If you try to tackle a big project and end up getting stuck somewhere along the way, it might mean that some steps are missing.
Imagine trying to complete a difficult, 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Even though it has a thousand pieces, finishing the puzzle requires to complete more than a thousand steps.
You need to spend time sorting, grouping, and looking for edge pieces. You also might have to undo some parts of your work as you go along—which adds more steps, since now you need to override previous tasks that you thought had been completed.
This is all logical enough, but a) it takes time, and b) if you haven’t ever done a large puzzle before, you might get frustrated. You might give up along the way, leaving your puzzle half-finished and sitting on the kitchen table for weeks. Finally, you push the pieces back into the box, swearing off puzzles until the next family holiday gathering or global pandemic.
Maybe the root cause of puzzle neglect could be traced to the beginning: you underestimated the number of steps, as well as the amount of effort that would be required to persevere beyond the easy ones.
Two weeks ago, I asked a question in my newsletter: “Why haven’t you started?”
My theory was that a lot of people (maybe even most of us) have something that we really want to do, but we struggle with making any real progress. The more I investigate this question, the more I believe that the answer is twofold.
First, we struggle in getting started because we don’t really know what the first steps are. Often there are prerequisites, steps you have to complete before the “official” first steps, which effectively means that your list of steps is incomplete. There’s an obvious solution to problem one: we need better lists of steps.
But that’s not all! The other reason we struggle has to do with self-doubt or some other internal obstacle.
In response to my question, a lot of readers said something like this:
“I know what to do, I just can’t bring myself to do it.”
“I’ve been thinking about it for years, but I still haven’t done anything.”
“I failed once, so I’m afraid to try again.”
In these situations, having a better list of steps doesn’t fully solve the problem—or perhaps we could say that step one is “learn to believe in yourself.” This will require some more investigation, so I’ll let you know what I come up with.
Until then, know your steps, and have confidence in yourself. Puzzles are hard for a reason!
P.S. One more thing: in jigsaw puzzles, as well as many other challenging endeavors, some steps are harder than others. Some sections may actually be easy, and even in a hard puzzle, putting in the last few pieces is going to be a lot easier than the ones in the middle.
The clients I work with almost all put incredible expectations on themselves — they have higher standards than almost anybody I know. It’s why they work with me.
It can be hard to see, but the expectations they’ve set for themselves often stand in the way of what they want the most.
It’s hard to see, because they became successful because of those expectations. It’s what got them this far.
But after a certain point, the expectations become the anchor, not the engine.
The breakthrough to the next level for many of us who perform at high levels — and actually for people of all kinds — is to let go of all expectations.
Tony Robbins is famous for saying, “Turn your expectations … into appreciation.” It’s a beautiful saying, and helps us to start to see where expectations are getting in the way.
Let’s take a look.
Expectations Often Only Seem to Help
I know lots of people who improved their lives because they had an expectation that they should be better.
“I should be in better shape. I should have a better job. I should be more productive. I should be more discipined. I should be more mindful. I should eat healthier.”
I know these expectations well — that was me at the start of my journey. It’s how almost all of us start out.
We take these expectations and turn them into action. “OK, it’s finally time to get off my butt and do something about this problem!”
And that’s when change starts to happen — when we’ve motivated ourselves to start.
So expectations can seem like they’re doing a lot of work, because they’re the things that got us to start.
But then they start getting in the way:
I expected to be great at this habit after a few days, but a week into it and I still suck at it
I expected to be perfect at this habit but I’m still struggling
I expected to keep my streak going past 2 weeks but then I missed a day
I expected to really enjoy yoga or meditation but it’s way harder than I thought
This doesn’t meet my expectations, so it sucks (can’t appreciate it)
I’m so focused on how I want things to turn out (expectations) that I miss the beauty of what’s happening in this moment
And so on.
The expectations actually hold us back from the simplicity of discipline.
The Simplicity of Discipline
The things we want to be disciplined at are actually fairly simple in a lot of ways.
We want to be consistent with the journaling habit, or meditation, or exercise? Just start, as simply as possible. Do that again the next day. If you miss a day, no problem — just start again. Over and over.
All of the problems of habits start to go away when we drop expectations. We can start to appreciate doing the habit, in this moment, instead of being so concerned with how it will turn out in the future.
It’s very simple, when we drop the expectations.
A daily writing habit becomes as simple as picking up the writing tool and doing it, without any expectation that it be any good or that people love it.
