Simplification is the road to perfection. The more you simplify your life — the decisions you make, the things you focus on, the objects you can’t live without — the more you will enjoy it. Do less, but better. Instead of going wide, go deep. It’s the only way to become proficient at something. To enjoy it fully and deeply. To appreciate all its facets, all its nooks and crannies, and discover all its secrets. As a byproduct, you will also find lasting happiness.
But how do you simplify your life? We’re living in a world of abundance and overconsumption. From the food we eat to the information we consume and the things we buy, everything suffers from inflation. As a result, we’ve stopped suffering from diseases of scarcity. Today, we’re suffering from diseases of abundance. Excess of food leads to diabetes. Excess of information leads to short attention spans and bad decisions. Excess of comfort leads to poor health and miserable old age.
So what can we do about it? Should we delete our Twitter accounts, cancel the internet subscription, and go live in self-sustained communities? Not yet. I may try to sell you on this idea if one day I will found my own religion. But not today.
Let’s take a more rational approach. Simplification is best obtained by imposing limits. And limits allow greater freedom.
Imagine you have a bunch of kids playing basketball. The court has no fences, so the kids have absolute freedom. They can run wherever they want and shoot the ball as they wish. But on the sides of the court, there are cars driving at 50 km/h. Pass the ball too fast and your playmate may let it slip on the freeway. Foul your buddy at the edge of the court and he may land in front of a driving car. As a result, everyone will play as carefully and restrained as possible.
Now let’s imagine we impose some restrictions. We surround the court by 3-meter-high fences. We also impose a speed limit of 30 km/h and forbid horn-honking on the adjacent streets. This greatly reduces the number of things the kids have to focus on. It also automatically gives them the freedom to be more creative, take greater risks, and become better basketball players.
What if we could apply the same principle to our lives? Is there a way to erect fences that will keep out the noise and pollution, allowing our ideas to grow and flourish? Of course there is. And the one who helped me discover it was my 2-year-old daughter.
How a 2-year-old Can Erect Fences Over Night
When a child enters your life, everything changes… Now that’s a cliché you didn’t need to hear for the 100th time, right? But it’s true. I could write a whole book about how having a kid impacts your life. And maybe one day I will. Until then, let me give you 2 main points:
- Your life will never be the same again
- Your free time is suddenly more valuable than gold
Having a kid forced me to severely limit my activities. It forced me to build fences. Before becoming a father I would have to choose how to spend every evening. Should I play that new PlayStation game or should I work on my research project? Should I go to the gym? Or maybe watch a movie with my wife?
But when you have a crying baby in the house, none of those things is an option. They are all forced outside of the fences and suddenly lose their importance. You realize that a huge part of your play court is now taken up by this tiny human, who has become the center of your life.
Yes, it’s a shock. And shocks are always uncomfortable. But growth only happens when you step outside of your comfort zone.
After a period of adjustment, you recognize the benefits of the fences. You learn to play inside the boundaries and start seeing the advantages. That’s when the real growth begins.
In my case, my daughter became the top priority. Before my work, my hobbies, or any sort of chores, my first duty was to be a good dad. And it was a liberation. No matter how shitty my workday was, or how much administrative stuff kept piling up, the day was still won if I spent quality time with her.
And my other activities? I restricted them to only three: writing, lifting, and meditation. These bring the most benefits to my life. Do I miss all the other stuff I used to fill my time with? Not really. After I stopped scattering my attention between 10 projects, I got better at the 3 skills I focussed on. The more I practice them, the happier and more fulfilled I become.
How to Ignite Your Spark
In a single hour, the sun offers our planet more energy than we consume in a year. But how much of that energy do we put to good use? Even with the new generation of solar panels, we only use a fraction of it. Why? Because this energy, however powerful, is scattered.
So how could you focus it? Just ask a six-year-old and he will show you. If you take a magnifying glass and hold it still above a piece of wood, it starts a fire. The energy was there all along. But if you don’t focus it long enough in a single spot, it will never ignite a fire.
The same goes for your attention. During a whole day you spend huge amounts of energy. Just think of all the steps you take, all the emails you answer, and all the times you refrain from slapping your new coworker. All these activities require energy. Now imagine what you could do if somehow you could focus it. What if I could hand you a magnifying glass for your energy?
I’ve spent months putting together a set of DIY instructions for such an instrument. And after many failed attempts, I finally found 3 principles that will help you build it. I will show you how to erect the fences that will narrow your playing field and focus your attention, so you can concentrate on what really matters. And no, it doesn’t require having a baby.
