time and mind

I spoke of the body and time: it is the platform with which you experience time.  Your body is the most important thing.

The most important part of your body is your mind.  It is the only irreplaceable part*.  Let’s talk about how it interacts with time.

We are often not precisely conscious of our mind**, merely living through it.  But we can perceive it as a system that produces artifacts such as perceptions, thoughts, feelings, impulses, memories, and so on.

Each of these artifacts are incredibly sensitive to time.

Consider perception.  Each of us has experienced the few minutes that seemed to pass as slowly as an hour, and the hour that flew by in a few minutes.  Memory is our mind’s attempt to grapple with looking backwards in time.  Imagination helps our mind look forward.

Memory and imagination are very fallible.  When we remember an event, we basically make it up from haphazard signals we stored, and then store than made up version, resulting in severe copy error over repeated memories. How many of your prejudices about things are based on anything that actually happened?

Our imagination of the future is powerful, but often powerfully wrong.  Everything around you was once someone’s imagination, a testament to what imagination can create.  However looking only at what imagination has wrought is a profound fallacy.  Most imagination results in nothing.  Much imagination is harmful – we stifle ourselves with fear, or hurt ourselves with overoptimistic thoughts leading us into risks that are realized upon us as loss.

Finding ways to improve our record of past time, or our prediction of future time, is immensely valuable.

Audit yourself.  Am I engaging in practices that allow me to better know what actually happened?  Do I keep a journal?  Do I make videos on my iPhone to myself about how I am feeling – an action that takes just a moment i.e. has almost no cost to myself?  Do I review these things periodically to get a clear window to what I knew in the moment?

Am I engaging in writing down my predictions to see how amazing or very sorry they in fact are?  Do I learn from this, spotting patterns of bias and habit of false thought so that I can catch myself in the act of neurotic fear or arrogant blindness?

Imagine how beautiful and strong you would be if you had a better grip on the past or the future.  It would be a superpower!

Imagine if you practiced and slowly got better at teaching this to your children.  They would have a far better chance at thriving.  Since we don’t generally teach this, it’s like we choose to blind our children before sending them into the world.

You could argue that progress on thinking about the past and future is the hallmark of civilization.  History.  Planning.  When we had neither we were savages.  It’s amazing how much upside remains at taming our baser instincts and modern biases to better place ourselves in time.

You might still have some time left to improve on this, and reap the benefits.

* “…only irreplaceable part”: today only certain parts of our body are replaceable by synthetic, human designed parts.  But all parts are replaced – by you – at the cellular level within 10 years, except the mind. The cells in your brain are never replaced and exist for your lifetime.  This is telling.  You can transplant a stranger’s heart and they are dead but you live.  If you transplanted their mind into your body, they would live and you would die.  With enough engineering all parts will be replaceable by human-made synthetics.  But if we designed a replacement for your mind, it would have to be,… your mind.  The only replacement would have to be a Ship of Theseus replacement, meaning, replacing underlying components one by one until the ship is entirely new, yet the ship is essentially the same.  Something so hard or expensive that even millenia of natural selection has never selected this, despite the obvious advantages of being able to heal the mind.

Your mind is irreplaceable.

Consider that when you next decide to take a mind altering substance.

** for the purposes of this article I explicitly reject any discussion about the mind/body duality.  Is the mind our brain? Our brain plus our nervous system?  Plus the hormonal organs and the hormones flowing through our body? Our whole body?  Where the body begins and the mind ends I do not care.  The mind exists, and it is supported by some infrastructure that we partially understand.  That’s enough for this text.

The noble act of firing employees

We move through time.  Each moment is cumulative the the meaning of our life.

We often keep people in our employ for far too long.  It’s understandable.  There are many forces that impel us to keep working with someone who is holding the team back.  Regulation creates real risk in termination . Reputations can be damaged by a popular ex-employee saying bad things. Our own dysfunction can make us feel dependent upon someone leaving us powerless. Inertia and our fear of losing momentum keeps us glued to today’s configuration, afraid of change or apathetically allowing us to keep “getting by”.  A meaningful and even positive personal relationship can be a local good, clouding our view of the critical global maxima.

