Who's that old guy?

One Saturday afternoon several years ago, I sat at the bar of The Library Ale House in Santa Monica, CA with a good friend of mine. We were sipping our pints and chatting about a whole range of topics. After a while, I started talking smack -- definitely par for the course for a couple of guys gathered at a pub. My friend listened to my babbling for some time and when I paused, he exclaimed, "Hey, look at those two old guys!"

Before I'd even fully realized what he said, I turned to see what he was talking about. Surprisingly, I found myself looking into the mirror behind the bar at our reflections. Damn, who is that old guy?

Before I had a kid, I never really thought too much about getting older. Other than the annual teasing from friends about being one step closer to the grave, time just trudged along. After the kid arrived, however, I felt that I could hardly stop thinking about my age and, more specifically, that I was quickly running out of time. The stress of parenthood had caught up with me. To find some comfort, I could only chuckle at my former childless self who thought he was busy. What a silly boy!

In the good old days before parenthood, I always kept myself busy. Getting involved in lots of projects professionally and personally weren't a big deal. I made a punch list, prioritized it, and knocked things out. As a new parent, I felt that I was no longer able to do everything I wanted to do and that was very disturbing to me. After much reflection, I was able to pinpoint my stress to four causes.

First, I realized that I was now responsible for another person. Obviously, there was a bit of this once I got married, but it is quite different when you are talking about a child. Adults have been around long enough to get a good set of tools to fend for themselves. Other than the basic biological functions, children need a caretaker to ensure their health and safety. The biggest change for me was that I now had a whole new set of criteria to consider when planning. In fact, I now had to plan out the simplest of tasks. How many single people (or DINKs) do you know that need to plan out a spontaneous trip to the store down the street? Or, actually be forced to schedule that spontaneous trip?

Second, my legacy was something I now seriously considered. I needed to really think through the repercussions of things I was doing. I couldn't necessarily say, "Oops!" and make a minor course correction after the fact. Whether or not I had made a mistake, I had to consider what lessons or examples lay within what I had done. My legacy was no longer exclusively a list of things I had said and accomplished; it was now embodied in a living, breathing person. No one I know, myself included, wants to be known as the parent of a villain!

Third, I was suffering from a distorted perception of time. As I mentioned earlier, the arrival of my child resulted in the feeling of time slipping away, faster and faster. After much thought, I have concluded that this time distortion effect is due to the fact that the brain is evaluating a child's development in the wrong context. Think about it: when was the last time you saw one of your adult friends grow an inch taller over a few weeks? Or, barring the intervention of modern medicine, see someone's facial features change dramatically from year-to-year? Since your brain is used to drastic changes like these taking place over many years, it seems to decide that time itself has sped up.

Finally, and this one was the kicker, I realized that I was now having a problem figuring out what was truly important. Before I became a parent, I was able to prioritize tasks with ease and fluidity. Now, I had been thrown a bunch of new tasks that are each inherently "important" making it a lot tougher to figure out what can be pushed until later and for how long.

The simple act of realization and reflection gave me a path to handle the first three. But, the fourth was a big challenge for me. So much so that I resorted to seeking help beyond my own head. I was able to get some good advice from friends and family, but I wasn't able to pull it all together until I read two books.

The first book I read was David Allen's "Getting Things Done." He seemed to be speaking directly to me when he talked about the problems with normal to-do lists and how they end up being a list of lofty aspirations rather than a tool to make things actionable. I especially liked how he advised against assigning something to a particular date unless it absolutely had to happen on that date. More than once (actually, more than many times), I had felt the guilt of sliding something to the next day when I never got around to completing it on the originally-scheduled day. He taught me a better way to break apart a task into smaller (and more actionable!) tasks. Furthermore, he expressed the extremely valuable idea of assigning context to each task. Now, I no longer had to look at my long list of things to do in a single dimension; I could order them by location, resources currently available, or my mental/energy state. It's amazing what adding a little more metadata to your to-do list can do!

I had a renewed sense of purpose with my newly found GTD religion! The creation of bite-sized tasks made it easier to fit things in around my now busier schedule and the addition of context gave me better tools to prioritize. I had cracked the code and was back to being and feeling productive.

Then I learned about Tim Ferris' book, "The Four Hour Work Week." With a title like that, I just had to read it! It has a lot of interesting stuff in it, but the key take-away for me is that it made me really think about the Big Picture. Instead of teaching me how to get things done, it taught me to figure out if I should even be doing something in the first place:
If you had a heart attack and had to work two hours per day, what would you do? Not five hours, not four hours, not three -- two hours.
That quote is just a very small taste of the book, but was the "Aha!!" moment for me. I was now able to come up with a new set of marching orders:
  1. Don't waste time doing things that aren't really important. As you're about to do something, ask yourself, "Is this activity going to bring value to me or someone I care about, or am I just doing this to pass the time?"
  2. Enjoy your family and friends while you can. Today is a gift and tomorrow is not guaranteed.
  3. Think about what you want out of life, focus on what it takes to get there, and get those things done first.
  4. Do not delay an experience for some mythical point of retirement. You may not be physically or mentally able to fully enjoy it at that point, and frankly, you may not even be around.
My life is by no means perfect, but it's pretty darn close. I am no longer stressed about getting things done. I now attribute any distorted perceptions of time to the familiar adage, "Time flies when you're having fun." I have time to learn new things and work on interesting projects, both personally and professionally. And, most importantly, I have plenty of time to enjoy my family and friends.

I no longer see myself as the old guy in the mirror. Rather, I see a mature gentleman having an awesome time.

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