Time is the only asset you really own

­Most of us think our most valuable asset is our house, our car, or our investments. The natural reflex is to think of value through the prism of ownership, we think through the things that we own and then try to determine what is worth the most. In fact, the most valuable financial asset is actually the one that brings you the greatest amount of free cash flow or profits on an ongoing basis, but we can leave that discussion for another time. The thing with nearly all material possessions is that they can be sold, bought and replaced. For nearly everything you own or might want to own – you can always buy more of it if you have the means. There is only one thing you own, but that is really limited in quantity: time. Time moves forward regardless of your wealth or your regrets. It is that never ending river that pours forth and into the great void. You can ride the river for a time, but ultimately, we all end up in the same place. Time is the most valuable asset you own.

The average lifespan is about 80 years and many leave beyond that. If we argue that we begin to truly make choices around the age of 13, 63 years of adulthood represents 22,995 distinct days in which we can choose to party, study, work, love, travel, eat, live or engage in an activity of our choice. It is 22,995 chances to start anew, to make amends, or to take a different path. Of course, all days follow another day and too often tend to blur together. The point is not that change is easy or that each day should be lived to it’s fullest – but rather that we have both more time than we realize and less time than we want.

The concept that time is fleeting and precious is of course nothing new. Historically speaking, the average citizen had far fewer choices as to the use of their time. Born to a shoemaker in a small village with a controlling religious structure, it was all but inevitable that you would become a shoemaker in the small village and be part of that religious structure. In 2021, a sizeable percentage of the global population have a vast amount of choice as to the use of their time. With increased wealth, greater political and religious freedom and low-cost transport people have the ability to dramatically change the course of their lives if they so desire. This new challenge of deciding how to best allocate your time is not well understood or explained. Despite overwhelming choices, we often default into the patterns that our families, communities and mass media propose – consciously or not. Trying to navigate all the pressures and influences that are exerted on our brains is one of the greatest challenges modern humans face.

Time being so precious it is therefore imperative to use it wisely. I always like to say that life is simply a set of decisions followed by death. The thing is that most of us, myself included, often feel like the decisions we have to make are not completely free. Both small decisions about what to eat are limited by what’s in the fridge, what I know how to cook or at most, what restaurants are nearby. Large life decisions are often years in the making. You cannot go to medical school without years of hard work, good grades, and support to get you there. It is rather evident to most of us that both small and large decisions have severely constrained degrees of freedom and most of those degrees of freedom are often set by our own previous decisions. There are external events – health, luck, etc. that dictate our choices, but the choices we do make echo throughout our entire lives. The way my wife deals with me today is determined both by our ten-year history as well as what I said or did in the past five minutes. So, while there are an infinite number of things to do with your time – from studies to work to leisure – the “right” choice in any given moment is not always obvious or clear.

It is certainly hopeless to come up with any specific recommendations on time allotment. We all come from different environments, have different aptitudes, receive various levels of luck and express different interests. It is therefore only possible to make general recommendations and perhaps conceive of some principles one might consider applying to decision making.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, advocates for living according to a “regret minimization framework”. That is, you should make decisions such that you will have little to no regrets in life. Sounds nice (especially from a CEO who has destroyed businesses and employees the precariat), but it always reminds me of the excellent Onion article, “Man lives every day like his last, goes bankrupt”. Carpe Diem sounds nice in principle and being present in the moment is critical, but it is not a sufficient framework to live your entire life. Bezos is not really suggesting that we live every day like our last, but rather that we make decisions in our careers and lives so that we do not regret having not done something. He is advocating that we be bold and try to do the things we want to. In general, this seems like sound advice.

Another kitschy, but pertinent analogy that has circulated widely online which goes something like this: some CEO of some company, spoke of how we should prioritize our commitments:

Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends and spirit – and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back.

But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same.

Simplistic, but true. The CEO proclaiming such a parable could be the CEO of an arms manufacturer and the analogy would still hold true. The other issue at hand with such an cute saying is that many people inherit broken, damaged or toxic relationships with family or friends. In addition to protecting the healthy relationships you have, it is often necessary to change the relationships we have if we want to affect substantive change in our own lives. It has been said that one of the greatest challenges in life is knowing which bridges to keep and which bridges to burn. This is even more true when it comes to personal relationships as they can absorb a tremendous amount of time and energy. In general, I advocate burning few bridges, but sometimes it can be tremendously productive to cut out people who drain your spirit and energy. Optimizing your time is as much about who you get away from as it is who you invest energy in.

There are many thins that prevent us from making changes to our lives and optimizing our time for happiness or productivity. Luck, inertia, the accumulation of bad decisions, external social pressures, or the general human condition. In my opinion, one of the most common and challenging obstacles to decision making is sunk costs. This is a big problem for anyone who needs to make a change. Wikipedia defines a sunk cost as, “In economics and business decision-making, a sunk cost (also known as retrospective cost) is a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered.” The cost can be monetary, but often it is also your time, emotions, ego and sense of person. The reason so many businesses or people fail to make obvious and necessary changes is the sunk costs they have incurred. You got into a career or a relationship and have invested tremendous time and energy, you do not just want to throw that out. A business that has gone down a certain path and built a product, a brand or a factory is not likely to just throw that out for a new hopeful business idea. More than time or money sunk costs are emotional – they are intimately tied identity. Avoiding decision making based on sunk costs is a very big challenge for all of us.

