The return on (non-financial) investment

Just like the act of investing money, investments of time and energy will earn non-financial rewards over a very long period of time, Hamm writes.

Kevin Wolf/Invision for LEGO Systems/AP Images
A young boy reads a books as he plays with Lego Duplo bricks at the 2012 National Book Festival in Washington in this September 2012 file photo. Non-financial investments in family relationships build long-term dividends, Hamm writes.

The other day, I spent an hour playing an abstract strategy game with my oldest son. After that, I spent roughly the same amount of time helping my daughter build a LEGO kit that was way above her age level. My youngest son and I played a game of “Word World,” in which we take letter blocks and line them up to make words, then try to find those words in our house.

Besides spending a bunch of time with my kids, I also wrote a letter to an old friend expressing condolences about a personal challenge she’s overcoming, did some exercise that left me panting and will leave me with very sore arms and upper body in the morning, and read a few chapters of a rather challenging book. I also worked on some non-Simple Dollar writing and content production.

In each of these cases, I made an investment. I invested time. I invested energy. I invested focus and attention.

In each of these cases, I will earn a return for that investment. 

My children will be more sophisticated thinkers. They’ll also have a stronger emotional balance because of the positive relationship I’m building with each one of them.

I’ll have a stronger relationship with my old friend, and hopefully that old friend will be consoled and be in a better state because of my letter.

I’ll be in better physical shape because of my exercise.

My mind will be stronger because of the struggle with challenging ideas.

I’ll have a few more sources that will earn me a small trickle of income for the foreseeable future.

None of these investments (besides the last one) earn me income in any direct way and even the last one will only earn me a few dollars over a very long period of time.

However, just like the act of investing my money, these investments will earn me rewards over a very long period of time.

A good relationship with my children and with my friends reaps constant social rewards. Better physical shape gives me improved health over the long term (and in the short term, too). A better mind means a greater ability to solve the problems that life hands to me.

These things can lead to greater financial reward, but they lead to rewards in other aspects of life, too.

It is very easy to look at the time and energy you spend as either being for “work,” meaning you earn an income from it or it’s something you have to do, or it’s “play,” meaning you do it for personal enjoyment.

This is a division I see quite often, actually. I tend to see it the most often in people who are struggling in their career path as well as people who are struggling in their financial life as well.

In my experience, the best use of one’s time is what I call “invested” time. The same goes for energy and focus.

The question that’s always worth asking is does this activity I’m engaging in add any value to my future? If it’s hard to ascertain some sort of value for the future, then it’s probably not a good way to use one’s time.

The initial assumption that many people make – including myself at an earlier point in my life – is that using one’s time in this way can’t ever be an enjoyable thing. Often, choosing to invest one’s time and energy in a way that provides fruit for the future means not choosing the most “fun” path, but it does not mean the choice isn’t enjoyable.

I take a few approaches to this problem.

First, when something I’m about to do clearly leads to self-improvement, such as reading, I try to choose something that’s challenging but not so much that it ceases to be enjoyable. I’ll read a hard book, one that challenges me and makes me think, but I don’t read an impossible book. I’ll do hard exercises, ones that make me pant and sweat, but I don’t do ones that leave me feeling miserable and convince me to avoid exercise in the future. I’ll play with my kids, but I’ll push us toward something where the children will actually learn something from the activity, and that theoretically teaches me something, too, while still remaining enjoyable.

Second, I try to look for ways to get more future value out of the things I enjoy. I enjoy board games, for example, and I enjoy talking about them and sharing thoughts, so I’ve started working on a series of board game review videos that will appear on Youtube. Not only does this create a trickle of a revenue stream, it also teaches me valuable lessons about video production, yet it’s still enjoyable because I’m focusing on a topic I deeply personally enjoy.

If I’m practicing something for personal enjoyment, I’ll often focus on deliberate practice in an effort to actually become better at whatever I’m practicing. That way, my future attempts at whatever I’m practicing actually become better and more enjoyable.

Third, if I feel low enough in energy level that I don’t want to do any of these things, I go to bed (or at least meditate). If I don’t feel like doing anything, I’m tired, either physically or mentally, and the best response in those situations is to get rest. Sitting in front of the television in a half-awake stupor doesn’t benefit me at all, but a good night of sleep or half an hour of meditation absolutely does.

All of these things are investments. All of these things are fun, too. All of them build long-term dividends, whether it’s in improved skills, improved relationships, or even direct improved income.

There’s almost unlimited value in every moment of our lives. If you stop and look at every moment not only as a moment to savor, but as a moment to invest into a more beautiful future, the potential of life seems endless.

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