Many people are complaining that online dating apps like Tinder are making everyone non-committal. In fact, this phenomenon is not limited to dating; it’s happening even among friends. People are now less willing to commit to a date and time to see each other, leaving open all possibilities until the last minute. In this article, I’m going to explain exactly why I think this is happening and what to do about it.
You’ve probably heard the story of “Jar of Life.” It goes something like this.
In a classroom, a teacher places an empty jar on a table. He fills it up with a bunch of golf balls and asks the students, “Is it full?” The students say, “Yes.” He then starts pouring small pebbles. They fill the spaces between golf balls. “Is it full now?” he asks again. The students reply, “Yes.” He then starts pouring sand which fills the space between the pebbles. He asks again, “Is it full now?” The students respond, “Yes.” He then takes out a bottle of beer and pours it in.
The moral of this story is that if you put important things in first, you would be able to fill the jar with a lot more things than you’d expect. If he had poured the sand and pebbles in first, he wouldn’t be able to fit the golf balls.
Now, let us use this analogy for a slightly different purpose: How to optimize our time. Let’s equate the size of an object to duration of time and the position of the ball to a point in time. For instance, if you are planning what you want to do next summer, you should first think about the plans that take a lot of time, like your trip to Paris. Fit them in first and try to fit the smaller pieces after. If you filled the calendar with lots of small things, you won’t be able to fit the big ones.
Finding someone to marry is a similar challenge. It’s not only that your spouse will be the most important person for you but also the person you will spend the most time with. It’s so much bigger than a golf ball that you can only fit one of it in the jar. This is why you keep swiping on Tinder; you want to find the best possible candidate for that big ball.
These days, we have so many technologies to optimize our lives that we feel we should optimize everything in life. Let’s say today is Monday and a friend emails you to have a dinner on Friday night. Since it’s email, you don’t need to answer immediately. So, you start thinking, “Do I want to commit to this? Or, would something better come along before Friday?” Thinking in this way has become a habit because we are surrounded by technologies that allow us to make the best possible choices from a seemingly infinite number of choices. We feel that settling immediately for anything will lead to regrets later. We put off committing as long as possible. In this case, you might respond to your friend’s email on Wednesday saying, “Sorry I didn’t respond earlier. I had an emergency situation at work...”
Committing to a dinner plan on Friday night is equivalent to placing a pebble locked in a specific position within the jar. It does not take up much space but since its position is fixed, other items may not be able to fit. From the point of view of time optimization, you would want to avoid scheduling events that must be fixed in time.
For instance, if you schedule a phone call at 1 pm, you will now have to break up the day into two slots—before the call and after the call—and find tasks that could fit in those slots. Let’s say, you need to write a report, but you estimate that it would take about five hours. You won’t be able to schedule it without getting interrupted by the phone call because neither slots are long enough. Although it’s not ideal, you accept that you will be interrupted. But it turns out that you finished writing the report in three hours (from 9 am to noon). You now have an hour before the phone call. What can you fit in that takes an hour? You remember that your assistant needed your help with his computer problem. So, you walk over to him and start troubleshooting. An hour passes and you are not quite done with fixing his problem, but now you need to get on the phone. You tell your assistant, “Sorry, I need to make this call. We’ll have to continue when I’m done with the call.” The phone call drags longer than expected, and when you go back to your assistant, you discover that he stepped out and his computer is password locked. And so on... All that trouble just because you have one appointment fixed on your calendar.
In the days before all these technologies, we took for granted that our days would be interrupted constantly. People used to call without making any appointments. When someone called you, you had to drop everything you were doing and pay full attention to the caller. This happened numerous times within the day.
Today we have so-called “asynchronous” communication technologies like email and texting. Asynchronous means we don’t need to respond at the same time you receive the message. We can let the messages queue up until we are ready to respond to all of them in one sitting. This allows us to avoid fixing any tasks in calendar.
In the example above, if you did not have the phone call scheduled at 1 pm, and if it can be taken care of through email, you wouldn’t even need to estimate the amount of time it takes to write the report. Just start writing. As soon as you are done writing, walk over to your assistant to troubleshoot his computer. And, as soon as you are done troubleshooting, go back to your desk and write the email instead of making a phone call. All these tasks can be strung together without any interruptions. This is why we hate committing to a specific time for anything. The idea of having to go home at 7 pm to watch a TV show is utterly unacceptable for us today. We “demand” TV shows whenever we want them.
But here is the flipside. The convenience, flexibility, infinite choices, and efficiency are making our lives worse in some important aspects. Many people are unable to get married and have kids even if they are desperate to, because they can’t commit. We fill up our jars with sand because we keep waiting for better things that don’t turn up. If all these advanced technologies are allowing us to optimize every aspect of our lives, how could this be happening to us?
Because we are failing to see that it’s not the space of the jar that ultimately matters, but the weight of all the objects we put in it.
What does weight correspond to in our lives? If space corresponds to time, weight corresponds to the quality of time spent. Many people are obsessed with time management but hardly think about quality management. Why? Because we don’t have technologies for the latter.
Continuing our dinner example above, it’s Friday night. You are at the restaurant with your friend. Now it’s all up to you to make this a time well-spent with your friend. There is no technology to help you with that. Yet, because you are so dependent on technologies to enhance everything that you habitually cling to them. You obsess over what can be optimized through technologies. While you are with your friend, you check your smartphone to see what you could be doing next, or even worse, what you could have been doing instead. What you end up with at the end of the dinner is a ping-pong ball instead of a golf ball. That is, the ball is empty and has no weight, even though it takes up just as much space as a golf ball.
The technologies can efficiently manage your time, but once it’s time for you to perform, you are on your own. What matters is your creativity, skills, knowledge, talent, grit, emotional intelligence, focus, passion, etc.. There are no easy technological solutions for them.
When we take into account both time and quality (plan and execution), we realize that the more confident you are with your own abilities, the less you need to worry about optimizing time. This is the difference between people who forever keep swiping on Tinder and those who commit. The latter can outperform the former in quality of life. They are confident of their own abilities to make things work, so they don’t worry so much about optimizing what they can have. Instead, they focus on what they can do with what they have.
You can think of the jar as an hourglass. If you don’t put any balls in it, it automatically gets filled with sand. If you are confident of your own abilities, it’s better to commit to bigger balls earlier regardless of the initial qualities of the balls so you can start filling the rest of the space with smaller objects. If you wait, the space just gets filled with sand.
You must keep in mind that the quality of the object is something you have control over. You can improve it over time. But what objects you have access to in your life is largely a matter of luck. If you think about it rationally, it makes more sense to put more weight on what you can control than on what you cannot control. People who wait until the last minute are insecure about their own abilities, so they rely heavily on luck to improve their lives. This is particularly true when they are looking for someone to marry. They focus almost entirely on who they can get. They want Mr. or Ms. Perfect because they themselves are so imperfect. If they were confident of themselves, they can afford to marry Mr./Ms. Imperfect.
A relationship is something we build over time. It is a collaborative form of art. Your lover or friend is not the sculpture, the relationship is. S/he is a collaborator. The beginning of the relationship is like choosing a large piece of marble for creating a sculpture. Yes, you do want the marble to have a shape close to the shape of the final sculpture you and your collaborator want, but you can’t just find a finished sculpture. So, if you want to have a meaningful relationship, stop swiping and start sculpting.