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The Time Alignment Problem

Why is it so difficult to spend our time on what matters most?

By Matty Reed
|
July 6, 2023

We have 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week, and roughly 4,000 weeks in a lifetime.

Does this scare you or inspire you?

If you’re anything like me, you feel a combination of both.

This simple, yet profound, diagram depicts my weeks lived in red and my remaining lifetime in unfilled blocks. 

Each red square a unit of my immutable past, a reminder of both time-wasted and time-well-spent. 

Each empty square a blank canvas, a representation of unrealized potential and the challenges that lie ahead.

If you’re feeling a bit of existential curiosity yourself, plug your birthday into this free web-app to see your own lifetime depicted in squares. 

This diagram of squares was first popularized by Tim Urban in his 2014 article “Your Life in Weeks”. In this article, Tim attempts to simplify the complex question of what makes an ideal week with another diagram:

Tim’s playful contemplations on the limits of our time and attention are still applicable today and no less earnest. 

His article got me thinking deeper about how I spend my time and why it’s so hard to spend it on the most important things, but it wasn’t until a personal tragedy shook the foundations of my life that I decided to dedicate my time to understanding — and resolving — this conundrum. 

Limited Time and Attention

We now have the freedom to spend our time in more ways than at any other time in history. Yet, it’s easier than ever to distract ourselves from the scarcity of our most precious resources: time and attention. 

With the advent of smartphones and mobile internet access, there are nearly unlimited shallow ways to spend our time. However, these same technologies can prevent us from discovering true depth of experience.

As the average attention span shrinks, we find it harder and harder to sustain the focus required to remain engaged with the present moment or access flow states.

Time and attention are valuable resources, but many of us struggle to spend them appropriately, especially in our modern digital world, which leads to a feeling of imbalance in our lives.

The trouble is, we don’t make time for our values. We unintentionally spend too much time in one area of our lives at the expense of the others. We get busy at work at the expense of living out our values with our family or friends. If we run ourselves ragged caring for our kids, we neglect our bodies, minds, and friends and prevent ourselves from being the people we desire to be. If we chronically neglect our values, we become something we’re not proud of. Our lives feel out of balance and diminished.
Nir Eyal, Indistractable

At its core, the Time Alignment Problem is simply the struggle to align the way you spend your limited time with what matters to you most.

In a world flooded with information and myriad bids for our attention, how can we align our time with our values, avoid distractions, and consistently achieve the elusive time-well-spent, or better yet, live a life-well-spent?

Time Management is About Tradeoffs

Each day we decide how to spend our 24 hours, either consciously or unconsciously, depending on our goals, responsibilities, and desires. Life is about making tradeoffs with our time, attention, and energy, but managing and optimally allocating these resources in alignment with our values is incredibly difficult.

We’re constantly making choices about the way we spend our time, from the major seasons to the individual moments in our lives. We’re also living with the consequences of those choices. And many of us don’t like those consequences — especially when we feel there’s a gap between how we’re spending our time and what we feel is deeply important in our lives.
Stephen R. Covey, First Things First

Unfortunately, the data show a remarkable mismatch between what we consider important and how we spend our time.

According to research from Pew Research Center and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most of us want to spend time on the things we consider important such as quality time with family and physical activity, but there is a large discrepancy in what we say is important and how we ultimately spend our limited time each day.

For many people, an average day holds little time for the things they truly care about. If we broadly categorize a hypothetical “average” day, it may look something like this:

Optimizing one’s day becomes a fairly straightforward challenge: reduce time-wasted, increase time-well-spent, and get a healthy amount of sleep

Put simply, shrink the red box, and grow the green box.

While reducing the red box is certainly a worthwhile endeavor that would lead to greater flourishing, it does not resolve the Time Alignment Problem completely. 

In fact, reducing the red box reveals another more challenging layer of the Time Alignment Problem.

There is not Enough Time To Do Everything that Matters

There will never be enough time in a day, or in a life, to do all of the important things you want to do.

If we reduce time-wasted each day, we are left with a void that can be filled with high-priority activities. We fill this time working on meaningful projects, exercising our brain and body, sleeping a healthy amount, spending time with loved ones, and accessing flow states.

Our new, more optimized day may look something like this:

In a more optimized day, we are spending a greater portion of time on things that matter, but ultimately, the problem remains: how should we allocate our limited time to maximize well-being and leave us feeling more fulfilled?

