Your most valuable resources: time, money and focus

Personally, we have three convertible resources: time, money, and focus. For each activity, we can choose how much of each to allocate. As a rule, nothing is free… If we do not pay with time and money we pay with focus, for example when we see advertising. I wish there was a general optimization theory regarding these resources and their allocation. There are however some common sense ideas which I want to discuss.

Time is money?

This is a proverbial truism. Is it actually true? If there is such a connection, it is definitely not linear.

For people that provide services with a fixed price per hour, like lawyers, this might be true. Even then the conversion is not direct. The time is money for the client, not for the service provider. There is a surplus time usually spent on marketing, fixed costs distributed between the payable hours, and extra work which requires hiring external help despite significant management overhead. Also, there are times of plenty and times when there are very few orders. The prices are set competitively, and then the professionals adapt.

If a billionaire is 80 years old he cannot become young again. He may get assistants and nurses, the best medical facilities, maybe black market implants and experimental drugs. How much time will that buy? Possibly a couple of years to the life expectancy.

On the other hand, there are people in poor countries with all the time in the world and no way whatsoever to make money out of it.

And finally, there is a scaling factor. A lawyer serves one client. An entertainer can serve huge crowds. He may get a lot of money for a single performance, yet very few hours of top dollar performances.

So time, money, and focus are probably very different resources with very complex exchange rates.

Focus is not free

Up until the second half of the 20th century, people had enough focus to spare. The farmer slowly moving after the plow and watching the horse’s backside was happy to see any entertainment,  including a fly on the horse.

I remember when I was a child, I welcomed advertising because it was entertaining. Now we understand the value of our focus all too well. We have a sort of ADHD as a society. A hundred years ago Einstein could focus on one single problem for a decade. Even today there are masters in Japan that can work on one certain task for their entire life, like servent the perfect sushi or building the perfect pen. Most of us simply cannot do that. Our focus shifts.

We are bombarded by chats, emails, breaking news, and calls from everybody. There are marketers whom we dislike but cannot fully disengage from, family members and friends whom we love but not when we are focused on something important, business propositions that we do not want to miss but rarely act upon, and everything in-between. Very few people can really afford digital detox for long, maybe religious jews on Saturdays, agricultural workers, and long-range sailors.

The cost of lost focus is hard to estimate. We lose good ideas if we fail to write them down, or worse fail to formulate them. The context switches increase irritability and stress and require time and energy to focus. And we are not fully there to enjoy the things we actually work for and pay for.

Securing money

Money is possibly the first resource we need to secure after we finish our education. The reason is very simple. Money grows slowly but exponentially if invested properly. So the obsession of young people with money is probably justified in a way. The idea is not getting nice things, but ascetic life, reducing the expenses while increasing the income. Our body is built for this, but we are under social pressure to spend more and actually enjoy youth. We also need to build connections and gather life experiences. The balance is hard to maintain.

Most people can handle this until they are 30 years old. Around 30 years old we tend to get married, buy houses, and have kids. These activities are very expensive, strongly increasing our expense rate. It is hard to keep a positive cache flow between 30 and 40 (we collect assets but not money), so the more we can save before we are 30 years old the better for us. Between 40 and 60 most people make their fortunes. The thing is: after 60 most of us need to leave from aggregated savings, which can be hard.

With money, the wisdom is investing all surplus resources in exponential growth as early as possible, so that we can buy nice things later in our lives. Yet everything in human evolution says that the future is unknown, and we can enjoy what we have while we can. It is like a diet. Maybe very healthy but requires constant focus.

Exchanging time for money requires focus

Earning money for our time is theoretically easy. We worked and we are paid for it. Only this exchange is not necessarily efficient. To improve the exchange rate we need to invest constantly all surplus resources (all surplus focus, a large portion of surplus time, and a small amount of money) in learning, marketing, and exploring opportunities. Focus is probably the critical resource of growth, as growth activities tend to be intellectually complex.

Most of the time and money invested in personal growth will be wasted. Expensive therapy is not necessarily better than morning meditation. An expensive ivy league first degree is possibly not better than a Ph.D. and postdoc with a full scholarship from a reasonably good institution. The time spent socializing with college buddies is not as likely to pay off as short networking with other professionals later on. Learning foreign languages and arts is not likely to pay off, unless these areas are directly linked to income channels.

What I am trying to say is a bit strange. You need to invest your top focus and wisdom resources to leverage properly the time and money you invest in your personal growth. If your focus slips away, you are likely to waste your time.

The work itself actually can be handled effectively with much less focus than growth activities. Most of the time we will be handling things we understand very well and this should be pretty easy. Learning new things at work is a growth activity sponsored by an employer – something we should be thankful for and never accept as granted.

Using surplus time wisely

We use our surplus money for investment and our best hours for learning. Then we do some work, some home chores, and we are still left with some surplus time. This surplus time is the essence of the life experience for most of us. We can enjoy this extra time, but we should not use too much money and focus when enjoying it.

We will be constantly tempted to spend money on the things we love. Fine food, alcohol, toys, you name it. If you do not spend money on yourself, you will probably still spend money on your loved ones. The challenge here is not avoiding all expenses. Our optimism, psychological and physical health are important assets. The main challenge is spending the money wisely – and I am not sure there is a definition of what this actually means. Good sleep, healthy food, sports and meditation, arts and music are likely to have positive long-term effects with moderate costs. Spending time with loved ones (including pets) might cost very little, but is actually very important emotionally.

Next, we will be constantly asked to give our focus for free. Advertisers will ask for our focus in return for information and entertainment. Our loved ones will often interfere with our activities when we do not want to be disturbed, at least if we do not enforce boundaries. Some of our hobbies (consider chess as an example) will require our best focus time, which could be better used on personal growth. Again, some focus needs to be invested to enjoy the free time we get. The question is: do we feel truly rested, focused, and envigorating after the recreational activity? And if not, how can we improve the experience?

To be honest, at many junctions of my life, I really felt that reading or watching quality entertainment is the best way to rest and use my surplus time. Other times, socializing or working on my hobbies felt much better.

Sacrifice for initiative

In chess gambit a player can sacrifice pieces to get initiative. This is sometimes a risky move, as you need to understand very well how to use the initiative properly. Yet, when used by an experienced player, it makes for a very strong game postion.

In life we can often sacrifice time and money to get an advantage. For example, when we meditate, we give away our time but gain focus. When we get a learning loan, we lose money but gain earning potential early in the game. By investing in social network we lose focus, but get potential growth opportunities.

In chess the gambits are very often in the beginning of the game, but very rare at the end of the game. As we get older, the initiative is harder to use and resources are harder to gain, so caution is advised. Fortunately, this is also an intuitive tendency for most of us….

Sacrifing resources is not something to avoid, but something to use wisely and leverage properly. Otherwise we lose something importand, and quite often we do not even know what we lost…

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