Maybe Knot

I like to know what I don’t know. If I don’t know the answer to a question I’m asked or the solution to a problem in front of me, my brain immediately conjures up the question: “why don’t I know?”

I look for what I’m missing. “If I knew A, B, and C, then I would be able to figure out X.” A lot of people skip this crucial step, and try to figure out X by just thinking harder. But that won’t work if you don’t have everything you need.

Once you’ve identified the things you need to know, you actually have a few choices. You can go find the answers to those questions, or you can speculate in a smarter way. If A has a 90% chance of being A1, and A1 would mean X1, then if you need to you could try the X1 solution with a 90% confidence rate.

This method of thinking takes practice. It can be complicated at first to untangle all the interlocking threads, but untying the knot is worth it. The clarity of your decisions will improve dramatically.

Decision Packages

I try to minimize the total number of decisions I have to make, while simultaneously maximizing the impact and importance of the ones I do make. My normal strategy is to eliminate or automate most small decisions – things that are meaningless to my day-to-day happiness but soak up precious mental energy.

I recently heard of another strategy for doing something similar, and I found it interesting. The person I was chatting with didn’t use this term, but he essentially referred to “decision packages,” i.e. many smaller decisions bundled into one larger one.

As an example, think of an automobile lease package; many of these are “all-inclusive.” The insurance is bundled in with the lease itself, the maintenance schedule is automated, et cetera. Basically all of the smaller car-related decisions that you might have to otherwise make are bundled into one larger decision.

Once I saw the concept, I realized that people very often do this without realizing it; the appeal is strong. A single news source, like reading the New York Times or watching Fox News, is sort of a decision package. Instead of deciding what individual stories interest you, what you think about each one, which are important, and so on, many people just bundle that into a single large decision package by tuning into one news aggregator. Mainstream political parties work the same way.

Sometimes a decision package is a healthy way to reduce dead weight decision fatigue, but other times it can be a dangerous trap. It’s easy to accidentally let very meaningful decisions slip into a broader decision package when truly that decision deserved your full attention as an individual matter. And deciding which decisions to make adds a whole new layer onto the process.

As a shortcut, here’s how I view it: the more important the topic, the less I want a decision package. What I put in my brain deserves the consideration.

One Hour Less

You should spend one hour less per week on most things that you spend multiple hours on.

The marginal benefit of the “last” hour of any multi-hour investment is pretty low in most cases. Consider: if you work 40 hours per week, you would stand to benefit quite a lot by only working 39 instead.

From a productivity standpoint, there’s virtually nothing you can get done in 40 hours that you can’t get done in 39. We have a tendency to let our work fill the time we set aside for it, no matter what that time is. If you schedule three hours on a Sunday to clean your house, then it will take three hours. If you only schedule two, then it will take two – but the same amount of work will generally get done. So if you shorten your time budget by an hour, you generally don’t lose anything.

But hey – if you only work 39 hours, you’ll only get paid for 39 hours instead of 40. So you will lose something! Sure, but you stand to gain more. First, consider whether or not you’d be willing to trade one hour’s pay to get out of work an hour earlier on Friday. For many people, they happily would – so for those people, they’re already losing by not making that trade. They’re paying more in happiness than they’re gaining.

But let’s say you’re very money-motivated, and you’d rather have an extra hour’s pay than an extra hour. Well, you should still work 39 hours, then. When it comes to making money, the first hour is usually the most profitable, because lots of things can make you money but don’t scale well. If you’ve ever freelanced, you know this: you can often make a high hourly rate but find it difficult to consistently get a lot of hours. But it’s often easy to secure one hour per week, even at a high rate! In fact, if you charge a very high rate, you might only get one hour per week.

But imagine you did that. Imagine you posted on a freelancer site like Upwork with your skill set and an extremely high rate, then gradually lowered it until you got an hour-long task, then stopped. You’d work one hour, and get a good bit of money. If you also had a full-time job, chances are that the one hour of freelance work would pay more than one hour of your day job.

