Ah, LinkedIn. The social media platform that you need to use, yet is extremely questionable on its best days. While logging in to check my messages, a post near the top of my feed titled The Shortness of Life was shared by a friend. Or, so it claimed - reading the article and coming back to LinkedIn shuffled my feed to and I was unable to re-find and react to the post, and when I asked my friend about the post, they had no idea what I was talking about and had never seen or interacted with the post before.
In spite of the mystical delivery of the post to my attention, the contents of the post articulate the secondary quest living in the shadow of my development learning journey - learning how to spend time well.
As I have mentioned in my blog on risk mitigation, I believe time is the single most critical and expensive of the Four Key Resources with which to live our lives and interact with the world. The article in question covers highlights from On the Shortness of Life by Roman philosopher Seneca (which is now added to my rapidly growing reading list). The key point that Seneca makes is that it is not so much that our actual lives are short, but that we defer living them while giving away our time, ignorant of the quality of the lives that we live:
“…you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply — though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire… How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end!”
This year in particular, almost everyone I have run into has been saying the same thing: “How is it already Autumn?” COVID-19 seems to have sucked everyone up into a time vortex that has rapidly consumed half a year and thrown the world into a tense and angry frenzy. As a society, time has gotten away from us, be it from anxiety, uncertainty, overstimulation, fear, loss, or actual danger.
I will get into framing it more later, but very early on when the pandemic started, I had resolved to try and make the most of the situation in my individual life. We had just moved into a new apartment, so I took time to cultivate a good environment by overhauling our home office and to getting us as settled into the new space as possible. Lots of attention was given to making things comfortable, and tweaking our layout with 3-second Kaizen adjustments to make everything easier to work with. The act itself was cathartic, and the benefits were immediate.
I remember thinking abruptly at one point in the first two weeks, “this is the time to really grow,” and setting out to add small things to improve our quality of life. I got back into a habit of exercising every day, took time for self-care and relaxation and actually figured out how to do it for a bit (I’ve since forgotten, whoops), my wife and I spent more intentional time engaging through conversations and activities at home, and I finally got around to actively improving my cocktail craft. Despite how scary things were, those early days felt full and warm, and I felt as though I discovered a lot about myself and who I am.
All we can do is what we are already doing.
Staying informed, being careful, being mindful of our actions, being grateful for the safety we did have, and doing our part to keep those around us safe. We could worry ourselves into human statues if we wanted, but it was important to realize there was a limit to what we could influence. This would take time, and a lot of it, so we needed to keep growing while waiting it out, and enjoy the time that we had as much as we could. Little did we expect everything that has happened since, but the ball that we started rolling is still moving - even if we’ve hit a few bumps in the road, getting it started was the hardest part.
“If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.”
My wife and I were exceptionally fortunate in that we both were able to maintain our jobs and work remotely for at least the first few weeks - our respective jobs are in no way location-specific and are more-or-less entirely performed with a computer. I am incredibly grateful that we found ourselves in a relatively stable position at the time, and were able to use that stability to give more to others and causes.
Very quickly after remote work started, my wife and I discovered that A) we work great together in the same room all day long, which was very cool, and B) there was suddenly what felt like a tremendous amount of new time at our disposal. This was confusing at first, but picking it apart, it made sense:
- Up 90 minutes before work to get ready
- 30 minute commute
- 4 hours of work
- 1 hour of lunch geographically restricted to the area near work
- 4+ more hours of work
- 30 minute commute home
People say they work 8 hours a day, but what we’re really seeing here is 11.5 hours devoted to and surrounding the act of work. If you happen to get stuck on a call for an extra 30 minutes, you’ve spent literally half of your day to going into the office. Assuming you’re getting proper sleep of around 7 hours a night, and that you take 1.5 hours to cook, eat, and clean up a healthy dinner, that leaves you with a pitiful 4 hours to live your entire life within. A microscopic 16.7% of a day! If you have children, you can probably kiss most of that time goodbye for the first few years of their lives.
Suddenly, there was time to slow down and be in the moment more. The regular tasks were no longer consumed with worrying over how you were going to keep your life together long enough to maybe get a 30 minute breather before needing to go to bed for the day. That little bit of extra time each day and properly decompressing during lunch not only allowed me to produce higher quality work at my job, but also get more out of life in general.
“I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response. […] They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being deceived because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap — in fact, almost without any value.”
Then, about 4 weeks in, I got the word that I was to return to the office. This process is a different story in and unto itself, but it made me better understand just how my time, safety, and family were valued by others. It made me realize why I had pushed myself to the physical limit working an 80-hour week to save a relationship with a customer three months earlier. Why I had been in the habit of working through lunches for years. Why I had stayed multiple hours late hundreds of nights to get the job done well.
The reason was that I did not value my own time.
Rather, I perceived my time as having little value, to be more nuanced. You would be hard-pressed to find any employer that would say “no” to a salaried employee who was willing to do give up their own time just to do a good job.
You instruct others how you should be treated.
