Letters to my sons

A collection of thoughts and lessons I've learned along the way for my little men, and anyone else that's interested.

Posts tagged with #Prioritization

My sons,

Popular culture today is centered around, and even driven by the catch phrase “fomo” (fear of missing out). It is engrained in the way we think, the way we act, and the way we process and apply our values. Whole companies are built around creating more fomo and then capitalizing on that fomo to drive our behaviors. Our capitalist society is indeed founded on the basic engine of fomo -> consumer behaviors.

Take advertising. The goal of advertisers is to convince you as their target customer to believe that you’re missing out on whatever glamorous and glorious thing the more-beautiful-than-average model on your screen is doing. Always put together, fashionable, and incredibly happy, the models tell you that whatever they’re selling has just changed their lives. And not just that, it’ll change yours too! So call/click now and get your life upgrade!

Or consider social media. Whether you’re on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or whatever the latest craze is of your day, the basic premise is the same. Give people the tools to glam up their public persona (ie Insta filters etc), give them a targeted platform to share that persona (ie your social network paired with an AI-based recommendation engine), and then create a virtuous cycle of likes, re-tweets, and dopamine hits. All of that to keep you coming back for more, and to make you feel like you’re missing out and need a change.

And so we click.

We click through ads that promise us that same happiness that we see our friends enjoying. We buy things that help us glam up our own personas by adding filters, buying light rings, and learning the right selfie angle to make our pictures really pop. We engage with content that tells us our kids need to be in more camps, need to learn more skills, need to have a long list of extra-curriculars.

Annnnnd cue the fear!

Bombarded by these messages daily, even hourly, we are left defenseless to the onslaught of subtle messaging telling us that we’re missing out, that our children are missing out. Over time, we begin to live that life - you know, the one that is so busy with scheduled stuff that there is no room for rest and relaxation. We begin to internalize the rat race as the correct way to live life. We begin to let fomo ruin (ahem, run) our lives.

The down side of fomo

There are many, many down sides of fomo, and this post is not not a fomo post after all, so I won’t even attempt to cover them all. I will however share a few that I believe are particularly problematic.

  1. Fomo causes us to lose control of our lives. We move to a space where the driving force is social media, or what our friends share with us, or what we see on TV. Regardless of the source, fomo causes us to relinquish control over where we spend our time and how we spend our thought energies.
  2. Fomo doesn’t allow us to enjoy life. Le joie de vivre is not experienced by running around following our fears; rather, it is experienced by ignoring everything else and focusing on the current moment.
  3. Fomo does not elevate life. It is focused on the surface, on the veneer. It causes us to spend our time replicating the actions of others instead of introspecting and expanding on the grand and elevated life.

So what’s the alternative?

The joy of missing out

To figure out an alternative mindset, let’s first dive into why fomo exists in the first place.

Popular culture tells us that missing out on something is bad, and as such is something that we should be fearful of. It tells us that when we miss out on something, our life is less than it would have been if we hadn’t missed out, and as a result we ought to aim to never miss out on things.

That fundamental line of thinking has driven so much of our industry, our products, and our cultural norms. It is deemed socially acceptable for one to be out with friends but also having a full asynchronous texting conversation that requires concentrating on one’s phone for 30 seconds every several minutes. It is normal for one to receive a notification and pull out one’s phone, handle the event, and return to the conversation without any apology because there’s nothing culturally wrong with the behavior!

Not only is this rude, but it also misses out on a basic premise of human life: one cannot fully appreciate that which one is not fully immersed or present in.

This means that by having fomo, by multi-tasking, being never fully present, and by attempting to keep abreast of all the social media posts and topics that are constantly bombarding our phones, we miss the life that is being lived in front of our eyes. In other words, fomo is causing us to have a worse life.

Instead, we should realize that missing out is a good thing. In economics, we’re taught that the opportunity cost of investing in option A is the ability to invest in every other option out there. But if we invest in a way such that we want to not pay any opportunity costs, then we don’t make any investments at all and therefore remain stagnant. If we choose to hedge our bets and invest a little in everything, we completely fail to capture exceptional growth events in a particular option.

This is exactly true in our personal lives as well. To have a rich and full life, we must choose things to invest in, and by definition pay the opportunity cost of not being able to invest in everything else. In other words, missing out on one thing means that we’ve invested fully in something else. It means we’ve explicitly chosen something else to spend our time on, and in so choosing have committed ourselves to something rather than sitting around waiting for the possibility of something.