So even if you’re money-motivated, working 39 hours instead of 40 can make you more money, if you then trade the hour back in for a larger amount of money. You might not be able to do that with all 40 hours, but you can almost certainly do it with one – no matter what you do for a living, there’s a good chance that you could make more in one hour than your average hourly rate by doing something else.

Why? Because a steady paycheck is, in and of itself, a benefit that has value. People like getting a consistent, secure amount of income, so they’re willing to take less in order to do so. People who charge $200/hour for single hours of work might be willing to take $3,000/week for 40 hours, simply because they wouldn’t have to constantly be chasing those hours, uncertain of where the final number would land, etc. Since that’s true, we can surmise that there will almost always be something out there that is less certain but more lucrative per hour than your current steady job, if you have one.

There are also a lot of benefits to diversifying your income, experimenting with new things, meeting new people, etc. But those are just gravy!

The point is, think about everything you do in a week that you spend 5 or more hours on total. If you shaved off just one hour per week, virtually none of those things would suffer. But you’d have a whole lot of new resources to play with. Or, maybe just free time – for many, a reward in itself.

Constructive Apathy

Lots of people channel an awful lot of misery into their day-to-day lives. They clearly hate what they’re doing, and seem to want everyone around them to know it. There’s a certain sort of weird pride that comes from hating your job or other duties, at least in certain people.

I’ve found that it’s pretty difficult to talk people out of being miserable if they really want to be, but occasionally I’d try. And the responses were usually along the lines of: “I’m not going to fake being happy just for someone else. That’s not who I am.”

I always found this a very odd response, for a few reasons.

One: no one (least of all me) suggested that you fake being happy. What I was suggesting was that you stop putting so much effort into being deliberately miserable. That much grump isn’t natural to just about anyone, and in most people like that, they’re doing it deliberately. They’re sending a message to some imagined adversary: “Yeah, you can make me sit here and do this job, but you can’t make me like it.”

That enemy doesn’t exist. No one wants them to be miserable, and no one wants them to fake being happy.

But two: No one is or isn’t an emotional state. Those are like clothes – temporary things we drape over the actual permanent thing inside them. They change, far more rapidly than we do. So “that’s not who I am” is a silly thing to say about being in a good or bad mood.

Here’s the reality – a tremendous super power to cultivate is the ability to do most of your daily tasks with no emotion attached to them at all. I don’t love taking the trash out, loading the dishwasher, or folding laundry. I know that being miserable about them will only make them harder and more of a burden, but I don’t counter-act misery by forcing myself into weird visible expressions of ecstasy. I just don’t feel anything about it.

You don’t have to be thrilled to do most things. And you don’t need extreme happiness to replace extreme (and forced) misery. You can just be constructively apathetic, remove the emotion from what needs to be done, and do it. Save the emotional fuel for situations where the emotions you’re fueling are good ones, and live your life.

Conditions of Creativity

A few months ago, I committed to a small experiment. My oldest daughter really wanted her own “art studio.” So we worked together and cleared out the space in the basement, then built her a studio. We went shopping for art supplies, and I basically said “yes” to everything. I didn’t question what she wanted things for, I let her get things just because she thought they were neat. I didn’t make her pre-plan specific projects or even commit to specific art styles.

I just helped her create a space very conducive to her creativity (lots of fun decorations, chalkboards, funky lights, easels, workbenches, etc.) and filled it with the supplies to create. I avoided any of the stereotypical “parent talk” like “now that I bought you all that stuff, I expect you to take it seriously and blah blah blah.” I didn’t turn it into a chore of any kind.

I just created the conditions for creativity. As an additional layer, I also made it her most “free” space – she has to keep her room very clean and organized, but I’m fine with her having a messy art studio as long as it doesn’t get ridiculous.

