Happiness warning: This conversation might make you plan your life towards greater lifelong joy.
From Work-Life-Balance to Time-Optimized-Living
I hope you have what the world calls ‘work-life-balance’. Perhaps you have figured out some method in your busy life that works for you in achieving that. But what if you are still missing something? Something much bigger that you had not given much thought to! In fact, I am willing to bet that the vast majority of people with ‘work-life-balance’ are missing what I think is of greater and overriding importance. So, today, I am going to talk to you about what I call ‘time-optimized-living’. I will also suggest a few tips for your journey towards achieving it.
I am addressing Everyone
This topic is of relevance to everyone. I consider myself lucky to have friends with accomplishments in various domains. Blockbuster movie stars, championship sportsmen, international sportswomen, fashion models, poets and book authors, award winning surgeons, globetrotting dentists, journalists, tech entrepreneurs – the list can go on…
As I state very clearly to billionaires or to those with a millionth of that, we all have only 24 hours in the day, but we don’t all have the same number of days. And it’s not clear that for a given 24 hours, that each of us spends it wisely. Yes, we all do things that we think maximizes our happiness (and often it doesn’t even do that). And, yes, we all try to do it with intelligence – but do we do it wisely?
Time is Money – Demonetization in Different Currencies
I am quite obsessive about time and how I use it. Besides being disciplined about punctuality with meeting times, I like to keep track of how my time is used once a meeting commences. Humans are not naturally programmed to have a supremely optimal handle on time. Besides the circadian clock that is controlled naturally by the light-dark cycles driven by the earth’s rotation, human perception of the passage of time is very subjective. That subjectivity is captured beautifully by Einstein’s quote about a pretty girl, a hot stove and the passage of time. Most of this relates to short time spans – a minute, an hour, a day, a week or even a year. But what about longer periods – multiple years, decades or even large lifetime fractions? Unfortunately, the phenomenon of mishandling time, at a practical level, gets worse – for individuals and, therefore, for society.
You WILL die – you WILL leave it all behind
I would like you to now internalize this ultra-simple graphic of your financial life. Whether you are one of my billionaire friends or one of my friends who struggles to make ends meet, ignoring debate about the slope or the lengths of any of the lines, this pretty much captures it succinctly. What is clearly not up for debate is that you came to this life with nothing and you will go with nothing.
Satisfying our Professional Passions or Hobbies
Partly because of the need to survive and thrive, but mostly because corporations tell us we need to do it, we spend a very large part of our adult years uncontrollably engaged (I wrote ‘enslaved’ and as an afterthought changed it to ‘engaged’) in some form or the other by the corporate world. Whether we have very satisfying professional careers, whether we started off our adult lives with large amounts of endowed wealth or whether we build profitable businesses from scratch ourselves over decades, the connection to the world of business is strong. And that is perfectly fine, as long as there is balance. And by ‘balance’ I mean balance in all time-intervals of life. In that ‘all’ lies the key to my message.
Work-Life-Balance does NOT necessarily imply Time-Optimized-Living
We are all aware of the general idea of ‘work-life-balance’. Whether your business is in New York and pays lip service to it, or in London and encourages it, or in Mumbai and doesn’t care about it, you will have a decent idea of what it means – even if you do not have it. We even have businesses that are built around that concept (hey, why work in the kitchen when you can order in, with a few clicks on your smartphone? never mind that this habit will kill you slowly).
Now, here is the central point of my chat today. What I would like to draw your attention to is the distinct possibility that, perhaps, if you focus on daily or weekly work-life-balance, you are highly susceptible to incorrectly reaching the conclusion that you have achieved a state of time-optimized-living – balance across the time span of, not a working day, or a work week, but over your expected lifetime. Although work-life-balance is very important, it is only one, perhaps necessary, component of time-optimized-living – it is not time-optimized living.
Mind you, if you do not even have work-life-balance then it is near impossible that you have time-optimized-living. I have friends, some younger than I am, who have shortened their lives significantly with the false belief that a terrible lifestyle to accumulate financial assets is some form of time-optimized-living. Intelligence being applied, I’m sure, but wisdom, not!
Money has Time Value, Time has Money Value, in all Denominations
In my career as a finance professional I have been fortunate in being able to work in settings where the intellectual focus of problem solving has spanned across time horizons of micro-seconds to multiple decades. Typically, in any of these settings, at any future horizon under consideration, the typical goal is to maximize benefits with respect to the costs incurred. Whether it is to execute thousands of stock-portfolio trades a minute, or set strategic asset allocations for pension funds with future promises to beneficiaries, 70 years from now, the problem statement is clear – maximize profits, minimize shortfalls, keep costs low.
