Recently, I had the great pleasure of reading an excellent article from Wait But Why entitled Your Life in Weeks. The premise of the article was that if you break down a person’s life into a series of weeks, you can create an interesting view of their life, what they achieved throughout it, and so on.
Although most of the article was about applying this perspective to the lives of famous people and to the life of the “average American,” the last bit of the article encouraged people to turn that perspective on their own life. At the very end of that section was a few brief thoughts on how we use our lives that left me thinking.
Basically, the article broke down a person’s use of their time and energy and money into three groups – enjoying life, building for the future, and a nebulous “neither.” Whenever we spend our time, energy, or money, we’re doing one of those three things.
An ideal state is one where we manage to simultaneously enjoy life and build for the future. The longer we can spend there, the better. Simply enjoying life or simply building for the future is good, too.
But it gets tricky from there, and there’s where my own thinking picked up. Let’s walk through each of the three areas of life a little bit to look a little deeper.
All of us spend some of our time and energy doing things that we enjoy and other things we don’t enjoy. Almost all of us dream of a life where we spend more time and energy doing things we enjoy and less time and energy on the things that we don’t enjoy.
Take me, for instance. I enjoy reading books. I enjoy writing (most of the time, when I’m not suffering from writer’s block). I enjoy hiking around, especially in interesting landscapes and not on insanely difficult trails. I enjoy playing board games and card games. I enjoy spending unstressed time with my children, my wife, my extended family, and my friends. I’m sure you could make your own list that might overlap in some areas with my own and be different than my list in other ways.
The time I spend doing those things is really the best part of my life, and I think that’s true for most people, even if their list of things that they specifically enjoy are different than my own.
Enjoyment That Sacrifices Future Enjoyment
However, there’s a catch. Almost everything that you do in some way sacrifices future enjoyment, some in more ways than others.
For instance, all of the time you spend on enjoyable things that doesn’t also build for the future – even if there is no other real cost involved – means that you’re less prepared for the future than you might otherwise be. That’s an acceptable cost, at least some of the time.
It gets worse, though. Many enjoyable activities come with a steep financial cost as well, and that financial cost restricts future enjoyment. It means that you’re going to have to devote more time building for the future down the road and less time enjoying things.
I see this with some of the expensive hobbies I’ve had in the past and even, to an extent, in the present. A round of golf isn’t cheap. Neither is a brand new board game, or new hiking boots, or anything like that. A big, fattening meal has the same qualities – enjoyable but expensive – except that it adds in a health factor as well.
More and more, I tend to find that enjoyment where there’s a significant sacrifice of future enjoyment – like doing something expensive – ends up kind of detracting from my own enjoyment of the experience. I know that, because I enjoyed this thing now, I’m giving up on enjoyment down the road.
Building for the Future
Another big piece of life is spent on things that are all about building for the future. Work obviously falls into this category as we’re working to get paychecks. Investing clearly falls into this category. Exercise falls into this group, as does education. I’d put a healthy (but not excessive) night of sleep into this category, too, as well as healthy eating. Parenting (if you’re in that situation) falls into this category, too, as you’re building functional adults for the future.
It’s worth noting that building for the future isn’t simply a selfish thing. It also includes activities done to build a better future for others through charitable work or political efforts.
I spend much more of my typical day in this category than I do in the “pleasure” category, for better or worse. As I suggested at the start of this article, I dream of a life where the balance shifts a little bit, but we’ll get to that more in a minute.
Obviously, the more enjoyment you get from “building for the future” activities, the better. But what if you’re not getting any enjoyment?
When Building for the Future Is Miserable
At my last job, I wrote software that geneticists used for their research. This required me to have a pretty good understanding of the types of problems that geneticists were trying to solve as well as a very strong understanding of software development.
When I was actually engaged in solving these kinds of problems, I deeply enjoyed my job. The problem was that, as time moved on, my job moved more and more into the realm of software maintenance, which I didn’t enjoy. Also, due to changes in the management structure of the projects that I worked on, more and more paperwork became a part of the equation, too.
Thus, for me, a big part of my own building for the future became more and more miserable over time. I didn’t enjoy big swaths of my job.
So, instead, I began to devote significant portions of my spare time to finding new avenues for building for the future. One of them, of course, was launching The Simple Dollar, and I was eventually able to switch to writing for The Simple Dollar (and other things) as my full-time gig.