It’s a wonder we ever dismiss anyone!

What happens when we fail to face the hard thing is that we destroy valuable time:

  1. The time of the team, wasted in sub-optimal configuration.  All those hopes and dreams nullified by requiring they work with a crumby partner who holds them back.  Failure to deal with this is the opposite of leadership.
  2. The time of your vendors who interface with the dysfunctional employee.  They were counting on you to be a true partner in a win-win relationship where your transactions build you both up.
  3. We should be terrified of living with our own pain in any relationship.  We get used to it, and after a while we don’t even notice it.  It becomes normal.  And that means we are ready for the next step down the spiral staircase to lameness.  Allowing yourself to lower your standards allows you to lower them further.  So the arc of your whole life is altered.  It’s not just today’s problem that was beneath you, that you wasted all that time on.  It’s the twenty thousand future times you weren’t even really alive anymore because you were used to living so poorly because it became normal for you.

But the point of this post is the time you wast of that very person who is the problem employee.  By enabling them, you prevent them from having to confront their own lies that they allow themselves.  “I’m cool, see I’ve got this job.”

“You sure do” you say, keeping them on track to never change.

Or worse, you pretend to deal with them via repeated admonishment.  Toothless.  You aren’t just wasting everybody’s time, you are ruining your own integrity, and as noted above, your ability to recognize it.

And one more point: sometimes it’s hard to see past the negative impact of terminating the problem employee.  They have a family, a mortgage, and you are human and compassionate.  You don’t want to bring them into crisis or worse, ruin.

That’s real, and to be a human manager, you have to consider that and have it impact your decisions.  To inure yourself of your impact, in time, results invariably in very bad business practices, and greater waste of time than is being discussed here.

Balance that care, however, for the care of the next employee you haven’t met yet.  They are also a part of a family.  Also have obligations, needs, and people counting on them.  Perhaps you are wasting time working with someone who is taking up the rightful spot of a devoted and righteous person who will do better for the community than the person you now enable.

Liberate them soon, humanely, so that they can learn and grow.  Welcome the next person who will more clearly deserve the opportunity you give them.  Free your team to better trust each other, to thrive.  Rescue yourself from a fate of low standards that are of use to no one.

Talking about the future

We talk about the future all the time.

“I will pick that up”

“I’m going to learn Spanish”

“I’ll set up that meeting with Sasha”

In my family we have made it a habit to NEVER EVER talk about the future without putting a time boundary on it.  The more specific the better.

It looks like:

“I will pick that up NEXT”

… or NOW or TODAY or NEXT WEEK or…

“I’m going to learn Spanish … BY THE END OF NEXT YEAR”


“I’ll set up that meeting with Sasha … BEFORE 5pm”

… or THIS WEEK or…

Why always do this?

Speaking about the future with no time boundary means,… nothing.

…except that it is not happening now.

If I say that I am moving to Germany, and that’s all I say, then if I haven’t moved to Germany ten years later, I can still keep repeating the statement and it remains true.

And meaningless.

This kind of speech dilutes our message.  It is noise.  Dilution and noise rob you of scarce time – talking about nothing when you could be sharing something meaningful.

So talking about the future without a time boundary is a negative statement.  It robs you of precious words, that took up precious time in your immeasurably valuable life.

Adding in a time-boundary transforms it into a positive statement.

If you say you are moving to Germany in a year, and the year passes, it’s true you have to face your failure to do the thing you said you would do.  But that is overwhelmingly offset to the positive by the automatic measure provided by noticing discrepancy between your intent and your action.

If you do not put a time-boundary on your statement, then you might never notice that you aren’t achieving your hopes and dreams.  If you do put a boundary on it, and you miss the mark, and your rituals include recording the bounded statement, and later reviewing it, you are provided with the measure, and have a much better chance of noticing, and improving!

This measure works even if the original intent has changed and the goal is no longer important.  For example, say that you notice that you don’t actually care about moving.  In that case you have an opportunity to get to know yourself better, and revisit you big goals; you can create new ones that better match who you have become.  Without this you might still have the fuzzy goal of moving, and it remains in your consciousness taking up the space of goals that would really matter to you.

