Yet we suffocate our lives with more of everything
This article is inspired by the Effortless book by Greg McKeown. Reading the section of starting from zero and minimal steps, made me think about other areas where removing things is the solution. I realized this is a pattern: Less is more.
We live in a world of abundance. We have a lot of objects, information, tasks, opportunities, decisions, stimuli. This excess is in direct contradiction with our human nature.
As a species we evolved in a world of scarcity. Our forager ancestors had few objects. They had littles information: only what they got from their own senses in their small territory. They had limited opportunities. They needed to achieve two main tasks: survive and reproduce. Our brains evolved to thrive in this scarcity.
We evolved in scarcity and are now confused by abundance.
The opposite is also true. Our ancestors had an abundance of time and attention. We are poor in time and attention because of the excess of everything else.
The solution to most modern problems is to remove stuff and behaviours, rather than add new ones. Less is more.
We try to solve problems by buying new objects or services, or adding new behaviours. In fact most of our problems are solved by removing objects and behaviours. Less is more.
Objects: less is more
Minimalism. Keeping track and taking care of objects is tiring. Owning less frees you to live more.
You don’t solve a hoarder’s problem by buying him more stuff. You solve it by getting rid of stuff.
Emotions: less is more
Letting go of emotions is critical so that you are not ruled by them. When you are overwhelmed with anger for example, you are a slave to that feeling. Only by letting it go can you decide your own behaviour. Meditation is a lot about distancing yourself from your own emotions.
Grudges and other emotions that we keep for long periods of time are especially harmful. They are simply responses from past situations. They are irrelevant to the present. Grudges are a form of extremely mild PTSD. Like in PTSD, you cannot find closure for the past so its emotions govern your present.
You don’t solve emotional problems by adding more emotions on top. You solve them by letting go.
Information: less is more
We crave new information. But not any information, it needs to have certain characteristics. We generally dislike school, yet we check social media thirty times per day. Both provide information. But social media provides it in a form that hacks your evolved learning mechanisms to become addictive.
All this new information is a distraction. When you process information from outside stimuli, you are a passive victim of it. What you want is to be an active agent, determining your own fate. You need to make room for this by reducing the information from the exterior.
If you are always distracted, when do you think for yourself? Less information is more life.
Opportunities and decisions: less is more
We have so many things we can do, we developed a term for our inability to decide among them: FOMO.
We should invent another term for the deeper problem of so many opportunities: FOWL. FOWL stands for Fear Of Wasting Life. We should be afraid of taking opportunities without sense and wasting our lives.
Every action has an opportunity cost. If you go to party A, you cannot go to party B that is happening at the same time. If you stay up all night, you cannot work at peak the next day. If you become an engineer, you cannot become at the same time a lawyer. If you work all the time, you cannot spend quality time with friends and family. And you are miserable for it. And so on.
Opportunity costs are hidden to our Paleolithic brains. We evolved in a world of such scarcity that the problem of competing opportunities was irrelevant. Rarely did our ancestors have to choose whether to eat antelope or honey. They ate whatever they could find and were grateful for it.
Now we have so many opportunities, that FOWL should be a real concern. It’s easy to pursue short-term pleasure, and miss out on the long-term opportunities.
The solution for this is similar to distractions: fewer opportunities for fewer decisions. How can you achieve this without depriving yourself? By making long-term decisions and rules. These in turn guide your choice of opportunities to pursue, instead of leaving it up to mood and context. If you don’t have such rules, you are a victim of what Daniel Kahneman calls Noise.
For example, I made a rule some time ago that I prioritize writing the book above other opportunities. Based on this rule I made the decision to write every morning.
This governs all my decisions afterwards. It’s easy not to watch a movie in the morning because I decided I would write. It’s easy not to stay up late because it would impair my ability to write in the morning. And so on.
If I had not made this decision, I would have written less than 10% of what I have. I surely would not have time to write this article.
Fewer decisions, fewer activities, make room for what matters.
Relationships: less is more
How many ‘friends’ do you have on Facebook or Instagram or TikTok? How many of these do you actually know? What about real life relationships? Our of all your acquaintances, with whom would you want to be stranded on an island?
We are social creatures. No man is an island as the saying goes. But every social interaction is an effort. In our super-populated world it is easy to divide yourself into numerous superficial interactions. But this leaves no room for the deep close interactions that you actually need. Our ancestors evolved in small close-knit tribes. We crave intimacy and close relationships, not passing chit-chat with strangers.
On the other hand, our need for belonging often keeps us in toxic relationships. When interactions with a person bring you only suffering and consume your energy, you are better off without that person.
Dunbar’s number famously predicts we can have about 150 real relationships. Everyone beyond this number becomes an abstraction to our brains. Add to this our limited time and attention. It’s easy to have social relationships for the wrong reasons. These can consume all your time and energy.
Removing unnecessary or toxic people from your life is critical to make room for people that enrich it.
Steps in your activities: less is more
This is the part that I found inspiring in Effortless book.
Greg writes about how Apple developed their DVD burning UX for consumers. Previously DVD burning was an incredibly complex operation. You needed a lot of learning and expertise to operate DVD burning software. Apple was introducing DVD burning on their consumer computers. They wanted an easy interface that Regular Joe could use.
The software engineering team worked for two months on a plan for this interface to make it as simple as possible. When they met with Steve Jobs, he drew a rectangle on a board. He said that this was their interface. The user would drag whatever they wanted burned to that rectangle. They should have a button that says ‘Burn to DVD’. And that should be the entirety of the interface. This was much much simpler than what the team had devised in their two months of work.
The lesson from this is Steve Jobs’ approach. The team started from the existing interface and tried to make it simple. Steve Jobs started from zero and tried to find the minimum number of steps to achieve the task. The second approach yielded a much simpler and clearer result.
Most of our tasks at work and in personal life are complex. There are many steps and much uncertainty. We approach each of these tasks as if it was important. But most are not.
For many it does not even matter if you do it better than minimum effort.
For example you either change to winter tires in December or you do not. There is little difference in how you go about changing the tires. The minimum effort: going to a service to do it, is adequate.
We benefit from simplifying most of these tasks. This means doing the least necessary to get the job done.
When we try to simplify, we get bogged down in uncertainty and complexity. We are like the software interface team. We try to simplify the existing process. But when it is already complicated, the simplification process works poorly.
Instead, be like Steve Jobs. For each task, start from zero and ask yourself what is the minimum number of steps to achieve the goal.
This minimum effort approach to most tasks frees you to be excellent in the tasks that really matter to you.
At work for example, instead of spending effort to make every weekly status report aesthetically pleasing, you devote effort to make the quarterly presentation to the CEO amazing. This advances your career, not the mundane stuff.
Even more important, in life instead of being exhausted from trying to be great at every chore, you become exceptional at the one thing that matters to you.
The old adage is true in most of everything in modern life: ‘Less is more’
If you like this, share with your friends and strangers on social media.
And remember to be FOWL – Fearful of Wasting your Life.