How would treating time as a variable that we can influence change the way we behave and the choices we make?
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, treating it as a variable we can influence changes 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 travelling. 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 Sento in Tokyo, we celebrated gold medals in Rio, we hunted dinosaurs during a night at the Natural History Museum in NYC, we stared down a teenage elephant 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.1 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, Vietnam and Hella, 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, wrestling 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.
On balance, it’s still true that 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. I’m so pleased we did it. But it also taught me a really important lesson:
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 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 the small details they notice that you would otherwise miss).
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, homeschooling 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 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.2
List off every existing commitment you have. You might be surprised how long the list is.
Now, think about which of those is an unbounded commitment. 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: 3
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 we can afford to give it (and often much more than that).
One 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 our unbounded commitment is a 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 Half-Ironman events. Following each, I was asked why I hadn’t done a full Ironman distance. For me it was simple: nearly everybody I trained with who was preparing for the longer distances was either single or separated.
If we subscribe to Randi Zuckerberg’s theory we can choose at most three of these five things: 4
As I get older, I increasingly wonder if sleep is the key that holds everything together. Perhaps the real benefit of a busy day or a long run is it leaves us exhausted and therefore more likely to have a solid night’s rest. Of course, what matters is how much sleep we actually get, not how much we think we get or how much we’d like to get.5
Whatever it is for you, the important thing to realise is:
We each have space for at most one unbounded commitment.
Ambitious people often assume they can have more than one. But actually all the others need to be time-bound, otherwise they will compete with each other for attention and likely just leave us frustrated because the total ends up being less than the sum of the parts.
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.
I wonder if there is a sampling bias, since this advice is nearly always given by people towards the end of their life, reflecting back.6
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.7
We can do a lot in a lifetime. Evidence of that is all around us.
Shortly after we returned home, at the end of our trip, I celebrated my 15,000th day.
When we are very young we measure life in weeks, 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 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 78 ½ years or 28,600 days. So I may be only a little over half done, which is in equal parts exciting and exhausting, especially since I didn’t do 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 (this list is full of generalisations and stereotypes, 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.
Watch a young kid torn 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 often too late to fix our lifestyle.
It hurts us all when we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to benefit from feedback loops by learning from mistakes.
Anybody who has 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 lessons as output and using them as an input 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 any one thing well.
Deep expertise takes a lifetime of work (or more) and lots of iterations. Ars longa, vita brevis. But we often let ourselves be distracted by the urgent at the expense of the important and as a result never get out of the shallows.
This is not to detract from generalists. Indeed that’s an important role in many teams. 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 understand deeply and are prepared to take responsibility for.
It hurts us all when we choose easy and obvious options, because we think time is short.
A chess grandmaster will sometimes think fifteen to twenty moves ahead.8 The hard part isn’t coming up with the different options, it’s 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 the top of the nearest hill rather than the summit of the mountain.
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 only useful if we have the opportunity to apply them to something else in the future.
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 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. 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 be intentional. Whether we’re on the trip of a lifetime or filling our days with routine in a place that is more familiar, there is always the opportunity to be alert and see something new.
Choose commitments carefully. Pick one that’s exciting and allow it to fill whatever time we can give it. Try not to waste energy worrying about what else we might be missing out on.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that life is too short. If we assume the opposite then many of the decisions we make will be different (and probably better, in the long run). We likely have tens of thousands of days, which is more than enough to do amazing things, provided we don’t flail.
Understand, if we do those things, then we get to decide how quickly time flies.
Words, of course, by Harry & Sandra Chapin from the 1974 song Cats in the cradle. Ugly Kid Joe covered it in 1992 (more my era!) ↩︎
Consider this study of athletes in Australia:
The researchers surveyed the sleep habits of 175 athletes from 12 different Australian national teams, and monitored their actual sleep with a wrist band for a couple of weeks. The main conclusion is that a startling number of these athletes, who are presumably performing herculean feats in their training, are falling way short of their sleep goals.
On average these athletes said they subjectively needed 8.3 hours of sleep per night to feel rested. But when monitored it turned out they actually only got 6.7 hours of sleep per night.
Anything vs Everything
How do we choose what to focus on, and have the conviction to say “no” to everything else?
Head first, then feet, then heart
What could we be great at? What are we willing to take responsibility for? Combine those two things and maybe we can change the world!
The expression “world class” gets casually thrown around, like a frisbee at the beach. But what does it really mean?
Here is some unusual advice for people working on a startup, or thinking about it: swim.