This is why we should live with the joy of missing out.

Ruthlessly prioritize

In order to fully embrace the richness of each experience, we need to ruthlessly prioritize what we spend our time on. A few notes on ruthless prioritization, as it’s slightly different than your standard prioritization.

  1. Ruthless prioritization requires a stack rank, with no ties. For you logic/math people out there, this means that for two goals A and B, it must be true that A > B or B > A. This also means there is no “P1 bucket”. Each discrete goal has its own priority, and it is explicitly not equal to any other.
  2. You cannot accomplish all your goals. There exists some maximum number of goals that are accomplishable in a given timespan, and that is almost always a smaller number than the things that you might want to have on your priorities list. This means explicitly that there are things on your list that you will not be able to accomplish. This is hard for many people to accept, and as a result many try (and fail) to do a little bit of everything. This is foolish, and will always end in either failure or in burning yourself out.
  3. Goal N+1 will always be the worst! This is because it was just under the line, which means that it’s something you value. As a result, it will be tempting to spend just a little bit of time on it. Don’t. You need to actively decide not to do it, as it didn’t make the list.

By actively prioritizing the things that you do, you intentionally set aside things that you would have liked to do but aren’t going to, which in turn allows you to focus on the things that are the most important! Welcome to the joy of missing out!

And so my boys, my hope for you is that you’re able to experience the deep joy that comes from a life well lived, filled with rich experiences and strong connections with loved ones. My prayer is that you never fear missing out on things but instead take joy in the knowledge that you’ve intentionally decided on the experiences you want in your life, as well as those that you don’t.

My sons,

Much has been said on the topic of time management, and with good reason. Our world seems to be obsessed with it, with the ability to be ever more efficient, and with the relentless pursuit of higher output and productivity. There is much research and many lifetimes of thought that have gone into the topic with many different techniques and practices that I won’t get into.

Instead of focusing on how to manage one’s time, I want to muse on the topic of what it means to manage your time well.

Why do you want to manage time well?

The first question we need to ask is a question of purpose, of motivation. Why do we want to manage our time well? What is the primary purpose? While there are no objectively wrong answers to this question, there are a few dangerous ones that will make success very difficult.

For example, some great motivators for time management are to have more time for one’s pursuits, to have more time at one’s disposal for things of value, and to free up time for others to claim. Some bad motivators are to be more efficient so that we can get more work done, or so that we can cross more toil-based tasks off our seemingly neverending todo list.

We’ll get to why those are bad motivators later, but for now let’s suffice it to say that our motivators not just whether we’re successful but also the nature and the route by which we’re successful in managing our time well.

How we work

Whether we’re discussing our professional work life or making progress in our personal life, the way we work tends to be similar across both. Some of us are list people, some are chaotic feeling-driven people, some are guilt-driven, and some are externally driven.

Regardless of your preferred style, there are a few things that are simply limitations of the human brain that affect us all.

First, the human brain is only able to concentrate on one thing at a time. Contrary to popular belief, multitasking is not actually possible for the human mind. Our brains perform similarly to single CPU-based systems - we switch between each of our multiple tasks at a rate that is passable (ie not immediately obvious but easily noticeable to the keen observer).

For our brains as it is for CPUs, this is expensive. This is because context switching wastes cycles. In computing, this means that each time the CPU switches tasks, the context that it needs is recalled from memory. That recall process wastes time and cycles. This is also true of our brains - switching context back into focus wastes our brain energy and takes time.

Studies tell us that it takes on average 23 minutes for an average adult brain to get from one task into a flow state on a different task. This means that each time we context switch, it takes us 23 minutes to be back to working at full strength!

All this is to say that we cannot, and should not attempt to multitask.

As such, we must prioritize. We first build a list of all of our priorities. Then we need to remove our distracting priorities. This means that for anything that doesn’t fall into our top 5, we must actively avoid them because they were priorities that didn’t make the core 5 but are close enough that they can (and certainly will, if we allow them) distract us from accomplishing our top ones.

This is hard! These are things that we actively want to do and believe there is much value in doing, so letting go of them will be incredibly difficult!

Next, once you’ve finished the top 5, don’t just automatically get to the next one - re-evaluate your list at that time to determine if the next things still are the next right things to do. We often find that they aren’t!

Lastly, management experts suggest no more than three things going on at a time. Many successful executives who seem to do so many things at once in fact limit themselves to doing one thing at a time - they get that thing done well, and then move onto the next.

