IMO stuff about method is great

By Leo Babauta

When it comes to work, I’ve found that most of us fall in one of two camps:

  1. We work way too hard, constantly churning, never feeling like we got enough done; or
  2. We put off work, going to distractions, feeling guilty about how little we’re getting done.

Either camp results in long working hours. And it drains us. It leaves us feeling depleted, not alive.

There’s no simple solution to this, of course, but I’d like to propose something here, to both camps:

Work less.

Do fewer things.

Be more fully in those fewer things.

Recognize your victories.

Rest more. Play more. Connect more.

Let’s look at this from the perspective of each camp.

And please note: I know that not everyone falls into these camps, and not everyone can change the number of hours they work. Take from this post what might be useful to you, toss out the rest.

The Work Too Hard Camp

This is the camp I’ve been in lately — we try to get everything done. When there are things left undone (there always are), we feel like we haven’t done enough.

We never feel like we’ve done enough. Even when, by all external standards, we’re kicking ass.

So working less seems like an impossible thing … but if you recognize that we’re working too much, then it’s actually an obvious fix.

Working less would mean reducing the number of things we do — which would mean focusing on higher priority tasks.

If you could only work 1 hour today, what would you spend that hour doing? What would you do with the rest of the things on your list?

When we ask ourselves these questions, it might become clear that there are some key items we could spend more of our attention on, and many other tasks we could let go of somehow.

Then, after we’ve reduced the number of things, we can practice being more fully in those things.

Then call it a day — a victorious day, where we got the important things done. 

Now ask yourself this question: if you had 2 hours of free time where you couldn’t work … what would you do with those hours?

Most of us spend free time doing more work. Or going to favorite distractions. But what if we used that time to be fully connected to the people we care about? Or to take care of ourselves, to read, to play, to do nothing?

The Procrastinate Too Much Camp

I was in this group for years. In this camp, we don’t feel that the “work less” philosophy should apply to us, because we already feel we’re not working enough. We feel guilty for all the time we waste.

Well, let’s start by tossing out that guilt. It’s toxic! We heap all kinds of expectations on ourselves, and then beat ourselves up when we fail to meet those made-up expectations. Let’s throw all that out and start fresh.

With a fresh slate … what would you do with your day? What would feel like an absolute victory?

For this camp, “work less” means have fewer hours, but more focused ones. Spend less of it in avoidance and frittering away the time, cut back the number of hours you work, and be fully in those remaining hours.

So if you were only to work 2 hours today … what would you do with those hours? What tasks would be most important to accomplish? What would make this day feel victorious?

Once you’ve identified those tasks, set aside the time, block out the distractions, and pour yourself into them.

It can help to do them in 15-20-minute chunks, with headphones and music, or for longer sessions to do it on a call with someone else who is trying to focus on their meaningful work as well. Help each other focus, celebrate each other’s victories.

If you could work fewer but more focused hours, you’d free up time for true rest. For play, connection, self-care. And perhaps, more than doing the tasks themselves, this would be the true victory.

who else loves mindset

Step 1: Ignore every step-by-step system for success, including probably this one

Look, I know you want to be that big badass with the sweet ass house and all the fancy letters after your name, but let’s be honest for a second. Insane, spectacular success is achieved by doing something exceptional and extraordinary.

To achieve something exceptional and extraordinary, you must—by definition—do something that few or no other people are doing or willing to do. Therefore, wild, insane, spectacular success can only be achieved by actively going against what others have done and/or believing you can do things that others believe they cannot do. Therefore, anything that can accurately be codified into a step-by-step system on the internet is full of shit and not going to help you achieve this kind of success.

Do you think Steve Jobs ever sat around Googling, “How to revolutionize the way everyone communicates?” Fuck no. Do you think Thomas Edison went to the library looking for books titled, “How to build things that can change the world?”

No, they got to work on things that felt important and things that few to no other people could conceive, much less think about.

Steve Jobs pop art

The problem with a lot of these paint-by-numbers systems that you come across in these articles is that they suffer from what’s known as the “narrative fallacy.” The narrative fallacy is the human tendency to weave explanations of cause/effect into sequences of events that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.

