Life is short, I’m sure you’ve heard. The recent birth of my niece got me thinking about whether this is true or not.
Instead of measuring life in units of time, we'll measure it in activities. I'll use myself as an example*.
I'm 23 years old. Let's be optimistic and say that I'll live for another 60 years. I don't swim in the ocean very often, maybe once every two years. That means that I've got about 30 swims left.
I enjoy reading. I read about 10 books each year. That means that I'll read another 600 books. It feels like I’ll read an endless number of books in the future, I actually have to choose only 600 of all the books written and yet to be written and accept that I’ll sign off for eternity without knowing what goes on in all the rest.
I love sushi, but I only eat it about 4 times per year. That means I've got about 240 sushi buffets to go.
I see my parents often. I'm lucky, but what if I end up living in a different country to them? That would mean that I'd get to see them for about 14 days each year. My parents are in their fifties. Optimism gives them 30 years to live. That's 420 days left with them. You can draw 420 dots on a sticky note. Try it, it's rather sobering.
So, life is short.
Why does it matter to know this? Personally, it shows me the value of time.
We see someone throwing money away, we call that person crazy. It bothers us, why would that person waste money like that? We think it's crazy to waste money, yet most of us have no problem with wasting time.
I suppose this happens because money is measurable. We can look in our bank account or our wallets and we know exactly how much we have left. The limit is clear, we know when it'll run out.
Time is different. The amount we get is uncertain, but limited. It's much easier to waste because we don't know how much we have left.
This, is actually crazy. We can make more money when it runs out, but we can't make more time.
Time is the most powerful force in the universe. Nobody controls it. Nobody can stop it. The best thing about time is that if you spend it correctly it'll amplify your life. The worst thing is that if you spend it incorrectly, it turns into regret.
Ok, so here's what we know so far: Life is short. Time is precious.
Does this change anything?
Well, sort of. Suddenly, instances, where you find yourself thinking that life is too short for something, hit you a little bit harder. If you find yourself thinking that about something, you should try to eliminate it if you can.
HERE'S THE BULLSHIT
What is life too short for?
The answer, for too many of us, is bullshit*.
Bullshit is the pointless meetings, endless traffic, the arguments online. It's the meaningless addictions we feed and small things we get angry about. It's the things which probably won't matter in the end. We've all got our own bullshit and you probably already know where yours is.
Sometimes bullshit is inescapable. You have to make money, so you have to work. This often comes with pointless meetings and traffic, things which are out of our control. It's forced upon us and we've got to put up with it to a certain extent. This kind of bullshit is difficult to escape.
Then there's the other bullshit, the one which we let into our lives. We either invite it in through the front door, or it sneaks in through the back door and we get used to living with it. Just because we get used to living with it doesn't mean it isn't bullshit.
Being quarantined* for the past few weeks has provided a useful magnifying glass to identify bullshit.
It’s shown us the things which trick us into wasting our time. Social media is one of the main culprits, so is Netflix. The reason we use these products is that they're extremely good. They're entertaining and addictive, and they’re easy to find.
That’s why we need a strong bullshit filter. Ask yourself, "Is this how I want to spend my time?" Asking this question frequently makes identifying the bullshit a lot easier.
LIFE & TIME
How do we experience time?
Imagine a very long wall, perhaps a hallway. The wall is covered in a simple white coat of paint. It has a few blemishes and cracks running through it. These stand out, but they're not much to look at. You can see and understand the whole thing in barely a glance, there's not much to it.
But now imagine the same wall covered in pictures. Imagine polaroids, imagine drawings, imagine paintings of all sizes and shapes. Imagine a part of the wall is a whiteboard with equations and questions. Imagine chalkboard paint splashed along another section and a beautiful chalk mural in the centre.
Now if you turned a corner, and looked at this magnificent hallway, would you be able to take it all in with just a glance or does it slow you down? Would you walk slowly, taking in each and every little detail and change?
Simply put, filling the hallway doesn't make it longer, it makes it feel longer*.
Life is short. Time is precious. It's often a lesson learnt by taking things for granted. Losing someone close to you leads you to question the time you spent with that person. Did I make the most of it? Did I spend enough time with them while they were alive?
These are frightening questions, but they're questions we should ask ourselves while people are still here, to make sure that the answers are ones we can live with once they're gone.
Since we know that life is short and time is precious, we need to account for it. We can do this by avoiding bullshit and not delaying doing the things that excite us most. Perhaps it's your dream to scale Kilimanjaro, perhaps it's to visit Mecca. We each have our own dreams, and most of us have had them for a while. We think that we'll always be able to do these things, so we continually put them off. In reality, they won't always be possible.
It's difficult to be impatient with these ideas, but that's probably what we should do. Telling yourself that life is short and that you shouldn't wait to go to Mecca doesn't get you any closer to going. Just book the trip.
I realise that it's easy to throw out a blanket statement saying 'follow your dreams.' This isn't always possible and circumstances make it difficult.
So, what else can we do?
Pay closer attention to the time that you have. When you do something, get the absolute most out of it. When you have the chance to do something exciting with a loved one, do it. This will help to avoid regret because when you think about the person in your life who you've lost, it's the things you could've done but didn't which make you sad.
Consciously seek the things that matter. Seek things which will bring a smile to your face as you walk past a photo of them in your hallway. This is probably more important than anything else.
A NOTE TO SELF
I live nearby my newborn niece, as well as my grandparents. One has an entire lifetime ahead of her, the other has a lifetime of memories. This has given me an interesting perspective on time. It's strange in the way that it applies the same to everyone, whether it's your first or last day on earth.
At 23 years old, I prefer to think that I have the majority of my years ahead of me. That's why this essay is a note to myself more than anything else. It's a lesson I hope to keep with me.
Life is short. Time is precious. Prune the bullshit, because when you do, it is much easier to appreciate the length of life, instead of fearing its shortness.
1. The idea of measuring life in this way comes from an article titled 'The Tail End' which does a far more comprehensive measure of life. You can read it here.
2. This term comes from a Paul Graham essay on the shortness of life. It describes it so perfectly that I couldn't bring myself to change it. Paul Graham is incredible, each one of his essays are worth reading ten times. You can find them here.
3. Thank you to Tinkered Thinkering for this analogy and for helping me to edit this piece. The Tinkered Thinking website is full of unbelievable content - essays, parables and podcasts - that help you tinker your thinking. I'd definitely recommend checking it out.
4. Future note: Coronavirus has seen the country (and most of the world) go into quarantine.