This is not a productivity guide. “Productivity hacks” are just efficiency tweaks for people with too many priorities.
This essay should probably be called How to Do Absolutely Nothing and Get Everything Done. The ultimate goal is to live your life without effort — to live your life without getting in your own way.
There is no pressure. Expectations are imaginary. You don’t have to do anything.
Consider Warren Buffet’s Ovarian Lottery:
My political views were formed by this process. Just imagine that it is 24 hours before you are born. A genie comes and says to you in the womb, “You look like an extraordinarily responsible, intelligent, potential human being. [You’re] going to emerge in 24 hours and it is an enormous responsibility I am going to assign to you — determination of the political, economic and social system into which you are going to emerge. You set the rules, any political system, democracy, parliamentary, anything you wish — you can set the economic structure, communistic, capitalistic, set anything in motion and I guarantee you that when you emerge this world will exist for you, your children and grandchildren. What’s the catch? One catch — just before you emerge you have to go through a huge bucket with 7 billion slips, one for each human. Dip your hand in and that is what you get — you could be born intelligent or not intelligent, born healthy or disabled, born black or white, born in the US or in Bangladesh, etc. You have no idea which slip you will get. Not knowing which slip you are going to get, how would you design the world? Do you want men to push around females? It’s a 50/50 chance you get female. If you think about the political world, you want a system that gets what people want. You want more and more output because you’ll have more wealth to share around.
You are already winning at life. The fact that you’re reading this means that (1) your basic needs are met, (2) you have access to a computer, and (3) you have enough leisure-time to read low-quality essays.
Take a moment to be grateful for how lucky you are to be here today.
Now take a moment to reflect on how much you’ve grown. It’s okay if you feel like you’ve plateaued — that means you’re still growing.
You will break everything. Many times. Mentors can’t prevent you from failing, but good ones will help you bounce back.
Mentors will keep you humble. When you feel like an apprentice, you’re more prepared to listen and learn.
Finding a mentor is easy. Choose a respectable person and communicate regularly. If they seem standoffish, then you’re probably talking about yourself too much. Conversations shouldn’t revolve around your problems.
I find that children are very good with this kind of stuff. By the time you’ve simplified a problem, the solution seems obvious. They’re also really good at filtering out garbage — they haven’t been programmed to care about careers, marriage, and other adult junk. And children are always gracious with their time (especially if you barter ice-cream or other sweets). This really only works if you have kids or young siblings; otherwise, you’re probably being creepy.
For the sage, everything is a mentor. Ants may teach you better social-skills. Rivers may carry lessons of effort. And so on.
If you feel like you don’t need a mentor, it’s probably a sign that you need one very badly.
If talking to a mentor is hard for you, take a deeper look inside yourself. It should be fun and effortless.
Step 1 is probably a higher priority. It’s easier to eat well when you’re surrounded by people that care about you.
Fun fact: humans are about as powerful as 100W lightbulbs. But if you don’t supply lightbulbs and humans with sufficient energy, they won’t work.
Nutrition is fundamental. Diet affects your lifespan, intelligence, willpower, sleep, finances, and mood. Bad diets ruin lives.
If you listen to your body, eating well requires no effort. Just (1) use common-sense, (2) do some research, and (3) avoid stuff that makes you feel gross. If a healthy diet sounds difficult, go talk to a dietician; a one-hour session may change your life.
Personally, I feel best when I avoid complex carbs. My diet mainly consists of meats, cheeses, and vegetables.
Your choice of beverages is also really important. Drink tons of water. Tea and cofee are great (in moderation). Everything else should probably be avoided. Alcohol can wreck your body, so be selective. A wise man once said, “you booze, you lose”.
There’s a lot of cool research on fasting and ketosis. It’s a fun little rabbit-hole for nutrition-nerds.
Again, eating well shouldn’t be a chore. Fruits and vegetables are delicious once you gain some dietary momentum!
Steps 1-2 are higher priority. It’s easier to keep in touch with your self-image when you’re surrounded by positive people. And it’s much easier to exercise when you fill yourself with good food/fuel.
Exercise can improve your lifespan, mood, sleep, strength, self-confidence, willpower, intelligence, and attractiveness. It’s the closest thing we have to a “cheat-code” for life.
Dudes, if you have to pick just one exercise, do deadlifts. And do them right, or you’ll, uh, die or something.
Ladies, if you’re looking to be more “curvy”, do squats. But do them correctly, or you’ll wreck your back.
Just pick something that gets your heart pumping and do it a few times a week.
