There will never be enough time to make all the things I want to make and do all of the things I want to do. And the same probably holds for you too.
The more I think about that simple truth, that there isn't enough time, the more I realize how unhelpful that line of thinking is.
What does having too little time do for us?
Experts with little time
In the book Gut Feelings, we learn that when professional athletes were given more time to analyze a situation in their sport, they performed worse.
"In an experiment… expert golfers were studied under two conditions: they had either only up to three seconds for each putt or all the time they wanted... Yet surprisingly, experts hit the target more often when they had less time than when they had no time limit."
Golf was not the only sport where taking more time hurts the expert. The same book, Gut Feelings, analyzed other sports too. For example, in another experiment with indoor handball players, a team sport, the players were forced to make decisions instantly.
"Eighty-five young, skilled handball players, each stood in front of a screen.. On the screen, video scenes of high-level games were shown. Each scene was ten seconds long, ending in a freeze-frame. The players were asked to imagine that they were the player with the ball, and when the scene was frozen, to name as quickly as possible the best action that came to mind.
After their intuitive judgments, the players were given more time to inspect the frozen scene carefully, and asked to name as many additional options as they could. For instance, some discovered a player to the left or right they had overlooked, or noticed other details they were not aware of under time pressure. "
We would think that by noticing all those additional details and by having more time, more information, that the player's subsequent options would be far superior to their first gut instincts. But if we think that, we would be wrong, and that's because:
"The order in which possible actions came to players' minds directly mirrored their quality: the first action was substantially better than the second, which in turn was better than the third, and so on. Thus, having more time to generate options just opens the door for inferior ones.
Taking time and analyzing did not generate better choices."
Less time to make a decision led to the best outcomes from these professionals, again and again. The book warns us, "Stop thinking when you are skilled," stop thinking and just do it.
Maybe you're thinking—okay, but these are athletes; they all play their games under tight time constraints, which won't hold for knowledge work. Okay, let's take a look at what happens when deadlines are tight when making rockets; this is an excerpt from the book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.
"The proposed timeline for upending the aerospace industry was comically short. One of the earliest SpaceX presentations promised the first complete engine by May 2003, a second engine in June, the body of the rocket in July, and everything assembled by August. A launchpad would be ready by September, and the first launch would take place in November 2003, or about 15 months after the company started."
Fifteen months from launch to assemble a rocket? That's all very ambitious but did anything get done? From the same book:
"Bob Linden, a Barber-Nichols executive, remembers dealing with him. "Elon showed up with Tom Mueller and started telling us it was his destiny to launch things into space at lower costs and to help us become spacefaring people," he said. "We thought the world of Tom but weren't quite sure whether to take Elon too seriously. They began asking us for the impossible. They wanted a turbo pump to be built in less than a year for under $1 million. Boeing might do a project like that over five years for $100 million. Tom told us to give it our best shot, and we built it in 13 months. He was relentless."
Elon is famous for taking projects with a 3-month deadline, saying it needs to be done in a month; then the team scrambles but inevitably misses the 1-month deadline but delivers it in two months. Still, one month faster than the original deadline. Proving that less time forces more action.
I had similar experiences last year with the engineering teams I manage. My teams now work on Pharmacy systems, and we had very tight deadlines to get many COVID-related features out. These features were things that would go on to help society but the time pressures were intense. In a post COVID world, we needed the ability to ship pills from pharmacies to people's homes, the ability for people to pick up pills from the parking lot. Then later, the ability to get people vaccinated. To manage millions of appointments and vaccine inventory that has a short shelf life. And the list of things to do went on and on, yet somehow all of it got done. I have never seen such a large organization move as fast as it did under those crazy time constraints.
In my personal projects, not having enough time has led to some amazing creative work. Constraints lead to innovation. In my writing, coding, and many other things I do in my personal time, if I didn't place artificial and aggressive time constraints, I wouldn't get out nearly half the stuff that I am able to get out. This essay was written under a weekly time constraint. I also wrote daily essays where I gave myself about an hour to write and publish a small atomic essay. I also send out a newsletter weekly and I give myself about an hour to come up with the content.
Even when I miss on the time constraints, I always get the stuff out faster than if I had no time constraints. Without any time constraints I am much less likely to get anything out.
