Lessons from Living Without Time

Here are some fictional diary entries, reconstructed from actual events:

Six months ago:
My PhD is almost complete! And I finally received my citizenship. Both of those open loops are now closed. I’ll finally have more time to focus!

Three months ago:
Gingko’s server crashed. The cause was a silly mistake from two months ago. No big deal. I just brought it back up, and made a note to fix it more thoroughly… when I have the time.

Two months ago:
We noticed a poster for a children’s play that our son would love. Great! I’ll just put a note in my inbox, and process it later. I’ll get tickets… when I have the time.

One month ago:
We missed a meal again today. It was sunny out (and a “warm -5 C”), so we rushed out for a walk. But we didn’t have snacks at home, or much in the fridge. Ended up “hangry” at each other most of the walk. We need to figure out meal plans or a more regular grocery schedule! If only we had more time…

And now? My PhD is done, but I don’t know where all the “extra” time went. I never did get around to fixing that issue, and the server crashed briefly again a few days ago (sorry!). The play for my son was sold out by the time I managed to look into it.

So. I’m a 31 year old husband, father, and business owner, with full control of my schedule, goals, and income, yet still find myself with an empty fridge or an overflowing laundry pile like I did as a teenage student. My customers missed some work time, my son missed a play, and I could list countless other instances of small and big failures that were predictable and completely avoidable.

A heavy question hangs over this, that I’ve always been afraid to ask: Why?

It took living without time for one week
to finally answer it.

Here’s what I discovered by living without clocks for just 7 days…

A Time-less Sabbatical

As I’ve recounted before, I take every 7th week off as a sabbatical. It’s a chance to reflect and grow. To compensate for a particularly stressful few weeks, this sabbatical I wanted to go even further into decompression and quiet reflection. So I decided we’d remove one more source of pressure: time itself.

My wife and I turned off, reset, randomized, or hid any and all the clocks we had. We turned off buzzing alarms, and instead used a sunrise clock to slowly turn on from 5:30-6am. Google Now would notify us when we needed to leave for any scheduled appointments.

For a week, our days were to be dictated entirely by our internal rhythms, and the rise and set of the sun.

Day 1 – Monday

I woke up to the gentle brightening of our artificial sunrise. I had a short breakfast, did some pull-ups, and went to my office for my “self-reliance” ritual.

And then, simply because I felt like it, I started processing my physical inbox. It was overflowing with notes, receipts, flyers, and random cables and electronics. All kinds of loose ends left over from the chaos weeks.

In true GTD fashion, I’d take the top item, and then decide if it were to be trashed, saved, or acted upon. In GTD there’s a rule that if an action takes less than 2 minutes, you do it, because it’s not worth keeping track of. Sometimes, you’re allowed to expand this to 5 or “even 10 minutes”. On that day, I had all the time in the world. If it was actionable, I simply did it right then, and wouldn’t put anything down until I had finished, or hit an insurmountable obstacle. Nothing took longer than 15 minutes, and some items had been sitting there for months. The obstacles never showed up, and I finished everything in my inbox, leaving no closed loops.

I was at this for what felt like several hours, but I was surprised to find that my wife hadn’t woken up yet. The daylight still had that early-morning feel. I kept working with the “relaxed concentration” that I’d read about often, but never experienced outside of flow activities.

My wife and son did wake up some time later, of course. We had breakfast together, we played on the floor. We went for a walk. And while we did all the same things we usually do, I felt more present in each[1].

The day didn’t simply pass,
it kept expanding in front of us.

I went to bed with a quiet sense of awe at the difference I felt.

Day 2 – Tuesday

On waking, I worried that what I had felt the day before was a fluke. I wondered if I had simply been stunned by the stillness and quiet, but that today I will have adjusted.

But Tuesday expanded just like Monday did.
Two days felt like three.

Something important had shifted in my mind, and I needed to find out what it was.

Days 3-7 – Deep Dive

I realize something.
On the surface there’s no difference between a regular week and a sabbatical week.

