Allocating Time: Thinking in Eras

Allocating Time: Thinking in Eras

I talk to a lot of smart people who have an incredible array of choices in front of them. One of the most vexing seems to be: How should I spend my time, how should I prioritize my energy?

The paradox of choice is that this problem becomes worse for people the more successful they have become - more and more doors open for them making the challenge of what to do harder and harder.

Most people consciously or subconsciously pursue some form of regret-minimization: We want to make choices now that we’ll feel good about in the future. Knowing the future is hard, though. 

To make decisions about time I’d like to borrow and tweak this idea from Oaktree Capital founder Howard Marks about knowing where we are in the market cycle.

“In my opinion, the key to dealing with the future lies in knowing where you are, even if you can't know precisely where you're going. Knowing where you are in a cycle and what that implies for the future is very different from predicting the timing, extent and shape of the next cyclical move. And so we'd better understand all we can about cycles and their behavior” - Howard Marks, Nov 20 2001 [0] 

The world has eras, and so do you. 

You can make better decisions by thinking about “What eras are we in now?” and perhaps also “What eras are inevitable?”

Personal Eras

Some personal predictions about the future are nearly certain:

  • In 2 years my oldest child will be 10
  • In 16 years my children will all be adults
  • In 30 years I’ll be old and less physically capable than I am today

I know that I have a specific and limited amount of time with my children when they’re young. I have a limited amount of time with my parents while they’re healthy and active. There are things I want to do that will be better or easier after my children are grown.

If you chop up the future into ~4 year chunks you can start to see patterns of what will be more opportune now vs later. 

It’s very clear to me that over the next 4 years I have a limited window of opportunity to spend time with all my kids while they’re still very much children. 

Inflation Increase GIF
A meditation on the finite periods of time I have with my oldest daughter

Sometimes I feel frustrated because I want to spend more time quietly reading, working on projects, or meditating - and I’m very busy between spending time with children, working, and exercising. [1]

I can remind myself, however, that any books I want to read will still be there 30 years - and if I’m lucky and live into my old age it’s far more likely I’ll still be able to read those books than spend time with my children, do intense exercise, or do work that is, today, timely. 

I find that simply taking a piece of paper and chunking the coming decade or two into segments and thinking about what will be different at the end of each segment leads to simple yet powerful realizations.

Questions [2] to consider:

  • What experiences can I have now that won't be available in 4, 8, 12 years?
  • What are milestones that are important to me to achieve by certain ages?
  • What constraints exist in my life today that will disappear in (x) years?

World Eras

World eras are, I think, harder to predict than the sort of personal, and personal demographic eras outlined above. That said, you can tell where we are now.

Some observations about the present are obvious and potentially useful:

  • In the late 90s it was clear the internet was new and a big deal
  • Today it’s clear that LLMs are new and a big deal

Venture investors tend to look for a strong "Why now" reason for each business they invest in. You can take a similar tact when thinking about opportunities in front of you as it relates to World Eras – what is possible now that was impossible a few years ago?

This will help you catch and ride waves that can help deliver great returns both in terms of experiences and economic gains.

New possible things can happen because of:

  • Technology
  • Government policy changes
  • Social norm changes
  • Demographic shifts

These are roughly sorted from fast to slow. The slower waves tend be a bit more predictable - but there are fewer available to catch and ride.

[0] You can’t predict. You can prepare. Howard Marks. Nov 20 2001.

[1] An irony and inevitable tension of balance here is that as I write this I’m desperately seeking a few minutes of peace and quiet from my children during a vacation

[2] The book Die With Zero has some other good questions and prompts to consider related to this topic