If exercise seems like a chore, you’re doing it wrong. You won’t do it if you don’t want to do it. Don’t fight yourself.
Steps 1-3 are higher priority. If you’re listening to people, then you’re not letting your ego run wild. If you’re eating well and exercising, then you’re already listening to your body.
Every melody needs silence between its notes. Meditation is a great way to reconnect to the songs of the universe.
Meditation practices vary across cultures and even teachers, but the scientific evidence from recent years is very convincing: practicing awareness can measurably improve your life.
I still have a lot to learn about meditation. I don’t feel experienced enough to tell you what to do, but I can tell you some mistakes I made.
My first pitfall was scheduling. It’s hard to do “nothing” when “nothing” is on your calendar. Because putting “nothing” on your calendar just made it “something”! It’s a bit like trying to sleep. Sometimes, when I try too hard to sleep, it keeps me up! Like meditation, sleeping is something you can only achieve by not doing. It it’s hard to not do something that’s on your calendar. I let my mind clear without expectation, whenever it likes.
The second pitfall was duration. The fact that I had to stop myself from meditating probably meant that I wasn’t meditating enough. It’s similar to food — if you have to count calories to stay healthy, you may be eating poorly. I’m finding that my mind likes short, frequent moments of calm throughout the day — sweet reminders that I’m here.
My third pitfall was effort. I fought my thoughts with feelings like “No! Bad brain! Stop that!”. Meditation became frustrating, and seemed like a chore to be avoided. So I started trying agree with every thought. But that led to equally bad feedback-loops! After a while, I got tired of trying to control myself, and got exactly where I wanted to be! Now I’m struggling with “not trying to control myself” as a means of control…
The last pitfall was expectations. I started meditation to improve myself. I wanted to become a better person, and have a clearer mind, and so on. But I find that attempts to become “better” leave me feeling inadequate. I still fall into that trap quite often, but I’m doing better (wink wink). Plus, how can I expect to learn if I already think I know what’s best for me? In the wise words of Mitch Hedberg, “I tried to teach myself to play the guitar. But I’m a horrible teacher — because I do not how to play a guitar”.
Lately, meditation has been becoming my “default mode”. When I don’t want to do anything, I just don’t do anything. And if I want to sit down and think, that’s okay too.
If meditation isn’t enjoyable, you’re doing it wrong.
Steps 1-4 are higher priority. If you have a happy body, good friends, and a quiet mind, you may notice that your life has accumulated a lot of clutter!
Stuff is work. It requires moving, cleaning, and maintenance. And new stuff requires money, which is acquired by more work! Many people “work for their stuff” (double meaning!).
Most people have areas of clutter that manifest as giant clumps of anxiety procrastination (usually located in garages and closets). Just tackling one of these areas will reduce a huge amount of cognitive strain from your daily life.
There’s no “true” approach here. But a framework that I like is to purge everything that you don’t love. Note that purging shouldn’t be vengeful. All your things served a purpose, and deserve an attitude of gratefulness as they exit your life. It’s much easier to find new homes for your possessions when you’re thankful for every item, regargless of significance.
After my most-recent purge, all my items have cozy little homes. And using them is delightful, because we’re kind to each other.
Lately, I’ve been finding wisdom in Steve Jobs’s tenacity of selecting possessions. It was said that he didn’t own a couch for years — simply because he didn’t find one he loved! My mother independently discovered this practice. By only buying clothes that she loved, she dressed better for less money! I’ve heard that it’s more expensive to buy cheap shoes, because they don’t last as long. During my last purge, I decided to sell my record-player (don’t judge me). Even though I used it daily, I really wanted a different model that cost about the same price. I was able to replace it with very little cost-difference! Listening to music is much more enjoyable now, even though the sound is probably equivalent. Possessions won’t make you happy, but they can still be fun!
Be careful not to get carried away by purging! A few years ago, I decided to buy nine navy shirts, and three pairs of khaki pants; all my other clothes went to my parents’ house (thanks, Mom and Dad!). I imagined that wearing a uniform would magically fix how I felt about myself; I hoped that it would “release” me from clothes. What a joke! After switching to the uniform, I was suddenly afraid that my peers found it weird. I started using lint-rollers to an extreme degree. I used my iron more often. So in the end, trying to release myself from clothes made me completely obsessed with them! Now, my uniform hangs in my closet with all the other clothes that I love. It’s naturally become my “default” outfit, but I don’t beat myself up for wanting to wear Hawaiian shirts on Fridays. Minimalism can be just as unhealthy as consumerism. Just do what feels right.
Organization shouldn’t be a chore. When you’re surrounded by things you love, everything will seem to magically find its place in your home.