A daily exercise habit becomes as simple as putting your shoes on, going outside, and going for a walk or a run or a hike or a bodyweight workout. You don’t need fancy equipment, the perfect program, or a membership to anything. You just start moving, as simply as possible.
Of course, we have all kinds of hangups when it comes to exercise, or writing, or eating. These come from years of beating ourselves up (or getting judged by others, and internalizing those judgments). We can stop beating ourselves up the moment we drop expectations. Then, without the layers of self-judgment, we can simply get moving.
Every time we “fail” at a habit, we get discouraged. Because of expectations. What if we dropped any expectation that we be perfect at it, and just return to doing the habit at the earliest opportunity? Over and over again.
It all becomes exceedingly simple, once we can drop expectations. And if we become fully present, it can even be joyful! The joy of being in the moment, doing something meaningful.
Dropping the Expectations
So simple right? Now we just have to figure out how to drop those pesky expectations.
Here’s the thing: it turns out the human mind is a powerful expectations generator. Like all the time, it’s creating expectations. Just willy nilly, without any real grounding in reality. Out of thin air.
So do we just turn off the expectations machine? Good luck. I’ve never seen anyone do that. In fact, the hope that we can just turn off the expectations is in itself an expectation.
The practice is to just notice the expectations. Bring a gentle awareness to them. Just say, “Aha! I see you, Expectation. I know you’re the reason I’m feeling discouraged, overwhelmed, behind, frustrated, inadequate.”
And it’s true, isn’t it? We feel inadequate because we have some expectation that we be more than this. We feel behind because of some made up expectations of what we should have done already. We feel discouraged because we haven’t met some expectation. We feel overwhelmed because we have an expectation that we should be able to handle all of this easily and at once. We feel frustrated because someone (us, or someone else) has failed to meet an expectation.
All of these feelings are clear-cut signs that we have an expectation. And we can simply bring awareness to the expectation.
Then we’re in a place of choice. Do I want to hold myself and everything else to this made-up ideal? Or can I let go of that and simply see things as they are? Simply do the next step.
Seeing things as they are, without expectations, is seeing the bare experience, the actual physical reality of things, without all of the ideals and fantasies and frustrations we layer on top of reality.
This means that when we miss a day, we don’t have to get caught up in thoughts about how that sucks — we just look at the moment we’re in, and sit down on the meditation cushion. Break out the writing pad. Do the next thing, with clear eyes.
So in this place of choice, we can decide whether we want to stay in this fantasy world of expectations … or drop out of it into the world as it is. Which is wide open. Ready for us to go do the next thing.
That’s the choice we can make, every time, if we are aware of our expectations in the moment.
Two Simple Discipline Practices
Let’s talk briefly about two practices: the discipline of doing work, and the discipline of sticking consistently to a habit.
Discipline of Doing Work: So let’s say you have a task list, with 5 important tasks, and 10 smaller ones (including respond to Tanya’s email, buy a replacement faucet for the kitchen sink, etc.).
What would stand in the way of doing all of that? Not being clear on what to do first (or the expectation that you pick the “right” task), feeling resistance to doing it (expectation that work be comfortable), worried about how it will turn out (expectation that people think you’re awesome), stressed about all the things you have to do today (expectation that you have a calm, orderly, simple day), wanting to run to your favorite distractions (expectation that things be easy).
So noticing these difficulties caused by expectations … you can decide if you want to be in this place of expectations, or if you’d like to drop them and just be in the moment as it is.
Then you do the simple discipline of work:
Pick one task. Whatever feels important right now. Let go of expectations that it be the right task.
Put everything else aside — other tasks, distractions. Let go of the expectation that you do everything right now, and that what you do should be easy and comfortable.
Do the task. Be in the moment with it. Let go of expectations of comfort, or expectations that you succeed at this and that others not judge you. Just do. Find the joy of doing.
Stay with it as long as you can. If you get interrupted, simply come back.
When you’re done, or it’s time to move on, pick something else. Let go of expectations that you have everything done right away, and just pick one thing to do next.
It’s important to make a distinction — between letting go of the expectation that you not be tired, and overworking yourself. We are not advocating overworking yourself to burnout. But that doesn’t mean we should never do anything when we’re not feeling it. We have to let go of the expectation that we not be tired when we work … and also the expectation that we never stop working. Rest when you need it, but don’t let yourself off the hook just because you don’t feel like it.
