Not all minutes are equal

I seem to be on a bit of a self-reflection roll today. Last night I had this insight about my first ever job (which I’ve  said I’ll write about sometime). This morning, I wrote about how in my 15 years of professional life I’ve become more positive sum, and stopped seeing everything as a competition.

This blogpost is about an insight I realised a long time back, but haven’t been able to quantify until today. The basic concept, which I might have written about in other ways, is that “not all minutes are created equal”.

Back when I was in IIT, I wasn’t particularly happy. With the benefit of hindsight, I think my mental illness troubles started around that time. One of the mindsets I had got into then (maybe thanks to the insecurity of having just taken a highly competitive, and status-seeking, exam) was that I “need to earn the right to relax”.

In the two years prior to going to IIT, it had been drilled into my head that it was wrong to relax or have fun until I had “achieved my goals”, which at that point in time was basically about getting into IIT. I did have some fun in that period, but it usually came with a heavy dose of guilt – that I was straying from my goal.

In any case, I got into IIT and the attitude continued. I felt that I couldn’t relax until I had “finished my work”. And since IIT was this constant treadmill of tests and exams and assignments and grades, this meant that this kind of “achievement” of finishing work didn’t come easily. And so I went about my life without chilling. And was unhappy.

The problem with IIT was that it was full of “puritan toppers“. Maybe because the exam selected for extreme fighters, people at IIT largely belonged to one of two categories – those that continued to put extreme fight, and those who completely gave up. And thanks to this, the opinion formed in my head that if I were to “have fun before finishing my work” I would join the ranks of the latter.

IIMB was different – the entrance exam itself selected for studness, and the process that included essays and interviews meant that people who were not necessary insane fighters made it. You had a rather large cohort of people who managed to do well academically without studying much (a cohort I happily joined. It was definitely a good thing that there were at least two others in my hostel wing who did rather well without studying at all).

And since you had a significant number of people who both had fun and did well academically, it impacted me massively in terms of my attitude. I realised that it was actually okay to have fun without “having finished one’s work”. The campus parties every Saturday night contributed in no small measure in driving this attitude.

That is an attitude I have carried with me since. And if I were to describe it simply, I would say “not all minutes are created equal”. Let me explain with a metaphor, again from IIMB.

The favourite phrase of Dr. Prem Chander, a visiting professor who taught us Mergers and Acquisitions, was “you can never eliminate risk. You can only transfer it to someone who can handle it better”. In terms of personal life and work, it can be translated to “you can never eliminate work. However, you can transfer it to a time when you can do it better”.

Earlier this evening I was staring at the huge pile of vessels in my sink (we need to get some civil work done before we can buy a dishwasher, so we’ve been putting off that decision). I was already feeling tired, and in our domestic lockdown time division of household chores, doing the dishes falls under my remit.

My instinct was “ok let me just finish this off first. I can chill later”. This was the 2002 me speaking. And then a minute later I decided “no, but I’m feeling insanely tired now having just cooked dinner and <… > and <….. >. So I might as well chill now, and do this when I’m in a better frame of mind”.

The minute when I had this thought is not the same as the minute an hour from now (when I’ll actually get down to doing this work). In the intervening time, I’ve would’ve had a few drinks,  had dinner,  written this blogpost, hung out with my daughter as she’s going to bed, and might have also caught some IPL action. And I foresee that I will be in a far better frame of mind when I finally go out to do the dishes, than I was when I saw the pile in the sink.

It is important to be able to make this distinction easily. It is important to recognise that in “real life” (unlike in entrance exam life) it is seldom that “all work will be done”. It is important to realise that not all minutes are made equal. And some minutes are better for working than others, and to optimise life accordingly.

If you’ve gotten this far, you might think this is all rather obvious stuff, but having been on the other side, let me assure you that it isn’t. And some people can take it to an extreme extreme, like the protagonists of Ganesha Subramanya who decide that they will not interact with women until they’ve achieved something!

Known stories and trading time

One of the most fascinating concepts I’ve ever come across is that of “trading time”. I first came across it in Benoit Mandelbrot’s The (Mis)Behaviour of Markets, which is possibly the only non-textbook and non-children’s book that I’ve read at least four times.

The concept of “trading time” is simple – if you look at activity on a market, it is not distributed evenly over time. There are times when nothing happens, and then there are times when “everything happens”. For example, 2020 has been an incredibly eventful year when it comes to world events. Not every year is eventful like this.

A year or so after I first read this book, I took a job where I had to look at intra-day trading in American equities markets. And I saw “trading time” happening in person – the volume of trade in the market was massive in the first and last hour, and the middle part of the day, unless there was some event happening, was rather quiet.

Trading time applies in a lot of other contexts as well. In some movies, a lot of action happens in certain times of the movie where nothing happens in other times. When I work, I end up doing a lot of work in some small windows, and nothing most of the time. Children have “growth spurts”, both physical and mental.

I was thinking about this topic when I was reading SL Bhyrappa’s Parva. Unfortunately I find it time-consuming to read more than a newspaper headline or signboard of Kannada, so I read it in translation.

However, the book is so good that I have resolved to read the original (how much ever time it takes) before the end of this year.

It is a sort of retelling of the Mahabharata, but it doesn’t tell the whole story in a linear manner. The book is structured largely around a set of monologues, largely set around journeys. So there is Bhima going into the forest to seek out his son Ghatotkacha to help him in the great war. Around the same time, Arjuna goes to Dwaraka. Just before the war begins, Bhishma goes out in search of Vyasa. Each of these journeys associated with extra long flashbacks, and philosophical musings.

In other words, what Bhyrappa does is to seek out tiny stories within the great epic, and then drill down massively into those stories. Some of these journey-monologues run into nearly a hundred pages (in translation). The rest of the story is largely glossed over or given only a passing mention to.

Bhyrappa basically gives “trading time treatment” to the Mahabharata. It helps that the overall story is rather well known, so readers can be expected to easily fill in any gaps. While the epic itself is great, there are parts where “a lot happens”, and parts where “nothing happens”. What is interesting about Parva is that Bhyrappa picks out unintuitive parts to explore in massive depth, and he simply glosses over the parts which most other retellings give a lot of footage to.

And this is what makes the story rather fascinating.

I can now think of retellings of books, or remakes of movies, where the story remains the same, but “trading time is inverted”. Activities that were originally given a lot of footage get glossed over, but those that were originally ignored get explored in depth.