or planned activity. Insomniacs no longer are aggravated by only infomercials and reruns of MASH available to them in their hour(s) of desperation (though who doesn’t want to watch MASH, really?). We can binge watch shows we never knew we liked and angrily lament the fact that Stranger Things likes to wait an intolerable amount of time before they release a new season simply because they like to torture us.

But remember when “binge” was a negatively associated word? Binge drinking, binge eating, binge and purge study habits – all generally accepted as sort of a bad idea. But binge watch? Let’s do it! I would estimate that I spend at least 10 hours per week watching some sort of media entertainment – much of it alone.

Throw cable tv and sports into this mix and you’ve got a number probably nearer 14 hours per week. And much of it is spent alone – not watching movies as a family in a relationship building setting.

Nevermind that an iPad and Netflix have literally become babysitters in my home. Even as I write this, my two youngest are lazily lying on the couch next to me on a rainy Saturday morning – each with a Kindle in their hand and videos mesmerizing their minds.

Fourteen hours a week is more than sixty hours per month, or seven hundred thirty hours per year. That’s thirty days.

I spend a full month each year watching television of some kind. Looking at that in numbers, I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.

Time spent: 14 hrs/week

Time wasted: ??? at least half ???

Alternative activity: practice guitar 1 hr/day (and get pretty good, actually), cancel cable and Netflix altogether and go to the movies with my kids once a week


  1. Driving

I met a doctor once who worked in the same ER as me. He had left what was sort of the Holy Grail of hospitals in our group to work at my shop – a nice, but generally less desired place where patients weren’t quite as sick and pay wasn’t quite as good. I asked him one day why he’d done this. He told me that “every day, I would drive past this hospital – which is 5 minutes from my house – and get onto the highway heading to my then hospital which was about an hour away. My wife was battling breast cancer at the time and things were just really stressful, and one morning I thought to myself, ‘what the hell are you doing? You could stop all this driving and be home more.’ So I did.”

Happy to be done with this life…

Remarkably simple, huh? (This is also the guy who told me that the one piece of advice he had for being financially healthy was to “buy a smaller house than you really want.” I’ve remembered both the lessons and have come to appreciate the wisdom with time.

Now, commutes are tricky. Sometimes we can’t control them. Not all of us have the luxury to choose where we work and make sure it’s within close proximity of our home. Many of us have to drive a lot for a living and may even feel like we live in our car. But many of us don’t. And would you believe there are actually studies that show there is an inverse relationship between length of commute and overall happiness. One study even suggested that cutting your commute may be the equivalent of getting a $40k raise! Now I don’t know if I hate driving that much, but it’s an interesting notion that we are happier the less we are commuting to work. Seems to fit my personality, at least.

As you’ll see in an upcoming post, my family and I recently relocated 500 miles to be closer to home. With that move came a massive change in my commute. My friend’s words resonated in the back of my mind as we considered whether or not to uproot to a place where I’d make less money. There were many factors in the decision, but one of the big bullet points for pulling the trigger (how do you like that play on words?) was my drive to work. Previously, I was driving 50 minutes door to door down a long stretch of highway. Often annoyed by traffic and exhausted after a shift, there were many times I would pull off the highway after a night shift to catch a nap on the access road. Pathetic, I know. “What the hell am I doing?” was uttered out loud several times.

With my new drive, I spend a maximum of 15 minutes on the road, and never touch a highway. It’s such a mental relief to know that I can leave 30 minutes before my shift and not worry about traffic conditions and know that I’ll have time to stop for a soda or gas if I want, and still be early.

By the way, I went from the guy who stretched his time at home as much as possible so he would walk into work exactly on time to the guy who still has time with family at home and gets to work ten minutes early. And, as any ER physician would tell you: the latter guy is the best partner to have. When it comes to the ER, if you’re not early, you’re late.

Other examples of how I’ve tried to cut back my driving time:

  1. Request more tele-meetings or phone conferences
  2. Choose leisure activities close to home (like golf, in my case)
  3. Avoid peak times to run errands

We all can’t limit our driving as much as the other guy, but I’m sure we can find time to decrease it here and there, which could make a big difference in your day, and overall. level of happiness.

Time spent previously: 100 minutes/shift, 16 shifts per month = almost 27 hours/month

Time sent now: 30 minutes/shift, 16 shifts per month = 8 hours/month

Time saved: 19 hours/month

Alternate activity: sitting with my family and relaxing before a shift – truly priceless!