Discipline of Consistent Habits: Let’s say you want to get more consistent with habits. You pick one — journaling, for example.
What would get in the way of consistency with this habit? Not making space for it in your day (expecting things to come easy without fully committing to it), not enjoying the habit (expecting things to be comfortable and fun), not doing as well as you hoped and getting discouraged (expectations that you’ll be great at it), missing some days and getting discouraged (expectation that you be perfectly consistent), resisting doing it when you have other things to do (expectation that you don’t have to sacrifice something you want to do this habit).
So noticing these difficulties caused by expectations … you can decide if you want to be in this place of expectations, or if you’d like to drop them and just be in the moment as it is.
Then you do the simple discipline of this habit:
Carve out space. Commit yourself to doing this habit in that space.
Do the habit. Notice if you’re feeling resistance, and just do it.
You might even appreciate the habit as you do it, if you let go of how you think it should be. You might find the joy of doing it as well.
Do it the next day, and the next day.
If you miss a day, simply start again, letting go of expectations about yourself.
If you’re struggling with feeling tired and not wanting to do something, this is because of an expectation that you not be tired, and not have to do things when you don’t feel like it. Letting go of that, you can simply do the task or habit.
You’ll notice that none of this says that doing the task or habit will be easy, comfortable, or without fear or tiredness or uncertainty. That would be an expectation. In fact, there’s a good chance that these will be present for you in the moment, as you do the task or habit. That’s OK — we’re not going to expect it to be any different than it is.
So then, letting go of that, we simply turn to what’s in the moment, and get on with it.
How do you feel about Mondays? Do you dread them because they feel hectic? Do you pine after Sunday, feeling like you never truly had time to rest? Sunday should feel like the most replenishing day of the week, but often it escapes us and goes by too quickly.
If you can relate, try giving your Sunday routine a makeover. The best way to start a new week on the right foot begins with the actions you take on the Sunday beforehand. You can use Sundays to relax and prepare for the week ahead so you feel refreshed and clear-minded come Monday morning.
In this post, I’m sharing a look at my Sunday routine which includes some planning, meal prepping, and downtime away from social media and work. If you’re in need of some inspiration for a relaxing yet productive Sunday routine, I hope this post helps!
A Relaxing & Productive Sunday Routine
One of the most important factors of my Sunday routine is that I stay away from social media, my inbox, and computer screens. I set downtime for social media apps on my phone all day so I’m not tempted to check them.
At this point, it’s ingrained into my routine to avoid social media so I don’t feel tempted to check it on Sundays. In fact, I look forward to not going on it every week. This has definitely improved my mindset and attitude towards Mondays and has helped to get rid of those Sunday scaries.
Here are the 7 things I do to relax, prepare for the week, and clear my headspace on Sundays:
Wake up without an alarm
I realize not everyone can do this, but it makes Sundays feel a little more special when you don’t have to worry about what time you have to wake up.
I always wash the bed sheets on a Sunday because there’s nothing quite as satisfying as climbing into a fresh bed on a Sunday night. I usually do this as soon as I get out of bed in the morning to make sure I don’t sneakily try to climb back in.
I try to clean my apartment in under an hour because cleaning is not something I love doing. This includes cleaning the countertops (bathrooms, kitchen, living room) and vacuuming. Recently I did this on a Saturday night so that I wouldn’t have to do it on a Sunday (I know, exciting Saturday plans).
Cooking is the last thing I want to do at the end of a weekday, so meal prepping has made my life a lot easier throughout the week. There are a few things I tend to eat each week no matter what, so I pretty much always cook them ahead of time on Sundays.
I’ll dice up sweet potatoes and lay them on a baking sheet, then whip up some easy protein muffins and throw them both in the oven at the same time. I’ll also cook a batch of rice to eat for lunches or dinners throughout the week. If I bought veggies and fruits (I usually grocery shop on a Saturday), I’ll wash and chop those ahead of time. I also like to make at least one full meal ahead of time, so usually that’s turkey chili, chickpea curry, or lentil tortilla soup.
Since I stay away from social media and my laptop, I try to spend a good chunk of the day absorbed in a book. I’ve read more than I have in a long time since I started this Sunday routine. If you want to know what I’ve been reading lately, feel free to follow me on Goodreads.
