Could You Outsource Your Life?

As you may already know, the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything has, for many years now, been forty-two. It would be rather wonderful if, given the world’s current troubles, the merest whisper of the old ‘seven by six’ in someone’s shell-like could cast a restorative spell over the economic doom and gloom and global tyranny we’re all facing. Perhaps NATO is holding it back as a last resort. But, as it turns out, there’s a rather obscure yet relevant connection between this revered number, life in general, and your life in particular. Because, if your ultimate question happened to be ‘how many minutes am I expected to live for, rounded to the nearest million?’ then forty-two would be about the right answer.

Why is this remotely relevant? Well, forty-two million minutes sounds like quite a lot, but in universal terms, it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of amount. The universe is around 13.8 billion years old, so your existence spans a mere 0.000006% of it. Just eighty-odd trips around the sun, and then your molecules return to whatever it was they were doing before they were arranged to create you. Cheery stuff. But it makes it quite important that we make the most of however many of those forty-two million minutes that we happen to have left. And it’s on that subject that I’d like to share a thought with you.

You see, one of the problems with time is that we take it for granted. We can’t slow it down a bit when things are going well, nor can we hit the fast forward button when things are going badly. As a result, we usually let time pass by in the background without giving it a second thought. Sometimes, though, we have been known to be time conscious. This usually happens in our day jobs, where there’s never enough time to get everything done and work mysteriously expands to fill the time available. Suddenly, we’ll discover one of life’s superpowers, delegation. There will be a brilliant flash of realisation as it suddenly dawns on us that it doesn’t really matter that other people won’t do a job quite as well as we can. And before we know it, we’re delegating work left, right, and centre. Some people get so good at it they can even delegate upwards. Nice work if you can get (rid of) it.

This is all well and good, but, in a day job, the beneficiary of all this time-saving-by-delegation is not usually you. Assuming that you spend the time that you save on other work tasks rather than bunking off down the pub, then it’s your employer or your business who’s getting the upside. And while it may make you employee of the month, it’s not going to get you much of your life back. So, here’s a question for you; do you think you could delegate tasks in your home life? And if you’ve just stolen a crafty but speculative glance at your other half, weighing up their potential as delegation fodder, I admire your bravery/optimism. But that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.

Let me share with you the moment my own penny dropped when it came to outsourcing my life. I was attending a seminar during which the host asked us all to write down our hourly rate. That is to say, how much we would charge him if he were to hire us for one hour. Or, put another way, what value did we place on our own time? Apart from the lawyer sitting opposite me who’d written down his answer in about two nanoseconds, the question rather flummoxed the rest of us, and there was much scratching of heads. Should we take our annual income and divide it by the number of working hours in a year? Or would that sell us short; after all, if we’re only being hired for one hour, then we could probably charge a premium.

But on the other hand, wouldn’t it depend on what we were doing with that hour? If he wanted us to help him with his tax return, then that might command more of a premium than if we were, say, clearing out his garage or digging up some potatoes. It was all rather tricky, yet somehow, we each managed to arrive at our own number, which we duly wrote down.

Now, being the sort of person who detests getting picked out of an audience, I instinctively adopt an expression that I think will enable me to blend into complete obscurity whenever anyone is looking for a ‘volunteer’. But, following a somewhat disconcerting experience at Heathrow recently, I’ve discovered that it’s about as effective as the ‘looking innocent’ expression I adopt when walking through customs. And, sure enough, it was absolutely no surprise when our host waltzed over and duly decided that I should be the guinea pig for his little ‘hourly rate’ shenanigans. Happy days.

He picked up the piece of paper on which I’d written my hourly value and gave me a look of mild surprise. Paranoia being my default reaction of choice, I immediately assumed my number must be way too high. What had I been thinking? Perhaps he’s going to read it out to the audience, and I’ll be greeted with sharp intakes of breath or howls of derision. Then again, I thought, what if he’s surprised because I’ve gone too low? If he reads it out, I could get inundated with potato harvesting job offers.

As it turned out, he didn’t read it aloud. Instead, he handed me a separate piece of paper on which he told me he’d written down the exact amount that I valued one hour of my time at. I unfolded the paper with some trepidation and took in its contents.

The words “You value your time at £2.50 per hour,” were scrawled across it. At first, I thought I’d completely misunderstood the original question. I mean, even my meanest assessment of my hourly rate hadn’t come close to dipping below Minimum Wage. He asked me to read his words out to the rest of the audience, which I duly did, and was somewhat relieved that they all looked as perplexed as I felt.

And then, in an entirely left-field turn of events, he suddenly asked me where I did my weekly grocery shopping. There was a pause while I simultaneously thought, ‘what the heck has that got to do with anything?’ and ‘will people judge me if I say Waitrose?’. Then he asked what day of the week I did this shopping on (Saturday) and how long it took me (two and a half hours, give or take).

He then asked if I’d ever heard of something called internet shopping, and I could suddenly sense a few pennies starting to drop around the room. He went back to his lectern and pulled up the home shopping page of my supermarket of choice on the big screen so that everybody could see it. He then asked a helpful lady called Susan, who was sitting at the front, whether she could kindly read out how much it would cost for the nice supermarket people to deliver their groceries directly to my front door. The answer, it turned out, was a fiver.

He strode purposefully back to me and told me that I’d already made a choice. I could have spent half an hour doing an online grocery shop in my pyjamas and paid five pounds for someone to deliver it. But no. Instead, I’d spent two and a half hours doing the shopping myself, in person. The net position was that I’d chosen to spend two hours more but saved myself a fiver in return. Or, in other words, I valued my time at £2.50 per hour.

This certainly wasn’t the way I’d been looking at things, but I had to say it suddenly made a lot of sense. We assume that it’s only the time we allocate to work tasks that has any financial value, yet the reality is it doesn’t matter which hour is involved. The value of every single one of our forty-two million minutes is exactly the same. The question is simply what value we put on them. And, of course, what we do with them.

But this outsourcing of our home tasks doesn’t stop at supermarket shopping. How much time do you spend mowing your lawn? Well, there are gardeners that can take care of that for you. What about cleaning the house? Yup, you’ve guessed it, there are cleaners too. There are also people who can launder your clothes for you and do your ironing. You could even hire a personal chef.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’ve caught my drift, but surely all this outsourcing malarkey is going to cost you a small fortune? I mean, gardeners and personal chefs? It’s all bit Downton Abbey and frankly not exactly a priority for you at the moment. Perhaps you’ll wait until you’ve got a few million in the bank before you think about splashing out on the home help; thank you very much.

But that’s rather missing the point. Henry Ford famously said, ‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.’ In other words, your fate is determined not by what you do, but by what you believe. If you believe that doing all of the shopping, gardening, and cleaning tasks yourself is good because it saves you money, then that’s your view of the world and good luck to you. On the other hand, if you think doing all these chores yourself costs you time that you could otherwise spend doing something better, then that’s an altogether different view.

So, I would urge you to imagine all the rather wonderful things you could be doing if only you had the time and then weigh up the benefits of a little outsourcing so you can start to fit them all in. After all, your clock is ticking, and none of us know how many millions of minutes we may have left. In fact, the only thing we know with any certainty is that the answer is currently a lot less than forty-two.