If you’re miserable with how you’re building for the future, use some of your “pleasure time” to find new ways to build… but we’ll get back to that in a bit.
Enjoyment While Building for the Future
The ideal state is when you’re building for the future while also enjoying things. I get in that state of mind when I’m in a writing groove and love what I’m writing about, which happens quite often with writing for The Simple Dollar. I can get into that state of mind when I’m hiking in a park with my family or with close friends (exercise builds me for the future).
Ideally, I want to spend as much of my life in this state as I possibly can, at least for now (later on, it might be more important to simply be in the “enjoyment” state). Not only is it enjoyable in the moment, it also opens up the door for more enjoyable things in the future because I’ve built up more resources (my health, money, and so on).
Neither Enjoyment Nor Building for the Future: The ‘Nothing’ State
The problem comes when you spend any amount of time, energy, or money on the opposite of that state, when you’re neither enjoying yourself or building for the future.
You do this when you’re wasting time on something that isn’t particularly fun or enjoyable, but is just “there.”
You do this when you eat unhealthy food that doesn’t bring you any real pleasure – think of a mediocre fast food meal.
You do this whenever you’re “bored” and don’t do anything about it.
You do this whenever you maintain an addiction.
You do this when you sleep excessively.
In short, this is the state in life that you want to avoid. Whenever you spend your money or your time or your energy or your health on something that isn’t enjoyable and doesn’t make a better future for you… why are you doing it?
Suggestions for a Better Path
This entire view of how we spend money, time, health, and energy comes with several areas where we can work to improve our life’s situation and move in a better direction. Here are four such moves that people can make and how to implement them.
Moving Away from the ‘Nothing’ State
You’re in that state where you’re spending significant amounts of time neither building a better future or doing anything particularly enjoyable in your life, either. How can you get rid of that time.
The first step is to distinguish between things you enjoy and things where you’re just going through the motions.
People often find themselves just going through the motions of things that they used to enjoy or think that they ought to enjoy but don’t actually enjoy. Similarly, people will sometimes go through the motions of building for the future without actually achieving anything (think of a dead-end paycheck-to-paycheck job where you don’t actually build toward a promotion or better work opportunities).
The simplest solution is to just go do something you genuinely enjoy. Whenever I find myself edging toward a “nothing” state, I’ll usually go try to do something that’s actually fun for me. I’ll pull out a board or a card game, for example, or I’ll spend an hour or two reading a book that I deeply enjoy.
Alternately, you can spend that time doing something to build for the future. Go get some exercise. Take an online class. Launch a side business. Just don’t sit there doing nothing.
If I’m feeling too tired to do either of these, I go take a nap or go to bed. That way, I’m building energy for the future by default. If you find that you can’t sleep while also lacking the energy to do something you genuinely enjoy or something that builds for the future, see a doctor. That’s also a powerful solution if you’re struggling with an addiction.
Moving Away from Enjoyment That Sacrifices Future Enjoyment
What do you do if you fill your spare time with expensive or unhealthy things? This was a life state I often found myself in during my early professional years, when I was primarily concerned with having fun and keeping up with people in my professional peer group.
First of all, consciously start devoting more time to things you enjoy that don’t cost as much. Assuming you have a variety of interests and things in your life that you enjoy doing and participating in, spend some time evaluating them in terms of their cost to continue to spend time on them. Is there an upkeep cost to keep participating? If there is, that doesn’t mean you have to stop enjoying that thing, but simply that you might want to spend more of your time on other things you enjoy that don’t come with the same cost.
Another approach is to try lots of new things that aren’t expensive. Try new things, even if they put you on unfamiliar ground or don’t initially seem exciting to you. What I’ve found is that I often wind up appreciating unexpected things when I give them an honest try – not everything, of course, and not even most things, but more often than I might expect. Sure, I find many things personally uninteresting after I try them, but it doesn’t take much of a success rate for trying uninteresting things to make doing so worthwhile.
The thing is, once you have a larger pool of things you’re interested in, you have an easier time finding inexpensive things to do that are enjoyable for you. This naturally pulls you out of that pool of “enjoyment with a heavy cost” and into a much better state.
Moving Away from Building for the Future with Misery
Building for the future is something we all have to do at least some of the time. We all have to do something to earn an income, and we all have to do some things to maintain our own life.