By not valuing my time many years ago, I created the expectation that my time was not valuable, and the expectation that I would give of it freely. That expectation permeated through everything in my professional life, and eventually fed back into my personal life, until I just felt generally without any value whatsoever.
I had started to fully realize this and work to correct it about a year ago, but it wasn’t until this specific moment that it struck me just how little time was worth…how little I was worth. I resolved in that moment to rediscover who I was, build an internal sense of value in myself and my time, and try to shift my course towards a more authentic life direction.
“It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.”
Learning modern development became my ardent wish, and I have been aggressively working towards this objective since. A few months in, I became aware that I needed to strive to be being more intentional about how and where I spend my time. I launched Learning Log over a weekend, and have been dialing in a progressively clearer view of where my daily time goes: which skills I’m learning, if I’m taking care of my physical health, and if I’m taking care of my mental health.
The process of learning programming has consumed a LOT of time - about 25 hours a week of just study/working time as of writing this post. Of that time, there is additional uncaptured overhead of things like producing and editing these posts, reading incessantly, and reflections (like this) that fall within the realm of self-improvement but outside the scope of development. My time beyond studying has been more tightly scheduled, and keeping up with the routine demands of life is more challenging in the tighter time window. It is genuinely difficult to find space to pursue goals, maintain a life, and also live in the Now.
I lost my father unexpectedly and abruptly a little over four years ago. He was an incredibly knowledgeable and diligent engineer, who constantly fought to provide a better life for our family. He worked extremely hard, achieved a lot in his career, touched many lives, and was still able to occasionally make time to play hard. I still do not know exactly why we lost him that day, but I suspect that he may have been working too hard for too long, and not making enough time to fully care for himself.
Life is fleeting, and we cannot anticipate when our time will come.
The balancing act has many spinning plates. We can’t all be ancient philosophers. One can’t only focus on living in the moment with no regard whatsoever for the future, otherwise we could find ourselves suddenly displaced from the workforce and our loved ones without food, shelter, medical assistance, or other critical resources. Especially as machine learning and automation rapidly grow year-after-year, our probability to survive in the modern world is intrinsically dependent on our ability to plan for the future and perform well enough to momentarily outpace human obsolescence. While removing the requirement for a human-dependent workforce should be a great moment of triumph for humanity…that’s a different topic.
To execute on large goals, there is a direct expense of not just your time, but also your opportunities for other experiences. Just as we probably shouldn’t focus on maximizing living without considering the risk we incur by doing so, we also shouldn’t completely embody self-denial and delayed gratification with the hope of an eventual return on the investment. For me, this push-and-pull manifests in the form of guilt, where I worry that not working harder now will result in an even greater expense of time in the future. The experience with my Dad provides a stark and direct warning, though - I must make time for Now.
I am trying to savor a little bit of each moment very intently. Whether it’s a video call with interesting people, or a brief interaction with a kind stranger in real life, or putting together a puzzle with my wife at the table, or even when I’m sitting at my desk, pouring my heart out at one in the morning - there is something peaceful and precious in feeling that instant in time.
Unlike most blog posts right about where we start approaching the conclusion, I haven’t figured out the right balance. The only tips I have are the stories from my experiences. Things seem to be heading in a good direction, and incrementally getting better with learning, and trying, and breaking, and reflecting. Deliberately pausing to savor moments has brought a little more calmness into my daily life, as well.
Within my social circle, we share a channel specifically for peer learning and discussion. Resharing the original post, I posed this question to everyone much earlier this morning:
I will admit that I struggle with needing to feel like I’m being productive with my time. Over the past year, this has very very slowly shifted from being beholden to others to being beholden to myself, and the past few months has been a gauntlet of trying to get in the habit of considering the things that are most important to me first, and establishing better boundaries with external pressures.
That being said, I struggle with being more present, and with being better to myself when it comes to rest and relaxation. The hurdles of life itself become a self-imposed moving goalpost. I can rest a little when I get a development job, I tell myself, but will I actually? It seems like there will just be new challenges and more to rise up to meet. Toiling incessantly, even for personal goals and aspirations, has an opportunity cost in the form of living life, when eventually capitalizing on the work may or may not actually happen.
So, how to both work hard to craft a desirable future while also being more present, especially when there are only 4-ish hours to live within each day, lest you sacrifice sleep and subsequently reduce efficiency tomorrow?
The question seemed to resonate with the group, and I am hopeful that the discussion will continue. If so, I may turn this post into a proper blog post in the future.
The Rest of the Journal
Hoo boy, that ended up being pretty long, huh? I’m hoping to let it mentally cook a bit more before deciding what to do. There was some activity in Scrimmage Product Lab, but I honestly was mostly just in my head about this post today. We have a TDC planning meeting scheduled for in the morning tomorrow which should generate a well-defined MVP, stack, and procedure.
This is also my fiftieth log entry! Speaking of time, I can’t believe I’ve written so many posts already. What a journey this has been!
- Check and post in the Product Lab Discourse
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