Concepts are far more powerful than facts or instructions. Whenever I want to make a change in my life, I look for flexible concepts which can be applied to a range of areas- the broader the better. Here are 5 which have had the biggest impact over the last year.
1. The 80/20 rule.
The best explanation of this concept comes from Richard Koch:
"The 80/20 Principle asserts that a minority of causes, inputs, or effort usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs, or rewards." In other words, in the world of success, things aren't equal. A small amount of causes creates most of the results. Just the right input creates most of the output. Selected effort creates almost all of the rewards."
Since discovering this concept, I have performed regular analyses of key areas of my life to figure out what the 20% is which creates 80% of outcomes. Once identified, they can be focused on. Most of us live lives filled with clutter. We wear a few of the clothes we own. We regularly speak to a few of our friends. We pay attention to a slither of the media we consume each day. We perform endless work tasks which are pointless, like shuffling around emails. This concept enables me to cut through the noise and find clarity.
2. Negative visualization.
This concept comes from Stoic philosophy and it is insanely powerful. The idea is this: take a moment to imagine you have lost everything. Go as extreme as possible. Imagine your house has burnt down, you have lost all your money, your family is dead, the industry you work in has been eliminated by AI, civilization has fallen, whatever. Imagine how it would feel. Shut your eyes and feel the despair, the pain, the fear. Sit with the feeling for a while. Then open your eyes and remind yourself that none of it has happened.
It sounds pessimistic, but it is a very optimistic concept. As the old saying goes, you never miss your water until the well runs dry. By using negative visualization, it is possible to miss the water without the well actually running dry. Simulating rock bottom makes the current situation seem hopeful. Life can always get worse!
I first discovered this concept long before I had even heard of Stoicism. I was about 10 and I remember writing in my journal: 'treasure every moment, there's always something left to lose.' I was in a miserable place when I wrote that. The girl I hung out with every day at school ditched me for someone else. My brother moved out. My cat had to be put up for adoption after a feral tom started attacking her. Somehow, that wisdom which was rather mature for my age spilled out. I reminded myself again and again that I still had so much. Years later I discovered Stoicism and that there was a name for it. Stoicism is a unique philosophy because it is practical, designed for use, not study.
I still use negative visualization on a regular basis as a means of finding positivity. Nightmares also seem to serve as an unconscious form of it too. If you have ever woken up in a cold sweat after dreaming of something appalling happening, shaking with gratitude at the realization that it wasn't real, you know how powerful this is. Turning it into an intentional process has dramatic effects.
3. Creative subtraction.
Simplifying is a creative process. Picture an artist with a lump of raw marble, carving away to create something beautiful. Picture a writer, starting off with a shitty first draft and editing it until narrative forms. Picture a chef, reducing a complex recipe down to a few, curated ingredients. Instead of adding, they subtract. We can do this in all areas of our lives.
Sometimes the answer is less, not more. Bruce Lee was an advocate of this, saying 'it is not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at the inessential.' Since discovering minimalism last year, I have been pruning my life. When I want to make a change in my life, I was what I can subtract. A dependency, a commitment, a time suck. Within reason, the more I remove, the better my life is. This is not a process of destruction, it is one of creation.
4. Alive time vs dead time.
This is a concept from Robert Greene. It's an intuitive idea. 'Alive time' = time spent working towards your goals, creating, improving yourself. 'Dead time' = time spent waiting for the future, procrastinating, being miserable. When I am trapped in an unpleasant situation, I ask myself: will this be alive time or dead time? How can I turn this into something useful?
A dull commute = an opportunity to meditate and calm down in preparation for the day. A shitty job = an opportunity to figure out what you actually want to do. A delayed flight = an opportunity to strike up a conversation with a fellow traveler. A tedious assignment = an opportunity to listen to a podcast and learn something.
Alive time is not something which only happens during favorable circumstances. Plenty of people throughout history have turned horrendous experiences into something beneficial. Jean-Dominique Bauby described how he used his mind to escape his paralyzed body; "my diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly."
5. The 'do something' principle.
The hardest part of doing something is almost always getting started. Whenever I need to commence work on a complex project, my first instinct is to procrastinate. Organizing my hard drive, washing the dishes, plucking my eyebrows - anything to put it off. It is easy to wait for external motivation, usually in the form of a looming deadline.
Motivation does not create action, action creates motivation. Taking the first, tiny step creates a desire to continue. I learned this technique in college, where I would break my assignments down into tiny chunks and schedule one for each day before it was due. Naturally, the momentum created by ticking off one part would propel me to move onto the next one. Just doing something was enough.
- Meditating for 1 minute
- Running 1km or doing 5 minutes of squats
- Writing 500 crappy words
- Researching for 15 minutes
- Meditating for 15 minutes
- A decent amount of exercise
- Writing 2000 words
- Researching for 2 hours
Or, sometimes it doesn't. Even so, the forward momentum is valuable. Doing something is better than doing nothing. I use this concept every single day - it is the sole way I get anything done.