Our Most Valuable and Limited Resource

Investing our time for greater happiness and meaning.

I was chatting with the unstoppable artist Jon Wilkening when he asked me what long-term investments I was making. I was confused. I did not have any significant funds to be investing in the market and I knew he didn’t either. He had walked away from the corporate world to build a life around his art and had taken a job bagging groceries to feed his family.

But Jon wasn’t speaking of financial investments, per se. He wanted to know what I was investing my time in.

When I began to treat time as something I invest, so many things became clearer. For example, I could invest an hour in learning something that pertains to my craft or I could invest that same hour in a mindless dance through my social feeds. One seemed a worthwhile investment in the future me and the other just left me feeling as out of the loop as when I began.

But it’s not always clear what makes a good investment for our time.

For example, I can tell myself that social media is a tool worth investing in and I can justify this decision by pointing to how others have used social to build their tribe and following. In the latter half of my first book, I spoke at some length about how a tribe is a critical asset of the successful craftsperson and I encouraged others to actively engage in building their connections in social spaces.

After all, a large and vibrant tribe is an amazing asset for any creator. I assumed this was something they had actively built through direct participation.

But a large portion of successful artists, writers and craftspeople have built significant followings while actively minimizing their time investments in social or even avoiding it altogether.

What if the most vocal social media mavens with the largest followings are anything but craftspeople? What if social media is where the get-rich-quick schemers have moved to next?

In order to better understand where to invest my time, I am beginning to consider two factors.

First: Is this tool critical to an area of craft I wish to develop?

By craft, I simply mean an area of life where I want to improve my skill at producing something. It could be at my job, or something I’ve wanted to pursue on the side like photography, writing or even art.

There are a ton of tools related to my photography practice: faster lenses, new tripods, sexy gear bags and more. And don’t get me started about the new mirrorless cameras I am drooling over, but none of these are critical to the pursuit of my craft. My current gear is more than adequate.

If a tool isn’t related to an area of craft I wish to pursue, that doesn’t mean I can’t invest my time, I just move it to the edges of my day or into the weekends. Maybe it’s a hobby or something that helps me unwind at the end of the day. These are just enjoyable activities that I expect no long-term return from.

As long as I have an adequate amount of time left in my day to invest in my craft, all is good. If I want more time to invest, then I may need to cut out some of these activities.

Second: What is the calibre of my relationship to the tool in question?

Each of us has a relationship to the tools of our craft, work and life. We might love our pencils when we sketch for fun, but dread them at work where we markup endless financial reports. Without exception, we have a fantasized relationship with a tool or two as well — the dusty, old typewriter we bought to write that epic novel, or that camera that just sits in its case.

Each of us also has a relationship with the tools we use online. The quality of that relationship is critically worth examining as so many of the things we choose to invest our time in can actively rob us of our purpose, meaning and dreams. They offer a negative rate of return for the time invested.

My friend Jasmin, and my co-host of the Here Be Dragons podcast, lives far away in a foreign country where she knows very few people. She is disconnected from her friends and family and so services like Facebook allow her to feel connected to her loved ones and what is happening in their lives. But it is a shallow connection, at best, and this activity can consume hours of her day with little to show for that investment.

Whereas I am talking a very monastic approach and severely metering out my access to social, she is continuing to use social while implementing daily periods of meditation and reflection on what these online services provide in her life.

I am intrigued that the end result appears to be the same. We are each spending less time in social and we are both becoming aware of the lack of return that social spaces provide.

I am not saying that there is no value in social tools. I have met some amazing people online and I wish to maintain those relationships, but the return, considering the amount of time and effort being invested, was never going to materialize.

The average person spends almost two hours a day on social media sites. I was a power user, an addict, and so I was spending between two and three hours each and every day connected to social sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Most of this time was a mindless and autonomic response to being bored. I would find my phone in my hands and not remember taking it out of a pocket. If there was a five second pause in a conversion, I would quickly refresh my feeds.

I wanted to believe that I was investing in a future me that would be surrounded by a loving and supportive online community. But my relationship to these tools was not a healthy one.

By limiting my time in social to less than 30 minutes a day, I was able to accomplish everything I needed to do online. I now have two hours every day that I can reinvest into something far more meaningful. In a world where we are always busy and behind, finding even an hour to invest in ourselves is one of the greatest gifts going.

From a recent photo walk in Ontario, Canada

Thinking of my time as an investment was an awesome paradigm shift.

And here’s the great thing about investing my time: unlike investing dollars, the rate of return is entirely dependent on the frequency and intensity of our investing efforts. Calamity can and will strike. Industries will crash and rise. But if we hold the course and maintain a level of focus and effort, we can increase our mastery and build a life of meaningful work and even happiness.

This is because our happiness is not found in leisure, contrary to the dream being sold to the masses. Happiness is found in the deep pursuit of mastery and hard work.

I now have an answer for my friend Jon. I am investing in a writing practice, my photography, a new podcast, a partnership in a new side venture and a few other projects, as well. Some will fade away and others will become a long-term investment in the life of meaning that I have forever longed for.

So now I ask you, dear reader, what long term investments are you making with your time? And how much time every day are you able to commit to these investments?