The persistent habit of choosing less
and why we need more of more and less of less
There is always something to do. Checklists. Tasks. Unfinished projects. Ideas in the backlog. Conference calls. Meetings. Family. Friends. Dinner. Groceries. The toddler creature. It’s too quiet. F*ck. Where did she go?
Back in my early twenties, I had this compulsion to do everything and be everything. There was an unspoken pressure to experience it all. The fear of missing out was certainly a featured element — but the more I tried to keep up, the more it felt like I was never doing quite enough.
The more doing I did, the less I seemed to achieve what I wanted — until one day I woke up and realized that I’ve become a victim of a self-inflicted burnout.
A Tale from Warren Buffett
Once upon a time, not too long ago, Warren Buffett sat in his private jet and started a conversation with his personal pilot.
“Mike,” he said, (this story is paraphrased, slightly embellished and modified but the essence of the details and morals remain), “what’s your top 25 career goals?”
Mike Flint blinked a little and possibly scratched his head, but he complied nevertheless and wrote down his top 25 life goals.
“Look at your list again and tell me, what are your top 5?”
Mike went through and circled what he thought is most important to him.
“Good,” said the billionaire, his sage-like eyes twinkling, “now tell me, what are you going to do about these goals?”
“I’ll probably start working on the top 5 right away and maybe find time to fit in the others somehow,” the pilot replied with enthusiasm. He felt like he was on the brink of something great through his boss’ guidance.
“You’ve got it wrong, Mike,” Buffet replied, shaking his head. “The things you didn’t circle are your avoid-at-all-costs list. They should get your attention until you’ve succeeded with your top five.”
The problem with saying yes
I’ve seen yes challenges make its round on the Internet. There is a multitude of people that swear on how saying yes to everything has changed their lives for the better — how it helped them get over their fears, accept new opportunities, meet new people and experience things they never dreamed possible.
Saying yes can help us tickle our flinches and expand our human experiences. Saying yes can stretch our boundaries and make us less fearful of uncertainty. However, many of us have the issue where we feel obligated to say yes to everything — not because we are brave but because we are afraid of saying no. When we say yes too many times, our mental and physical capacities become overstretched until it rips. If not, then it leaves us drained and depleted.
When we have a yes issue, we need to learn to go in the opposite direction and vice versa.
Living life with more of less and less of more
The issue with saying yes to everything is that we forgo the slowness of understanding what we truly want. We push our real priorities down to make room for things that don’t truly matter. As a result, we do less of the things that matter and more of the things that don’t — result in the more of less and less of more adage.
When we learn to accept less of the things that aren’t truly important, it focuses our attention on what we currently have. Only then can we begin to uncover and nurture our skills, our desires and our passions without the distraction of fake priorities.
“It is not a daily increase, but a daily decrease. Hack away at the inessentials.” — Bruce Lee
Not everything is important — as much as we want to convince ourselves that it is. You can only truly physically do one thing at a time and your focus is most efficient when it is single-tasked. We are wired to be mono-taskers and only 2.5% of people can truly multitask.
Multiple and unfiltered priorities in life are like texting while driving. You may think you have it under control but your attentiveness to the road is reduced. At some point, you’re going to either hit something or drive off the road.
Filling life with more of the right stuff
When you choose to accept less of the unimportant, you choose to reduce your distractions and allow yourself to navigate through life in the way that you want. It puts you in the driver’s seat rather than the constant demands from others.
The issue we often have when learning to say no is the guilt and fear that we are somehow valuing the thing less. In truth, by saying no, you are reducing their priority but the guilt that arises is a mismatch between what you consciously think is important but subconsciously know is not.
Learning to choose less is hard when you’re entrenched in a habit of accepting everything. To make it easier on yourself, you need to figure out your own set of top five priorities in life and ignore the rest. Only then can you mentally get used to the idea of remaining focused rather than allow yourself to spread thinly across too many things.
It’s all just clutter.
How to clear out the clutter
Physical clutter is unsightly and can cost you money. Mental clutter is like a clogged drain — made worse when more things are added to it. Here’s a quick guide on how to clear out the clutter in life.
Reduce the number of commitments you have — whether it be work, friends, family or even your cat. Reduce it all until you have nothing to do except for the bare essentials.
It means don’t let your day job follow you home. Don’t let others dictate what you should and shouldn’t do.
Reduce your conversations. Reduce your subscriptions. Reduce everything you can until there is almost nothing left. Shut out the noise, just for a moment. Put everything in the mental corner and ring-fence it off.
It’s alright. They’ll be fine. They’ve survived without you before. You need to do this in order to give yourself a fair and blank canvas to work on.
Determine what is important in your life. Pick the top three things. It might be career related. It might be family. It might be personal growth goals. It might be something completely arbitrary but has roots in a personal and long lost passion or curiosity. Being aware of what we want allows us to properly feed our focus.
Go back to your mental pile and pick out the things that align with your priorities. Discard everything else. They don’t matter, even if you think they do. This is the time to remove people from Facebook, curate your twitter following and clear your digital subscriptions.
Cleaning up your digital connections is like clearing out your closet. Chances are, you’re only using 2% of everything.
Repeat the process every couple of months. Decluttering a messy mind is a process that needs to be kept up.
To develop the habit of persistently choosing less is a skill that needs to be developed over time. It’s easy for our habitually messy minds to go back into its original state. The build-up of unnecessary commitments can creep in without us noticing it.
Frequent cleansing of what’s on our plate can keep on focused on the important things in life.
Those among us that excel at what they do are focused on what they want. They are not easily distracted by the gazillion things that are happening around them. They are consciously aware of what they want to be and achieve in life — and it is this awareness that allows them to be hyper-focused and eliminate without guilt.
When we focus our efforts and energy on a few important things, we supercharge their growth and allow ourselves to achieve them quicker than trying to do everything at once.
The habit of choosing less is not about having or doing less — but rather, it is about eliminating the unnecessary, figuring out your real priorities and move towards them without guilt. It is the active choice of choosing the essentials over everything to keep our sense of sanity, identity and purpose intact.