You can have two Big Things, but not three

Forget work/life integration for a minute. How much time do you have, regardless of partitioning?

From your 24-hour daily allotment, the 1950s-style break-down is 8 hours for work, 8 for home and commute, and 8 for sleep and ablutions. So, “work” and “home” are the two things in which you can spend 40+ hours per week.

This is the amount of time it takes to tackle something huge. A career. A parent. A startup.

There are weekends and vacations and sick days and such, but those don’t add up to enough concentrated time to carry off something like a startup without causing work or home to suffer.

Of course “work” and “home” are just placeholders for “Big Things.” If you’re unattached, “home” doesn’t occupy significant time.

The rule of life is: You can have two “Big Things” in your life, but not three.

Big Things include:

  • Job
  • Kids
  • Spouse
  • Social Life
  • Major Hobby   (e.g. build a boat in the garage, become a chess master, video game addiction)
  • Startup

You can do a startup on the side while you have a day job, but your family will never see you. You might even lose your family. It happens. This is partly why it’s easier to start a company before you have a family or even a spouse.

You can have a job and a social life, but unless your spouse is fully integrated and agreeable to that social life, there will be strife. “Going out with the guys again?

Yes, “kids” and “spouse” are on the list separately. Young kids strain marriages because there’s not enough time to invest in the kids as well as be there for each other.

Some people try to “have it all.” Men and women both. But it’s never true. At most two can function well; the rest do not. More often, there’s just one that receives the majority of the energy, and the rest suffers.

Note that “Sleep” isn’t on the list of options, even though it’s mathematically the same in terms of time commitment. That’s because cutting out sleep doesn’t work — then you can’t function at a high level at anything.

No, you are not an exception. That’s egotistical self-deception. Not on sleep, and not on the number of Big Things. Ask the people around you if they think you’re not failing at one of your Big Things.

Time to decide which two.


  • Pete

    In general I have to agree with the post! My thoughts and comments are this:

    1) you already mentioned the possibility of having three big things in a special scenario like here: “unless your spouse is fully integrated and agreeable to that social life…” If that is the case, then two big things (Social+Spouse) are combined into one, and you still have time another one (Job for example).

    Another option (my case) would be that you and your wife share a Major Hobby. It is a little bit of a trade-off, but works well if both of you have a clear Big Thing no.1 (Job for us), and share no. 2 (combination of Spouse+Major Hobby). What I already understand and got reminded from this article is that Kids will disrupt this very heavily :-) And I am also interested if anyone who thinks this works managed to combine Job+Spouse into one Big thing.

    2) it would be interesting to see how small stuff not mentioned here can affect the big stuff as well. Almost everyone had a blog, or an obligation, favour he was doing, something on the side. Two years ago it happened I had about 4-5 ongoing small stuff (both business and private) I was actively involved with, and I noticed my Big things suffered (so I eventually cut all the small stuff out). But it took me a while before I noticed the small stuff piled up and was becoming one Big thing!

    What are your thoughts? do you think it is possible to try combining 2 major things into one? And what do do when you actually have three instead of two like most people – Job, Spouse and Kids?

    • I think combining is great, so long as the combination is healthy. Taking spouse + startup, I know of several cases where that works well, and others where it definitely didn’t, so clearly that is context-dependent. Shared hobbies and friends are great too. I do think a healthy combination can beat the rule!

    • I think that you can sorta combine spouse+plus kids for a few years and let both job and spouse suffer a little (but not enough to do serious damage) for a few years until kids get older and then demand less time.

      • Definitely, in fact IMO that’s what most people do. “Suffer a little” is the point. The couples that last, know it’s temporary, and that’s what makes it work. Same principle doesn’t work if the thing that’s suffering for “only” 5-8 years is a startup that isn’t yet self-sufficient!

  • robbyslaughter

    I have three pieces of feedback. Okay, two.

    1) You *can* divide your time into smaller pieces, but task switching is more expensive than most people are able to see.
    2) You can get closer to emulating three tasks by outsourcing lots of your routine stuff (executive assistant / house cleaner / meals delivered) but it’s usually so expensive to do this that you can’t afford to stop doing what makes that affordable in the first place.

  • Jeffrey Fry

    Hum, nope, you can have more than two major things in your life as long as they do not run your life. To do so you must master something know as the art of life… James Michener describes it as such: “The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his
    work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his
    information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly
    knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at
    whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or
    playing. To him he’s always doing both.”

    The trick is how to do this? When you have achieved this rarefied state of being, there is literally no limit to how many “big” things you can do.

    Still, I see your point using the “old” way of thinking Work/Home/Life it is all how you manage your time and get rid of the unessentials

    • Pierre

      I second that. This is an over simplistic view and doesn’t reflect how succesful people (not financially succesful, just those whose life is like they wanted) are. They are better at organizing stuff and putting necessary limits. To summarize, this is all about time management to avoid having to make those extremist choices.

  • Liam Smith

    Reminds me very much of this article - basically you can have 3 of the 4 ; family, friends, health, work

  • Taylor

    Sending this article to my girlfriend was not one of my better ideas

  • Alan Versteeg

    Thank’s for sharing. I think there is validity in what you are saying. I would recommend (if you haven’t already) have a read through “The One Thing” by Gary Keller – it explains a profound principle of work-life counter-balance that has changed my life and allowed me to focus on the 1-2 Important things, as opposed to the 1-2 Big things. It’s definitively worth the read.

  • Mark S.

    I tried 1. working full time, 2. Going to school almost with a full load, and 3. having a relationship. Guess which one I never had time for? Yep, and she left.

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  • I think you can get another 1/2 to 1 a big thing if you can avoid commuting and work from home! This adds to being able to do more with “Spouse” and “Kids”