I am 34 33 32 now. Here is a fun fact: I’m older than half of the world’s population. Actually, it turns out that all dogs alive when I was born are, according to Wikipedia, long gone. I am by most sensible metrics not young anymore.

Maybe I spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about time. Time in general and how I spend my time. How should I allocate my time? How can I get more time? How can I be firing on all cylinders? Should I? Is time even worth spending time on? Can everything be boiled down to time? How can I enjoy ‘wasting’ time (or, be better at not thinking about time)?

There is a great paper by Robert Lemlich titled Subjective Acceleration of Time with Aging (from 1975). The paper makes the argument that the already subjective life lived can be estimated as the square root of current age divided by life expectancy:

$$ \sqrt{\frac{\text{current age}}{\text{life expectancy}}} $$

The key point is the subjective acceleration of time with aging, i.e., that time seems to move faster as you get older. For example, a person age 34 who has 34 years of life remaining has already lived 71% of his or her subjective expected total life (in contrast to the fact that ‘only’ 50% of life is lived). I can, on average, expect to be 85 years old, meaning that I have lived 63% of my subjective life. Putting any relevant limitations of this exercise aside, I am most likely more than halfway through my subjective life.

Are there ways in which I can maximise my ‘subjective life expectancy’? Of course, I could improve my actual life expectancy, but as I pointed out last year, I don’t really think there is a lot to be gained here. Instead, I have to consider the various parameters that matters for the subjective experience of the passage of time. And I should be happy that there are 24 hours in a day (1.4 billion years ago, a day used to be less than 19 hours long – it would have been a nightmare to get through a 9-to-5 job back then!).

I rarely look forward to specific events anymore, like waiting for Christmas as a child. I am almost never in an emotional state where I would like for time to go by quicker. There is evidence that people experienced time moving slower during the lockdown (e.g., Martinelli et al. 2021), and one study showed that 80% of people in the UK experienced distortion to the passage of time during the second lockdown (Ogden 2021). I did not experience time slowing down during the pandemic. On the contrary, before I knew it, 2020 and 2021 were gone. And 2022 will be gone soon, too. Maybe it is the fact that we are slowly (or quickly?) returning to ‘normal’ life post-COVID that I find difficult in terms of time (and lack hereof).

In any case, here is a list of things I could try to increase my subjective life: travel more, spend less time online, work less, walk more, eat out more, never have kids, read less, write less, socialise more, take more risks, buy more things, buy more experiences, meditate, move more often. It will be impossible to do everything (some of them are even mutually exclusive). And I do not think it will make a lot of sense to try to optimise all of these (or even most of these).

That being said, in general, the more variation there is in activities, places and experiences over time, the longer life will seem. Ten years in ten different countries will seem a lot longer than ten years in a single country. But it is also easier to imagine counterfactual lives when you have moved to another country. It is almost like a parallel version of yourself is still alive in the country you left. The challenge is that once I have made a certain decision with various potential outcomes, should only the realised outcome make the evaluation of which outcome is better? I don’t think so, and I do not like writing, let alone thinking, about the plans that did not work out in life.

I saw a study with survey data on people age 50+ concluding that “the likelihood of living the happiest period in life exhibits a concave relationship with age, with a turning point at about 30–34 years and a decreasing trend from that point onward.” In other words, older people were more likely to think of their life around 30 to 34 as their happiest period in life. I wonder whether I will look back at these years when I am 50 and reach the same conclusion. I doubt it. Or, I hope not.

Time is inevitable linked to death, i.e., no time. What can I do before I will be at peace with the fact that I am going to die? Nothing. Give me all the money in the world, all the close connections to the people I love, etc., and I will still wake up in the middle of the night now and then thinking about the fact that I am going to die some day. Is it the abstract feeling of death or the very concrete fact that I am going to die one day? Both.

I will be forgotten some day, and that is not something that bothers me. I am more concerned about me forgetting the world when I am alive than the world forgetting me when I am dead. I saw a study from the United States concluding that nearly half of older Medicare decedents had a diagnosis of dementia at the time of death. If I live long enough, I will get dementia. Or as Bill Bryson notes in his great book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants: “We live long lives; we also die long deaths.”

Do I focus on the easy questions in life to avoid difficult questions? Do I think a lot more about where I should go for a coffee today rather than how I should plan my career? There is this concept of quiddling, where you pay extra attention to trivial matters as a way of avoiding the important ones, and maybe that is all there is to it. The denial of death.

