Ryan Bingham: If you think about it, your favorite memories, the most important moments in your life...
Were you alone?
– Up in the Air (2009)
Amos Tversky was a brilliant psychologist whose career was tragically cut short by melanoma in 1996. Even before his sobering diagnosis, he understood how fragile life can be and how crucial it is to savor the key moments while they last. He once said:
You waste years by not being able to waste hours. (1)
Tversky was commenting on our compulsion to put short-term obligations ahead of long-term needs. Addicted to productivity, it can feel nearly impossible for us to take an afternoon off from work to finally relax, or actually go to the local farmer's market, or finally call the person we've been meaning to check-in with. In the grand scheme of a lifetime, would it really kill us to miss one meeting to spend some time with someone who happens to be in town for the day? Tversky's point makes us ask: which one is really more important?
Many of us, including myself I'm afraid, seem to complain about being too busy. There are too many meetings we're afraid to miss, a parade of entertainment we can't turn away from, some tangential relationships we refuse to end. Why can't we set some of these short-term obligations aside and carve out more time for our hobbies, relationships, and goals – for the long-term needs that really matter?
Well, in some regards we're simply our own worst enemy. We can't say no to low-value obligations and set appropriate boundaries, and we get easily distracted by the endless sources of entertainment at our fingertips.
But not all is directly our fault. As William Deresiewicz argues in his book Excellent Sheep, many of us, especially those in the Gen Z and Millennial generations, have also been conditioned by our modern educational and corporate systems to be afraid of not always being busy. (2)
The conditioning starts in high school, or if you grow up in on the Main Line, in middle school. How many AP classes, extracurricular activities (bonus points for leadership! experience), athletic endeavors, and volunteer work can you jam onto your college application? Free time? What free time? After school is for SAT prep class and a part-time job. And if you're an elite student, summer is efficiently spent at one of those tracked pre-college camps where everyone finally gets to take a class in game theory.
College itself can have a similar parochial focus on credentials and maximizing the busyness to free time ratio. There are still the academic rigors and the extracurricular activities of high school, but now there are higher career and social expectations added in. Now you must take MCAT, begin networking!, have internship at Palantir, study in a foreign country and artlessly brag about it all on LinkedIn under the guise of "self branding." There are prestigious fellowships, graduate schools, and awards to aim for. There are ever higher hurdles to clear, more connections to be made, more "hustling" to be done.
The result of this career-focused arms race is that by the time many young people enter the professional world, they have been conditioned to over-value credentials, such as LSAT scores, promotions, and career "prestige", and under-value relationships and mental health. While many factors, including social media usage, are contributing to the rise in anxiety and depression among today's young people, there's no doubt that this increased focus on perpetual busyness and getting ahead is not helping.
I have a visceral understanding of how this conditioning works because I constantly deal with it myself. I feel a bit guilty setting boundaries, closing the laptop knowing there's still some work to do, and saying no to the latest "incredible" opportunity.
But as Greg McKeown writes, "if you don't prioritize your life, someone else will." (3) I try to ask myself somewhat regularly: do I really need to be this busy? Will I spontaneously combust if I'm late to this meeting because I decided to eat breakfast away from my computer for a change? Do I "have to" send this email, "have to" call this person, "have to" do this thing, or can I "choose to" say no? In most cases, the answer is that, actually, I can say no.
And it will only get more crucial for me to learn to do so. Managing children (other living humans??), taking care of an actual house instead of a single room, leading an entire team or company at work are the future obligations down the road I potentially need to plan for. Learning to prioritize and be ruthless with my time will become not only helpful, but essential. I won't want to miss an anniversary (or in Greg McKeown's case, the birth of his daughter) because of a rather avoidable obligation I can't say no to.
I won't want to waste years because I can't waste a few hours. And hopefully, now, you won't want to either.
(1) Amos Tversky's quote is from The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. This is a book I haven't read yet but have only heard great things about and will be reading soon.
(2) Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz
(3) Greg McKeown's awesome short piece in the Harvard Business Review: "If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will"