1. What Are Your Uberhabits?
In 1883 Friedrich Nietzsche introduced the idea of the Ubermensch — a superior type of human, the next evolutionary step of humanity. Inspired by his idea, I identified things called uberhabits. They are similar to regular habits, only better. Uberhabits can change your life forever.
Let’s take brushing your teeth before bed. This is a normal habit. It’s important to do it, and it fulfills its purpose. On the other hand, smiling whenever you see someone you know is an uberhabit. It will make you more likable, you will have a higher chance of good social interactions, and it will fool your brain into feeling happier. It improves multiple areas of your life with one shot. Other examples are reading, waking up early, and keeping in touch with friends. Such uberhabits have ripple effects that extend far into your future.
When you start pruning your actions and habits, ask yourself: “What actions will improve everything else?”. It might be that 30-minute walk in the evening, which helps you get your thoughts in order and reach your step goal for the day. Or maybe it’s calling your mum and your best friend regularly.
For me, they are writing and meditating. The first one helps me think better, affecting on all areas of my life. And meditation helps me be calmer and less reactive, which makes me a kinder human.
Whatever your uberhabits may be, make them a priority. Even when you have a bad day, make sure you still practice your uberhabits. They are the actions that matter most. Do them and the day is not lost.
2. What Will You Regret Most in 10 Years?
I don’t know about you, but I have tons of interests. Ranging from common to bizarre, from exotic to erotic and everything in between. If I had a whole year with no job and no obligations, I could maybe dive into half of them, at best. But with a full-time job, a wife, and a daughter, that’s not an option. This is why I came up with principle number two.
Every time I want to start or quit an activity, I ask myself: “Ten years from now, will I regret not having done this?” If the answer is a clear yes, it stays inside the fences. Everything else gets pushed outside.
Would it be cool to learn about hypnosis? Undoubtedly. But will I regret not having done it? Probably not. I can still get to it in 10 years if I’m still interested. What about working out? Will I regret it in 10 years if I skip my workout today? You bet I will! I still want to be able to carry my daughter on my shoulders in my 40s. And my grandchildren in my 60s. And a carry-on bag in my 70s. So skipping workouts is not an option.
That doesn’t mean I will discard all my exotic interests. I just put them on hold. Their time may come at some point. If so, I will gladly dive into them. And if not, I know I picked something better instead.
3. When in Doubt, do The Hard Thing
Our minds are pesky little beings. They can help us solve the most complex problems, but they can also fool us in the most surprising ways. The more intelligent the mind, the more capable it is to find excuses.
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.Richard P. Feynman
Luckily, I recently discovered a simple way of combating this. I’ve been experimenting with it for a few weeks and it works surprisingly well. The method is simple: every time I find myself pondering two options, I pick the hard one.
Let’s say I have 10 free minutes and need to decide between a kettlebell workout and sorting a pile of washed clothes. Both would take me about ten minutes. Both need to get done. And neither one is pressing. If I start pondering, I give my mind a chance to intervene. And in 100% of cases it will find some sort of excuse to pick the easy task. This time, and the next time, leaving the hard task undone. So I never give my mind a chance. I just think, “Which one is harder? Good, I’ll do that”.
Fair warning: this is a heuristic meant to help you in such situations. It won’t work if you apply it in other contexts. And you should use it with common sense. Drinking two bottles of vodka is obviously harder than drinking one. But that’s neither a dilemma nor common sense. The real question here is: Should you have a drink or not? The answer: Do what’s harder.
This approach will make you more resilient and self-confident. You will learn that you’re fully capable of doing the hard things. And, in the long run, it will make you healthier and more balanced. What’s harder, indulging in desert or skipping it? Taking the stairs or the elevator? Cooking a home meal or ordering pizza? Whatever it is, do the hard thing.
Putting it All Together
There you have it, three principles that will help you regain freedom, peace of mind, and laser-sharp focus. Whenever you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed, it’s a sign you haven’t prioritized. Forget the to-do lists. Close that project management app. Take a break and ask yourself three questions.
- What are my uberhabits? Do them first.
- What will I regret most, 10 years from now? Prioritize that.
- What’s the hard thing? Do it now.
These are the things you need to focus on. Everything else belongs outside the fences. We don’t have time for fluff. Now close this tab and do the hard thing.