There are various ways to overcome sunk cost decision making in the business world. One well documented approach is proposed by Geoffrey Moore in “Zone to Win”. In short, he proposes breaking up decisions making based on core business, offshoot business, completely new items and hybrid business ideas. Each zone then needs resources and autonomy to explore and push those ideas forward. In the business world you can split a company apart into various units and enable decision making to happen without the burden of sunk costs. At the personal level it is not quite so easy to split our persons into autonomous decision-making units! You cannot break yourself into four separate people. It is therefore essential to attempt to determine how we can avoid pursuing a path that is set by the sunk time and emotions we have placed in a job, an education, family, or friends.

One key tool to making change is making a problem visible. Too often we bury our problems under the rug, somewhat hoping they will magically disappear. Sometimes problems do fade away, so this tactic can work. However, many problems will only fester and grow if they are placed in a little box. It is therefore imperative that we bring our challenges to the forefront so that we are forced to confront them. In addition to looking at our challenges, we must also evaluate the resources we have at our disposal. There is no point in hoping to climb Mount Everest if we are 90 years old and have never climbed a mountain (though in today’s era of social media, anything seems possible). To address a problem, we can obtain more resources – money, training, education, – but our friend time is always lurking in the background. We cannot create more time and if we want to accomplish certain things, we must force ourselves to look at reality as it is. Making our available time, resources and options clear and prominent in our daily lives seems like a good way to help inform our decisions.

One tool that I particularly like is a life calendar that we have yet to put up on our wall, out of fear. A life calendar is a poster with 52 boxes across and 100 rows of boxes. This creates a matrix where every box represents a week of your life. The purpose is to tick the boxes as you consume your time, mark important milestones and ultimately remind yourself that you are running out of time. Now that I have two children it seems even more important to get them a life calendar and ensure we are all aligned around using our time as best we can. Children are the ultimate way of reminding us how fast time goes by and how each moment is unique and special (when they are not sick, crying, vomiting or yelling about something of course). Children are like object with large gravity, they alter the speed of time. With children, time moves insanely fast and therefore each moment is worth even more than it was before. Maximizing your time with kids is critical to their well being and your own happiness.  

The child educator Ken Robinson once opined, “A two-year old is not half a four-year old”. That is, a two-year old is something and a four-year old something entirely different. Time may have passed, and the child may have grown, but the child at those two ages are in fact (almost) two different children. We often think of time as distinct from things or we think of time as a measuring stick. This analogy is of course incorrect as we cannot separate time from space and objects. All things that occupy space, in this case human children, are linked to time and cannot be separated. The space-time continuum dictates that as time changes, so do we.

The pediatrician and speaker, Gabor Maté often mentions how he made the grave mistake of waiting for his children to grow up so that he, an intellectual, could interact with them. This behaviour is often common amongst men and creates major childhood issues. The concept that we must be equal or on the same level to interact properly prevents parents from enjoying unique opportunities to bond with their children. In fact, we often apply this same restriction as adults – we tend to interact with people who have similar levels of education, religions and world views. It is easier to interact with people similar to us, we have a better understanding of their world and can therefore relate. But, interacting with different people or with children who are at a different developmental stage can be incredibely rewarding if we do it with an open heart and mind. Time with a child can be exhausting, don’t get be wrong, but it can also be a glimpse into another world where there are no problems and true happiness is at hand at every moment.

When it comes to time spent with children, Cape Diem is certainly the way to go. My most memorable experiences from my own childhood were the times spent doing something challenging and fun – camping, hiking, skiing – with my family or friends. Gabor Maté speaks extensively about the importance of attachment in a child’s life. Children need to feel attached to their parents or guardians in a positive and reinforcing way. It is not about dependency, but rather through a deep sense of trust that this person will always be there to support me. I am convinced that the attachment both children and adults need is form of security against existential angst or the feeling of being pulled inexorably towards the abyss by the tide of the world. Knowing others are there for us is a life raft and bulwark against a deep sense of loss. For most of human history we have lived in tight-knit small communities. We have fought together, died together, and relied on each other for survival. Our need for others is very deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Our use of time must bear in mind these fundamental needs we all have.

At the end of the day, there is no magic recipe for the use of the time each of us is allotted in life. The most I can say for sure is that we should endeavour to support those we can, discard those we must, invest in a better future for ourselves and avoid living based on past errors or inherited baggage. Life is short and to make the most of it we must be honest with ourselves and with those we care for. We must face the reality we live in and question the assumptions we have been given by society, our families or our environment. If we have the necessary courage and fortitude, we can live the life we want to and die content that used our time as best we possibly could.

Published on October 4, 2021