Here is another example, my brother has been working on an app for creators and teachers to make better explainer videos. But he is one developer, and this is a side project he is working on nights and weekends. So he has a fulltime job, a family and a baby, time is short for him. Yet the app made it out and a lot of people are using it. And it is one of the best drawing and screen recorder tools I have ever used.
Too much time
What do people with too much time on their hands do? David Perell has a great article titled, Don't Kill Time; in it he says:
"Much of modern leisure is slothful. It's spent in a state of passive, shoulders-slumped consumption where we inhale processed foods that make us fat, TV shows that numb instead of inspire, and advertisements that create anxieties that only shopping can relieve. The lethargy of modern leisure says that movement is tyranny, as if humans are batteries to be recharged by the electricity of mindless entertainment. That desire to kill time stems from deep-seated nihilism."
In the article, David tells us about his roommate Mark:
"Mark was never engaged in any kind of fulfilling leisure because he numbed himself in his free time. But his work didn't fulfill him either. He spent a lot of his work hours killing time, too — because he didn't see time as scarce."
If there were more time, we'd waste it. It's why we get just enough time. Fewer time constraints lead to less purpose, and we would all look more like Mark than we realize. In that article, David tells us that there is a little bit of Mark in all of us.
It is amazing how much time I had before I had kids, and yet I produced less than I produce today. I was far less fulfilled then too. Now, I have a fraction of the time, and I find myself being able to squeeze out a hell of a lot more and proving again that less time leads to more action.
But with less time, not only do I do more today than I ever did, but I also enjoy my leisure far more than I ever did because I see its value. David reminds us of this in the article too:
"The well-lived life is granted to those who shatter the chains of nihilism, and instead see both work and leisure time as gifts to embrace. Sloth is evil, for time is the very essence of life, and only in the afterlife does the clock stop ticking."
One great framework that Derek Sivers teaches to reclaim more time for the important things to us is to put whatever we are spending time on through the time test. From Derek's new book How To Live:
"But if it still feels necessary, adjust your time frame. A year from now, will it be important? Ten years from now? Zoom out as far as you need to make it unimportant. Then you're free of it."
As David says at the beginning of his article, "If you're okay with killing time, it's not scarce enough."
What is time anyway?
Time is much more mysterious and relevant to our brains, consciousness, and being than we even stop to think. In the article 'Time Is Elastic: Why Time Passes Faster Atop a Mountain Than At Sea Level" we are told:
"Place one clock at the top of a mountain. Place another on the beach. Eventually, you'll see that each clock tells a different time. Why? Time moves slower as you get closer to Earth, because, as Einstein posited in his theory of general relativity, the gravity of a large mass, like Earth, warps the space and time around it.”
But that relativity of time is not just limited to clocks placed in different locations. That relativity is also internal, from the same article:
“In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.”
In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli says that:
"I suspect that what we call the "flowing" of time has to be understood by studying the structure of our brain rather than by studying physics. Understanding the "flowing" of time is therefore something that may pertain to neuroscience more than to fundamental physics. Searching for the explanation of the feeling of flow in physics might be a mistake."
To me, that all says how much time we have for anything is more relative to our perception of time than it is to the actual amount of time. I could have all the time in the world and waste it, but I could also have an idea in just a few moments that can change my whole life. Elon Musk reminds us that we all probably have an issue with time:
"I think I do have, like, an issue with time," Musk said minutes after shareholders voted to maintain his status as Tesla's chairman... "I'm a naturally optimistic person. I wouldn't have done cars or rockets if I wasn't. I'm trying to recalibrate as much as possible."
Musk isn't the only person with an issue with time. You and I have the same issue; we are only on this planet for a few decades at best.
Which begs the question, why are we on this Earth for only a few decades before we are gone? Who decided all that? It's like the forces of the universe conspired together and said—80 years is all they need, on average, on that planet. anything more, and they will probably waste it, so that is enough time for them.
To me, 80 years feels like just enough time to be born and learn a few things. Then spend a few decades making some things. Maybe along the way, making some babies, creating something with our hands or minds, or starting a business. Then after that, spend a few years passing on all that knowledge, and viola, we are gone.
But maybe the forces of the universe are right? Perhaps we don't need more time on this planet. Perhaps we get just enough time to do what we need to do. Maybe also limited time is better for us, it forces more action. And if we happen to find ourselves with too much time in our hands we should consider constraining it to just enough time.
Weekly postcard newsletter
Get the weekly email with the best ideas and articles I find each week.