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Solution to the Time Alignment Problem

How to spend more time on what matters most

By Matty Reed
|
October 29, 2023

In a world flooded with information, optionality, and bids for our attention, how do we spend more time on what matters most? How can we achieve the elusive ‘time-well-spent’ — or better yet, live a life-well-spent?

This is the Time Alignment Problem: the difficulty in spending our limited time on what matters most. In my prior article, I explore the Time Alignment Problem in detail including how I encountered it in my own life, and why it hasn’t been resolved by our current technology. I encourage you to read that first if you haven’t already.

In this article, we search for a solution. I will define a simple framework, and then explore the importance of intentionality, the power of gamified feedback loops, and the enormous potential of human-first technology.

Set Goals and Build Systems

If the Time Alignment Problem is about aligning our time with what matters most, then solving the problem means investing our time in fulfilling relationships and meaningful activities that advance us toward important life goals.

Embedded in this solution are two challenges:

  1. Choosing the right goals
  2. Building effective systems to achieve them

According to James Clear, behavioral science expert and Author of Atomic Habits, “Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.” This is our simple framework for solving the time alignment problem and crafting a fulfilling life.

You are the captain of a sailing ship — an explorer. The destination is your goal. The ship is your system to get there.

Your goal is not just a place on a map but a promise of a better future. A better version of yourself. And your ship is not just a means to an end; it is the journey on which you embark. 

You can course-correct along the way or choose an entirely new route. You try to keep the ship in excellent sailing condition, and you may even bring aboard new crew members, but you can’t always overcome the will of the sea and the chaos of storms. You can manage the rudder and sails to steer the ship, but you’re still along for the journey, whether it ends in catastrophe or riches.

Goals without systems will never be achieved.

Systems without goals will take us in the wrong direction.

We try to understand who we want to be and where we want to go, then create a plan, assemble a team, and build a vessel to take us there. Goals without systems will never be achieved. Systems without goals will take us in the wrong direction. Our goal can be an identity for ourselves or a future that we wish to inhabit. 

The first step in every self-help program and productivity book is invariably some version of ‘set your goals’, so forgive me for echoing this pervasive advice, but setting the right goals really is the most important first step—and often the most difficult.

Choose Your Goals Intentionally

Choosing better goals starts with being more intentional with how we craft our lives. Without intentionality, we are adrift, floating in a sea of information and blinded by a fog of distractions. Intentionality is the act of being purposeful and deliberate in our plans and actions. This means recognizing that our time is valuable and consciously choosing to invest it wisely. If we do not decide our own direction, someone else will decide it for us.

Our goals define our direction in life, and we derive them from what we value. This means we can determine our goals by understanding what is most important to us and clarifying our priorities into concrete objectives.

It’s important to convert a vague understanding of your values into a measurable, achievable future state. For example, many of us value quality time with friends and family. Instead of saying, ‘I want to spend more quality time with my mom,’ our goal could be to talk with her on the phone once a day for 30 minutes and visit her one weekend every month.

In the corporate world, goal-setting frameworks like OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) are used to make data-driven decisions and results are measured. OKRs force us to define a desired end-state to focus our resources and track our progress. This is a useful framework to apply to our personal lives as well.

After setting specific measurable goals, our next challenge is to make a plan to achieve them.

Make a Plan

By evaluating our priorities and planning ahead, we can intentionally choose to invest more of our time in activities that bring us closer to our desired future. The most important tool in your toolbox to help you build this system is your calendar.

If you’re not planning ahead and scheduling in your calendar, you’re likely following a path that others are charting for you—a victim of agendas that are not your own. You may unintentionally fall into various attention traps or spend hours of your day on activities that are bad for your well-being or detrimental to your long-term ambitions.

Planning ahead and developing a system to stick to your plan is the antidote to making in-the-moment impulsive decisions that are misaligned with your long-term goals. To use Danial Kahneman’s framework, we should avoid relying on system-1 thinking and instead use the more analytical system-2 thinking to plan ahead.

In navigating the complexities of life, we use system-2 cognition to think more deliberately. It’s this analytical reasoning that aids in visualizing our future and meticulously charting a path towards it. With system-2 reasoning, we craft plans anchored in long-term aspirations and grounded in logical decision-making. 

At first, your goal may seem staggeringly large and insurmountable. In order to build a more actionable plan, we simplify our goals into smaller chunks. These secondary objectives can be broken down further into tasks and subtasks. The steps to achieve our goals can be partitioned based on smaller and smaller chunks of time until we are clear on the action we need to take to complete them. Building a house from scratch may seem overwhelming, but we can break it down component by component and make a little progress every day.