Steps 1-5 are higher priority. If they fall out of line, you will not be your best self. Like, don’t worry about your furniture if your house is about to fall apart.
Common-sense is learned by doing common things. It’s not rocket-science (by definition).
I was a janitor during my high-school years. I painted curbs, swept sidewalks, and bleached toilets. Surpringly, my experience cleaning bathrooms was crucial for my growth as a software-engineer. For instance, I learned that when you don’t replace toilet-paper rolls, people wipe themselves with paper-towels. And paper-towels don’t flush well. And so you have toilet overflows. And then people walk in the overflowing toilet-water, tracking it all over the place. And they slip in the fluid and get it on the walls and sinks and mirrors. And so on. The point is that forgetting the tedium (like toilet-paper) can have large unintended catastrophes (like the poopocalypse). And now, as a software-engineer, I have the importance of tedium stamped onto my core. I’m entrusted with multi-million dollar projects because I worry about tedium that nobody else sees. Because I learned it first in a simple environment.
The point is that doing basic things teaches you basic lessons that can be easily translated to every career and way of life. It’s like learning music theory before you try to play Mozart’s works — it’s, uh, common-sense.
Let’s call your objective “X”.
Steps 1-6 are higher priority. If they fall out of line, you will not do X to the best of your ability (or probably at all).
Step 7 seems simple: reduce X to something you want to do right now. But most of us are bad at reducing problems, examining our desires, escaping our past, and dropping our expectations.
You cannot do X and Y at the same time. You will do both poorly or not-at-all. Pick one or pick none. Doing X and doing nothing are equally satisfying options; doing X and Y will cause certain grief. If you won’t let either go, figure out how to merge them into Z.
If X is a goal, stop now. If you go to school to be a doctor, you will be stressed about work and tests. You will crumble under the weight of your own expectations. You will cram, and produce cortisol, which will make you more stressed, and you’ll fall behind, which will result in a disastrous spiral. And even if you do succeed, did you really want to spend 10 years doing something bad to do something that you THINK might be good? I know a lot of doctors who hate being doctors — they trapped themselves with their own expectations. The better way to become a doctor is to just “accidentally” become a doctor one day. When going to school, you’ll study exactly what you want to study. Even when it’s hard, it’ll be fun, because you really want to do X. And because you were always interested, you’ll find that you’re magically really good at X. And if suddenly you get to medical school, and you’re not in tune with what you’re doing, you may transition into pharmacy, dentistry, public service, administration, etc. With this strategy, you many not always love your job, but you’ll always love your profession. If your X is “become a musician”, you’ll find that you’re never good enough. Practicing won’t be fun, because you won’t feel any improvement in comparison to your own dreams. And you’ll live your life maybe picking up your guitar every few days/weeks without ever improving that much. And even if you get lucky and make it “big”, you’ll find that you don’t have any real skill or experience, and your music label will have complete power over you. And even if they don’t, you’ll probably feel like a fake. And your albums will stink. And you’ll never have the fans that you truly wanted. On the other hand, if your X is “play music”, all you have to do is play music. And if your big break comes, it will be because you deserve it. And if it’s not on your terms, then you can say “no thanks” and maybe catch another break. Because you’re not waiting for anything, you’ll take the good opportunities on your own terms. And if you’re not good enough for opportunities, you’ll rise to the occasion, because you are simply doing X.
If X is not something that you can’t/won’t start now, then pick a different X.
If X is a non-goal you can start now, X is likely some sort of skill.
Your ratio of basics/imitation should probably be about 2:1
In a sense, you can’t practice anything besides the basics.
Your definition of “fundamental” will change as you grow. Just practice whatever you feel is most basic.
Do not be tempted by flourish.
Focusing on the basics (1) makes you very aware of details and (2) encourages “beginner’s mind”.
I recently started making bread (it’s wonderful!). Herbs and spices are tempting, but they’re just distractions unless you’re a master of the four [bread] elements: salt, water, flour, and yeast. My next bread-experiment is to make hundreds of half-loaves, varying ingredients, temperature, time, and kneading. Be curious!
Practice X in the spirit of some master.
There are no magic people. You can learn anything.
If studying becomes difficult, you should probably quit and do something else, because you’re probably not truly interested in X.
If you are still motivated to do X despite the learning hurdles, then change your representation. Brains are analogy engines. Your goals is to make an analogy between your mind and the information. If you cannot understand something, then you must (1) twist your mind to fit the information or (2) twist the information to fit your mind. Note that method (2) is usually easier than method (1).