Do Less

We flew back from Boston a few days ago. I’ve encountered my share of turbulence on planes but this was the worst I had ever experienced. The metallic rattling of luggage in the overheads was sickening. I imagined getting torn to bits at 30k feet. I looked down at Lev, my boy, in the next seat. I noticed his thick wavy hair, freckled cheeks – pure boyishness! He was calmly staring at the seat ahead. And I thought that if this really was the end, our last moments, that I would just want to appreciate all that he is and tell him I love him. Not much else would matter.

It’s hard to find that level of focus in the daily grind. Too many tasks and details, always humming in the background. Often I’ve found that making a game of things can help. There can be a certain pleasure in doing mundane things. Some of these things really need to get done and are unavoidable. But too many others are the result of our own confusion/tendencies; it would be virtuous to recognize when we’re adding unnecessary complexity to our lives and to ruthlessly weed that out.

Last month I did a Pareto analysis on my 2019, identifying the 20% of activities that drove 80% of benefits. I basically went through my calendar, weekly notes/goals and photos, and picked out whatever drove the most impact and personal satisfaction. Given how much I sorted through (and how short the list was!) suggested I should be doing less! For example one activity I found satisfaction in (and missed when I didn’t do it) is writing. As a result I’ve committed to doing more of this in 2020.

I’ve always thought a great measure of whether one is focused on the right things comes from Nietzche’s Demon, basically: if given the choice, when this day is over, would you want to repeat it? Would you want to do it all again? If it’s a resounding yes then you’ve done well. If not, well, that might be worth exploring.

It’s important to keep in mind that the trajectory matters more than the instance. I prefer to think of this as the area under the curve vs. the instantaneous blip; it might be bumpy but that might also mean it’s really worth doing (i.e., large area). Some days we just don’t feel like doing whatever the obligation is. That’s very different than feeling like one’s actual arc is off-course, that they’re sailing on the wrong ship. One might not have loved the day they just had but consistency, professionalism and discipline are essential and non-negotiable. That should smooth out over time.

I think a good way to address this challenge is to extend the time horizon to a month or quarter and run the visualization/thought experiment prospectively: if given the choice when this <quarter> is over, would I want to repeat it? Personally I’ve found this to be quite a useful approach.

The other way to do this is to track daily satisfaction and analyze the trends retrospectively. One way to do this is with a daily tracker: Rank your overall emotional satisfaction on some scale (I use: -2 to +2, 0 being ‘meh‘) and monitor over a quarter. If the score is below some level of acceptability (the bar) then it’s probably time to change it up.