Time Assets Versus Time Debts: Setting Up Systems For Long-Term Productivity

There are already so many cliches about productivity: use your time wisely, learn how to prioritize, don’t check your emails in the morning, et cetera. But most productivity tools and tips focus on short-term life hacks to get more things done. I came across a new way of looking at time and tasks that really helped me approach productivity from a more long-term mindset.

James Clear, citing Patrick McKenzie, wrote about time assets and time debts. He explains how differentiating the two could help you make decisions that save you more time in the long run. He wrote:

TIME ASSETS are actions or choices you make today that will save you time in the future. An example is software. It takes a long time to build a software, but it eventually saves you time when you no longer have to manually input and compute data.

TIME DEBTS are actions or choices you make today that will cost you additional time in the future. An example is email. Each email you send is a time debt because you have to read and reply to responses afterward. Another example comments in blog/social media posts. It’s a joy to hear from readers, but every time you publish an article/social media post with a comments section, you create a time debt that you have to pay back by approving and moderating comments.

Despite recognizing emails and comments in blog posts/social media posts as time debts, I choose not to avoid them. After all, time debts do not always mean time wasters. Some time debts are worthwhile.

For example, yes, emails are time debts. For each email I send out, I’m aware that I will have to spend time reading and replying to the response. But for me, most emails are worth it. I get to network with people relevant to my work. I’m able to save precious time by communicating remotely with others—versus setting up meetings that could have been an email.

In the same way, every post I make that has a comments section will demand time for me later on. I have to read, approve, and reply to comments—but these comments help me assess how best to serve my community. They’re both valuable and enjoyable.

But what’s important is that you have to be aware every time you’re creating time debts. That way, before you create one, you can assess whether or not it’s worthwhile. After all, some time debts seem worthwhile in the beginning, but you can develop time assets to replace those time debts.

For example, let’s say you’re an entrepreneur who sells items online. You get hundreds of Instagram DM’s per day. You might think to yourself, “Yes, replying is a time debt. But 5% of these inquiries eventually become my customers! And 2% of these emails are from people in the media, which help me get media mileage.” 93% of the messages are potential customers who don’t convert to real customers—just curious potential buyers. It seems like it’s a worthwhile time debt until you realize you spend more time answering emails than expanding your business or improving your business strategy.

Maybe setting up a website with an e-commerce platform (complete with automated checkouts, payment gateways, complete product descriptions, and an FAQ section) would be your time asset.

Let’s say you’re a freelance creative and you get so many emails from people interested to partner with your website or hire you for a freelance project. You reply to all those inquiries—on Instagram DM, your Facebook page, through your email, et cetera. You spend more time answering emails from potential clients (most of whom attempt to lowball you) than honing your craft. Maybe setting up a website with your portfolio will help, especially if you have an FAQ section and a Contact Form. I know money is always a sensitive subject, but I know of some freelancers who already post a ballpark figure of their rates. For example, “Service ABC starts at 10,000 pesos.” That way, the email inquiries they get are hot leads.

Setting up websites and FAQ pages may take so much more time (and might require more money), but it saves you so much time in the long run. You’ll be able to spend that time doing what you do best.

Whatever system you put in place, your goal should be to increase your time assets and to decrease your time debts. James Clear wrote, “Time Debts need to be paid. Be careful how you choose them. Time Assets pay you over and over again. Spend more time creating them.”


Tip: after reading this blog post, take a look at your planner/calendar. Identify the recurring tasks you have for your week. If you spot certain recurring tasks that may be considered time debts, try exploring ways you can convert them to time assets.

*This article was initially published in the author’s blog, The Passion Project.

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