Five years ago, I turned thirty and felt the whoosh of life flying by. My late twenties involved a dramatic shift in priorities and scenery, dropping me in Austin, Texas with a new outlook forced upon me. I had to figure out how to get more of what mattered from my life in my 30’s than I had been able to in my 20’s. I had to figure out how to spend time like it’s the most valuable thing in the world.
One Year = 8,760 Hours
Each year is the same: we get 8,760 hours to spend. That sounds like a lot, but we burn through most of that time fast. Roughly 1/3 of our lives (~3,000 hours a year) are spent sleeping, and there’s no good reason to sleep less.
A 40 hour a week job takes 2,000 hours a year, in theory. Add another 500 hours for overtime and commute. Or more. Then there’s eating, errands, fun, friends and family, all of which are very important things. In a blur of doing all the things, often driven by immediate needs and short term desires, time passes by too fast. I started wondering how much time I actually have left, and what can I do with it that is meaningful?
I frequently see a reference to the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to master a subject. To get an idea of 10,000 hours, that is how much time you work, at 40 hours a week for five years. A college degree is around 5,000 hours of class and study. Many of us know what it feels like to be at ‘master-level’ since we’ve put in that time in our career.
Spending time at Age 30
I didn’t feel the need to be the ‘master’ of anything new, and I certainly didn’t have an extra 10,000 hours to spend. Fortunately, it takes much less time to make real accomplishments. In a college degree, only around 2,500 hours are spent in your core field of study. In about the same amount of time, a native English speaker can do the seemingly impossible thing of learning conversational Chinese [via US Department of State]. It takes much, much less time to learn something like Spanish. Even 100 hours is a lot. With 100 hours of walking, and no other changes in your life, you would lose 10 pounds in theory. [There's 35,000 calories in 10 pounds; 100 hours of walking 3.75 mph will burn 35,000 calories] One hundred hours in a year is just fifteen minutes a day for a year.
At age 30 I wanted to see what it felt like to spend 1,000 hours “being a photographer”, whatever that meant. I didn’t track my time in numbers on a spreadsheet, but reflected back each week or month. I knew roughly how much I studied, and how much work goes into each snapshot. It’s easy to make a good-enough estimate. I worked hard and put in around 500 - 750 hours in 2010. During those first hundreds of hours, my life wrapped around the world of photography. As new friends came into my life, they were often "photography friends” making it easy for simple things like "hanging out” turn into great photography projects. In 2011, probably around the 1,000 hour mark, I had my first art show.
Lessons learned from age 30 - 35
I’ve taken this approach of simply of reflecting on time spent with me over the last five years. It helped me get the most out of a half-year of traveling as a photographer around Southeast Asia in 2013. It pushed me to get up for sunrise instead of sleeping in. When I returned in 2014, I struggled to achieve a new balance in my life while working a demanding and frustrating job and then acquiring a severe shoulder injury. My plans for the year were interrupted. I learned how much time physical injury costs, and how much a bad environment at work drains time from everything else.
In 2015, I added a daily practice, recording where my time was actually spent. At first, I just recorded hours spent at work and hours of physical exercise and meditation. My goal was to keep work demands in check with personal well being. As time went on, I experimented keeping track of other pieces of information. This all resulted in my first effort at writing an article, which was published in the Elephant Journal and discussed the interplay of social drinking with yoga. When I finally left my job, I insisted on finding a company to work for that didn’t have 'morning mimosa meetings', kegs of beer and a liquor cabinet in the office.
With this kind of personal data being recorded, I began noticing interesting patterns in my life. Mondays do actually suck, but they are made better when I took care on Sunday evening to prepare for the week. Saturday mornings are amazing, but only when I spend Friday night doing yoga. I now had concrete data on the personal cost of Austin’s allergy season, and I now knew how well various remedies actually worked.
I began seeing the tangible effects of ‘energy levels’ in the data. I go through periods of time of low productivity where I need more sleep. If I fight that, I’m miserable and don’t actually accomplish more. Drugs (caffeine, alcohol, cannabis and so on) are useful in specific ways, but in general will lock you in for the worse. Mornings are incredible the very few days of my life I’ve been free from caffeine’s effects. A single drink at night will prevent me from meditating in the morning. I now can see clearly how I get more out of life when I balance physical work with intellectual work, and now plan for recovery periods of days after long sustained intense efforts.
I know how to look at a week, or a month, or a year, and know what I can expect of myself. I know the time cost of catastrophe and adventure, and how many I can afford in a year.
I manage my time in a specific way. I hate being overly analytical, despite finding value in the analysis.
I keep a journal. Each day, I reflect, writing down just a couple lines of notes on the day’s events. I write a one line summary of the day. I make some quick estimates of hours spent on various things. I note whether there were any notably good or bad things that happened, answering questions like: did I drink? did I eat well? Was I happy?
Each week, I summarize, using the same kind of process. And so on for each month. This whole process should cost roughly 100 hours in a year, just 15 minutes a day. With that investment of time, I receive massive dividends.
Keeping a daily/weekly journal and reviewing it forces me to reflect on my life and where it's heading. This information becomes a mirror into the self. There’s no way to avoid seeing the patterns of success and failure that keep occurring. That reflection either turns into real change or real acceptance. I know in tangible terms what it takes to make a change in my life, and if I cannot afford that cost in my current place in life, I accept it and move on.
One Year = 1,000 Hours
When I look at a year, I can hope to put 1,000 hours to good use on important things in my life. That’s very hard. If I’m lucky and work really hard and efficiently, I think it’s possible to push that to 1,500 hours, even with a day job. I've made many changes in my life over the past years to make this work. Even so, I know if things get crazy, I can still find 500 hours in a year.
I break that 1,000 hours into two chunks: personal wellness and personal projects.
I spend a few hundred hours on wellness. In this category, I care most about journaling, meditation and yoga. I also include physical exercise, small art projects, reading, journaling and learning languages. These are the things I need to do regularly to be happy.
I take another few hundred hours for big personal projects. In this category, I place anything that I want to work towards for the longer term. In previous years, my main personal projects have been in photography. Now I’m also working to become a yoga teacher.
In addition to my 1,000 hours of ‘personal time', I set aside 9 hours a day for rest, taking 3,250 hours. I know I’ll spend 2,000 hours or more in my day job, converting time into money. This leaves around 2,500 hours of time unplanned in a year, where all the things in life can happen without the concerns of analysis.
My own personal plan for 2016 looks something like this:
- Wellness (yoga, meditation, etc): 250-500 hours
- Photography: 250-500 hours
- Yoga teacher training: 250-500 hours
I can take each of those efforts and break them down into daily practices, weekly sessions and the occasional multi-day project/intensive.
When I look out over the next year, I can see how those blocks of time interlock like lego pieces. Each month, I keep an eye on my progress and re-prioritize based on what's actually happening in my life. As far as New Years Resolutions go, the only way to accomplish major changes in life, is to take simple steps each day along a very long path.