I like to review my big picture goals before the start of the week. This is especially helpful when it comes to planning my weekly schedule and making sure I’m being intentional with my time. If it’s a goal that’s easily measured (i.e. pay off x amount of debt), I’ll update my progress to see if I’m on track or need to make improvements.
There you have it! I hope you found some inspiration from my Sunday routine. If you want more ideas for how to use your Sunday to the fullest, check out this post: 20 Productive Things To Do On A Sunday.
I will no longer allow myself to be around people that make me feel bad about who I am. @MallyRoncal Click To Tweet
Talking to Mally felt like a breath of fresh air. You could say we’re both a little “extra” — and neither of us plan on stopping anytime soon.
If you’ve ever worried that you’re too loud, too quiet, too weird, or too anything, this is a must-watch or must-listen. You’ll be reminded that the most important ingredient to anything you do is quite simply… YOU.
Hit play to watch below, or listen wherever you get your podcasts.
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Remember, you’re a one-time mega event in the universe. Don’t waste it. Or as Mally says, “Be you and you’ll win every time.”
Everything you do in life is a trade-off. Anything you say, do, or pursue has a cost and a benefit. Those costs and benefits may not always be immediately apparent — sometimes the costs and benefits are dislocated in time, the benefit being immediate and the cost in the distant future. Sometimes the costs or benefits are subtle and psychological. But nonetheless, there is always a trade-off.
We like to believe that we can find a life of only pleasure and no pain, of only success and no failure, of only acceptance and no rejection. But this is impossible. Gain and loss are simultaneous. For everything you say or do, there is an infinite number of alternative choices you must forgo in order to say or do them.
As your Economics 101 class taught you, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” If you’re eating an awesome cheesesteak, you’re giving up the chance to eat a hamburger. If you’re eating a hamburger you’re giving up the chance to eat a double-stacked burrito. And if you’re eating a double-stacked burrito, then you’re giving up the ability to ever respect yourself again.
This is decision-making in a nutshell. What are you willing to give up in each moment for something else? What is worth giving up in each moment for something else? What is the “something else” worth pursuing? I know I’m speaking in broad strokes here, but these are at the core of what we all struggle with.
If everything is a trade-off, then a good life means making good trades. It means getting a lot of benefits for whatever costs we give up.
The problem is… we tend to be awful at assessing what we’re giving up and what we’re gaining from our decisions. In fact, I don’t know about you, but in my life, I’ve had my fair share of face-plants where I clearly did not understand the costs of my decisions. To properly see what we’re giving up and what we’re gaining is a constant struggle. And that’s what I’d like to spend some time talking about today: why we make bad decisions and what we can do to make better ones.
What is a Good Decision?
Imagine I offered to play a game with you. You give me $1 and I flip a two-sided coin. If the coin lands heads, I give you $50. If it lands tails, you lose. You get nothing. What should you do?
Obviously, you should be feeding me dollars like I’m a goddamn vending machine selling free money. The downside risk ($1) is minimal and the potential upside ($50) is huge. There is no situation where you should NOT take me up on my offer.
A good decision is risking little for the opportunity to gain a lot.
Good decisions include: striking up a conversation with someone you find interesting or attractive, asking a potentially embarrassing question, spending 10 minutes meditating every day, filling out job applications for positions that you’re unlikely to get, starting a difficult conversation, etc.
Similarly, a bad decision is risking a lot for the opportunity to gain little.
Bad decisions include: driving unsafely, lying and pretending to be someone you’re not to make people like you, getting drunk or stoned the night before an important meeting or exam, stalking your ex and sending angry text messages through the night to try to get him/her back, etc.
Values and Tradeoffs
You may ask, “What is a little and a lot, though?” Well, it depends on what you value. In fact, this is why, if you’ve read my work for a long time, I’m constantly harping on personal values.
Most propositions in life are not as simple as my coin-flipping game. Most are confusing and subjective.
Is giving up your social life for a year worth continuing your education? Is buying a house worth living on a tight budget for the next ten years? You have to know what is important to you to make those decisions well. An obviously good decision for me might be a terrible decision for you, and vice versa.
Our values determine how we measure the options in our lives. They are the yardsticks that determine the size of our costs and the size of our benefits when making our trade-offs. And if we don’t know what yardsticks we’re using, then we can’t accurately determine what is good for us and what’s not.
