On shortness of time

May 3, 2021 Tags: #musings #time #productivity

Over the last decade I went through a set of slow “getting-used-to-this-thought” realisations about time. They have transformed the way I work and what I work on. Many humans have walked this track of thought, many of their words echo in mine, so I’ll add mine to this infinite pool. Being obvious, they matter to me more than many eureka moments and epiphanies.

When I was younger, time was abundant, and I learnt to play as if time didn’t exist. When you don’t mind time, it doesn’t exist in your experience.

As time, subjectively inexistent, but objectively observable, passes, it suddenly starts to matter.

When you start working, time is cheaper than the money. Exchanging any time for any money sounds reasonable. Over time, work brings various types of leverage - expertise, reputation, network. This leverage multiplies gains on time invested, when invested well. As this leverage grows, there are a few obvious things to notice about time:

It changes everything but it’s only the beginning. Let’s call it “Level 1 realisation”.

Because you still run out of time. Any time you free up meets growing pool of opportunity. So you get to your 2nd challenge - “what to work on”. You end up with some heuristics - which work to pick up, which opportunities to pursue. They all boil to qualification criteria:

Being able to look at every decision with this prism requires a level of self-awareness I do not have. But looking even at 30-40% of your decisions actually makes like different. You stop looking at side gigs, you stop doing unnecessary IC work, you start buying back time by paying money.

Lets call it “Level 2 realisation”, for gamification purposes.

Over time, the landscape of your work becomes less noisy, and you become able to free up time. This time becomes so precious that there’s no money you’re accepting for it. When you realise how important and rare these non-work hours are, you stop many things. Some relationships, hobbies, stupid endeavours stop being attractive investments.

As soon as you understand the value of every hour of your remaining life - it makes living even simpler:

The pool is not infinite and that’s what makes things worth (and other things - worthless). There will be shots you miss. There will be mistakes. But your time is running out, while the cost of money is… what you make it. With your lifestyle, choices and desires.

That’s an “L3 realisation”, and this is where gamification stops and the actual game begins.

There’s simpler way to look at it:

What you miss is what you crave. Money, fame, love, recognition, whatever, everybody has their kinks. Everybody is missing out on something. Most of this scarcity is relative, depends on your character and personal history (or karma, if that is your thing), and its quite malleable by your experiences.

But some of the scarcity is non-malleable for most people: time is such. You can’t conserve it, no matter what you do. You can’t ignore it long enough. Your perspective of time only changes to more sobering realization how quickly and inevitably it runs out if you treat it like an infinite resource.

And that is a productivity and happiness hack with extremely good returns, except for it isn’t a hack.