Where to Invest Your Time (Understanding Levels of Action)

(Read time: 3-4 minutes)

This post briefly outlines a framework for deciding where to invest your time.

You may have already realized, as I have, that the actions you take to improve your life are not equal; they exist on different levels.

Some are more direct, meaning their benefit is linear and specific. Examples include things like working a job, going to the grocery store, responding to an email, and deciding what you're going to wear. Let's call these Level 1 actions, or direct actions.

However, some actions are more meta, meaning their benefits are multidimensional and have a kind of cascade effect on other actions. An example would be creating a system that helps you do Level 1 actions more efficiently or effectively. Let's call these meta-actions.

When combined with Level 1 actions, meta-actions give you the most bang for your buck. They have an exponentially positive impact on multiple areas of your life because they amplify the effectiveness of the previous level's actions, which improve the effectiveness of the level before that, and so on.

Here's an example of four different levels of action, although it can stretch even beyond this:

Level 1 (direct action) - You get a job at Starbucks as a barista. This is an action that directly improves your life. You trade your skills and time for money.

Level 2 (meta action) - You invest some time in reading a book on, say, emotional intelligence. By doing so, you improve your social skills and overall effectiveness with people. This increases your value as an employee and results in a raise and a promotion (yay!) But wait...there's more: As an added benefit, you've also acquired a valuable skill set that's transferable to many other jobs and life situations.

Level 3 (meta meta action) - You invest time in learning how to increase your reading speed and comprehension, which allows you to read more books in less time. This enables you to acquire even more skills that further increase your value, leading to even more opportunities or possibly a different career path altogether. Maybe you even start your own company!

Level 4 (meta meta meta action) - Behaviors that fall into this category include things like getting your diet right, meditating regularly, and learning how to think critically, all things I've been investing a good amount of time into. Your diet affects your physical and mental states, which factor into literally everything you do. The better you feel physically and mentally, the more effective you will be in virtually every area of your life. Similarly, meditation has been shown to increase feelings of well-being, improve brain functioning, and confer many other benefits that touch all aspects of your life. Critical thinking is possibly the ultimate meta-skill because the more effective you are at making decisions and solving problems, the better outcomes you'll receive in whatever you do.

The main difference between Level 1 actions and the meta-actions is that Level 1 actions are additive, whereas the higher levels are multiplicative. In other words, Level 1 actions add value in one direct way but the value of meta-level actions multiplies across time and across opportunities. This is why meta-skills are such excellent investments of time.

One big caveat, however, is that in order for meta-actions to be useful, you must put them to use for lower level actions! It would be useless to spend all your time learning techniques to increase your reading comprehension but never actually reading and applying ideas to your life in a way that improves it. Meta-actions are multiplicative only insofar as they have something to multiply. Zero multiplied by anything is still zero.

This framework can also be applied to how you structure your day: Prioritize the mission-critical tasks that are going to have the most impact on your goals and don't get lost in the minutiae of the daily grind.

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This is Day 10 of my 100 Day Project, where I write daily(ish) blog posts based on notes I've written to myself in my phone over the past few years. You can read my previous posts here.

Ruben Chavez is a writer, personal development educator, and host of The Think Grow Podcast. His Instagram account, ThinkGrowProsper, has amassed over 3 million followers. Along with his blog, these platforms are his way of inspiring and connecting with thoughtful, creative, and ambitious people just like you.