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Are You Wasting Your Precious Life?

February 22nd, 2011 by Steve Pavlina

Let me share with you a simple perspective shift that can help you clarify your priorities in life.

You may spend time on a variety of different activities in the course of a day. Some of these will only take up small slices of time, like 15 or 30 minutes. However, over the course of a year or longer, these small slices can really add up.

Here's a little table showing how many 8-hour days you'll devote to certain activities over the course of 1, 5, and 50 years based on how much time you devote to them in an average day. Eight hours is a typical workday for many people, so this will give you an idea of how much "work" you're investing in these tasks over time.

Per Day Per Year Per 5 Years Per 50 Years
10 min 7.6 days 38 days 380 days
15 min 11 days 57 days 570 days
30 min 23 days 114 days 1,141 days
1 hour 46 days 228 days 2,281 days
2 hours 91 days 456 days 4,563 days

For example, if you average 30 minutes per day processing email, you'll spend the equivalent of 23 8-hour days processing email this year. That's equivalent to 4.6 weeks if you worked 40 hours per week. This means that you're investing more than one full working month out of each year, just processing email. And over the course of 50 years, you'll spend the equivalent of 4.6 working years doing nothing but processing email (assuming 50 work weeks per year at 40 hours per week).

And how easy is it to spend 30 minutes or more per day on email?

If this jolts you a bit, then it's time to reassess how you're investing your time. Do you really want to spend the equivalent of several years out of your life processing email? Checking Facebook? Watching TV? Would you deliberately dedicate 5-10 years of your life to any of those activities?

Having a long time perspective can sharpen your daily decisions. Wasting 15 minutes here and there may not seem like a big deal, but if you get into the habit of doing this every day, it means you'll waste the equivalent of 2.3 years of your life over the next 50 years. Do you really think it's wise to discard all that time as worthless?

Investing Your Time

If you consider how much time you're really investing in certain activities over the long run, you may question whether certain activities are worth such huge chunks of your life.

For each activity you regularly engage in, figure out what your long-term investment is over the next 50 years... or whatever you perceive to be your remaining lifespan. Then imagine how it would feel to make that investment all at once as opposed to doling it out over time.

Would you sacrifice a decade of your life to passively consume all your favorite TV shows? Can you imagine what it would be like to watch TV 40 hours per week for 10 years straight? Do you feel that's a wise investment? Would you want to invest even 1-2 years in such a pursuit?

How about sleeping in late each day, when you could function just as well if you got out of bed an hour earlier? That's the same thing as taking a year off once every 5 years just to lie in bed as if it were your full-time job. Does that seem like a good way to live?

Consider a certain friend or relative that you talk to for 30 minutes a week. Over the next 10 years, you'll have invested about 33 8-hour days in these conversations. Which of your relationships are worth that kind of investment? Which aren't? And who's maintaining those relationships?

Cut the Fluff

When you see how small daily time expenditures add up to years out of your life, you may want to cut some of the most obvious fluff that clearly isn't worth a big investment.

What are the greatest sources of fluff in your life? What can you cut right now?

Which TV shows can you drop? Which websites clearly aren't worthy of you? Which relationships have got to go?

What's Worthy of You?

Once you gain some clarity about which activities are obviously a waste of your life, ask yourself, What activities are truly worthy of my precious time?

If you imagine dividing your life into 5-year chunks, which activities are worthy of a whole chunk?

Would you like to spend 5 years using Facebook for 8 hours per day? Is that a worthy investment? Would you get good value from that?

Some activities I couldn't stomach doing for 5 years straight would be: processing email, watching TV, reading the news, handling junk mail, working at a regular job, or doing accounting.

Some activities I can imagine myself doing for 5 years straight would be: traveling around the world, learning and self-education, creating and sharing original content (writing, speaking, etc.), conducting experiments, having deep conversations with people who fascinate me, cooking (if I was steadily improving at it), learning new languages (maybe), becoming an expert on a subject that interested me greatly, studying martial arts, building a business, or working on projects that inspire me.

I could even see myself potentially enjoying the experience of playing poker for 5 years straight, assuming I got really good at it and was able to travel and compete in tournaments. This wouldn't be at the top of my list, but it's a lot more appealing than spending 5 years answering email.

What do your lists look like?

Upgrading the Unworthy

You'll find that some activities aren't worthy of the time you've been devoting to them, but with a little tweaking, you may be able to change them into worthier activities.

Suppose you realize that you're on track to devote a full 10 years of your life to playing video games. Maybe you like playing games, but you don't feel this activity is worth a decade of your life, so something needs to change. But the idea of dropping games completely doesn't feel good.

Fortunately you don't have to completely abandon an experience that you value. You can upgrade it to something that still feels good to you.

Perhaps 10 years of playing video games is too much to accept, but maybe you'd feel good about devoting 1 year of your life to a similar pursuit. Instead of playing console or computer games, what if you switched to strategy board games? Imagine a fun year spent playing unique and challenging strategy games with your very best friends. You could learn a new game every week, so you'd get to play about 50 new games that year. If the games challenge you mentally and fire up your competitive spirit, this may be a worthwhile pursuit. And it would be a social experience too.

In practical terms, this would mean having one 3.5-hour gaming session about once a month for the next 50 years. And if you're willing to devote 2 years of your life to this pursuit instead of just 1, you could double that. If you really enjoy the games AND you're playing these games with people you like, then this kind of investment might feel good to you — potentially a lot better than spending a decade of your life playing video games by yourself.

Creating Your Life

You're in charge of creating your life. If you don't like where your time is going, it's up to you to change that. Other people can't dictate how you spend your time unless you willingly yield your power to them or they're physically forcing you.

Start by saying no to that which is clearly a waste of your life. Then upgrade or replace those low-value activities with choices that are worthy of you. Cancel your cable TV, and use the time savings to read the books you've always yearned to read. Quit that time-wasting social networking site, and spend a month out of every year traveling instead. Get up an hour earlier, and invest that time in a worthwhile hobby. Dump the corporate slave job, and spend those years doing work you find purposeful and fulfilling.

Don't let this be written on your tombstone:

Here lies John, who passed away
While answering his email one day.
No friend, no child, no loving mate
Could keep poor John from working late.
With each new mail, he worked like hell
To click "reply" instead of "del."
A prompt response he'd always give
But somehow he forgot to live.

Fill your days with activities that are truly worthy of you. Don't be an unconscious drone. Create a real life for yourself.