Free time and activity

In Skin in the Game, Nassim Taleb describes one of the best pieces of advice he ever received. It was:

“… the recommendation by a very successful (and happy) older entrepreneur, Yossi Vardi, to have no assistant. The mere presence of an assistant suspends your natural filtering—and its absence forces you to do only things you enjoy, and progressively steer your life that way. … This is a via negativa approach: you want maximal free time, not maximal activity, and you can assess your own “success” according to such a metric. Otherwise, you end up assisting your assistants, or being forced to “explain” how to do things, which requires more mental effort than doing the thing itself. In fact, beyond my writing and research life, this has proved to be great financial advice as I am freer, more nimble, and have a very high benchmark for doing something, while my peers have their days filled with unnecessary “meetings” and unnecessary correspondence.”

Reading that was like being hit in the temple with a hammer (I imagine). Maximal free time, not maximal activity.

Much of my efforts in previous years have been devoted towards optimising for activity. Figuring out how best to schedule around my life and my own physical and psychological tendencies; how to manipulate my moods; how to best structure my environment; how to select the right opportunities; how to do little and large things more effectively, as well as more efficiently; how to manage relationships; how to look after myself. In every aspect, the desired consequence of doing something better was that it would allow me to do something else. To do more. For example, the pursuit of consistent editorial work—instead of a day job—was undertaken with the aim of freeing up time to write more. I wanted to trade one less desirable thing for another, keeping an activity in the process.

But maybe that was and is wrong? I began to wonder about the difference between optimising for free time and for activity, and the more I began to wonder, the more I began to lean towards free time as an ideal endgame. By removing all obligations I am free to take on only obligations that I choose to bear. By having to do nothing, I am free to do anything I want.

However, free time is not free. It has to be purchased with something. So, after adopting “maximal free time” as a horizon—alongside Venkatesh Rao’s concept of aliveness and Naval Ravikant’s concept of permissionless leverage—I began to speculate on what it is that buys maximal free time. Inevitably, I came back to the primary concept mentioned in Society C—value. Specifically:

Maximal free time requires the creation and maintenance of automated, low-touch systems that generate a lot of value for a few people or a little value for a lot of people. In both cases, the system must contain a mechanism for capturing a slice of the value created.

This is far from a new concept. Fully or part automated processes have been a part of sales and marketing ever since the internet came into the popular consciousness. And the creation of systems that generate freedom for the creator was the central innovation in The Four Hour Work Week and of the lifestyle design movement. But the evolution I wish to suggest is that the emphasis in the automated systems created is the magnitude of value created for others, instead of the magnitude of value captured by the originator.

Further, if what one pursues is free time, then one of the simplest strategies to get there quicker is to scale everything down. The person who lives small has to overcome fewer obstacles to free time than the person who lives large. Free time is more readily available to the person that “needs” only £1000 per month than the person who “needs” £10,000 to be satisfied.

To summarise: aiming for maximal free time makes more sense (to me) than aiming for maximal activity. And to get it, the first step is to scale down needs and demands, and the second is to build systems that create immense value for others and allow you to capture a teeny slice of said value for yourself.