Many of those tasks are neutral – they don’t bring joy but they aren’t miserable, either. Some of them are actually enjoyable.
However, for some of us, big swaths of building for the future add up to nothing but misery. Usually, that misery comes in the form of a miserable job.
So, how do you fix that situation?
One strategy is to apply for a different job. Part of the problem may simply be related to your current workplace where too much (or, sometimes, too little) is expected of your or the wages aren’t enough to make things work for you. A change of scenery can make things feel less miserable.
Another approach is to start preparing yourself for a new career path or an improvement in your current path. Spend your spare time taking classes to earn a certification or a degree in your current field or in something completely different. I’ve even considered doing this myself.
You may also want to consider launching a side gig. This was the most effective route for me personally. When I felt frustrated by my job, I spent a lot of my spare time launching different side gigs. Some of them utterly flopped. Others, like my tech support business, were middling successes. One, The Simple Dollar, did quite well. Don’t expect everything to be a success and learn from your failures.
Also, you should always be saving for the future so you’re not financially locked into your job. Never, ever, ever spend as much as you earn. Spend less than you earn and put some aside out of each paycheck for your future. That includes credit card debt – your credit card balances need to be going down over time, not up. When you keep digging yourself into a financial hole, you’re moving in the wrong direction in terms of being miserable with your curent employment situation.
I have personally found it very useful to become more organized with my time and my money. Doing so has decreased the amount of time that I spend on things that I don’t particularly enjoy that build toward the future because I have a strong sense of what needs to be done and how to bundle things together in a smarter way. I like to use a slightly modified version of the Getting Things Done system as it helps me to identify things that have a similar context (such as the place where I’m doing it) so I can do those things together.
Moving Toward Enjoyable Future Building
Naturally, the final step is to find ways to do things that are simultaneously enjoyable as well as things that build toward the future by improving your personal resources in some fashion.
There are a lot of approaches here, some of which match up well with strategies mentioned earlier.
First of all, dabble in things you enjoy that might earn money via side gigs. Spend a couple of hours each day trying to build a side gig that earns money based on something you enjoy doing. There are many, many, many ways to do this, from creating online content to building wood furniture in your garage. The key thing to do is to look for ways that translate things you naturally enjoy doing into some kind of resources for the future, whether it’s health or money or time or something else.
Second, evaluate the things you already do for enjoyment in terms of whether they build for the future. Do you have any hobbies already that happen to build for the future? For example, I enjoy going on moderately challenging hikes, which is a hobby that requires relatively little equipment and can have some very serious health benefits over the long haul. Going on these hikes adds to the time I’ll have on this earth as well as the healthy time I’ll have, and since I enjoy such hikes, it’s a good way to invest my time.
Reading is another good example of this. Depending on what I read, it can either be a thing for pure enjoyment or something that also builds for the future if I learn something genuinely useful from the book. Thus, I often select books that help to improve my life in some fashion rather than just pure page-turners.
Finally, surround yourself with positive social relationships. It is a lot easier to find yourself enjoying things that also build for the future if you have people in your life that are very positive about such activities. Don’t be afraid to evaluate your friendships in that way and ask yourself which friends are really on board with finding enjoyment in things that build toward the future and are open to sharing that joy with others. People like that are fun to be around, so look for them in your life.
Right now, you only have so many resources in your life. You have a certain amount of time, a certain amount of energy, a certain amount of money, and so on. In life, we all want to do enjoyable things, but doing so costs time at the very least and often costs money and energy, too. So, to replenish things, we need to spend some of our time replenishing our money and our energy.
The path to a better life is all about figuring out how to make all of those exchanges more efficient. How can we do enjoyable things without spending too many resources? How can we build our resources back up more efficiently? Best of all, how can we simultaneously do things that we enjoy that also build up those resources?
Personal finance clearly fits into this system and, in my view, is right near the core of it. It’s all about finding ways to seek enjoyment without draining our money and also finding ways to build our money reserves as efficiently as possible. It also touches on how we exchange money for those other resources – time, energy, and so on. Since money is so effective as a means of exchange, personal finance ends up being pretty central to all of this.
In the end, it’s all about making your life better. Stop spending time in the “do nothing” areas of life. Start filling your life with things that build for the future and also bring you genuine enjoyment – and ideally things that do both at the same time.