I want to use an investing paradigm to think about how we spend our time and see if we can build a strategy to maximize utility by investing in the right pursuits, allocating optimally between two securities: present and future.
Let’s assume two modes, two options for how to spend our time: one is “present focus” and the other is “future planning.”
Worn out adages seem to err toward present focus: enjoy the moment, focus on now, seize the day. Meditation, anti-anxiety techniques and spiritual self-help often prescribe some form of hyperfocus on the present as a well-being cure-all.
Classic thinkers seem to err present as well. “Carpe diem” — aka, “seize the day” — actually comes from the longer, “Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero,” which appears in Book 1 of Horace’s Odes and more literally translates to: “Pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one.”
Sophocles says, “Tomorrow is tomorrow. Future cares have future cures, and we must mind today.”
And to a great degree this seems right. Other than memories and dreams, our ideas and sensations are about what we experience presently. It makes sense to match our focus to our experience.
But I wonder if some future cares might have present cures, if some of tomorrow is in today. For example, it’s hard to “carpe diem,” if you haven’t studied for your exam tomorrow.
Certainly, as I’m coming to learn is true of most things in life, there is a balance. A balance between present and future, between enjoying what you have and striving for more, between smelling the roses and tunnel vision.
My decision framework looks something like this:
If (future utility from planning for future * probability of survival to experience that future) > (utility from present focus), then spend more time planning for future.
Else if (future utility from planning for future * probability of survival to experience that future) < (utility from present focus), then spend more time focusing on the present.
This assumes we are indifferent between experiencing utility now versus later (which, I actually think is a bad assumption, considering we get old and slow, so there might be a time value of life, but discounting the utility is too complicated).
The most variability comes from your estimate for “probability of survival,” where a high probability will tilt the decision toward future planning and vice-versa.
And this is where adages like “you only live once” and “no such thing as tomorrow” have relevance because life is short and probability of survival might not actually be that high, in which case I think it makes utility-maximizing sense to err toward investing more time in present focus.
But then again, there are heights to be achieved that require a commitment to the future, a bet on the probability of survival, which then subjects the decision framework to risk-preference.
Where I think the true synergy of the balance exists is in habits and activities that simultaneously allow for both present focus and future planning, present enjoyment and future benefit: reading, doing work you’re passionate about, exercising in a form you love, eating food that both tastes good and is healthy.
But then again, there are great present moments that are not so great for your future. For example, having one or two too many drinks at a party — great for the present night, not so great for the future morning.
It’s not as easy as the math makes it seem. Because when you’re chopping at the roots, it’s hard to see above the treetops. When you’re having fun, it’s hard to think about the future. When you’re working hard, it slips your mind to stop and smell the roses.
At least now, when your friend asks, “What would you do if you only had (insert small amount of time) to live?”
Instead of giving your usual answer: “I don’t know, tell my family I love them, go paragliding, then jump off the Empire State Building.”
You can say: “I’d make a present-future utility maximizing decision.” And if they don’t flee the conversation immediately after that, you can show them your utility calculations.
Pluck the day, my friends.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.