In terms of happiness, Bryson and MacKerron (2017) found that paid work is ranked lower than most other activities individuals engage in, with the exception of being sick in bed. I love to work, but I have recently thought a lot about what I would work on if I only had ten years left to live. A career is short, and to put a number on it, there are around 80,000 hours in a career. Robert Frost is quoted for saying that the difference between a job and a career is the difference between 40 and 60 hours a week, but I have no idea about how many hours I work every day, week, or month. I get stuff done and that is all I need to do to feel happy with my work/career. I don’t know a lot about how to work efficiently. I only know that the people who say “work smart, not hard” tend to do neither.

I am not really into the idea of a quantified self. I do not believe in the ‘Moneyball approach to life’ (to quote Don’t Trust Your Gut by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz). However, I try to collect data on things that will make me explore more new things. That is, I like to collect data that will lead me to make new decisions rather than better decisions.

One reason for this is that I am a creature of habit. We are shaped by our habits, and there is some evidence that habits drive our behaviour more than we think (see, e.g., Mazar et al. 2022). I enjoyed reading Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, and I believe the book has a lot of good considerations on how to think about making decisions (e.g., the detailed discussion about the distinction between explore and exploit).

I do find it interesting to consider what metrics I should care about. What are my KPIs? I have written one PhD thesis (six years ago now!). I have published a few books. I have published a series of peer-reviewed articles (don’t bother reading most of them). But those are not really metrics I care about, nor metrics I would like to focus on. I have published enough to know that an extra publication will mean absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things.

I have ‘published’ some blog posts. I do like writing blog posts and to think in public, but I can also feel that I am not going to write blog posts on a regular basis forever. As of now, I plan to write posts on a semi-regular basis for the rest of the year, and then I will take it from there. The other day I deleted 10-15 drafts of blog posts I have written that I do not care about seeing the light of day. I took that as a signal that I am slowly starting to care less about having a blog.

I still enjoy consuming a lot of culture. I have watched a lot of movies, listened to a lot of albums, played several video games, watched a lot of TV series, and read a lot of books. I have a dataset with movies I have watched. I have a dataset with albums I have listened to. Etc. I merged the different datasets together and here is an overview of the entries in my data:

I think the distribution of the differente categories is optimal for now. I would like to have read a few more books, but isn’t that the case for most of us? In any case, I do not care about watching more movies as a goal in and by itself. I am rewatching more movies and TV shows, and if I died today, I would not regret not having watched a specific movie or read a certain book.

In addition to collecting data, I do like two things about having this data. First, it is easy for me to recommend a book or movie if asked, as I can simply filter and sort my dataset to show what I like. If I am asked out of the blue, I find it difficult to sample my favourite movies and books. Second, there is a strong memory bias, and I tend to forget bad movies (and even bad books). Accordingly, I have experienced a few times looking into an interesting movie only to find out with my data that I have already watched it and that I hated it.

Hal Foster made a distinction between an archival impulse, where you save your favourite material in an archive, and a database impulse, where you save everything. Both impulses resonnate with me, though I believe I am shaped more by the database episteme. This is especially the case as I get older and I find it more difficult to keep track of everything I do.

Over the last year, I have reached the conclusion that I would not mind never being able to cook a meal again. I find no pleasure in cooking. I like the idea of being skilled in the kitchen and enjoying the process of making a great meal. However, I simply do not care about cooking. Actually, I have noticed how the only time I can be at peace with doing nothing, is when I am waiting for the food to be ready (i.e., when I am not cooking it). My theory is that it is my mind enjoying the activity of not cooking. If I have to cook, I try to keep it minimalistic with no meat and rely on echalion shallot, spring onions, garlic, and red chili for taste.

I am not sure at what stage I am at now in life. My goal for the next year is to find a few things to become obsessive about (maybe even a single thing). I have a few ideas about what that could be, i.e., a few plans, and let us see how it goes. And I need to have a persistent and relentless focus on clocking a solid eight hours of sleep every day (something I have not been good at this year).

That being said, there is this saying, “if you don’t change direction, you may end up where you’re heading.” The important word here is of course ‘may’. Even if you don’t change direction, you may not end up where you are heading. Well, I am 34 now. I am sure the subjective experience of the next year will make the next year feel a lot less like one year. And maybe that is not a bad thing. I will try to think less about time, and I believe this post was a good place to park these considerations.