We should require of ourselves the habit of always putting a boundary on statements invoking the future.

(edited to complete the thought about the “Germany” example)



James Clear on Time

When I talk about time I try to talk in stark terms.  I do this to emphasize how important it is.  James’ tone here is lovely, and his references wise.  And among them the clearest most severe of points:

You are richer than 93% of people. Not in money, but in time. 108 billion people have lived throughout history. 93% of them are dead.

You have what every king and queen, every pharaoh and ruler, every CEO and celebrity of the past would give all their wealth for:


Yes!  Imagine your final moments, you are literally dying.  Wait! If you do X you get to live another year!  I would give everything I own!  Life is precious.  And yet how much if it today will we waste?

James makes other great points about time in that one post.  I just discovered him, and will go back to see what else he’s discovered.

Paul Graham: Life is Short

His amazing essay, quoted here in full to protect against link rot:

Life is short, as everyone knows. When I was a kid I used to wonder about this. Is life actually short, or are we really complaining about its finiteness? Would we be just as likely to feel life was short if we lived 10 times as long?

Since there didn’t seem any way to answer this question, I stopped wondering about it. Then I had kids. That gave me a way to answer the question, and the answer is that life actually is short.

Having kids showed me how to convert a continuous quantity, time, into discrete quantities. You only get 52 weekends with your 2 year old. If Christmas-as-magic lasts from say ages 3 to 10, you only get to watch your child experience it 8 times. And while it’s impossible to say what is a lot or a little of a continuous quantity like time, 8 is not a lot of something. If you had a handful of 8 peanuts, or a shelf of 8 books to choose from, the quantity would definitely seem limited, no matter what your lifespan was.

Ok, so life actually is short. Does it make any difference to know that?

It has for me. It means arguments of the form “Life is too short for x” have great force. It’s not just a figure of speech to say that life is too short for something. It’s not just a synonym for annoying. If you find yourself thinking that life is too short for something, you should try to eliminate it if you can.

When I ask myself what I’ve found life is too short for, the word that pops into my head is “bullshit.” I realize that answer is somewhat tautological. It’s almost the definition of bullshit that it’s the stuff that life is too short for. And yet bullshit does have a distinctive character. There’s something fake about it. It’s the junk food of experience. [1]

If you ask yourself what you spend your time on that’s bullshit, you probably already know the answer. Unnecessary meetings, pointless disputes, bureaucracy, posturing, dealing with other people’s mistakes, traffic jams, addictive but unrewarding pastimes.

There are two ways this kind of thing gets into your life: it’s either forced on you, or it tricks you. To some extent you have to put up with the bullshit forced on you by circumstances. You need to make money, and making money consists mostly of errands. Indeed, the law of supply and demand insures that: the more rewarding some kind of work is, the cheaper people will do it. It may be that less bullshit is forced on you than you think, though. There has always been a stream of people who opt out of the default grind and go live somewhere where opportunities are fewer in the conventional sense, but life feels more authentic. This could become more common.

You can do it on a smaller scale without moving. The amount of time you have to spend on bullshit varies between employers. Most large organizations (and many small ones) are steeped in it. But if you consciously prioritize bullshit avoidance over other factors like money and prestige, you can probably find employers that will waste less of your time.

If you’re a freelancer or a small company, you can do this at the level of individual customers. If you fire or avoid toxic customers, you can decrease the amount of bullshit in your life by more than you decrease your income.

But while some amount of bullshit is inevitably forced on you, the bullshit that sneaks into your life by tricking you is no one’s fault but your own. And yet the bullshit you choose may be harder to eliminate than the bullshit that’s forced on you. Things that lure you into wasting your time have to be really good at tricking you. An example that will be familiar to a lot of people is arguing online. When someone contradicts you, they’re in a sense attacking you. Sometimes pretty overtly. Your instinct when attacked is to defend yourself. But like a lot of instincts, this one wasn’t designed for the world we now live in. Counterintuitive as it feels, it’s better most of the time not to defend yourself. Otherwise these people are literally taking your life. [2]

Arguing online is only incidentally addictive. There are more dangerous things than that. As I’ve written before, one byproduct of technical progress is that things we like tend to become more addictive. Which means we will increasingly have to make a conscious effort to avoid addictions — to stand outside ourselves and ask “is this how I want to be spending my time?”

