Managing Meta: Thoughts on focus and priorities
Published by Martin Kleppmann on 04 Apr 2009.
One of the great things about being your own boss is that you decide yourself (to a large extent at
least) what you do and don’t do. You are of course constrained by your customers’ wishes, your
shareholders’ requirements, your contracts, the law etc., but compared to a ‘normal job’ you do have
a lot of freedom.
What I find particularly often is that there is a trade-off between three
different types of activity:
- Doing things which are of immediate value now (such as working billable hours
for a client). I call this type of activity immediate or short-term. It is obviously useful
because it ensures you have food to eat and a house to live in, but too much of it would be to the
detriment of the other two activities below.
- Doing things which are incidental and unavoidable overheads, prerequisites for
something more immediate, or work necessary to improve productivity elsewhere. These things are
often not particularly interesting in their own right (such as replying to email, doing tax returns
or fixing the build system). I call this type of activity meta-activity, in the sense of
denoting something of a higher or second-order kind, or operating at a higher level of
abstraction to quote the OED. Meta-activities are particularly
questionable because it’s often unclear how much time it’s worth putting into them.
- Doing things with a more long-term or intangible benefit (such as acquiring a new
skill or writing a blog post). I call this type of activity strategic; getting the right
proportion of strategic work is important – too little and people say that you’re short-sighted and
lack vision, too much and people say you’re a dreamer with no sense for reality.
The total amount of time you have is fairly fixed, but you can vary the proportion of time you spend on
these various activities. This freedom of choice can be a heavy burden: if you have a range of
different things you could be doing, but not enough time for them all, it is solely your own
responsibility to choose where to spend your time. Whether you spend five minutes surfing the web or
taking a walk outdoors is unlikely to make a big difference, but added up over days and years, your
choice of what to do with your time determines almost everything else: which people you know, which
skills you acquire and what you are like as a person; and these things in turn determine almost
everything else in life.
Generally we leave it up to our intuition and/or external influences (such
as someone nagging us) to decide what to do at any given moment in time. But if this decision has
such a massive impact on our future, it seems prudent to give it at least a bit of thought and
analysis. We should be managing the meta, the strategic and the immediate, to come up with a
consciously chosen balance and not just leave it to chance and/or whoever shouts at us
Being a scientific mind, I like to try to describe something complex in terms of a simpler
model which captures the essential features. This may of course turn out to miss certain crucial
aspects, but it’s worth experimenting with models, as a thought experiment at
Time is money, or so they say, and as such it might be a suitable way of
modelling the use of time. Economists will tell you that in essence, money serves three purposes:
- a means of measuring value,
- a means of storing value,
- and a means of transferring value between different people.
Note that this definition has nothing to do with coins or notes; it is a completely abstract concept, but it
is also extremely powerful. What I am most interested in here is the aspect of measuring value. What
money gives you is a fairly simple way of attaching a quantitative label to something, describing
how much it means to someone. It has its limitations, but it’s an interesting first
When doing freelance/contract work for clients, the monetary value of time is a very
tangible concept; you decide how much you think your time is worth per hour, and in order for a
client to persuade you to work on their project, they will need to wave at least that amount of cash
in front of your nose.
For simplicity’s sake, money in contracts tends to be proportional to time
(i.e. the price per unit time is constant, such as a fixed hourly rate). A more accurate model would
probably be hyperbolic: if I had absolutely nothing else to do, I’d probably work on something for
free or very little, just to keep myself busy; but if I’m already working a 70-hour week, it will
take a lot of money to convince me to give up just one of the remaining hours with my girlfriend. As
my amount of free time tends to zero, the price of the remaining time tends to infinity.
In a business context, the monetary value of things is often reduced to a dependency on a small number of
variables, because there is a need for simple and objective decision-making in order to avoid
conflict and to allow contracts to run smoothly. In non-business life, we instinctively take many
more things into account. For example, if a friend wants to borrow my bike, I will of course lend it
to them for free. That doesn’t mean that my bike has no value to me (in fact,
it is rather important to me), but rather that I
think that asking for money would damage our friendship, and I value the friendship much more highly
than a few pounds.
This opens an interesting can of worms, because you suddenly start thinking
about whether you can attach a monetary value to sleep, to time with your family, to a walk in the
sunshine, to education, etc. The answer is yes, you probably can, but you would need to factor in
many, many different aspects in order to get any sort of vaguely useful figure. In order to value
sleep, you would need to determine how much productivity you lose through lack of sleep. In order to
value time with friends and family, you would need to place a value on the happiness you derive from
being with them, and a negative value on the loneliness caused by their absence. This reminds me of
the teenage conversations along the lines of “would you have sex with person X if you were given a
million pounds?” which I always hated – it’s a completely hypothetical valuation which I would
rather not even think about.
If you had such a formula, you could work out what to do with your
time simply by maximising its monetary value over the range of possibilities. But to be honest, you
could probably be doing better things with your time than work out how much your sleep is worth.
Such as getting sleep, for example. And many people would consider it offensive to place a monetary
value label on a friendship or on a holiday with your partner (even if it was a very high value), so
it might be wise to steer completely clear of such discussions.