The end result: she spends enormous amounts of time in there. She creates things constantly – things I’d never have imagined. She paints pictures, but she also makes videos of herself producing fantastically-colored slimes with instructions on how to make them for other kids. She’s started painting old Tupperware containers with bright acrylic paints, turning them into wonderous castles and vessels. She makes tiny animals out of clay.

She creates. She learns, and she explores, and then she talks about that creation – she has a passion, and she shares it with me constantly.

Take the training wheels off – of everything. Create the conditions under which the things you want can manifest, and then let them do so. Put yourself in front of a notebook, put your employees in a room with great tools, put your friends in a room with musical instruments and good acoustics. Watch what happens.

Seed Words

Plant the seed of creation. You don’t have to grow it today. The smallest task can be a single word that starts to grow on its own. When you come back, you’re tending a seedling. But you never get anything if you don’t plant. So don’t be afraid of it – of the single word.


Estimating Trends

Pick a category of experience: cars you’ve driven, bosses you’ve worked for, whatever you want. Quickly come up with your five best examples from that category, then your five worst. Write them down.

Next, take all ten examples and write them down in chronological order. On average, does the most recent half of the list contain more of the good examples or more of the bad examples?

This is a decent way to think about whether a particular thing is getting better or worse for you over time. If they’re getting better, awesome! If not – this might be your first warning flag to start looking a little closer.

Hard Landing

Some level of communication will always rely on vulnerability. If you build impenetrable walls to protect you from the outside world, you have to remember that walls work both ways.

It’s better to funnel than to block. Let people know lots of stuff about you! Just make sure it’s all stuff you willingly share. People will want to look, anyway – so let them find.

Don’t be afraid of information, in either direction. I promise, you’ll survive the sharing of it.

Bad Trades

“I’m opposed to animal cruelty. So every year, I donate 20% of my income from my ivory-trading job to the ASPCA.”

See… this is a problem. I think most people would recognize it as such. At worst, it’s rank hypocrisy, but even at best (assuming you really are genuinely concerned about animal cruelty), you’re working against yourself.

So sure, most people would recognize the dilemma there. But fewer people recognize weaker versions of this story, even though they happen every day.

“I care deeply about my children, which is why I put almost all of my income from my 90-hour-per-week job into their college funds.”

You’re trading away the thing you care about in order to support the thing you care about in some other (usually weaker) fashion.

There’s a balance, of course. If I spent 24/7 with my kids, we’d be homeless. But it’s not just a matter of deciding exactly how many hours is the right number versus how many dollars earned is enough. It’s about aligning those things together. Making the pieces of your life work in tandem, instead of against one another.

The person that trades ivory to fund the ASPCA might genuinely want to end animal cruelty, and working the ivory trade might be the most money they can make, so they’ve done some misguided math and decided to stick with it. After all, if they make less money, they’ll have less to donate. But they could instead work for the ASPCA, make less money overall, but help their favored cause more. And all the pieces of their life would be in harmony.

Don’t make bad trades just to maximize a single outcome. Make optimal trades by eliminating internal competition between the various aspects of your life. The less you fight yourself, the better.

Victorious No

Sometimes not getting something is a victory, when the conditions for getting it would outweigh the gain. If someone offers you a poison apple and you decline, you shouldn’t lament “oh no, I didn’t get the apple.” You should celebrate: “I didn’t get poisoned!”

The thing to remember in these moments is that there was never an apple in the first place. There was just a conveyor of poison, a Trojan horse to sneak bad things into your life. There’s no equation where you can say, “I’ll be okay with a little bit of poison if I get a delicious apple,” because you won’t even get the apple. You’ll take one bite, and be sick and dying before you’re finished.

Remember that when you summon up the courage to turn down a job offer, or a promotion, or any other opportunity that is dripping with ichor. The “opportunity” was never really there, if it came with so much poison you’d perish before you realized the gains. Instead, celebrate being savvy enough to avoid pitfalls, and look for the apples that aren’t poisoned. I promise you, there are plenty.