How would treating time as a variable that we can influence change the way we behave and the choices we make?
No one told you when to run,
you missed the starting gun
— Pink Floyd, Time
Time is much more malleable than most of us appreciate.
Compare how slowly minutes take when we’re running on a treadmill to how quickly hours slip by when we’re sitting on a sofa watching television.
Rather than assuming the time we have is a fixed constant, or constraint, how would treating it as a variable that we can influence change the way we behave and the choices we make?
For us, 2016 was a remarkable year. We took our kids out of school and spent eleven months traveling. We went around the world twice, visiting all seven continents. We played football on fast ice below the Antarctic circle, we camped in the Sahara and climbed the dunes at sunset, we had the Trevi Fountain to ourselves very early one morning in Rome, we trained as Mongolian warriors as far from anywhere as you can get (just about), we bathed in a local onsen in Tokyo, we celebrated gold medals in Rio, we hunted dinosaurs during a night at the Natural History Museum in NYC, we stared down an elephant calf in Botswana, we climbed inside a glacial ice cave near Jökulsárlón in Iceland, we cheered on the All Blacks in Dublin, we walked like Egyptians in the awe-inspiring Karnak Temple in Luxor and we finished it all off with New Years Eve fireworks in Sydney.
Actually, that list is an egregious example of fading affect bias - it’s far from true to say that everyday was awesome - we mostly forget the full day spent sitting at Montpellier station waiting for a train, the precious days we missed exploring Venice because we were all ill, the awful rush to the hospital in both Hoi An in Vietnam and Hella (!) in Iceland following accidents, the very leaky convertible taxi ride in a torrential storm in Havana and various other drenchings around the world, losing a bag somewhere between Cape Town and the Kalahari Desert, trying to wrestle our way through the rush hour crowds on the subway in Mexico City, and losing our youngest in London only to have him be found by the Metropolitan Police, who were not amused.
But, on balance, it’s still true: travel is the antidote to ignorance. Our year was, in the original sense of the word, an amazing experience for all of us, and especially for all of us to experience together. We were hugely privileged to have that opportunity. And, I’m so pleased we took it. But it also taught me a really important lesson, which applies generally, even now we’re back to more of a normal routine.
While we were on the road, we discovered a huge disconnect between our experience and others’ perception. Throughout the year, whenever we spoke to somebody back in New Zealand inevitably they would start the conversation by saying: “the year is going so fast”. We would look at each other and quietly shake our heads. That wasn’t our experience at all. We were filling every day with intentional things. We were forced to relegate our other commitments and as a result had few things to distract us. And everywhere we went was a place we had specifically chosen to be, so we were alert to the interesting things that are actually all around wherever we are (if you don’t believe this is true where you are, just take a child for a walk and pay attention to all of the small details they notice that you would have otherwise missed).
This is not to say we eliminated the mundane. On the contrary much more of our time was filled by things that in the normal course of our life back home we take for granted - getting from place to place, arranging transport and accommodation, finding somewhere to eat, packing and unpacking, etc.
Either way, it was easily the longest year of our lives.
The common advice, when preparing a budget, is to start with the fixed costs before adding in other discretionary spending. We can (and should!) apply the same approach when thinking about our time.
For many people work and family time are inflexible commitments. Lots of us also squeeze hobbies into our weeks too - from antiques to volleyball and everything in between.
Take a moment to list off all of the existing commitments you have. You might be surprised how long the list actually is.
Now, think about which of those is an unbounded commitment.1 That is, if you were given more time, which one of these would you choose to spend it on?
Perhaps our unbounded commitment is our family or our friends.
All it takes to work out where our real priorities lie is an emergency. In these situations most of us will quickly drop anything and everything else to do whatever is needed to support those close to us who need our help.
It’s a pity then that so few of us behave the same way all the time. With our trip as the notable exception, it sometimes feels like everything I know about parenting I learned from Ugly Kid Joe:
My son turned ten just the other day
He said, thanks for the ball, dad, come on let’s play
Can you teach me to throw, I said, not today
I got a lot to do, he said, that’s okay.
Or, perhaps our unbounded commitment is our work or career.
This was my own experience, and I’ve seen it repeated by nearly every founder I’ve worked with since: a fast-growing early-stage venture quickly soaks up whatever time you can afford to give it (and often much more than that). Perhaps part of the reason why successful startup founders tend to be younger is that they have not been around long enough yet to accumulate the more inflexible demands on their time which can hold others back.
Or, perhaps your unbounded commitment is your sport or hobby.
In the past I’ve used events, such as triathlons and marathons, as my motivation to exercise, eat well and stay fit - my theory is that once I’ve registered to race I will do whatever preparation is required in order to not embarrass myself on the day. So far that’s worked.
The longest races I’ve completed are three 70.3 events. Following each of those I was asked why I hadn’t stepped up to attempt a full Ironman distance. For me it was simple: nearly all of the people I trained with who were preparing for the longer distances were either single or separated.
If we subscribe to Randi Zuckerberg’s theory we can choose at most three of these five things: friendships, work, family time, staying fit, getting sleep. And, as I get older, I increasingly wonder if sleep is actually the key that holds everything together - e.g. perhaps the real benefit of a busy day or a long run is just that it leaves us exhausted and therefore more likely to have a solid night’s rest.
Whatever it is for you, here is the important thing to realise: We each have space in your life for at most one unbounded commitment. I’ve found that ambitious people often think they can have more than one. But actually all but one need to be time-bound, otherwise they will compete with each other for attention and likely just leave us frustrated. When we let that happen the total can easily end up being less than the sum of the parts.