For example, if you read a biography about Warren Buffett or Albert Einstein or Eleanor Roosevelt, you will inevitably spend much of the early chapters learning about their childhood. These early chapters are filled with cute and profound-sounding vignettes about their parents, their teachers, and a series of events that “caused” them to later become the kind of genius that they were.

There are two problems with this though:

  1. Whatever happened to little Albert Einstein, there were millions of other little boys who experienced the same shit, yet they did not become Albert Einstein.
  2. Just because two events in a notable person’s life appear connected does not mean that they are connected. The biographer connects them because they form a great narrative. Not necessarily because they reflect reality.

Think about it, for every event that makes it into someone’s biography, there are thousands of small, private events that are, in sum, likely just as influential, if not more than what you actually see. Therefore, these narrative devices, while they make for great books and cute articles like this one, they don’t actually help us suss out what drives incredible levels of success.

If there really is a first step to achieving wild success (and there’s probably not), then it would be this: ask yourself, “What is something critically important in the world that few people are aware of or not working on?” Then… get to work on that! 

But understand that even that is no guarantee. Because, let’s be honest, our definitions of “success” are a bunch of fairy godmother, made-up bullshit. Oh yeah… I went there. Fuck your dreams. Fuck your dreams with a cherry on top. Let’s get real…

Step 2: Understand that “success” is just something you and everyone else made up—it’s not even real

Look, most of your dreams aren’t really dreams, they’re merely imaginative over-compensations for the feelings of inadequacy you are trying to avoid in yourself.

People with an overwhelming desire for wealth or fame aren’t motivated by the pure joy of having wealth or fame. No, they have a hole in their psyche that they are trying to fill with enough stuff to not make them feel so inadequate anymore. Maybe they got pushed into too many lockers as a kid. Maybe Mom was an alcoholic and Dad was never around. Maybe they always felt like the stupid kid in class and had that one teacher who was Satan incarnate.

Whatever it is, none of us get through childhood without emotional scars (or, if you’re one of the lucky few who did, then please eat a dick casserole). Those scars cause us to see the world in a skewed, unbalanced fashion—as though everything is magically tilted against us in some imaginary way. They cause us to overestimate the value of things like sex or money or adulation or prestige to the point that our behavior becomes compulsive. These biases then cause us to suffer because they make us do stupid shit.

Ultimately, our definitions of “success” become skewed based on this funhouse mirror view of the world. Daddy was always broke and spending his money at the casino, so you grew up with an unconscious over-emphasis on money and material wealth. You feel like unless you’re bringing down at least eight-figures, then you’re a broke, miserable failure and no one will love you. As a result, you screw your own grandmother out of Christmas money because interest rates are low and you can get a better ROI if Granny cries herself to sleep at night. Congratulations, you have become a grade-A dick casserole.

(We’re just going to run with the casserole thing until it starts to get weird.)

Stylish wealthy couple on a luxury yacht
Dude, stop pretending you’re hot shit, you’re on a fucking pirate ship.

And while it may feel like your definition of success—lots and lots of money—is objective and reasonable, it’s really just you playing make-believe in your head. Plenty of people have definitions of success that have nothing to do with money—they lead happy and healthy lives. Many people who are rich feel as though they are miserable failures and that it’s never enough. There is nothing inherently “successful” about money or fame or love or anything else. It’s our minds that make it so.

That’s right, we each make up what “success” means for ourselves, and then we spend our lives measuring ourselves against that definition. And let’s be honest, most of us don’t actually define success for ourselves, we simply adopt the definitions that are handed to us by our family, environment, and culture.

When you’re a kid, you see everyone around you obsessed with honor or prestige or education or self-indulgence and you kind of just go along with it. Meanwhile, so many years go by that you forget that you went along with it. You start to believe that this is how the world operates—this is what success is.

And when you’re confronted with people who have different definitions of success, or people who point out all of the ways that your precious little definition actually doesn’t make much sense… well, it kind of freaks you out. I mean, if this thing by which you’ve measured yourself for so many years doesn’t really exist, what the hell have you been doing all your life?

