38 More Projects till You Die: The Opportunity Cost of Focus

By Nat Eliason in Productivity

Published or Updated on Sep 19, 2016

In Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Munger shares a piece of Warren Buffett’s investing advice:

“I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only 20 slots in it so that you had 20 punches—representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you’d punched through the card, you couldn’t make any more investments at all.

Under those rules, you’d really think carefully about what you did and you’d be forced to load up on what you’d really thought about. So you’d do so much better.”

This is useful for investing in two ways:

  1. It forces you to be very, very sure of your investments before you make them.
  2. It forces you to think long term with your investments, not assuming that you can back out in a few weeks.

But there’s also a third, more subtle, and I imagine unintended but still useful benefit:

  1. A reminder that you will die

If we weren’t going to die, then we could make an unlimited number of long-term bets since we would, presumably, keep making them as life goes on. But, until Kurzweil comes through and uploads our brains to computers, we get a limited time here on Earth, and that means we need to be selective in our investments.

That logic, it turns out, can also be helpful in deciding what projects you want to focus on.

I use “projects” here to refer to anything that you could work on, including a certain job as part of a career.

I’ve been trying to figure out what my next focus should be, and one problem that keeps rearing its head is that everything seems interesting and there’s a strong temptation to just try all of it. I feel like a fat kid at a buffet of ideas and potential projects.

There are so many books to write, things to learn, places to visit, companies to start, that there’s simply no way I could fit it all in. And, what that’s led to historically, is a tendency to hyperactively flit from one thing to the next, and not really go all in on something.

So, I’m going to try something new. Instead of just jumping around assuming I have unlimited time, I want to start visualizing the limited number of projects I’ll get to do in my life, and use that to figure out what’s worth investing significant time in and what should be cut.

I’ll note that you could use this punch-card method for anything you get a limited number of in life. Projects, relationships, trips, etc. Wait but Why has done this nicely in “The Tail End.”

Project Duration

The first step is to determine the rough duration of your projects. How long do you want to be spending on each of them? Is it one year on each as you jump around? Or is it 10 years on each to make sure you really do it justice? Sure, some will be shorter and some will be longer, but it’s important to pick a time frame so that you know roughly how many projects you get.

Let’s assume that we’re going to live until 100. If you’re 30, that means you get 7 more 10-year projects, 70 more 1-year projects, or however many in between those lengths. Go ahead and make a list as you’re thinking about this, it will help you.

I know it’s hard for me to think about projects for being longer than 1-2 years. I’m sure I’ll stumble on one eventually that lasts longer (this site turned two last week!), but for now, 1-2 years is my time frame.

So, I can draw out these 10 years of my life, and see how my projects break down (roughly):

Now, here’s the more useful part. For any project that you’re planning on taking up, or career move you’re planning on making, you can frame it in the scope of how many projects you have left.

So for me, before I start doing anything else big, I need to ask myself “Would I be willing to work on primarily this for a year of my life, if not longer?” And, I also have to ask “I get ~38 more projects until I die, am I excited enough about this to make it one of them?” If the answer is no to either, then I shouldn’t do it. It’s a quantified version of “hell yeah or no.”

But, it’s also useful for assessing if you should continue working on something. So I can say “would I be willing to spend another year of my life working on this, at the cost of a new project?” If the answer is no, then I should wrap it up. If the answer is yes, then I should double down.

And as for how long you give yourself to assess that, I don’t know where I heard it, but the rule of “test with 10% of the expected investment” is a good one. So, if you think it might be a 10-year project, spend a year exploring it. If you think it’ll be a one-year project, spend 36 days. This goes for money, too. If you think it’ll cost you $100,000, spend $10,000 exploring it.

Another tactic that might be helpful if you’re a little ADHD like me and jump around a lot is to think in terms of the macro focus. This one is easier to stretch out into longer time periods.

So, for me, that’d look something like:

  • 20: Internet Marketing / Lifestyle Businesses
  • 21: Internet Marketing / Lifestyle Businesses
  • 22: Internet Marketing / Lifestyle Businesses
  • 23: Writing / Learning (now)
  • 24: Writing / Learning
  • 25: Writing / Learning
  • 26: ?
  • 27: ?
  • 28: ?
  • 29: ?

That, I find, makes the decisions about what to do next much easier, and makes long-term planning easier. I don’t know exactly what project I want to work on for the next few years, but I know it has something to do with writing and learning new things.

So, as potential projects come into my view, I know that they’ll have to be related to writing and learning in some way. Otherwise, the opportunity cost will be too high.


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