Recently, for the first time in ages, I used a travel agent.
My family and I wanted to go to Disney World when the kids had a few days off from school. Disney makes it possible for visitors to book everything from dining reservations to FastPass ride windows online themselves, but after a few fruitless minutes spent trying to find a time for my little princess to eat with the Disney princesses, I turned to an agent for help. She set up an alert and watched for cancelations. She also figured out the calculus of which ride combinations could work. The result was that I didn’t have to spend time I could be working or relaxing obsessively studying the Disney website. And my kid got to meet Snow White and Belle!
When it comes to time, the Internet has complicated what should be a simple mantra: Just because I can do it doesn’t mean I should do it. Because so many things can be done directly, and we have so much information there for the Googling, most of us err on the side of becoming amateur experts whenever we have big projects to do. To be sure, there are many things we can and should do ourselves. I can book a flight to Florida in five minutes online. But there is much time and effort to be saved by figuring out when it’s smart to DIY and when to outsource. Here are the right questions to ask in order to figure this out.
“If you value your time, then it’s usually just not worth it to spend hours and hours becoming an expert for a one-time transaction,” says Marina Krakovsky, author of The Middleman Economy. Say you’re remodeling your bathroom. “Will it ever pay off for you to become an expert on tile, faucets, and everything else you need to buy for this project? Most of the time, the answer is no, so you’re probably better off hiring an interior designer who has all this information at her fingertips and can apply it to your specific situation.” Likewise, you hope you will only get married once, so a wedding planner can save you the effort it takes to get up to speed on area venues, caterers, and florists.
There’s a reason Barack Obama limits his wardrobe to blue and black suits. We only have so much decision-making capability, and he’s got more important things to think about. When it comes to decisions, the problem with the Internet is that it will give you a lot of options. Many of us like a more curated approach.
“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” says Krakovsky. A good travel agent specializing in your destination can show you two or three hotels that she’s vetted in each city. “That will give you some choice but not overwhelm you with the gazillion options you find on TripAdvisor.”
Time spent doing one thing is time not spent doing something else, and sometimes that something else really needs to come first. If you travel all week, it makes no sense to spend your weekends mowing the lawn when you can spend that time with your family.
“if you’re a new mom on maternity leave, and need to find childcare for when you return to work, you’d probably rather spend those days with your baby than spend it screening nanny candidates on Craigslist,” says Krakovsky. An agency can do the initial screening for you.
Since I’m self-employed, I can easily see how time can be turned into money. Time spent researching Disney options is time not spent researching an article someone will pay me to write. But even if you earn a traditional paycheck, you can figure out roughly what your time is worth, and how much you value your leisure time. If you value your leisure more than it would cost to get your house cleaned, then that’s an easy choice.
It makes absolutely no economic sense for most people to grow their own food, but there are plenty of other reasons to garden. So if you enjoy doing something, by all means do it yourself. The corollary of this is also true: If you hate a task, you’re probably wise to outsource it, even if the economics are questionable. You can probably figure out a way to make more money. But no one can make more time.