This is the true problem of people who suffer from indecision: they don’t know what they care about. They don’t know what matters to them. They haven’t found something larger than themselves to commit themselves to. Find your cause, find your values, discover the costs and benefits of your actions, and taking action becomes infinitely more simple.
Now, you’ll probably notice a pattern with the examples above. Good decisions tend to be difficult to make for some reason. Even when they’re obvious and we know they are good decisions (which is not always the case), we still struggle to make them.
And conversely, bad decisions seem incredibly easy to fall into. Why is that? Why do we knowingly do things that are risky and bad for ourselves and struggle to get off our asses to do one good thing? Why do we seem to suck at this whole thing called “life?”
If you said it’s because we’re all a bunch of blithering idiots… well, you’re not totally wrong.
Why We Make Bad Decisions
Humans make bad decisions because we are inherently terrible at objectively assessing risks and rewards. And as much as I’d love to tell you that we can overcome these psychological flaws with a really cute gimmick or three-step technique, the fact is that these flaws seem to be permanent features of how our minds work. We can’t escape them. The best we can do is gain an awareness of them and manage them appropriately.
I could write dozens of articles about all of the heuristics and biases that cause us to view our decisions inaccurately, but for the sake of brevity (and my sanity), I’ll lump our psychological failures into three categories and then summarize them.1
Those categories are:
The influence of our emotions
Our poor perception of time
The seduction of social status
Let’s take them one by one.
1. How Our Emotions Derail our Decision-Making
Think back to some of the stupidest decisions you’ve ever made. Chances are, most of those decisions were motivated by you being an emotional wreck. Maybe you were angry and in a fit of rage, smashed your keyboard against your desk, causing you to get fired. Maybe you were so sad from your break up that you drank yourself into a stupor, blacked out, drove home and woke up in a jail cell. Maybe you were so anxious that you passed up on a huge career opportunity that you’ve always wanted.
Whatever it is, we’ve all been there. Our emotions hijack our sense of reality and suddenly something that is clearly a good decision, feels like a horribly scary, icky bad decision. Or, what is obviously a terrible idea, draws us in with an irresistible force, until we wake up in a pool of our own vomit wondering what happened.
The problem is that our emotions operate separately from our thoughts. One way to think about it is that we all possess two brains, a Thinking Brain and a Feeling Brain. Our Thinking Brain is our higher-level human brain — it’s the intelligent, thoughtful, patient part of ourselves. But our Feeling Brain is our animalistic side — it’s our cravings, our urges, and our desires.
Sadly, the Feeling Brain is much stronger than the Thinking Brain. In fact, our Feeling Brains tend to bully our Thinking Brains around in our heads. Our Thinking Brains are like, “Oh hey, there’s that person we’re attracted to, it’s a great opportunity, we should go talk to them.”
And our Feeling Brain starts screaming things like, “FEAR! SHAME! LOSER! YOU’RE A PIECE OF SHIT! THEY WILL NEVER LOVE YOU! NOBODY WILL EVER LOVE YOU!” until our Thinking Brain is cowering in a corner, shaking, and capitulates, “Okay, okay, okay, you’re right, they probably wouldn’t like us anyway.”
But how do we overcome this? How do we develop an ability to manage our emotions? How do we gain a little bit of separation between what we feel and how we act?
Well, it’s hard. And I don’t know if you ever completely master it. The first step is to develop greater self-awareness — to see your emotions as they happen. Many people don’t even realize they’re sad or mad until long after the fact, thus causing them to make poor decisions without knowing.
Once you’ve developed a bit of self-awareness, the next step is to develop a habit of reasoning by working through important decisions, either out loud or on paper, before saying or doing something drastic. I’ll talk a bit more about these ideas in a section below, but this can mean journaling, talking to someone you trust, or even running your decisions by a coach or therapist before committing to them.
2. How Our Poor Perception of Time Derails Our Decision-Making
There’s an interesting economics experiment where if you offer people $100 today or $150 a year from now, most people will take the $100 today.2
In economics, this is known as “temporal discounting” — we “discount” the value of having something far off in the future compared to having something now.
In psychology, it’s often referred to as the “present bias” and you see it crop up in all sorts of other areas in life.3 We’d rather eat that double pepperoni pizza every Saturday night than think about the weight we’ll gain a year from now. We’d rather be right in an argument than think about how we might be affecting a friendship a week, a month, or a year into the future. We’d rather have fun tonight than think about how we’re going to feel at work tomorrow.