So, we all need to choose carefully, and find a way to say ’no’ to the other commitments that will otherwise soak up so much of our time.
Most of what we know about human life
we know by asking people to remember the past
The idea that life is short, and therefore we should seize the day, is so common as to almost be considered axiomatic. It definitely seems like easy advice to take, even if most of us don’t really act on it until it’s too late.
But, I wonder if there is a sampling bias happening here, since these sort of essays are nearly always written by people towards the end of their life, reflecting back.
They inevitably compare the time they have already spent with the short time they have remaining. The depressing conclusion always seems to be that they haven’t done enough, and now don’t have sufficient time left to make amends for that.
Consider the opposite and extremely uncommon idea: that life is long.2
We can do a lot in a lifetime. Evidence of that is all around us.
Shortly after we returned to NZ, at the end of our trip, I celebrated my 15,000th day.
When we are very young your life is measured in weeks, and then months. As we get older the time scales increase (e.g. the pride of a young child who considers themselves to be three and a half), firstly to years and then, eventually, to decades (life begins at 40 etc).
But we very rarely measure our lives in days. Perhaps it’s too depressing to think in those terms?
Average life expectancy for somebody like me, born in the late 70s is in the order of 78½ years or 28,600 days. So, as I write this I may be only half done, which is in equal parts exciting and exhausting, especially since I don’t think I did much that was interesting in the first 10-15 years. I don’t intend to waste so many days in the second half, if I last that long!
You know, some people say life is short and that you could get hit by a bus at any moment and that you have to live each day like it’s your last. Bullshit. Life is long. You’re probably not gonna get hit by a bus. And you’re gonna have to live with the choices you make for the next fifty years.
It hurts us all more than we realise to act as if life is short.
Some examples (and, yes, this list is full of generalisations and stereotypes, and so there will inevitably be exceptions in your specific experience)…
It hurts us all when we don’t defer our gratification to invest for the long term.
Just watch a young kid try and choose between brushing their teeth or a few more minutes playing with lego before bedtime. We have the exact same problem as adults, with long term consequences: e.g. once we’re diagnosed with lung cancer or diabetes it is, in many ways, too late to fix our lifestyle. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.
It hurts us all when we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to benefit from feedback loops by learning from mistakes.
Anybody who has had a mortgage or savings account understands the power of compounding interest. Over a long enough time frame the impact can be significant. And the same is true of any system where we can learn from experience - taking the output from one experience and using it to inform our behaviour in the future. We can cover a huge distance just by putting one foot in front of the other every day. But, we need to allow time for the benefits to accumulate.
It hurts us all when we rush to do all we can, while there’s still time, and so do a little bit of everything poorly rather than doing anything well.
Deep expertise nearly always takes a lifetime of work (or more!) and lots of iterations. Ars longa, vita brevis etc. But we often let ourselves be distracted by the urgent at the expense of the important and as a result often never get out of the shallows.
This is not to detract from generalists. Indeed that’s an important role in any team. However, a good generalist is not somebody who dabbles in lots of different things without conviction, they are somebody who is able to act as a link between multiple different areas that they have authority in and are prepared to take responsibility for.
It hurts us all when we choose easy and obvious options, because we think time is short.
I love this quote, from young chess grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, when asked how many moves ahead he can calculate on a chess board:
Sometimes fifteen to twenty moves ahead. But the trick is evaluating the position at the end of those calculations.
The hard part is having a clear idea of what constitutes a good outcome. The best path, in the fullness of time, hardly ever starts with the most obvious option as the first step. When we seize the day we are nearly always heading towards a local maximum3, at best!
And all of these things build on each other. The little habits we develop when we are younger have a potential impact which is huge over the course of a whole lifetime. The lessons we learn are actually only useful if we have the opportunity to apply them to something else in the future.
So, yes, life is short, for all of us. But it’s also more than long enough if we don’t waste it.
Maybe a day is just too short a unit of time to aspire to seize?
In taking a year away we had hoped to visit some interesting places and enjoy some new and different experiences together. But, actually the lessons were much more fundamental than that: We learned that we can speed up or slow down time with the decisions we make about how we fill our days, rather than just assuming it runs away on us. And, we were forced to consider our priorities, to more consciously select our unbounded commitment and to unapologetically go all in, without worrying too much about what we were missing out on.
We found that a year is long enough.
So, this is my advice, for what it’s worth:
Be intentional. Whether you have the privilege of taking a trip away like we did or mostly fill your days with routine in a place that is more familiar, there is always the opportunity to be alert and see something new.
Choose your commitments carefully. Pick the one that you are most excited about and allow it to fill whatever time you can give it. Try not to waste energy worrying about what else you might be missing out on.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that life is too short. If you assume the opposite then many of the decisions you make will be different (and probably better, in the long run). You likely have tens of thousands of days, which is more than enough to do amazing things, provided you don’t flail.
Understand, if you do those things, then you get to decide how quickly your time flies.
Credit for this expression to Nik Wakelin, who was the first person to put this idea into succinct words for me. ↩︎
For example this excellent essay, Life is long by Elliott Hauser, which was written in response to Life is short by Paul Graham. ↩︎
In maths the local maximum is the highest point, but just within a specific range, and typically not the highest point overall - imagine an undulating country side, each of the small hills is their own local maximum, since all of the area immediately around them is lower, and it can be tempting when you get to the top of one of those to think you’ve made it as high as you can. Actually if you look further afield you’ll see there is inevitably a higher peak to climb elsewhere, but to get there from where you are you need to first go down. ↩︎
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