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pjf (2464)

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I run Perl Training Australia [].

I help with Melbourne Perl Mongers.

I spend an awful lot of time talking about Perl, and have had my picture in the Australian newspapers with a camel. That's rather scary.

Journal of pjf (2464)

Friday May 13, 2005
06:18 PM

Measuring happiness

[ #24676 ]

Measuring happiness

Warning: Long waffling entry with little amusement value follows.

In my last journal entry I considered that when all of one's work is completely unenjoyable, the best way to maximize happiness is to work hard and invest in order to gain an early retirement. However, this simple solution does not hold when one's work does hold some enjoyment value. A person with an extremely enjoyable job has little motivation to retire.

I'm in a position where I have a range of work options available. Some are more enjoyable than others, and some are more profitable than others. I'm wondering if my overall quality of life (taken from a long-term perspective) can be improved by dropping some of my less enjoyable tasks.

Last journal I discovered to answer this question properly, I need a way to measure happiness or enjoyment in a meaningful fashion. On a fundamental level I still don't have an answer to this. How does one put attach a meaningful metric to enjoyment?

Even though I can't put enjoyment into quantitative terms, it's still easy to order activities in terms of happiness (X is more enjoyable than Y), and it's possible to describe other factors that directly influence enjoyment. One of the strongest factors is freedom.

It's readily apparent that people value large blocks of free time more more than the same time broken into smaller pieces. Instead of taking their annual leave in the middle of the week and as soon as it's been accured, individuals will instead save their annual leave to go on a large holiday. People are more likely to take extra leave adjacent to weekends and public holidays. An old employer used to require a doctor's certificate for any sick-leave taken on a Monday or Friday, since a more people were 'sick' on these days, in gross disproportion to the rest of the week.

It's easy to see why contiguous time is so valuable. Given a large block of time one can do everything that's possible in a smaller block of time, but one also has the option to participate in many activities that have a significant setup required. If I have an hour I can go for a nice ride on my bike, but given six ten-minute breaks I'll have to start turning my bike around by the time I get it out the door. The most enjoyable activities such as diving, writing, coding, and many games require a significant and contiguous time investment, usually because they have a large set-up time, or take time to get 'in-the-zone' and become productive.

If the aggregation of 'free-time' into larger periods is more valuable, then one needs to consider not only how much time is saved or lost by dropping a particular line of work, but also what effect that has on overall free-time distribution. A new job that requires 10 minutes every hour for six hours is more disruptive than a job that requires a single sixty-minute block. This is why it's so hard to get employees to go 'on-call': it's so disruptive to the range of activities they can perform.

One of the interesting things that falls out of the value of consolodated free-time is the efficient planning of work. Taking on disruptive (eg, on-call) work has a large impact on enjoyment, but increasing the amount of disruptive work has progressively less effect. If you're already on-call for a business, then deciding to go on-call for a second business may double your income, but will have a much less dramatic effect on your free-time distribution. This suggests that when considering taking on disruptive work, an all-or-nothing approach is preferable. Performing disruptive work in moderation provides neither maximum enjoyment, nor maximum income.

The other aspect which falls under the 'freedom' category is that individuals value free-time more highly when they can choose when to take it. A break is often more valuable if corresponds with the breaks of friends, family, or important events (sporting, conferences, a dive boat, or whatever takes one's fancy). So large blocks of time are good, and being able to choose when to take that time is also good. "Retirement" (having sufficient savings and passive income to never work again) is the ideal, with close to maximum flexibility and contiguous free-time.

Now, let's consider my personal situation. My income is 70% training, which is enjoyable, has excellent pay, comes in blocks, and is often flexible. 17.5% of my income is in the form of "block-consulting"; it's less enjoyable, has acceptable pay, comes in blocks, but is rarely flexible. The remaining 12.5% is from on-call work; it's rarely enjoyable, has slightly better pay than block-consulting, is highly disruptive and never flexible. The disruption from the on-call work makes it seem like more effort and time than it really is, because it so frequently interrupts other work and activities.

I'm considering dropping that on-call work entirely. This will have a very strong positive effect on flexibility and contiguous free-time, but has the down-side of pushing out my retirement plans. Since only money after living expenses is available for investment, losing that 12.5% has a disproprotionately large impact on my savings plan.

If we make the assumption that large blocks of contiguous, flexible free-time have maximum enjoyment value, and that broken, unflexible blocks during on-call work have minimal enjoyment, then the problem becomes simple enough to examine mathematically. If dropping 'zero-enjoyment' work pushes out my retirements plans by a certain factor, then it's worthwhile providing that my overall enjoyment (approximated by contiguous, flexible time) is increased proportionately.

As an example, if dropping work were to double my required time until retirement say from 1 years to 2 years then this would only be worthwhile if it generated a full year of contiguous, flexible free-time in the process. Note that's different from generating a year's worth of free-time. One could have the free-time already, but have low-quality free-time because it's regularly interrupted.

The work I'm proposing to drop is not going to double my time to retirement, so it only needs to make a more modest contribution to my time distribution. It presently looks as if it will be worthwile to let the work go, but closer scrutiny of how I currently spend my time will be needed to say for certain.

Of course, it's easy to poke holes in all of my arguments above. After a point one can encounter diminishing returns on enjoyment for large blocks of free time. When busy and stressed, any amount of free time is disproprortionately valuable, regardless of its duration. Enjoyment of time is not binary value. While dropping non-essential work in the short-term will have a negative impact on income, it may actually be beneficial in the long-term as it provides the opportunity for more fundamental changes to work practices, and a greater focus on the more profitable core work of a business.

All these arguments can be used to argue both for and against a given plan. This may be why many individuals never try to quantify happiness, they simply move on gut instinct. That's probably going to be a large deciding factor here, but I value the opportunity to carefully weigh my decision before making it.

Unfortunately, due to numerous timing issues, I can't even begin to implement any decision I make until the end of financial year. As such, I have a little time to think and plan provided I can find a long enough break in work, that is.

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