I don’t know about you, but when I reflect on my life I find it impossibly full. Family. Work. Friends. Reading. Learning. Thinking. Writing. Project. DIY. Exercise. Chores. Shopping. Meditation. Fun. Relaxing. I only just remembered fun and relaxation and I’m sure I’m missing other major items from this list.
And that’s a problem. When, not if, new things are forcibly wedged in then other stuff always gets squeezed or squeezed out. And life is not like carbon. Putting it under pressure does not create diamonds. I know from painful past experience that relationships don’t harden but disintegrate when placed under excess pressure, and for that matter nothing else gets better either. Which is why I’m excited by an almost magical solution to the problem of an over-full life, one that has emerged accidentally in 2014Q4 from a long running and almost pathologically frenetic attempt to organise, plan and goal set my life.
Ultimately, the secret is simple, offensively so: Do less
The trick is in the “how”, and I think that’s why the first critical condition is being organised. I’ve written quite a bit (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) about what I do before. Since then I’ve tweaked things, but the core idea remains the same: a nested set of systems, goals and plans that operate at different time scales. With only a small effort I’ve systematised it so that it doesn’t take much extra time or effort. Instead it lets me take a crucial step back, think, and talk with family and loved ones about what’s important to me and what I actually want to do. Without that foundational structure in my life, any “do less” would just be picking arbitrary ripples in the water over others from the river of my life.
And so another way of framing this secret is: Prioritise better
As the last few years have gone by I’ve worked myself longer and longer and I’ve struggled harder and harder for efficiency. But the law of diminishing marginal returns has won and I’ve now realised that I simply cannot do any more. Yet the list of things I must do, can do and want to do grows as quickly as ever. My Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk wishlists have 533 items on them all together, some going back to 1999. I still want to read them all. I used to be able to count on one hand the number of exciting projects I hope (will) build in my spare time, but after a Christmas email exchange with a friend I’d need a mutant sixth finger. I love spending time with my wife and son and could spend an infinity more with them. And the opportunities I have to do new and exciting things at Palantir could consume another ordinal infinity of time.
A computer scientist would recognise this situation for what it is: My productivity is growing at O(log n), but the list of things I want to do is in the P-space (at least). A better computer scientist might have recognised this sooner. Because the conclusion is inevitable: I will always have more that I want to do than I have time.
And it turns out that the key to doing less, prioritising better is two-fold: I must do it explicitly, and I must be comfortable with it.
So when I set my goals now, at all levels, I always explicitly add a safety valve: Not this time around. Whether it’s my weekly deliverables, quarterly OKR or half-yearly manifestos I always have a list of items that I explicitly will not be doing. Listing them tracks them, and so I am comfortable that they are not lost. I can always do them in the future. About 50% of the time I do.
Actually, wait a second. That’s really significant: Of all the things that I list down as definite priorities only temporarily paused, only half of them turn out to be something I still need or want to do next time around. Wow! That realisation alone has made me much more comfortable saying “no” (to myself and others) first time around.
Which leads me to the critical step I’ve only just started implementing, but which I love already: Reducing the number of times I need to say no. It’s increasingly well known that making decisions depletes mental energy. In my case saying no to something can be one of the most tiring, I almost physically feel the drain, like some kind of opportunity cost black hole. So I’m minimising that in a myriad of ways, all under the aegis of “decluttering”.
First and foremost, I have resolved to be more judicious in which new obligations and commitments I accept. I test every new opportunity using the reverse loss test now: If this opportunity was not sitting in front of me, how much would I pay to have it and how hard would I work to have the opportunity to pay for the opportunity? If the answer is not “a very big number” and “very very hard” I will turn it down. This will mean, has already meant, painfully turning down a number of opportunities I was (at the time) very excited about and could not wait to pursue. The funny thing is that in hindsight it was right to decline every single one of them.
Additionally, I have committed to decluttering my day to day life as well. I’ve taken just over half my clothes and put them in the loft. I’ll wait a year, then give the rubbish bags to charity unopened. It was hard to start with but applying the reverse loss test ultimately made it pretty easy. I’ve also pared down my mobile’s applications so that every application can be started in just one or two taps. That means they’re all either on my front page or on the first page of a folder there. In total, I’ve removed more than 50 and it feels great. The old applications are stored temporarily in a “Clutter” folder. I did this two weeks ago and have resuscitated only one of them since. Pretty soon I’ll delete the rest.
As the next few weeks and months roll by I’ll do the same elsewhere: I’m busy unsubscribing from email lists I never read and actively looking for other things that I can thin down and declutter. I don’t know exactly what else I will declutter (my diet? my waking and sleeping time?) but already life is a whole lot easier and a whole lot more productive. I’m a happy man.