On Value and Lifespan

(Epistemic status:  A reframe of how one prioritizes their time – if you understand how long 2 hours out of a day is in the macro sense already and find bigger numbers don’t have as much impact, this probably isn’t going to be helpful.)

How do you decide how you spend your time?  Think about that problem for a minute.

Is it entirely legible to you?  Can you define all the variables that go into deciding how each block of time in your life is spent?  Likely not – you’re doing a lot of illegible automatic calculation based on habits, values, and other factors to eventually decide on a course of action.  This is generally reasonable – you might have some dissonance between what you believe you prioritize and what you actually prioritize, but you can extrapolate useful information about yourself by how you actually spend your days.

Still, that autocalculation sometimes isn’t as outcome oriented as we might like – in the cases where you desire outcomes that your system 1 may not necessarily be on board for, it can be helpful to recontextualize the problem.  In that vein, I propose a ritual:

Take a moment to breathe.  Focus yourself for this task, breathing slowly, relaxing, getting comfortable for deep consideration.

Now, consider an activity you enjoy doing.  Imagine doing that activity, the benefits you get from it, the costs it imposes – see the activity in full.  If it helps, write down these benefits and drawbacks, both immediate and downstream.  For example, if I enjoyed  going to the gym for an hour daily – I might write how it’s good for my attractiveness, discipline, health, etc.  I’d write down how it might be too much stress on my joints, or maybe it’s inconvenient and stressful to get to my gym.

Now, consider how long you spend doing that – and consider how long (on average) you are going to live.  Use actuarial tables if you must.  Figure out how much time you would be investing in an activity if you had a habit of doing it every day for the rest of your life – in this case, I’d be going to the gym, 1 hour a day, for the rest of my life.  I’m probably going to live about 50 years longer – that’s 18,250 hours, or around 761 days.  A little over two years.

Now, consider how you’d feel if your life just were that amount of time shorter.  Instead of living 50 years, I live 48 years in the gym example.  This is life with the activity.

Lastly, compare your regular lifespan without the activity to your implicitly shortened lifespan with the activity – does that seem like a worthwhile trade?  Even if the activity itself might not seem worth it, the benefits might be.

If you do this calculus and find yourself shocked at how much of your life would be spent on a habit that never changes, then it might be a good time to change how you allocate your time with regard to that habit.

Now, the point of all this is to reframe how you prioritize your time.  Another, likely common example:  If 8 hours of work daily (and all the benefits and drawbacks thereof) is not with 8+ hours of your life daily (technically, a 40 hour work week is roughly 5.7 hours a day but you probably have a commute too – do the math!)…

You might want to quit your job.

Now, that’s an extreme example of how this analysis might change your life – more likely, it’ll shift around a few habits that don’t seem as aligned with your values – or at least, what you perceive your values to be.  The risk with this approach is that it is using S2 to warp an S1 calculation, and S2 tends not to be the most informed on what your monkeybrain really wants out of life.  Sometimes this is fine, S2 can guide you to being a better person for some value of better – but sometimes you end up breaking something vital to yourself in pursuit of externally imposed goals.

Overall, this technique is a way of recasting the way you prioritize the things you do.  For me, it really brings home how much time I might be wasting on something that I don’t really want, like, or need – 1 hour a day might seem trivial, but 2 years of my remaining life is much bigger and sobering.  For some people, the big number doesn’t have as much weight as just realizing that they spent one of their 24 hours in a day on something that wasn’t serving them.  There are a lot of ways to cast this – you can also pick a time horizon that’s much shorter than your life, for more time limited activities.  The point is to slow down how you are processing your prioritizing and inject new information.

Discussion questions:  How did the ritual affect your perspective on how you spend your life?  What values do you consciously try to optimize for?  What is the meaning of an hour for you?  A day?  A year?



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