Once we have defined the tasks and activities necessary to reach our goal, we add them to our calendar. Blocking time on our calendar is the best way to ensure we are being intentional with how we plan to invest our time in the future. 

Use the Time Blocking Method

Time blocking, called “time boxing” in some contexts, is a technique that involves scheduling specific durations of time in our calendar for tasks or activities. It helps us prioritize and manage our time effectively, reduce distractions, and improve our focus on important tasks.

Countless reputable people, from Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates to Cal Newport, advocate for time blocking (in one form or another), and the technique has been discussed in many popular books and articles.

Psychological studies have shown that humans are poor multitaskers, and we pay a mental toll every time we are forced to context-switch our attention from one task to another. Time blocking encourages us to focus our energy on a single activity or task at hand, one after the next in sequence, which is essential for minimizing distractions and maximizing desirable outcomes, including flow states and deep work.

Suffice to say, time blocking works.

Personally, the time-blocking method brings much-needed clarity and structure to my life. Since discovering this technique, I’ve become much more productive at work and much better at staying focused on my priorities.

Time blocking not only improves focus and productivity, but it’s also a good way of breaking down long-term goals into manageable chunks on our calendar.

Time blocking is an important part of a system that encourages us to focus on activities that are necessary to achieve big goals and build a better future rather than let our attention drift to what is urgent or easy. Unfortunately, a well-constructed calendar is not enough to push us toward our goals; we still need to cultivate the discipline to stick to our schedule and avoid distractions.

Cultivate Self-discipline

Discipline is freedom. This famously counterintuitive idea, popularized by Jocko Willink, is a powerful concept that exposes an undisciplined life for what it is: a life without the freedom to spend your time and attention on what you decide is important.

Discipline is an essential piece of an intentional life, but it does not come easily to most. This is why we build systems to supplement our discipline and prevent us from veering off course.

Time blocking on your calendar is like laying bricks for a path; you place block after block to build the foundation for your journey ahead, but staying on the path sometimes goes against our human nature.

Behavioral science has uncovered many ways in which our own psychology sabotages our discipline and pulls us towards a darker path. Some of these failure modes are obvious and easy to overcome. For example, resisting sweet snacks is annoyingly difficult for me thanks to millions of years of evolution, but I can thwart my primal desire by removing the junk food from the pantry altogether. 

Unfortunately, some of our psychological failure modes are more complex and much more challenging to overcome. For example, many of us tend to work on the easiest tasks on our to-do list to win small bursts of dopamine for each completed task, but what about the big, important tasks? These are often left untouched because we are too busy — or perhaps because of deeper fears of being overwhelmed or inadequate. 

This is why we also need systems to hold us accountable to ourselves and help us push onward even when our self-discipline wanes. James Clear says, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” Fortunately, behavioral science also shows us how psychological heuristics can be used to our benefit to construct better systems.

Enter gamification.

Build a Gamified System

Gamification means taking inspiration from game mechanics and applying it to a non-gaming environment. This powerful design tool can be used to exploit us if wielded by bad actors, but gamification can also be used intentionally to hack our own psychology in a positive way. 

Video game designers are able to create systems that reward players with a feeling of growth and accomplishment through small achievements and often a progression through a narrative. The best games are a balance between motivation, challenge, reward, and progress. If designed right, games have the power to keep the player coming back for more in this ongoing feedback loop.

In real life, much like in a video game, if you cannot see the progress you’re making and don’t see any path to achieving your goal, you are likely to give up and stop playing. Your discipline and determination can only take you so far before your meter runs out. This is why we build gamified systems. If designed well, our system can be enjoyable and motivate us to keep playing while holding us accountable to our higher values and long-term goals.

The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.
― James Clear, Atomic Habits

The best games are designed with closed feedback loops. We can take a page out of the video game playbook and apply it to our lives in the real world with powerful results by developing a motivational feedback loop that supports better self-discipline and encourages personal growth.

Create a Positive Feedback Loop

A feedback loop is a process in which the output of a system is used to modify or control its input, leading to continuous improvement or adjustment of the system.

When feedback is returned to the system in such a way that it allows for better understanding and improvements, it is called a positive feedback loop. Positive feedback loops are so powerful because they allow systems to compound insights and optimize over time.

In order to make progress toward overcoming the Time Alignment Problem, we want to build a positive feedback loop where our planning and execution are aligned. Our meta-goal is to create a self-optimizing system that will improve our ability to achieve all other important long-term goals. 

