Less but Better
If I had to choose one mantra for the rest of my life, this might be it.
Essentialism was one of my favourite reads of the past year, and I’ve since gifted it to several friends.
Minimalism is a popular ideal, but the focus is on removing as much as possible from your life.
I like Essentialism a bit better, because it focuses on removing all that isn’t essential, rather than removing as much as possible.
Where does the “less is more” mantra apply? Almost everywhere.
At work: only the most important tasks.
What we eat: only high-quality, unprocessed food.
How we exercise: shorter duration, higher intensity.
The friends we keep: fewer, but closer.
Less but better.
Subtract to Improve
The way to improve something is almost always by subtracting, not adding.
Want to improve your diet? Remove the bad things you eat.
Want to improve your sleep? Remove the things which distract you near bedtime.
Want to improve your work? Remove all but the highest priority items, and focus more on those.
We often believe that a new product, or a new diet, or a new exercise class will help us improve ourselves.
Instead, we should be looking to subtract.
Happiness = Results - Expectations
We all have expectations in our lives: our salary, our relationships, our personal growth, our fitness.
High expectations come with high ambition.
But happiness is often the cost.
The billionaire unsatisfied with his wealth is a result of his expectations still exceeding his results.
Ambition helped that person gain wealth. But we have to be careful where and when we apply that ambition.
Setting reasonable short-term goals and looking for compound gains that add up over time is a good way to balance both.
This applies to both larger and smaller things.
Want to feel good about your day? Accomplish your single highest-priority task. Then the extra 3 tasks you finish are a bonus.
This feels much different than setting out to accomplish 5 tasks, and only managing 4, despite the same result.
Process Goals, Then Target Goals
Like many people, I enjoy accomplishing goals and being productive.
But setting ambitious goals can be discouraging, particularly when you set them with little idea of how realistic they are.
Setting out to run a marathon can seem impossible, if right now you struggle to run for 5 minutes.
When starting out with a new project or activity, you should start by setting a process goal: I will run for 10 minutes per day, every day of the week.
The focus on the process is meant to get you started, and to gather more information.
Once you become comfortable, you can change to a target-based goal.
At the end of a few weeks of running for 10 minutes per day, you will know how comfortable you feel. You may have extended to 20 minutes a couple times, and set a benchmark for how fast you run a kilometre or a mile.
Once you’ve established the habit, and gathered more information, you’re now much better positioned to focus on a target-based goal. You can select a training plan you’re confident will match your ability and that you’ll be able to complete.
When starting: focus on the process. Once you’re comfortable, set a goal.
You Will Overestimate What You Can Accomplish in the Short-Term, and Underestimate in the Long-Term
Albert Einstein supposedly called compound interest the “eighth wonder of the world.”
What most don’t realize is that compound interest isn’t limited to money.
It applies to almost everything we do repetitively, whether it be our jobs, our fitness, or our habits.
As ambitious people, we set short-term goals that are often too ambitious. We fail to reach them and they can become discouraging, or it can feel like we are making little progress in the short term.
But when we look back on the past year, or the past 2-5 years, we realize how far we have come. How much we have learned, the skills we’ve developed, and the new perspectives we’ve gained.
If you’re feeling discouraged, look back at where you were several years ago. Think about how much progress you’ve made!
And if you want to feel optimistic, think about how much progress you will have made in several years.
I’ve worked in startups most of my professional life. Not every day feels like a jump forward.
But working with other talented people, in fast-moving companies, with lots of new opportunities, has led to a quantity of learning that I wouldn’t have thought possible.
Sometimes you just need to wait to see the compound interest.
Artificial Constraints Are Everywhere
If the year of the pandemic has taught us anything, it has to be this.
At my current company, we went from working almost entirely in person, to entirely remote, in the span of 1 work day.
As a society, we transitioned from one where “pandemic” was a little-understood word, to one where mask-wearing is standard indoors, hand sanitizing is ubiquitous, and travel is limited.
These new constraints are obvious.
But what others exist in our lives? Which are self-imposed, and which are imposed by society that we accept without thinking?
Spending time in quarantine, working remotely, and traveling much less than normal have kept me questioning what is really required for a happy life.
The answer, it seems, is often much less than we think. A roof and some heat. Some books. Some family and friends and colleagues. Everything else is probably optional.
You Can Have Anything You Want, but Not Everything You Want
"You can have virtually anything you want, but you can’t have everything you want.”—Ray Dalio, Principles
Perhaps because life was more constrained this year, the choices I made with my time became more obvious.
I didn’t write as much as I planned, but that was because I spent my free time with family or friends, golfing or sailing or cycling.
I worked more than I planned, but that was because I had things I wanted to accomplish, and a new company I wanted to impact.
The choices we make with our time are often obscured, or the trade-offs aren’t conscious. But they are there.
Choosing what we want to focus our time on is also a choice about what we don’t want to focus on.
We may think we can just add things, but there is always a trade-off.
Ignore the News
In addition to a worldwide pandemic, it’s an election year in the US, and we’ve had some of the most widespread civil unrest in decades.
It’s almost impossible to have a conversation that doesn’t end up back at Trump or politics (it’s been described to me as the “black hole” of conversation).
I have avoided the news as much as humanly possible this year, yet still have a decent grasp of the most important current events. How?
The most important news tends to get to you regardless. Colleagues mention it, or friends, or family, and when you hear something interesting, you look more into it yourself.
But how often does the news truly inform you? I would argue rarely, if ever.
Cultivate limited sources of information. Newsletters, or high-quality analysis. Read books instead.
Ignore the always-on news cycle as much as possible, where every story is portrayed as an emergency.
Think about deeper, important topics instead, like the underlying racial issues causing the unrest, or the growing partisanship in politics, rather than the where the latest protest is taking place, or what awful thing someone said.
Less but better.