I still wake up at 5:30am, perform my morning ritual, and do at least three hours of focused “work” before the family wakes, and fit in a few more hours throughout the rest of the day for emails, customer support, and general upkeep.

So why does a sabbatical week feel so much different from a regular one?
And why did this time-less sabbatical feel so different from a clock-bound one?
In other words, why is it during my “free” weeks that I’m most productive?

Clearly, if all external circumstances are similar, but the effect still exists, then the difference must be internal. There was something about my mindset that changed.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I did what I always do: “Deep dive”. I Googled everything I could think of around the subject of time perception. I used StumbleUpon to throw random ideas into the mix. I searched and sampled at least 8 Kindle books, and fully read three of them.

In the end, the answer was simple:

For as long as I can remember,
I lived my life with a mentality of “Time Scarcity”.

Scarcity Mindset

Being in scarcity means “having less than we feel we need”. Having less money than you feel you need is the most common image of scarcity. Having less global wealth and resources than we need is scarcity (which is a myth).

But scarcity doesn’t only apply to money or resources. It’s a deeply seated biological reflex, rooted in our fight for survival. Scarcity is everywhere.

Take sunshine. In the spring and summer, I have a scarcity mindset towards sunshine. Montreal winters are long and brutal, especially for an Italian-blooded, desert-born person like myself. So I feel pressured to rush outside on every day of sun, I feel guilty when I’m indoors, and I’m acutely aware that it won’t last. Our very scarcity towards sunshine means we enjoy it less. We might be so focused on the short-term prospect of going outside, that we don’t spend enough time inside planning and organizing outings like picnics and barbecues. We are outside for the sake of being outside, whether we’re enjoying ourselves or not.

Whatever you feel you lack becomes an obsessional focus, to the detriment of everything else.

That said, scarcity can be positive. Having deadlines produces time scarcity, constraints produce option scarcity, and both of these can be great for productivity. But the difference is that deadlines and constraints are intentional and confined to the duration of the project.

I’ve experienced money scarcity, and have lived my entire life with time scarcity.
Feeling scarcity is a constant burden, and a thief of life.

The Science of Scarcity

One of the books I read this week was “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much”.
The research is striking, and powerful enough to overturn a lifetime of misconceptions.

Whenever read about someone in financial troubles, living paycheck to paycheck, and under climbing debt, I would assume that they lacked self-control or intelligence. And when this happened to me? When I would find myself with “more month than money”, slowly rising debt (which I thought would never happen), overdrawn accounts? Well then, perhaps it was because I was lazy or stupid, or lacked self-control. Since I don’t believe I am, I created clever justifications[2].

But the research shows that this thinking confuses the cause and the effect.

Scarcity of any kind lowers your IQ by 13-15 points, taking you from “superior” to “average”, or from “average” to “borderline impaired”.

Scarcity isn’t caused by a lack of intelligence, it causes a drop in intelligence. It’s even worse than this. What scarcity does is it fixates your mind on one thing. If that thing is the project you need to finish, scarcity works wonderfully. If that one thing is how much money you have now, then everything outside of that narrow tunnel suffers. Including how much money you’ll have in the future.

In short, scarcity measurably lowers your fluid intelligence (IQ, problem solving, etc), your self-control and your discipline, and triggers short-term thinking.

To get out of living in scarcity, you desperately need precisely the faculties that scarcity takes away.

The poor get in debt and stay in debt. And the busy make more commitments than they have time to fulfill, and nothing gets done right, leading to more and more time debt.

Minute-Wise, Year-Foolish

The most painful result of scarcity thinking for me is this:

I viciously guard my minutes, hours, and days,
but allow my months and years to slip by.

It took me 8 years to get my PhD in physics, which was on some minor problem, during which time I published exactly zero papers. I know without question that I could have finished it in at least half that time, if only I had stopped to look up from juggling my hours, and set some deadlines for my months and years.