This can be broken into a few high-level steps:

  1. Set and update goals
  2. Make a plan and schedule based on goals
  3. Track metrics and measure progress
  4. Analyze and review insights
  5. Repeat and optimize

Tracking or Measuring is a critical part of the system but is often neglected. Measuring our results means returning feedback to the system, which is necessary for a positive feedback loop. The famous Peter Drucker quote, “What gets measured gets improved,” concisely summarizes the importance of step 3. This is also one of the core tenets of the ‘quantified self’ movement, which involves tracking and analyzing data to improve our personal well-being. 

Scheduling and tracking our time allows us to analyze how we actually spend our time compared to how we planned to spend it. Understanding intention vs action is key to aligning our time with our goals. In this way, our time management system can help us optimize our future plans based on our past behavior.

Developing a time management feedback loop is not only useful for self-improvement but it can also be used to train a machine learning algorithm that can augment us. By partnering with technology, we can build a better solution to the Time Alignment Problem.

Leverage AI Technology

Technology is both a blessing and a curse. Our digital tools are incredibly powerful and useful, but we shouldn’t embrace them without understanding their pitfalls, and we shouldn’t cast them aside out of fear. 

The typical smartphone equipped with mobile internet access unlocks endless possibilities for entertainment and social media dopamine hits available in your pocket at nearly all moments of the day. Our devices can be overwhelming and perniciously addicting. But, if used wisely, our technology can make us better versions of ourselves. 

We need our smartphones, notifications, screens, and web browsers to be exoskeletons for our minds and interpersonal relationships that put our values, not our impulses, first.
― Tristan Harris

The technology that prioritizes the needs and well-being of humans is called human-first technology, and it’s more important now than ever before. The power of our tech has increased exponentially, as exemplified by the latest developments in artificial intelligence. 

Image by Tim Urban, Wait But Why

The advent of machine learning models and artificial intelligence, especially AI systems with the agency to make their own decisions, has elevated the importance of human-first technology to new heights. If a powerful AI’s goals do not align with ours, it may result in disastrous outcomes; however, if designed with good incentives and goal alignment, an AI system can be a tremendously valuable ally. 

Side note: I deliberately dubbed the phrase “The Time Alignment Problem” because I believe the solution is a child of the well-known “AI Alignment Problem”, which involves ensuring that an AI agent aligns with human goals and avoids unintended consequences in pursuit of those goals.

I believe solving the Time Alignment Problem requires the help of a goal-aligned AI assistant.

Our feedback loop could provide an AI system with the data necessary to optimize our future plans based on our past behavior. Just like a good personal assistant, our AI can augment our system-2 cognition by learning our behavior and correcting blind spots and biases. With sufficient training data, the system becomes intelligent enough to make subtle recommendations and gentle nudges that lead us towards our self-defined goals — a personal digital life coach dedicated to helping us become better versions of ourselves.

Such an AI assistant could help us invest our time wisely and craft a more fulfilled life. Of course, this technology does not exist yet, but some of us are working hard to build it ;)

Until then, we’ll have to make do with the available tools and techniques to set goals and build systems to achieve them. The advice in this essay outlines a framework that can help us balance our lives and align our time with our priorities, but sometimes, life challenges us in ways we can’t plan for and all we can do is manage our response.

Acceptance

Understanding the Time Alignment Problem helps us reframe our lives in a profound way; we see our time and attention as the valuable resources they are. I discovered this in my personal life and became much more serious about setting clear goals and using time management techniques to achieve them.

By setting clear goals and building robust systems to invest our time wisely, there is always hope to craft a better future. Nevertheless, we face the reality that no matter how well-aligned our life is, we still must learn to accept that we can’t do all of the important things in our life before it ends. 

I believe that time management is our attempt to overcome a fear of mortality. This is why Tim Urban’s Your Life in Weeks diagram is such a powerful tool to reevaluate how we spend our time. This is why the news of my mom’s tragic diagnosis caused me to reprioritize my life and learn better ways to manage my time. 

This fear manifests in various forms: blissful ignorance, steadfast denial, or for some, an innate urge to stay busy. But busy does not equal productive, and productive does not mean balanced and fulfilled. Fulfillment is felt by those who set meaningful goals and spend their time to achieve them.

We will never be able to explore every inch of the map, pursue every interest, or accomplish every grand aspiration in our lifetime, no matter how well we manage our time or how productive we are. 

Although life may seem tragically short, we find solace in the stoic principle of acceptance. We do what we can to maximize our time-well-spent and relinquish that which we cannot control. In the end, we hope to find fulfillment through virtuous pursuits and see the profound beauty and good fortune of being granted this opportunity to experience any time at all.

Conclusion

There is no single best app or method that solves the Time Alignment Problem, but using the frameworks described in this essay can help you find what works best for your individual needs. Ultimately, our solution is a combination of defining clear goals, developing ever-improving systems to achieve our goals, and accepting the inherent limitations of our time.

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