Can you have too much “alone time”

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote the French philosopher Blaise Pascal.

Well in that case, humanity’s problems should get resolved when we turn 39.

This graph floored me.

I drew my finger up from my age (43) to see what was in store for me.

(I’m sure you will too.)

And age 39 seems to hold the crucial inflection point. It’s when your alone time goes “hockey stick.”

It’s the maximum (yup, the global maximum) of time spent with children.

(I can attest. The girls got a Nintendo Switch for Christmas and my alone time has already gone up.)

Now for someone who watches one Netflix series a year, I am licking my chops for a couple years of increased alone time.

But staring down the barrel of the 85 year trend – yikes.

While this data covers all genders, it’s no secret that men are not great at maintaining friendships.

I suspect it’s because once you remove the staples of bachelor parties, Monday Night Football and beer pong – we don’t see the point of hanging out.

Or maybe it’s because our brute-ish sensibilities prevent us from expressing emotion and vulnerability that define long-lasting friendships.

Or it might be because as primary breadwinners (often, but definitely not always), we drop into the “career at all costs” mindset – and wake up at retirement wondering where all our friends went.

Thankfully, I stumbled upon a “hack” to help deepen friendships. A tactic that spanned having young kids, the pandemic lockdowns and moving cross-country.

The “next hang hack”

The hack is super-simple.

When you’re out with your friends (or on a Zoom hang), at the end of the hang out you pull out your phone and agree on the next hang on the spot.

It’s usually a month or two out in the future, so the calendar is wide open.

But most importantly, it avoids the back-and-forth hell that is scheduling a meet-up with a bunch of 40 year olds (many who have kids).

(And then there’s always the person who uses an Android phone, screwing up all the threads.)

And with this simple ritual, our core friend group of dudes has hung out nearly 50+ times in the past 8 years.

The research confirms the importance of these relationships. In an 80-year longitudinal study from Harvard Medical School, researchers found that “relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health.” Robert Waldinger, the director of the study added:

Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. 

Yet why are relationships – all relationships – so hard to maintain with consistency?

Because they fall into the pesky category of “Important, but not Urgent” detailed by the Eisenhower Matrix.

Now we all know that we should be spending time in the top half of the matrix on things deemed Important. But in How to Prioritize (When Everything’s a Priority) I detailed what a real world Eisenhower Matrix looks like:

Yes. Everything is important. Everything is urgent.

So we spend all day responding to emails and scheduling things.

This brings us back to our starting question, how do we ensure that we spend the time on things that truly matter? Our friendships, our families, our health and our finances – when our days are constantly spent fighting fires and in “react mode?”

There’s a clue in our to-do lists

Here is one of the major shortcomings of to-do lists. Some tasks contribute to the completion of a project (like Download my W-2 forms for my taxes) and others are strictly maintenance: be a good friend, spend time with my kids, incorporate stretching into my workout routine.

In The 20 minute Productivity Plan, I broke down the difference between two types of lists: Projects and Domains.

1. Project Lists

Project lists are the traditional to-do lists and are defined by two key characteristics:

The project has to have a specific end date and a specific deliverable

Some examples include:

  • Train for the NYC Marathon
  • Plan my wedding
  • Hire a new intern
  • File my 2022 taxes

(It’s a good idea to start them with a verb.)

Now what makes these lists unique is that once the deliverable is hit (“I ran the NYC Marathon”) the Project and all its related tasks are wiped clean.

Pretty simple, as illustrated below:

2. Domain Lists

I want to bring us back to our opening conundrum.

How do I ensure that with age, I won’t let my friendships wither (so that I don’t end up alone)?

This requires specific activities, that could be classified as tasks. But unlike Training for the NYC Marathon, being a good friend never ends.

Let’s take “being a good husband” as an example.

There’s no deliverable to being a good husband.

There’s no end date to being a good husband.

But it’s still damn important. (Look no further than the Khaki Green Line, labeled “Partner.”)

And to further complicate things, being a good husband has some sneaky traits:

  • It’s impossible to measure
  • If you “hit snooze” on it for a while, your relationship will probably be fine
  • But if you hit snooze for too long, you’ll probably get divorced

Here are the attributes of domains:

These are the parts of our lives which have no end date and where we must maintain a minimum standard of excellence. 

Please drill this into your head. Domains have no end date and require you to maintain a minimum standard of excellence. Here are some parts of your life that fit this criteria:

  • My family
  • My finances
  • My health
  • My personal growth
  • My colleagues
  • My hobbies
  • My learning

Now that we’ve established this distinction, we’re ready to fill in some tasks. But because of the lack of urgency and deadlines. this too can be problematic. (Fake due dates, are not the solution either.)

Once again, that’s why the next hang hack worked so well. It wasn’t a task, it was a ritual. And Domains are the land of habits, rituals, reflection and reviews.

That’s what makes them so hard. But that’s what makes them so worthwhile.


A note from Khe:

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