The housework will always be there, so fish while the fish are biting!
  1. Housework/projects:

Ray Anderson and his pocket brass band would implore you: don’t mow your lawn (but make some wine from that dandylion). I’m not sure I’d agree not to mow it, but unless you actually like to push around a two foot blade spun by a go-kart motor in the dog days of summer and finish your afternoon covered in a mixture of sweat, dirt and millions of grass clippings, I’d say you probably shouldn’t mow it yourself.

I used to be the guy who liked to mow. Truthfully, I never liked it much, but I thought that since I was the “man” of the house, a homeowner and a tough guy that I was supposed to say I liked it. Then one day I was pulling out of my garage into the 100+ degree heat and telling myself that when I returned from work that day my amazonian rainforest must be tackled, when I noticed that my neighbor’s lawn guy was starting in on the next door lawn, which was in need of a trim but still half the length of mine. Something compelled me to stop. In a moment, nearly all of my chauvinism flew from my body like a summer-led exorcism. Before I knew it, I’d negotiated a measly $20 per week to mow my lawn on the same day my neighbor had his done, and I haven’t pushed a mower since.

Now, I know what some of you are saying: “but I really do like to mow!” That’s great, go for it! If my wife would let me put a zero-degree turn, 60” deck riding mower with an mp3 port and a cup holder and cooler, I’d be out there working on my farmer’s tan with a smile on my face and a beer in my hand, too! But, as I live in the real world, I’m finally comfortable enough to admit that I hated push mowing my yard, no matter how small it was, and am happy not to be doing it anymore.

*Note, this post was started prior to our big move, and I now live on 8 acres and have purchased that amazing 60″ mower. My wife and I now fight over who gets to mow each week, and we’ve embraced the summer sun. (yes, it has a cupholder, too) I decided to leave this part in, however, because I still believe it’s more economical to have your lawn mowed when you can, and certainly would save you time. But, I have noticed that my time spent listening to audiobooks on Audible has grown exponentially now that I have a couple hours each week to spend sitting on the mower and enjoying a sunny day in peace. Still better than my big-city commute!*


The point here isn’t that mowing is bad, but rather that there are plenty of things we “occupy” our time with around the house that is probably not something we enjoy, or really need to do. Some of them can be delegated, such as mowing, house cleaning, painting. Some of them are things that just don’t really need that much attention. For instance, will it really kill you if you don’t have the prettiest yard in the neighborhood? Why not go throw a football with your kid instead of placing another round of fertilizer down this weekend? I’m a big believer in learning how and teaching your children to change a tire or the oil in your car, but when they are too young to help, why not let a professional do it so you have time to spend with your kids instead? Are you staying up all night in the garage because you “have to” get that washing machine up and running, and your wife went to bed alone again? Call a repairman to do the work and make room for some marriage building time.

I’ll admit, this subject is a tricky one. Because, as I mentioned, another thing besides time that is finite in our lives is money. So, I’ll give some leeway here and suggest that some of these cases would require trading in the time used on the task for time spent generating income to pay for the conveniences you’ve just welcomed into your life. But many of the things we do and refuse to delegate out are a) relatively inexpensive when compared to our time-for-money earning potential, and b) may actually save us money in the long run (think operating costs for lawn equipment, fertilizer, parts for repairs or needing to redo the work over and again vs getting it done once time the right way).

There’s no hard or fast rule about what you should or shouldn’t do on your own vs delegate or simply forget about. But, I think it’s safe to say we all take on more than we should in the category of projects and housework, and could find ways to create room in our time budget with a little bit of willingness to let go of a bit more control.

Time spent: unclear, but at least an hour a week mowing in the warm months

Time wasted: half of it if you consider it may take me half the time to earn back the money I just spent by delegating the task

Alternative activity: sipping a margarita on my back patio with my wife, marveling at my well manicured lawn as my kids run through the sprinklers over it

It’s easy to lose track of wasted time. We all have interests and habits which at moments of weakness or distraction may occupy us at length before we realize what’s happened. And, it’s easy to trivialize a minute here or an hour there as we go about our daily lives. But if we look at time as we so often do money, it becomes obvious just how wasteful so many of us are. When we reach that realization, we can begin to organize our lives to respect time and to afford it the value it deserves. And so often it only takes small changes to add up to big savings. Like many of my unfortunate patients who would’ve wished for more precious time, or their families who appreciate every little bit extra they can get, we should learn to hold dear the time we’ve been given, and strive to spend it as wisely and as productively as we can.

Because, eventually we will all run out of time.

And contrary to what we may like to believe, we cannot buy it back.


What do you think? Are there areas of your life you’d like to trade for more time? Have you already made changes? Comment below…

Thanks For Reading

The ER Dad

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