We tend to overestimate the value of something now and underestimate the value of something later. This is why people are terrible at saving money. This is why we procrastinate important tasks. This is why we put off having necessary but difficult conversations.
Time messes us up in other ways too. Think about this: take a penny and put it on the first square of a chess board. Now put two pennies on the next. Now put four on the next. Continue doubling the pennies for all 64 squares on the board. How much money is on the last square?
If you said $92.2 QUADRILLION dollars, you were right.
But let’s be honest, you didn’t say that. You probably said some generic, large number, like $5 million or something, thinking you were being clever and guessing really high. Meanwhile, you were only off by about nine zeroes.
Our minds are poor at compounding things over time. We overestimate the pain of doing something for 30 minutes today, without realizing the compounding effects it can have if we fail to do it every day for months and months on end.
For example, let’s pretend there’s some imaginary skill that if you practiced for 30 minutes a day, that you’d get 1% better each day for the next year. Now, let’s say you actually did practice for 30 minutes per day — how much better would you be at the end of the year?
Instinctively, you probably think, “Well, 365 days in a year, so I don’t know, like 400%?” If you’re somewhat familiar with compounding functions, you might know to guess extra high, so you say something like 1,000% better.
But the real answer? You’d be 3,778% — or almost 38 times — better than you were at the start of the year.
Again, our mind doesn’t think like that. Instead, we think, “Oh, what’s the big deal if I miss one workout? Not going to kill me.” Then we proceed to say that once or twice a week for years and years and years on end. And because we don’t think exponentially — our intuition thinks linearly — we vastly underestimate how much we’re actually giving up.
Because here’s how much you improve if you only practice that skill every other day, for a year: 611%.
3,778% improvement vs 611% improvement. That’s 6x the difference in results, for only 2x the effort. That’s the difference between being an expert at something and being merely “good” at it. Run that out over a few years and that’s the difference between being a professional and an amateur. Not a sprint of 12-hour days, but a slow, steady marathon of 30-minutes per day, year after year.
None of us think about this shit when we’re going about our lives. That’s because it’s really, really hard. Our brains don’t think exponentially. It strikes us as counterintuitive.
We tend to vastly overestimate the short-term benefits of taking a day off, or skipping practice or bailing on one of our commitments. Missing one workout isn’t a big deal!
And you’re right, it really isn’t that big of a deal. But we don’t consider the fact that, “just one workout isn’t a big deal,” when repeated every week or even every other week for a couple years, can have a drastic effect on our results.
3. How Our Perceptions are Easily Influenced by Status
You may be wondering why our brains function like this. It’s almost as though we’re handicapped in some way — being at the mercy of our emotions; struggling to properly value things in the future. But the truth is that for most of human evolution, these were not the handicaps but the benefits of our minds.
Fifty thousand years ago, out on the savannah, you couldn’t consider whether something would be more valuable a year from now or not. No, you had to kill a big fucking animal or be killed by that big fucking animal. That’s all that mattered. You needed to be overly concerned with the present.
Similarly, we inherit a retinue of biases and prejudices around social status as well. Why? Because we’re a bunch of fucking monkeys with fancy colorful screens in front of us. That’s why.
Despite thousands of years of our best efforts, humans self-organize into status hierarchies with the few reaping the most resources and opportunities at the top… and everyone else scrounging for the leftovers.
Now, I know what you’re saying, “I don’t give a fuck about no status hierarchies. I am my own man/woman. I do what I want. I will not be swayed by silly social markers of prestige and class.”
Well, that’s nice… but you’re wrong.
The fact is that we are all subconsciously affected by what we perceive as valuable and socially desirable in others. It’s automatic. It colors our perceptions. It skews our emotions. When in the presence of extreme beauty, wealth or power, we all become a little bit dumber, a little bit more passive, and a lot more insecure.
I noticed this the first couple times I met Will Smith. I realized that, without even meaning to, I laughed harder at his jokes, paid more attention to his stories, watched if he got up and moved around the room. It was totally involuntary. And I wasn’t the only one. When he’s in a room, it’s like a vacuum sucking up all of the attention in it. Knowing that I was going to work with him on a book, I had to start consciously checking myself to make sure I wasn’t agreeing to something stupid just because he was famous. I had to question myself around him.