In my years of advising professionals on their career plans or individuals on their wellness, it is evident that, as humans with cognitive biases of all kinds, we do not necessarily optimize across all the relevant horizons in optimal ways. Because the human species is not specifically designed to do this well, that is nothing to be ashamed of. However, the “wise person” inside of you ought to be extremely conscious of it – that ‘awareness‘ is the first step to positive change. Being focused on daily or weekly ‘work-life-balance’ without also paying attention to lifelong time-optimized-living is similar to studying very diligently for medical school entrance exams when, in fact, you want to major in computer science! You might even get into and go through medical school, but you will have thereby missed the big picture of where your true happiness might lie.
Practical Tips for Thinking about Your Solution
Everyone has different circumstances, so a one-size-fits-all solution cannot work. However, the problem-solving framework for every one of us can be common. Here are just a few tiny pointers on the heavy stones in your bag.
Create a simple spreadsheet model that simulates your future financial wealth. It needs to have just a few columns, for example:
 month (e.g. May-2019)
 future income
 future expenses
 their difference i.e. monthly savings and
 accumulation of savings shown in .
Even a simplistic approach such as this is extremely powerful in the insights you will gain. You can even assume, to get started, that your investment return on savings will be 0%. Once you have set it up going out into the future, you will begin to place appropriate weight on the true risks of living with less wealth. In fact, if you do not do this, you run the risk of focusing on the accumulation of too much wealth beyond your needs! It might seem odd that someone with a doctorate in Finance is suggesting that you worry about the risk of accumulating too much wealth, but the actuary in me is saying precisely that!
When was the last time you knew someone yourself who died penniless? On the other hand, when was the last time you knew someone who died with a fair amount of wealth left behind? My guess is that the former is quite rare and the latter very common. Food for thought, eh!
In many urban cultures (e.g. Indians, Chinese) there is a popular lifegoal of working towards leaving ‘a separate home for each of the kids’. If that were to happen for you by chance, that’s great. But to have that as a general goal, to me, is clearly unwise. As for ‘wedding costs’, if you are reading this, you are from a socio-economic background that would normally imply that your child should be able to have a wedding that they can afford for themselves. Pay for a decent well-rounded education, and that’s all.
A very real fear that many humans have is that of healthcare costs when they’re much older. Given that physical health is so closely tied to mental, emotional and spiritual health, this is a concern that I do think you should take seriously, especially because it pertains directly to you – and not to someone else in your generation, previous generation, or future generation (see previous points about leaving homes for your kids or paying for their weddings). The vast majority of my conversations with you over the last few years have been about precisely this aspect – your physical existence and, if you’ve been paying close attention, to other dimensions of your existence.
The best medical insurance you can get for yourself is an improved lifestyle! Anything you pay for over and above that in term of insurance premiums should really be just for the unexpected large medical problems. [Note, of course, medical insurance companies do not exist to make your life easier, they exist to make profits for their shareholders. So, watch out for exclusions, deductibles, sum insured, sub-limits and other features that might leave you ‘open to risk’ when you are least prepared for it.]
Recently, an old friend who was forced to quit what he described as “the corporate banking rat race” wanted to get back into it very soon because, in his own words, “I will get medical cover”. Besides the numerical value of providing that perk being meagre (cost of medical insurance being small in the grander scheme of things) it was going to ‘allow’ him to continue complacently down the same path of unhealthy living that he had been taking for decades. Please do not get me wrong – I have nothing against working for large corporations per se; what I am against is unhealthy living – across all time horizons!
It is not easy, but it is definitely not impossible
If I were to grade the people whose lives I know fairly well, on a scale of 0-to-100 for time-optimized-living, they would span that entire range. Even the wisest urban yogis will not get very close to 100. And, perhaps, the most intelligent among us is closer to zero! Developing wisdom will help us get closer to 100. But, we have to work towards it, on a daily basis. It definitely doesn’t just happen overnight – even if you have had a sudden and unexpected heart attack!
Although I talk about lifelong time spans, do not leave it until some future day. Whether you die later tonight, or 10 years from now, you will go with nothing. You have been guaranteed that. Get started with a plan for time-optimized-living today.
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.