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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Another process to be mindful of time via 10 minute blocks + more

Previously I posted about a way to get your kid into time management.  The first step is to become aware of the nature of time.  The article showed in a post-GenZ accessible way to think of the day as 10 minute blocks.  This moves a curious mind towards perceiving time by thinking about those 10 minute units. That leads the curious mind towards other questions, which grows their harmony with the reality of time.

If we think about quanta we don’t think of some infinite resource.

Here is a great article, courtesy of GTD for CIOs.  It also talks about 10 minute blocks, but for adults.  It offers an *excellent* process for analyzing and optimizing your time.  I highly recommend you try it in your journey to become more mindful of your use of your most precious resource.

This is an conceptual tool sometimes used by people trying to drive awareness around the protecting the environment.  “Every second an acre of jungle is destroyed* “.  See how quantizing makes it more real than “bad things are happening to the jungle”?

When we talk about time, we should fix our discussions in real units to bring our awareness and mindfulness into harmony with reality.  Of all the non-renewable resources, nothing competes with time.  And no resource is more wasted.  We should all become time-conservationists.

Saving time – that is: applying more of it to things that matter – could save every other thing that needs saving.

* “every second..acre..destroyed”: I made up this metric just to have an example.  Probably it’s worse.  Or it doesn’t matter because trees are a renewable resource. Or we are permanently irrevocably damaging the ecosystem. I don’t know.  Feel free to correct me and inform CoT readers.  If you feel you want to correct me, ask yourself how that’s a better use of your time than, say, volunteering at Big Brother / Big Sister.  Or your local school.  Or than, say, learning Chinese, elixir, or how to be a better mom.  And reread the last paragraph of this article.

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Quality of Time

The quality of your time obviously varies.

We are sometimes sleepy and aren’t thinking straight.  Sometimes in love and every bite of food tastes better.  Sometimes depressed and everything is gray. When we were younger we weren’t as experienced time differently as a result – maybe it was more fun because we hadn’t experienced deep sorrow or fear or maybe we were not as wise then and so we glossed over our time, missing hidden joys

Consider how this varies in small and larger increments of time.  You will be sleepy to some degree each morning and night.  You may go through years of depression, or alternatively, being at your peak flow

A good exercise is to develop a habit of becoming aware of the relative quality of your time, the natural cycles, and the trend.

Relative to your own experience, and to your best estimate of what others are experiencing.

How am I feeling right now? Today? This month? This season? This year?

How am I acting? With clarity? With joy? With fear? With anger? With long pauses of… nothing?

Be curious about what, how, and why you are feeling and doing.  Find and surf the cycles you can’t change.  Experiment with effecting different cycles and trends where you find you can alter your experience of time.

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Your body

I want to be conscious of time. Time is the most impactful thing I can focus on.

But it is not the most fundamental aspect of my life.

My physical body is my absolute foundation. Without it I can’t even experience time.

Time retains my focus because even my body has a limited amount of time before it’s gone.

And I pay attention to my body in terms of time – what effect can I have upon my body over time? How much time have I spent on my body? What can i expect from my body at this age? In 10, 20, 30 years? If I work out intensely this month what will my body feel like next month?

Indeed getting my body in shape is essential for my personal fulfillment. I can’t get higher on the curve without being very fit. Fitness creates physical energy for me and allows me to do and enjoy more in life. It creates mental and spiritual energy also.

Conversely, when I fail to invest in my body, the rest of my life doesn’t work. My curve drops and it’s hard to climb back up.

Pay attention to your body. Without it you have no access to time.

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Sinofsky on Time Management

  1. Don’t follow advice from people that aren’t in your profession or with dissimilar lifestyles as your time management (he soon abbreviates it “TM”) needs are different
  2. Focus on your core activity and optimize around that
  3. Be mindful of team work – managing up, down, sideways, out
  4. Managers are different – your time belongs to your directs
  5. Be mindful, caring, devoted in your 1:1s

Lots more.  Must read:

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