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On Debt

Personal ยท Dec 9, 2019

Debt is a fascinating concept and it has a huge impact on our lives whether we like it or not. Debt can take many forms and it goes far beyond personal finance. In this post, I define debt as any sort of obligation that we need to fulfill in the future.

Illustration by Claudio Schwarz

Table of Contents

Debt and Society

I tend to avoid financial debt unless it has zero interest and I’m horrified of things such as credit cards and other predatory tools of lending that exacerbate inequality. Of course, abstaining from personal debt is generally good for you but we don’t really have a say in how much our governments borrows on our behalf and it can backfire at any moment.

Most of the economic downturns we faced in the past were caused by an excessive debt and the same scenario will probably keep repeating again and again. I guess it’s safe to say that the financial debt is just a single manifestation of a broader tendency: it seems that we would often prefer more “good” things happen to us now even if it damaged us in the long run.

It’s Not Only About Money

Debt is everywhere. It might be surprising for an outsider how often you can hear the term “debt” in casual conversations among software engineers like me. That kind of debt is called “technical” and it means compromising software quality in order to get the job done faster. Yes, that’s the main reason why many apps are so crappy and unstable. As with financial debt, there are two opposing views when it comes to its technical cousin: some people see it as a necessary tool and some people tend to avoid it by all means. There are also “debt junkies” and “perfectionists” that stick to the extreme ends of that scale and the consequences of their actions are usually disastrous in the long run.

I wouldn’t sleep tight if I were in financial debt but I’m OK with some technical debt, at least to a certain degree. The difference between those kinds of debt is pretty significant: you’re not obliged to pay back your personal debt so there is no reason to worry too much about your technical debt load. People who worry about that stuff tend to attach their egos to their code and it’s generally a bad practice. Let’s be honest: the main source of technical debt are business people and their deadlines and financial constraints. You don’t have to take it personally, sometimes it makes a lot of sense to show a crappy proof-of-concept product to a potential investor and stay in business than to go bankrupt trying to perfect a thing no one needs.

Debt to Ourselves

It can be dangerous to overestimate our ability to pay back our debt and, when personal debt gets out of control, it tends to be a very stressful experience. In fact, even our personal commitments, failure of which do not lead to any external repercussions, can be quite stressful too. Every time when we tell our future selves to get rid of habits we consider harmful, to get more fit, read more books, or whatever, it comes with a mental burden. If we make such a commitment publicly, that burden would grow even bigger. Again, there are two opposing views on that: some people think that it’s a good way to get motivation and other people think that it’s an absolute poison. Personally, I tend to agree more with the second camp on that.

Getting Rid of Debt

I care a lot about promises given, whether I give them to myself or to someone else. I used to expect the same from everyone else but it turned out to be a bad idea, but that’s a different story.

It’s pretty easy when it comes to financial debt: we can deal with this issue by paying it back and not taking on more. Yes, it means spending less than you can, but I never had any issues with that and I believe that the urge to spend everything you have and even more might be a problem worth solving as early in your life as possible.

It’s much harder when it comes to the promises we make to ourselves and I burned-out a few times trying to bite off more than I can chew. I used to set big goals and rough deadlines, and to achieve them by all means necessary. Looking back, I think it wasn’t always the best strategy. The same approach of not taking on new debt and paying back the old one might work with this kind of debt too. In theory, it’s even easier: no one forces us to pay back the old debt except our own selves. Unfortunately, we can be our worst enemies and it can be really tough to negotiate any “debt reduction” with our own selves.

Shifting Focus

What worked for me is shifting focus from the exact goals and deadlines to continuous progress. It’s tempting to procrastinate for a while and then to do everything “the night before the exam” but it’s always a gamble and, as any kind of gamble, it comes with a lot of stress and uncertainty. It seems pretty obvious but I can’t stop seeing those patterns of behavior on every level from individuals to nuclear superpowers.

Many people say they expected more “pleasure” from achieving their big goals. I guess it makes sense, there is no “high” that can last forever but I find that setting small goals and achieving them every day is more rewarding than focusing on something big or pushing yourself to meet unrealistic or excessive deadlines. It’s just more fun to feel the progress every day and to take pride in that than to push yourself to the limit and to burn-out later.

Examples

I use this approach for anything that doesn’t have critical deadlines and I’m satisfied with the results so far:

  • Learning. It’s not that hard to learn a single new thing about the topics that interest me. Focusing on a short and isolated topic also helps to understand things on a deeper level.
  • Personal Projects. I have a few personal projects (including this website) and limited time so I can’t put aside everything else and focus on them full time but it’s not an excuse for abandoning any of them. Consistently adding small improvements helps me not to feel that I abandoned my long-term commitments.
  • Housekeeping. I like to start my day with listening to a podcast and doing some housekeeping while it plays. This way, my “housekeeping debt” do not pile up so I don’t have to spend a few hours on Saturdays doing something not very pleasurable. Also, listening to podcasts improves my English, which also amounts to something if you consider that there are 365 mornings in a single year.

Conclusion

Debt can have many forms and some of them are quite nasty but there are ways to deal with many of them. Not taking any debt can be a sound advice when it comes to personal finance but how about promises we give to ourselves? It might help to be realistic and to not demand from your future self too much but demanding nothing is not an option either, unless you’re some kind of an extreme nihilist or a Buddhist saint. Having goals and the will to achieve them is fine, but it might help to shift our focus to the process and not the goal itself. In my opinion, consistency beats concentrated effort when it comes to various long-term commitments.

Personal   Debt   Goals   Learning

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