And I realize I’m doing the same with Gingko. Managing a product is hard. Managing a product under both money and time scarcity is much harder still. The thing is, debts cross boundaries. My time debt from trying to juggle a PhD, looming fatherhood, and Gingko led me to acquire financial debt. Pressures of time and money during Gingko’s development led me to poor architectural decisions and technical debt.

If scarcity on any one dimension can lower one’s IQ, scarcity on multiple dimensions has  a compounding effect. Since I’m in money, time, and technical debt, I seem to be in a very deep hole indeed.

Escaping Scarcity

This seems to be a very grim scenario. Let me recap:

The less time you have, the more carefully you need to manage it, but the harder it is to manage.

You can replace “time” with “money” or any other scarcity, the principle is the same. It’s feels like a trap with no escape. Except there is one. In my time-less week, I discovered the one word that lets us climb out.

The less time you feel you have, the more carefully you feel you need to manage it, but the harder it is feels to manage.

In truth, none of my debt holes on their own are very deep. My financial debt is extremely small compared to the average North American. I have many time commitments, but also full control over my time and can invest it however I choose. And my technical debt is only superficial, and more a sign of seeing old code with consistently improving eyes, than it is due to actual structural problems.

A change of mindset is all it takes to shift out of scarcity and into an “investment” mindset. Eliminating repetitive List B activities is a time investment. Doing things right once, is a time investment. Deliberate practice and producing consistent quality work, is a time investment.

Z-daycareThese investments can sometimes yield returns that are astronomical. This free week, we finally took the time to go through the process of selecting, applying to, and enrolling our son in a part-time daycare. We imagined that this task would involve multi-month wait-lists, sorting through reams of options, calling dozens of places to fit our “unique” needs (very part-time, high-quality care, within walking distance, etc etc).

We had been putting off this task for months, and in the end, all it took was a 3 minute call to our first choice facility (a Montessori daycare a few blocks away), and our son started two days ago, and is adjusting wonderfully. My wife and I have gained at least 8-10 hours every week, for at least a year. That’s a return on time invested of 1,000,000 % for each of us, and our son gains the valuable social experience he would lack otherwise (since we will be homeschooling).

The server issue? It took 12 minutes to fix, for good. Booking fun family events? It took 25 minutes to scan through all the local event listings for the criteria we need, select a few key events, and reserve the (usually free) tickets. Groceries? I sat down for 20 minutes and printed a canonical grocery/inventory list to keep in the kitchen, arranged in the order that I move through the grocery store.

Time investments are everywhere, once you take the time to look for them.
And, like financial investments, they compound.

The Opposite of Scarcity

It might seem that if it’s a scarcity mindset that matters, then we need to acquire an “abundance” mindset to overcome it. On this, though, I agree with author and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown:

“For me, the opposite of scarcity is not abundance. It’s enough. I’m enough.”

To escape my scarcity traps, I just need to realize:

I will never have all the time to do everything I want to do. But I will always have enough time to do the few things that truly matter.


Notes & Further Reading

  • [1] I couldn’t go into this further on this post, but I realized that there is absolutely no value to being aware of the minutes and hours passing. Incredibly, I found that checking the time compulsively is no less of a distraction than checking email compulsively. It’s possible that flow is as enjoyable as it is mostly because we lose track of time.
  • [2] Since I am not stupid or undisciplined, I resolved this dissonance with these brilliant justifications: “money isn’t a measure of self-worth” (true), and “money isn’t a worthy goal” (false).
  • How to Invest Your Time Like Money by Elizabeth Grace Saunders. Understanding the parallels between time and money is worth the time.
  • Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. Short and convincing, and though it lacks a “how to escape scarcity”, the understanding you’d gain on the mindset by reading this can show you the way out.
  • Do It Now” (Steve Pavlina) and “Single-Handling” (Brian Tracy). This technique is simple but powerful. Choose the most important thing, and work on it till it’s done. The trick is to overcome time scarcity first, so that you feel you have the time to finish.


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