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Tempus fugit

ExecutiveSurf is located in Shoreditch and, in an achingly trendy move, a new cafe near us does not charge for its coffee or use of its wi-fi, instead charging you for being there, at a rate of three pence a minute. This might go down well with some of the denizens of Silicon Roundabout, but it would definitely put me on edge.

In one of his films, Woody Allen’s beautiful companion, asks him in the back of their taxi; “Don’t you find me attractive?” “Attractive?” he replies; “I can hardly keep my eyes off the meter.” A pay-per-minute cafe would have the same effect on me. Thinking about you money dripping away is not a particularly relaxing way to drink a coffee. The sooner you leave, the more you’ll save.

“The taxi-meter effect” is a universal phenomenon, otherwise known as the flat-rate bias. We generally prefer flat rates over metered costs, even if they cost us more; this applies to phone bills, bank fees and energy bills and this is not only because we misjudge how much we would end up paying if we were charged by the unit.

It is more that we actively avoid the discomfort of linking each unit consumed to extra expenditure, and we are willing to pay to be spared it. If you drink in the Shoreditch cafe and a cup of coffee lasts you half an hour, that will cost you 90p; but many people would think nothing of drinking the same coffee elsewhere for an upfront  price of £3. Partly, you are buying the freedom not to think about what you are spending.

However, in other contexts, people choose something similar to the “taxi-meter” effect. Chris Crawford is a video games designer and he has 29,216 little beads, each of which represents a day of his life, if he lives to be 80. Each day he takes a bead from the jar that holds his future days and places it into a jar that holds the past. This reminds the 63-year-old Crawford not to waste his finite time; but it is also the taxi-meter effect applied to time instead of money.

The key difference is that, for Crawford, the discomfort about his ‘spending’ is the point and it keeps him focused. Having an unlimited plan for your iPhone might feel luxurious, but having one for your life is just delusional.

If there is a trick to this, then it probably lies in knowing when and how to utilise such discomfort for your own ends. If you want to save money, feeling the pain of watching money drip away can be helpful; for example, jotting down each purchase in a notebook. It is all too easy to structure your whole life trying to avoid discomfort. As Leo Babauta says; “Master your fear of discomfort and you can master the universe.”

Personally, when I want to relax with a coffee, I probably don’t want to be reminded of time ticking by, but Crawford’s beads-in-jar scheme holds it attractions, because time is definitely flying by.

Nigel Phillips



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