As well as avoiding bullshit, one should actively seek out things that matter. But different things matter to different people, and most have to learn what matters to them. A few are lucky and realize early on that they love math or taking care of animals or writing, and then figure out a way to spend a lot of time doing it. But most people start out with a life that’s a mix of things that matter and things that don’t, and only gradually learn to distinguish between them.

For the young especially, much of this confusion is induced by the artificial situations they find themselves in. In middle school and high school, what the other kids think of you seems the most important thing in the world. But when you ask adults what they got wrong at that age, nearly all say they cared too much what other kids thought of them.

One heuristic for distinguishing stuff that matters is to ask yourself whether you’ll care about it in the future. Fake stuff that matters usually has a sharp peak of seeming to matter. That’s how it tricks you. The area under the curve is small, but its shape jabs into your consciousness like a pin.

The things that matter aren’t necessarily the ones people would call “important.” Having coffee with a friend matters. You won’t feel later like that was a waste of time.

One great thing about having small children is that they make you spend time on things that matter: them. They grab your sleeve as you’re staring at your phone and say “will you play with me?” And odds are that is in fact the bullshit-minimizing option.

If life is short, we should expect its shortness to take us by surprise. And that is just what tends to happen. You take things for granted, and then they’re gone. You think you can always write that book, or climb that mountain, or whatever, and then you realize the window has closed. The saddest windows close when other people die. Their lives are short too. After my mother died, I wished I’d spent more time with her. I lived as if she’d always be there. And in her typical quiet way she encouraged that illusion. But an illusion it was. I think a lot of people make the same mistake I did.

The usual way to avoid being taken by surprise by something is to be consciously aware of it. Back when life was more precarious, people used to be aware of death to a degree that would now seem a bit morbid. I’m not sure why, but it doesn’t seem the right answer to be constantly reminding oneself of the grim reaper hovering at everyone’s shoulder. Perhaps a better solution is to look at the problem from the other end. Cultivate a habit of impatience about the things you most want to do. Don’t wait before climbing that mountain or writing that book or visiting your mother. You don’t need to be constantly reminding yourself why you shouldn’t wait. Just don’t wait.

I can think of two more things one does when one doesn’t have much of something: try to get more of it, and savor what one has. Both make sense here.

How you live affects how long you live. Most people could do better. Me among them.

But you can probably get even more effect by paying closer attention to the time you have. It’s easy to let the days rush by. The “flow” that imaginative people love so much has a darker cousin that prevents you from pausing to savor life amid the daily slurry of errands and alarms. One of the most striking things I’ve read was not in a book, but the title of one: James Salter’s Burning the Days.

It is possible to slow time somewhat. I’ve gotten better at it. Kids help. When you have small children, there are a lot of moments so perfect that you can’t help noticing.

It does help too to feel that you’ve squeezed everything out of some experience. The reason I’m sad about my mother is not just that I miss her but that I think of all the things we could have done that we didn’t. My oldest son will be 7 soon. And while I miss the 3 year old version of him, I at least don’t have any regrets over what might have been. We had the best time a daddy and a 3 year old ever had.

Relentlessly prune bullshit, don’t wait to do things that matter, and savor the time you have. That’s what you do when life is short.


[1] At first I didn’t like it that the word that came to mind was one that had other meanings. But then I realized the other meanings are fairly closely related. Bullshit in the sense of things you waste your time on is a lot like intellectual bullshit.

[2] I chose this example deliberately as a note to self. I get attacked a lot online. People tell the craziest lies about me. And I have so far done a pretty mediocre job of suppressing the natural human inclination to say “Hey, that’s not true!”

Thanks to Jessica Livingston and Geoff Ralston for reading drafts of this.



Warren & Bill on time

Really any exec will tell you similar things: time is the ultimate currency.

You Control Your Time (Warren Buffett + Bill Gates)

But few execs will be as adorable as these two explaining what they think about time to Charlie Rose.