That thought is often too much to bear…

Step 3: Succumb to the existential despair that comes with the realization that your self-definition is completely arbitrary and self-invented

Most people resist this realization—that their definitions of “success” are made up and largely motivated by their emotional dysfunction—for a couple reasons. One, it potentially invalidates a lot of what they’ve spent most of their adult life pursuing. Two, it’s really fucking upsetting to realize that the thing you cared about so much might not actually matter. And three, because if the things you’ve spent your whole life caring about may not actually matter… holy shit, what if nothing matters?

Yes, coming to the realization that your definitions of success were simply arbitrary and made-up by either you or the people around you can throw one into an existential crisis.

Historically, most middle-class yuppies hit Step 3 around middle age. So many have this experience in their 40s and 50s that it has become known as the “mid-life crisis.”

You spend your whole life defining success as a good job, a nice house, 2.5 kids and a dog. You work for twenty-plus years to get there and then one day you wake up and realize that you have achieved everything you ever wanted… yet you’re still the exact same sloppy, smelly motherfucker that you were twenty years ago. You don’t feel successful. You don’t feel anything different. You still get just as annoyed and anxious as you used to. You still question and doubt yourself constantly. You still feel frustrated and insecure… it’s just that those frustrations and insecurities have changed shape.

“Fuck, all that work… and for what? What do I do now?”

When you ask this question there may not be a right answer, but there certainly is a wrong answer.

The wrong answer is: “way more of what I did before.”

couple under money rain

A lot of people who have defined success as money their entire lives hit middle age, wake up with a shitload of money, have an existential crisis, and come to the conclusion that the answer must simply be more money. This is how you end up with millionaires who live in permanent emotional poverty—a sense that no matter what they do, that it’s never enough. Don’t be this person.

This “never enough” conclusion follows pretty much every worldly definition of success—money, status, prestige, fame, power, accolades. There will always be more to achieve. Therefore, it will never feel as though it’s enough. It’s like living on an extremely exhausting treadmill… except that the treadmill is stuck on an elevator to hell.

Step 4: Eat some popcorn. Drink a beer. You’re going to be okay

When thrown into the maw of an existential crisis, it’s easy to feel as though the world is coming to an end. This beautiful ideal that you spent so many years holding up as the bastion of purity and sanctity has fallen and revealed itself to be yet another illusion of your own fantasies. As a result, you feel directionless. You begin to question everything. You fall into despair. You feel as though there may be no point to anything at all.

But then something happens. Life goes on. That bonus check from work comes through, and while you still recognize that, on some cosmic scale, money is meaningless—it feels kinda good. Birthdays come and go. Vacations are still fun. That new show you watched with your partner was pretty awesome.

Hold on a second… life is actually, like, pretty good.

Slowly but surely, you begin to realize, “Wait, I don’t have to define success to have a good life!” And this epiphany is soon followed by another, more profound epiphany, “I can adopt whatever values I please!”

And then your mind gets to work. What is your definition of success? What is the yardstick by which you will measure your life?

For some, it becomes some ideal—being a good parent, having integrity, practicing honesty, treating others with dignity.

For others, it’s a perspective—success is being fully engaged and appreciating each moment as it arises. There is joy and excitement to be found in any experience, and success is choosing to orient oneself towards it.

For others, the definition becomes incredibly mundane—waking up and going to work each day, cooking meals for friends, being a nice person. And amazingly, these mundane definitions of success somehow seem more effective than the ambitious world-changing definitions of your old self. They are easily achievable. They are enjoyable. And when repeated indefinitely week after week, year after year, incredible things start to happen.

Step 5: Focus on what matters now

Great achievements happen not just through grand visions of the future, but rather doing what feels most significant and important in the current moment.

Let’s return to the Steve Jobs example, as he’s a paragon for what most would consider “wild success.” Jobs didn’t sit around thinking, “What will make me as famous and successful as possible?” No, he got to work on devices that would improve his life today. The focus was on solving day-to-day problems for people.

We think of huge leaps in innovation or creativity as these massive moments of inspiration. But, in reality, they are actually a simple questioning of assumptions that are in front of us all.