There is another
model which captures different aspects of the things you could be doing with your time. Rather than
asking how much something is worth, you ask why you are doing something, and build up a chain of
reasons leading up to something desirable. In a business context, that desirable thing is generally
one of two things: to increase revenue, or to reduce cost. To give a very simple
- I am spending three hours on the train because it takes that long to travel to a
- I want to visit that potential customer because my visit will greatly increase
the chance that they will buy our product.
- I want them to buy our product because that will increase our revenue.
This argument is simplistic, because it doesn’t take any values into account –
if the product is a pack of chewing gum that costs 60 pence, it’s probably not worthwhile for the
salesperson to go and visit the potential customer in person, even if this does convince them that
this particular chewing gum is particularly wonderful. But for an expensive product, or a big
reseller deal, it makes perfect sense. Leaving the numbers aside, we can focus on the reasons for
doing a particular thing with our time.
The chain of reasons is not often as simple as in the
example above. To give another example: I currently
follow 66 people on Twitter, and I spend time reading what
they write. Why do I do that?
- I spend time reading what my friends on Twitter write so that I find out what they
are doing, for example which conferences they are attending.
- I want to know which conferences are most worth attending so that I can go there myself.
- I want to go to worthwhile conferences in order to meet interesting people.
- I want to know interesting people because they may one day become my customers or
partners, or may refer me to new customers or partners.
- I want to build a pool of potential future customers because I think that it is
easier to close sales with people who already know and trust me.
- I want to close sales because that will increase our revenue.
It is a bit like a proof of a mathematical theorem, in which you try to derive a statement (such as
“I spend time reading what my friends on Twitter write”) from a set of basic principles/axioms (such as
“increase our revenue”) and a list of logical deduction rules (each line of “because”, “so
that”, or “in order to”). In this case I derived the statement from the axiom in a chain of six rules.
There might be more than one chain of logical deductions; in fact, with any interesting
argument, there will be lots of different reasons, some more tenuous than others. For example, I can
construct a completely different chain of reasoning for the same statement and the same axiom as
- I spend time reading what my friends on Twitter write because in the chat I can
hear hints about which entrepreneurs are doing cool things at the moment.
- I want to know which entrepreneurs are doing cool things because they are people
who might be suitable co-founders in a future venture.
- I want good co-founders in a venture because that will increase our chances of
looking good in the eyes of investors.
- I want to look good with investors because they can give us money and contacts.
- I want money and contacts so that we have the resources to build a great product
and market it effectively.
- I want to build a great product and market it effectively because that will
make lots of people want to buy it.
- I want lots of people to buy our product because that will increase our revenue.
As you can see, the more steps there are, and the more debatable the validity
of each individual step, the more tenuous the whole argument gets. But it’s also possible to
reinforce an argument by adding parallel chains of reasoning. For example, I could build a short-cut
across steps 3 to 5: “I want good co-founders in a venture because together we’ll have the skillset
to build a great product and market it effectively.” This reduces the number of steps from 7 to 5,
and avoids mentioning investors (whether that makes the argument more or less valid is up to
Debating the fundamentals
Of course you may disagree with my choice of axiom above,
namely increasing revenue. Didn’t we just say above that it wasn’t all about the money, and that
many very important things were in fact incredibly difficult to value in monetary terms?
Absolutely right – the arguments above work in a business context, where the principle of increasing revenue
or decreasing cost is indeed fundamental, but there’s more to life than business. The interesting
thing with the form of argument above is that I think you can change the set of axioms and rules,
and still have a valid way of analysing the world. For example, I think that “being happy” would
be a good choice of axiom in a personal context. Then you can make arguments
- I am taking time off work because I want to go on holiday with my girlfriend.
- I want to go on holiday with my girlfriend because the time spent travelling
together will strengthen our relationship.
- I want a strong and healthy relationship because that makes us both happy.
This is such a short and clear argument that it trumps most others. There is
another potential line of argument which says that I don’t want to take time off work, because that
leads to a loss of revenue or opportunities, and maybe ultimately (through some argumentative steps
of which I’m unsure) to a loss of happiness… however, that other line of argument is less clear
and convincing, and so the argument in favour of taking time off work wins.
This brings me back to the original question of deciding what to do with your time. It’s a choice between
immediate activities, meta-activities and strategic activities. And if you know what type of
activity each of the various items on your ten-page-long to-do list is then at least you have some
mental framework to prioritise and choose between them.
Building chains of argument and reasoning,
as in the examples above, is a good exercise and helps to become more conscious and more in control
of the things that need doing. And it allows you to recognise what type of activity it is:
- Immediate activities are easy to spot, because they have very short reasoning chains,
i.e. it’s pretty obvious why they need doing.
- Strategic activities tend to be those where you learn something new, but you want to
do it for fun, even if you cannot immediately see the reasoning for its long-term value. I believe
that if something is interesting and fun, it will almost certainly turn out to be valuable for you
in the long term, because you will find ways of using it. If you try to find a chain of reasons and
find yourself thinking “one step reasoning: because it’s fun” then it’s probably
- The remaining activities are meta. You have clear logical chains of argument for
why those activities are necessary, and the longer the chains, the more meta they are. Twitter for
me is partly strategic, partly meta.
Be suspicious of all types of activity: immediate
because it can be short-sighted, strategic because it can be far-fetched, meta because maybe the
chain of reasoning for its necessity is more tenuous than you thought. Depending on your character,
you will probably have a tendency of overdoing certain activities to the detriment of others. But by
being aware of your them you can consciously manage and balance your life.