Life is an exercise of optimization with the constraint being the fixed amount of time at anyone’s disposal. Variables that people typically want to improve, such as health, wealth, love and knowledge all depend on the same input – time – and hence deciding how to allocate it is of utmost importance.
Time misallocated, unproductively and unwisely spent on wasteful activities, can eat away from activities that would make you happier. Time well distributed across activities can make your life complete. And hence we all need to become master optimizers.
A blessing in disguise
Philosophically speaking, having a fixed supply of time makes our lives interesting. You appreciate the rare moments spent with family, with friends from abroad or celebrating a great achievement because they are rare. They are rare because of time’s inherent irreversibility and life’s shortness. Because you know you will not get many of these rare events makes them meaningful.
Imagine you had an infinite life. You would not feel the urgency to make time for your friends just because you can always make some time later. You’d keep postponing it, pursuing other things. It would be dull, things would lack importance and you would not appreciate anything because of its abundance.
But in real life, you know there’s little time available to spend with parents, friends, family. That’s why, when they happen, we cherish them. That’s why they matter.
The scarcity of time makes you want to make your life meaningful. It’s a blessing in disguise.
Life is more than just one thing
Let’s agree on two assumptions:
- We want as much as possible of the good things, and
- We have a fixed amount of time we can dedicate to any of them.
We want as much as possible of all the good stuff
A life well spent is obviously more than only money. Or it’s more than only career. We can be categorical about this, we can say that a happy life is a life that has more than just one part to it. Generally speaking we can split it in four parts – health, wealth, love and knowledge. Each of them are wide enough umbrellas to accommodate anyone’s taste.
It’s obviously true that you’d like to spend as much time with your loved ones as possible. I don’t think anyone can say that at any point they’re done with how much time they spent with their kids. Probably you can say that on a given day, but on your lifespan you want to maximize time spent with family.
Anyone passionate about knowledge, career or adventures would like as much as possible of those. Anyone trying to improve their health will do it as much as possible. When their body is in the ideal shape they will still want to spend time maintaining that shape. We want to help others as much as possible, maintain our relationships and create new ones, help the ones less lucky as much as we can.
We want as much as possible of all these things. And we want all of them. So that means, we can think of life as trying to maximize a few or a lot variables at the same time.
We have a limited lifespan
Another obvious thing that we can observe is that all these aspects of life need our attention and time to maintain and to grow. Health and relationships need time and attention. Wealth in any form and especially love needs our time and attention. It’s clear that they all depend on the same input.
Yes, there are more factors that influence how fast they grow. Yes, there are synergies between them. But they all depend on at least one common input which is time. And nobody has more than an average of 82 years to spend on any of these. So then, the question becomes, how do you allocate your time most optimally?
The optimization game
So you have four variables – health, wealth, love, knowledge – that you want to maximize and they all depend on a fixed amount of time. This is an optimization problem. In order to get the most of all of them, you need to be really good at allocating your time.
Sure, you can maximize one of them but that can happen at the expense of all the others. The goal is to optimize more of them as opposed to maximizing just one of them at the expense of minimizing everything else. What you want, as agreed above, is to get the most of all. Time spent on one activity is time not spent on all the other activities. If you choose to maximize one only, you basically choose to minimize the rest. You need to pick the right balance, so that’s why it’s important to know how much time each activity deserves.
The question becomes very important – how do you spend your time? How do you allocate the time among some activities such that all of them grow as much as possible?
That’s the million dollar question that this article is trying to emphasize. The importance of time allocation should not evade anyone’s thought process. The answer will definitely be very particular to every individual life.
There is a great relief in understanding that this is an optimization game. It relieves people of the burden of feeling they need to maximize everything, through the knowledge that maximization of something implies minimization of others. This is especially important for our mental health, in the day of seeing everything online taken to the superlative and tempting us to want it.
The most important thing about this optimization game is to realize that time is in a fixed supply. You should not waste it like it’s nothing, just because there’s still more to come.
I have come across a few optimization techniques and tricks that can help. They are taken from various books, from mentors, common sense and from connecting dots in my own head.
Avoid inertia and being reactive
You don’t want to wake up every day and until you fall asleep just respond to emails and people’s demands. You want to pursue things you like. For that you need to become proactive about the things you want.
When we’re tired, it’s hard to make decisions. This is a concept called decision fatigue and we default to doing whatever is easily available or what we’re used to. You can end up binging Netflix series not necessarily because you’re really keen on it, but just because you’re tired to decide what to do and you already have the tab open. That’s inertia.
But, how do you choose the things you want?
Take a step back to think about what’s important
I like hiking holidays. When I hike for a few hours in a row, absorbed by great views of mountains or countryside I can finally disconnect. Being on a hike allows me to stop responding to all the email demands of my job and all the notifications and popups that fight for my attention.
I can let myself think about what I want, reassess my priorities, my goals, my values.
Bill Gates does it too, annually, and he calls them “Think weeks”. Read about it here.
Reading “On the shortness of life” by Seneca
Seneca, a great stoic, says that people would spend their time more wisely if they would have a countdown clock that would show them how much time there is until death. He’s trying to make the point that not knowing when you die, will make you unaware of death and hence will make you spend your time foolishly.
If everyone would wear a wristwatch counting down to one’s death, they would cherish their time more.
“You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last.”
Some more about it here. It’s a short essay, I recommend it.
Reading “The defining decade” by Meg Jay
Or watching her TED Talk.
She’s trying to convince people that thirties are not the new twenties and people should stop wasting their twenties. The problem with postponing everything in your twenties will make you have to achieve a lot more things in your thirties and the burden will be heavier.
Understanding the law of diminishing returns
Economics says that there is a decrease in the output you get from an activity the more you do it. Probably that super late extra hour you spend at the office will not matter that much. Probably that 10th pint of beer will not make your night a lot better.
Keystone habits and synergies
I mentioned this topic in a previous article. Keystone habits don’t create a direct cause-and-effect relationship, but they can spark “chain reactions that help other good habits take hold,” Duhigg writes. Get his book, The Power of Habit.
Like I mentioned above, there are more things that impact the growth of relationship, not only time. For example a healthier individual will spend more time because they will live longer. So that means when you focus on your health you are also improving the other aspects of your life. The same goes with knowledge. More knowledge will not only satisfy your intellectual curiosity, but will probably help you make better decisions on the other aspects of life – career, family, etc.
To sum up, the points are the following:
- You want as much as possible of all the good things in life
- They are constrained by the time you spend on them.
- The time constraint makes life meaningful
- The time constraint makes life an optimization game
- There are plenty optimization techniques available