Scientific breakthroughs often happen in this way. As Thomas Kuhn discusses in his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the biggest breakthroughs in science rarely come from veterans within the academy. That’s because scientists who have built their career and prestige on the current paradigm of understanding are less likely to challenge it.

The biggest breakthroughs come from outsiders—people who have no career or prestige, people like Einstein—who look at the current assumptions and simply say, “What if this wasn’t true? What could be a better explanation?”

What we generally perceive as “wild success” after the fact, typically begins as something small, something unexpected in the moment. And, as Jobs once said, while we can look back and connect the dots, at the time, the way forward is never clear.

Ultimately, people who adopt terrible definitions of success usually do so because they are trying to give their life a sense of meaning and purpose. But, it turns out, the way to give your life a sense of meaning and purpose is to simply be engaged with the problems of the now, to work tirelessly on what stimulates and excites you today, without lofty visions of what prestige might exist for you in the future.

Because not only is this a more emotionally healthy definition of success, but it’s the definition that actually gets shit done.

such a great post

Puzzle

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.

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Image: Marcus

Who else loves self-improvement

By Leo Babauta

When it comes to work, I’ve found that most of us fall in one of two camps:

  1. We work way too hard, constantly churning, never feeling like we got enough done; or
  2. We put off work, going to distractions, feeling guilty about how little we’re getting done.

Either camp results in long working hours. And it drains us. It leaves us feeling depleted, not alive.

There’s no simple solution to this, of course, but I’d like to propose something here, to both camps:

Work less.

Do fewer things.

Be more fully in those fewer things.

Recognize your victories.

Rest more. Play more. Connect more.

Let’s look at this from the perspective of each camp.

And please note: I know that not everyone falls into these camps, and not everyone can change the number of hours they work. Take from this post what might be useful to you, toss out the rest.

The Work Too Hard Camp

This is the camp I’ve been in lately — we try to get everything done. When there are things left undone (there always are), we feel like we haven’t done enough.

We never feel like we’ve done enough. Even when, by all external standards, we’re kicking ass.

So working less seems like an impossible thing … but if you recognize that we’re working too much, then it’s actually an obvious fix.

Working less would mean reducing the number of things we do — which would mean focusing on higher priority tasks.

If you could only work 1 hour today, what would you spend that hour doing? What would you do with the rest of the things on your list?

When we ask ourselves these questions, it might become clear that there are some key items we could spend more of our attention on, and many other tasks we could let go of somehow.

Then, after we’ve reduced the number of things, we can practice being more fully in those things.

Then call it a day — a victorious day, where we got the important things done. 

Now ask yourself this question: if you had 2 hours of free time where you couldn’t work … what would you do with those hours?

Most of us spend free time doing more work. Or going to favorite distractions. But what if we used that time to be fully connected to the people we care about? Or to take care of ourselves, to read, to play, to do nothing?

The Procrastinate Too Much Camp

I was in this group for years. In this camp, we don’t feel that the “work less” philosophy should apply to us, because we already feel we’re not working enough. We feel guilty for all the time we waste.

Well, let’s start by tossing out that guilt. It’s toxic! We heap all kinds of expectations on ourselves, and then beat ourselves up when we fail to meet those made-up expectations. Let’s throw all that out and start fresh.

With a fresh slate … what would you do with your day? What would feel like an absolute victory?

For this camp, “work less” means have fewer hours, but more focused ones. Spend less of it in avoidance and frittering away the time, cut back the number of hours you work, and be fully in those remaining hours.

So if you were only to work 2 hours today … what would you do with those hours? What tasks would be most important to accomplish? What would make this day feel victorious?

Once you’ve identified those tasks, set aside the time, block out the distractions, and pour yourself into them.

It can help to do them in 15-20-minute chunks, with headphones and music, or for longer sessions to do it on a call with someone else who is trying to focus on their meaningful work as well. Help each other focus, celebrate each other’s victories.

If you could work fewer but more focused hours, you’d free up time for true rest. For play, connection, self-care. And perhaps, more than doing the tasks themselves, this would be the true victory.