Instead of deciding between low-value activities that we don’t care about and obviously higher-priority activities, we now face the challenge of deciding how to allocate time among many important options.

The tradeoffs between meaningful aspirations, strongly held values, and personal responsibilities are very difficult to navigate.

Should we continue working late nights on a project that holds the potential to enrich society, or do we risk letting the project fail in order to spend more time with our young children?

Do we sacrifice time with our partner to play a sport that promises both health benefits and consistent access to flow states?

Peeling back another layer, the Time Alignment Problem is indeed more complicated than it first appears and requires a deeper understanding and prioritization of our values. 

In late 2019, I encountered this deeper layer after a fateful phone call.

Time and Tragedy

I was lying in bed in my San Francisco apartment after receiving a phone call from my parents. Struggling to wrap my head around the consequential news, I prepared for what I knew would be the most difficult period of my life so far.

My mom had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

The news shook me to my core. I knew my mom was strong—perhaps the strongest person I knew—but I understood enough about the disease to know that this was a fight she would not win. 

Cancer, the emperor of all maladies, takes many forms, some more treacherous than others. My mom had been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, which means the malignant cells had metastaticized and spread throughout her body, rendering the illness incurable. Her’s was among the most treacherous.

Put simply, she would be lucky to live beyond a year.

Plans were canceled. Dreams were crushed. And the value of time had increased dramatically.

My biggest supporter, closest confidant, and lifelong friend would soon be gone. Not to mention the physical pain and existential dread my mom was experiencing as she came to terms with the fact that she would not live long enough to spend time with her grandchildren.

The way we perceive and value time can expand or compress in an instant. The tragedy of my mom’s situation forced a new clarity in my perception of time, and my priorities shifted. Everyone’s time is limited, but some have less of this precious resource than others.

Suddenly, there was no time to waste on silly things. Even my job felt less important, so I left. I spent the next two years finding ways to maximize quality time with my mom, teaching part-time at the university, and diving deep into time management solutions and philosophy. I even learned to code and built a time management app to better understand my time and help me spend more of it on what matters most.

I began making difficult tradeoffs between the important things and the more important things in my life.

I came face-to-face with the Time Alignment Problem, and I was determined to find — or help create — a solution.

New Solutions to an Age-old Problem?

Humans have struggled with how to prioritize and manage their limited time for all of recorded history. The Roman philosopher Seneca put tremendous thought into the Time Alignment Problem in his timeless essay, On the Shortness of Life in 49 AD.


In today’s age, there is no shortage of professed solutions to this age-old problem.

Life-hack gurus can be heard espousing their time management techniques (and selling their self-help books) in all corners of social media. 

There are countless productivity apps that aim to maximize work efficiency, project management tools to increase our economic output, calendar apps to organize our meetings, and a plethora of task apps that help promote good habits.

While many of these tools and techniques are useful, they are, at best, partial solutions to the Time Alignment Problem, failing to address the problem holistically.

  • Habit trackers don’t help us craft better schedules or work more efficiently.
  • Productivity tools don’t help us prioritize our deeper values and maintain balance between our work lives and our personal lives.
  • Focus apps block unwanted distractions but fail to help us plan better use of our time.
  • Calendar apps and to-do lists are great for building plans, but often don’t do enough to hold us accountable to our plans, nor do they help us understand and learn from our past behaviors, which can lead us to repeat the same misallocation mistakes in the future—and if we aren’t learning from our past, we cannot optimize our future. 

Modern time management tools can certainly improve our ability to understand our time and increase our productivity, but we are still left with a landscape of fragmented solutions.

Conclusion

The Time Alignment Problem underscores the difficulty of aligning our time with our values amidst a world  full of distractions. Even though we've developed countless tools and techniques to help us manage our time, these approaches often fall short, offering only partial solutions that fail to address the problem holistically. The challenge thus remains:

How can we focus on our top priorities while weathering a constant barrage of attempts to hijack our attention?

Can our apps and devices nudge us towards our goals, align us with our values, and help us become better versions of ourselves over time?

And, after all my searching and tinkering, after my personal encounter with time's cruel brevity, I’m still left wondering… 

Are there any solutions to the Time Alignment Problem?

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