We tend to give way too much credit to people we perceive to have social status. In psychology, this is known as “The Halo Effect.”4 It’s our tendency to assume that physically attractive people are smarter or nicer than they actually are. That successful people are more interesting than they actually are. That powerful people are funnier or more charismatic than they actually are.
As with most of our cognitive biases, marketers take advantage of this to make money. Think about all of the celebrities doing car commercials and shilling worthless supplements and beauty products. Think about how former presidents and heads of state can get paid half a million dollars to simply be in a room. Think about how you’ve convinced yourself that you like different clothes, different food, different music, because somebody you really respect or admire likes them. We all do it. It’s impossible not to.
Like I said, we’re fucking monkeys with screens.
The best we can do is simply be aware of how we are influenced by our perceptions of status and modify our reasoning accordingly.5 Notice how you react around people you deem as particularly successful and admirable. Notice how much more agreeable you become. Notice how you tend to make positive assumptions about them, even though you don’t necessarily know whether they are true or not.
Then, question these things. Ask yourself, “If some random person I know said this, would I react the same way?” And if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find that sometimes the answer is “no.”
It sucks to admit it. But welcome to being human.
Our biases around people of status and prestige are important because we’re likely to overvalue things related to them and undervalue things not related to them. As someone who spent much of high school and college getting drunk and high in desperate hopes of impressing the people around me, I can tell you: poor decisions were made.
How to Make Better Decisions
So, what can we do to help ourselves navigate these biases and faulty perceptions? How can we make sure we’re making the right decisions and avoiding the wrong ones?
Like I said earlier, there’s no permanent way to solve your mind’s flaws — they are baked in by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. But there are definitely some steps we can take to improve our chances.
1. Write it out
I know everyone and their dog tells you to keep a journal, write out your thoughts, question your ideas. But there’s a reason for that.
When you write out your ideas, it forces you to look at them a little bit more objectively — in fact, it’s almost like it’s not you having them. You start explaining why you sold all your shit and moved to Tahiti and as you’re cresting the third paragraph, it starts to dawn on you, “This is fucking insane… who does this?”
You do, bucko.
That is, assuming your decisions are run on auto-pilot. Writing out major life decisions cuts off that auto-pilot and forces you to evaluate your assumptions.
One thing I like to do when I’m mulling over a major decision is to simply draw a line down the middle of a page and write out all the risks and costs on one side, and all the potential benefits on the other. This simple exercise alone can often clarify where your biases lie and what you’re missing.
2. Learn to override your anxiety
Most of our bad decisions occur because they feel comfortable and automatic. Our emotions steer us incorrectly. Our perception of time is inaccurate and skewed towards the present. Our internal sense of status colors how we view other people and ourselves.
All of these things mean that often the best decision will strike us as some combination of counterintuitive, difficult, and scary. We will have to go against our intuition. We will have to trust numbers rather than our gut feelings. We will have to risk disappointing others.
None of this is particularly pleasant or easy. In fact, it’s a kind of internal skill that you have to develop through practice. Some people call it “stepping outside your comfort zone.” Others call it “leaning in.” I sometimes think of it as “eating a shit sandwich.”
Whatever you prefer to call it, it’s important that you get good at it. Test your limits. Question your assumptions. Act despite the anxiety. And make better decisions for it.
3. Understand where your weak spots are
We each have our individual weaknesses when it comes to our decision-making. Some of us get more emotional than others. Some of us are fame whores and can’t turn down a fancy cocktail party if our life depended on it. Some of us really struggle to think much about the future.
It’s useful to understand what you’re better and worse at adapting to, and keeping that in mind when considering future decisions. I’m generally pretty good at not getting swayed by the people around me — after all, I’m the “not give a fuck” guy, remember? But I do tend to be impulsive in a lot of areas of my life, particularly when it comes to health-related habits. It’s a battle I’ve had to constantly fight.
4. Set up your environment to prevent those weak spots
Finally, the best way to overcome these weaknesses isn’t through brute willpower or obsessive discipline. It’s actually much simpler than that — simply organize your life to compensate for your bad decision-making.
For instance, I suck at not eating junk food. Therefore, I make a point to not have it in my house. I’ve found it’s way easier to simply not buy it than it is to buy it and not eat it. So I just don’t buy it.
Another example: while working from home, I’ve got accountabilibuddies who I check in with on Zoom and Slack each week. It’s just a simple agreement among friends to make sure we’re all sitting in our chairs and working at 9AM each morning. It’s not complicated or genius in any way. But it works. The fear of being the dickhead who slept in while everyone else was working gets me out of bed in the morning. And it keeps me productive.