Bill is onto something about prioritizing thinking above action.  Warren has mastered it by keeping his calendar open.  I assure you they are not gone to seed and phoning it in.  Rather they are at peak productivity.


about perceiving time

I’ve written a few posts here that referenced processes that make you aware of time.  Several encouraged you to think of time in 10 minute chunks.

Two very effective friends spoke up to argue against this.  One explained to me that he doesn’t think of his time in ten minute chunks, he thinks of it as a queue of tasks, that have a cost and a benefit.  Another explained that obsessing over time takes you out of your flow, away from the proper objects of your focus.

They are both right.

I find constant awareness of time exhausting.  I want to – but have yet to – meet anyone that can get value from constant time focus like Pomodoro.

I proposed first article that uses 10 minute chunks as a way to think of time as a quantity, to make it more tangible and real.  This is helpful for a tween or young adult to introduce awareness of time if they currently don’t step back and see it.

The second article talking about 10 minute chunks is helpful for high-productivity people to have yet another approach to optimizing their time.

The throughline here is that being hyper conscious of time is a momentary & periodic activity.  You don’t want to gaze at the clock.  You periodically want to consider how your time is spent.  You want to audit yourself from time to time.

Day to day has to be habitual.  Develop habits that result in your time being well spent.  Generally you want this to be generating energy, to be sustainable.

Use time awareness to audit your habits.  Your priorities are what you spent your time on in this last month.  The priorities on your mental, digital, or physical list that got no time are not your priorities.  They are your aspirations.

To recap:

  • Become aware of time periodically to audit and find opportunity
  • Develop the habit of respecting time and using it for your fulfillment

Waste no ones time

Sharing time with someone is a sacrament.  It says: I will never get this moment back, and it is precious, and you may have it.  Which may say: you are the best thing in my life right now.

This is sacred.  Understanding this leads to a better understanding of the tragically misunderstood concept of altruism.  Sharing time is a sacred act.

Sacrificing time is the worst sin.

Say you are talking in a room full of people who have their own hopes and dreams.  Think of that responsibility!  Every moment you hold the floor you are stealing their time.  If you aren’t speaking, every moment you allow the room to suffer something less that enlightening or joyful or otherwise fulfilling to the room, is a moment you are letting these people die, just that little bit.

Said explicitly: remember that there isn’t much difference between living a long life in a coma, or a short life fully lived.  The value of a life is described by the area under the curve, regardless of how long.  This is true in the major case (e.g. a person in a coma is alive but is at zero fulfillment every moment) and in the minor (e.g. a meeting that is fruitless is depressing people’s fulfillment).

The importance of the large meeting is that if you are causing or allowing, say, 20 people to be living at 5% less than they otherwise would, you are, by Steve Jobs logic, putting a whole person in a coma for the length of that meeting.  This is little bit of death.

Let people live.

But we do much worse than allow a stultifying meeting.  Think of a relationship where one partner isn’t committed but out of kindness or cowardice pretends that everything is ok.  Years are spent hoping that the relationship is developing.  Think of the sin of that!

Think of a manager putting up with an employee who is getting insufficient feedback that they are doing less than they could.  The employee may live in ignorant bliss, not confronting their own dragons, but they are dying – a little bit – every day.  Think about the compounding factor of self improvement that they are missing.  Their arc on the curve is flat where they could be learning to soar.

Tell the truth today.

Waste no one’s time.

Note: if you are inspired to treat time as precious, and suddenly you find yourself yelling at people because you are frustrated that they don’t understand the value of time – as I did yesterday like a damn fool – then consider that while it’s possible your anger and negativity might be waking the room up so they can soar, it is also possible and even likely that you are destroying trust.  Trust that might have been used to take a chance on  an opportunity to help each other soar.  And negative emotions are rarely fun.  So you have likely at least destroyed that moment of your expression for everyone present, and stolen time where they have to process that out through thought or other release.  There is no right answer outside of the context of the moment.  A sergeant must yell at a soldier. But do not think that just because you value time, that raving about it is a good strategy that will result in a higher curve.  Be mindful of your impact around you, and attempt to conserve and elevate, not destroy, time.

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