For example, Mozart is the only known composer who was able to work on multiple works at once, all of which were masterpieces. Bach, Haydn, Handel, Beethoven - they all worked on a single piece at a time, and didn’t move onto the next until the first was finished.

Chances are, you are not a Mozart.

Incredibly effective executives have focus, concentrate on one thing, and concentrate their organization on one thing. Know where you need to concentrate your time and your team’s time, and do so intentionally.

Know what we can realistically accomplish

As we progress in our lives they become increasingly busy. Professionally, we have more demands and requirements of our time, and our added value to our organizations mean that more weight is placed on the things assigned to us. Personally, our lives expand to include dating, spouses, children, social obligations, taking care of aging loved ones, and hopefully, going on vacation and seeing the world!

What do we do with all of these demands?

We attempt to do them all. We try to make time for everything that feels important, but the problem is that constantly adding more without taking away anything is a fools errand, but we’re often too foolishly optimistic (or too stubborn) to see that.

Part of the problem is that what is important, or what “matters” is subjective. What matters to each of us may be quite different and very nuanced. It therefore behooves us to be thoughtful about processing our inputs so that we determine for ourselves what matters, instead of simply adopting the beliefs and opinions of others.

Another problem is that the minute you start feeling “on top of things”, the goal posts will move and more things will get added to the list.

This is because with each time-saving invention, the bar simply moves to accommodate. For example, the advent of the washing machine made it such that now that you COULD keep all your clothes cleaned, you SHOULD have them always cleaned. As a result, our inventions do not free us but rather enslave us further.

This is made explicitly clearly when we consider those much less fortunate than us. It is a common adage that those living in countries with much less are much happier. This is because they are not burdened with the ever increasing set of things that are possible with some effort and as a result don’t spiral into cultural expectations of making all the possible things required with much effort.

The answer then, lies not in finding ways to do more and to accomplish everything that we think is remotely important. Instead, it lies in us being thoughtful about what truly is important.

So how do you know what is important?

A common strategy here is to do a small amount of work to generate some vague definition of importance in one’s life, and to allow that amorphous cloud unpredictably determine one’s actions. For example, we may decide that we value relationships and friendships. This is such a broad value that it is almost meaningless when it comes to being an input for how to manage one’s life. There are many types of relationships, and each individual relationship is unique in its nature, its time requirements, and therefore its value. As such if we simply act on the value system that we value relationships, a bad relationship may in fact cause us to make bad decisions.

Professional success is another such amorphous value. Not only is this vague description harmful, but it has the additional unfortunate reality that it expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. No matter how much time you give it, it will always use that time, and more. This is why being more efficient so that one can get more work done is a fools errand - there will always be more work.

As such it becomes critically important for us to ensure we have the right boundaries around work, and the amount of our lives that we’re willing to give it. These boundaries need not only be restricted to time boundaries! A common misconception when it comes to work is that boundaries here simply mean time restrictions. Work takes up more than just our time - it takes up our thought space, our emotional capacity, our relational capabilities. We need to ensure we’ve got healthy boundaries across all of those.

Adjustments, not solutions

As always, my aim here is not to provide solutions but rather to stir thought and conversation around the topic at hand. As such, I will also not offer solutions but rather a few suggestions for tweaks that we can make in our journey towards managing our time well.

  1. Realize you won’t get it all done. This realization leads to freedom. Ancient farmers knew this - they would get done whatever they could in a day and do the rest the next. They knew that they were not capable of rushing a harvest or of growing a herd, so they accepted that pace of life. Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten that and try to cram more in a day than is humanly physically possible.
  2. Time should not be your own. Because time is a networked resource, it has Much more value the more people around you have control over it. This means that having an abundance of jealously hoarded free time is not useful, but having time where friends can drop by, loved ones can reach out for help, and children can demand your time to play with them is what makes time infinitely more meaningful.
  3. Realize that there are important things and there are urgent ones. You must not starve the important for the urgent. And there are always enough urgent things to take up all of your time, if you let them. Therefore we must ruthlessly prioritize!
  4. Invest in systems that evolve over time. Set aside some time to build systems that will scale for you over time. Learn to make more categorical decisions - choices which once made allow you to eliminates dozens of other choices.

My sons, it is never too late or too early to start learning to manage one’s time well. As such my hope is that you will begin now, no matter when “now” happens to be. Managing our time well will allow us to get more out of the limited time on this earth that we have. And that is a truly beautiful thing.



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