Find ways to alter your environment and your information consumption to counteract your weak points in decision-making. This may mean blocking certain websites, unfriending certain people, not reading certain types of news stories. Whatever it is, once you’re aware of it, find lifestyle-driven ways to attack it.
Indecision is the Worst Decision
Finally, I want to take a moment to say that while there are many bad decisions you can make in your life, perhaps none is worse than making no decision.
We all must make decisions — every day, big and small, we have to choose what to eat, what to wear, who to talk to, how to spend our time, and so on. If you’re not choosing what happens in your life, then you are simply not living, period.
The problem, as we discussed, is that every decision is accompanied by costs, risks, and sacrifices. Often, if we’re good at structuring our lives, we will find risks and costs that we’re happy with, and perhaps we even enjoy taking on.
But a lot of the time, we’re not going to be thrilled with the risks and costs of our decisions. And often we will try to ignore those risks and costs. We will try to pretend that they didn’t happen or that they weren’t our fault.
If we do this enough, then we may even reach a point where we decide we want to experience no downside in life — that we don’t think we should have to deal with any risks or costs, no matter what we do. On the one hand, this makes us an entitled and self-absorbed twat. On the other, while it is annoying to others, it only harms ourselves.
Refusing to be accountable for your decisions is a decision. Refusing responsibility for the costs of your choices is a choice. It is possibly the worst choice.
Because when you give up the desire to make a decision — when you choose indecision — then you are no longer the cause within your own life, but the effect. You no longer determine your own fate, instead you hand it off to others around you.
And while this may make you feel comfortable in the short-term — to be able to say, “See, it’s not my fault things didn’t work out, and X, Y, and Z happened!” — it will utterly destroy you in the long-term.
Make decisions. Choose your own life. Live with the risks because the risks are what make it meaningful.
And never forget, you’re still just a fucking monkey with a screen.
Life unfolds between the polarities of order and chaos. It is important at this time to recognize these two fundamental opposites, without which the world could not even be. Another word for disorder is “adversity.” When it becomes more extreme, we might call it “chaos.”
We would prefer, of course, to have order in our lives, which means to have things going well. We would like relative harmony in our lives. Yet, that very often is marred by the eruption of some form of disorder. And, usually, we resent that—we get angry, or despondent, or sad.
Disorder comes in many, many forms, big and small. When disorder comes it usually creates a kind of havoc in our lives, accompanied by strong underlying beliefs. “There’s something very wrong, this should not be happening, maybe God is against me,” and so on. Again, we need to understand that disorder, or adversity, is inevitable and is an essential part of a higher order.
From a higher perspective, a higher level, the existence of order and disorder, or order and chaos, is a necessary part of the evolution of life.
Many people have found that they experience a deepening, or a deeper sense of self or beingness, immediately after and as a result of having endured a period of disorder or chaos. This is sometimes called “the dark night of the soul,” a term from medieval Christianity used to describe the mental breakdown that many mystics experienced prior to awakening spiritually. There was an eruption of disorder, of destruction. Then, out of that, a deeper realization arose.
And although that can be very painful, the strange thing is, it’s precisely there that many humans experience a transcendence. A strange fact is that it almost never happens that people awaken spiritually while they’re in their comfort zone. Or that they become deeper as human beings, which would be a partial awakening. It almost never happens. The place where the evolutionary shift happens, or the evolutionary leap, is usually the experience of disorder in a person’s life.
And so your life then moves between order and disorder. You have both, and they’re both necessary. There’s no guarantee that when disorder erupts this will bring about an awakening or a deepening, but there’s always the possibility. It is an opportunity, but often, it is missed.
So here we are at this time, and our mission is the same: to align with the present moment, with whatever is happening here and now. The upheaval that we’re experiencing at the present time probably will not be the last upheaval that’s going to come on a collective level. However, it is an opportunity—because although this is a time for upheavals, it is also a time for awakening. The two go together. Just as in an individual life, you need adversity to awaken. It’s an opportunity but not a guarantee. And so what looks tragic and unpleasant on a conventional level is actually perfectly fine and as it should be on a higher level; it would not be happening otherwise. It’s all part of the awakening of human beings and of planetary awakening.
To learn more about Eckhart’s teachings on Conscious Manifestation, click here.
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