“I’m onto something”

We live in a cruel world. We are awash in information, and yet it never feels as if we have all the information we need to make those big life decisions. What perhaps makes this worse is that these decisions need to be made starting at a very early age.

Would those high-school subjects help me maximise my skills and talent? Will this college degree help me find the things I would love to do? Is that job really something I can spend all my waking hours caring about? Am I marrying a person who will be the soulmate I’ve always been looking for?

Choosing the “best” microwave for your home might be easier today than 20 years ago, but that decision wasn’t a very hard decision even then. The hard decisions remain hard because of an information asymmetry problem. You will always have far less information than you would like to make these decisions.

This is where our gut instincts help. It is not easy to explain why we get that tingling feeling of “I’m onto something”, when we get close to an answer we’ve been looking for, but that feeling is the best indicator that we have of being on the right path.

The trouble with gut instincts is that they feel too flimsy to base important decisions on. But the information asymmetry problem is never going away, and so it is perhaps better to hone our gut instincts through practice. You will fail but you will also learn and thus trust yourself more in this unpredictable world.

It is easy to keep postponing life’s big decisions in the hope that one day we may have all the information we need to find the answer. But if you’re sure you want an answer, just look for the “I’m onto something” feeling and take the dive.

Image by shinealight. CC-BY-SA.

Change is good—we know it, but we hate it

On my last trip home, for the first time since I left the country six years ago, I spent a whole month in India. It gave me the opportunity to think about some things more deeply than I have been able to on previous trips. One realisation was that most people don’t change very much at all. Their habits, thoughts, views, opinions, arguments, dressing style, preferences…. remain surprisingly unchanged.

For certain aspects of a person that is a good thing. But overall such an attitude has more negative consequences. I think it stops people from living happier lives that they are perfectly capable of living.

I don’t know why this is the case. Of course change is hard, but surely people would have figured out that it is also disproportionately rewarding and totally worth the occasional failures. If humanity hasn’t figured out that yet, then it is the failure of the collective that desperately needs fixing. And I am not the first one to recognise that.

One solution to the problem of enabling change is to use technology. Take the Coach.me app (previously, Lift). It lets you set goals and then helps you to reach them. It does that through social engineering and simple digital nudges.

The social engineering aspect involves the offer of live coaches or encouragement by strangers. Your goals are public and, if you’re friends use the app then they can look at how you’re doing and perhaps give you that much needed push. The digital nudges are reminders and simple tutorials to help you in your goal to, say, meditate daily.

Coach.me is not the only app. But what any of those apps do is provide a solution to the people who are already convinced that changing is important. That is a tiny slice of smartphone-using humanity.

What if we want to spread the message “change is good” and convince a much larger part of humanity? Education? Celebrities? Social media? How do you convince yourself to change? What do you do to make it happen?

Image: arthurjohnpicton CC-NC.

The best hack for a to-do list

Summary: Every morning, put down on a to-do list only the three most important tasks. 

For the office-goer of the 21st century, a to-do list is both a boon and a curse. While it can help get stuff done, it also creates a lot of anxiety. That is because, on most occasions, the list keeps growing without an end in sight.

What is needed is a way to ensure that you get enough stuff done and end the work day on a happy note. The best hack I know to achieve that is to make a simple tweak to building a to-do list. It is not an original idea, but its implementation has completely changed how I work.

Choose the three most important tasks (MITs) that need to be done that day, and put them down on a to-do list. Come what may, decide to do those three things before leaving work. If possible, do those them first in the morning.

Of course I do more than three things every day, but the idea is that I ensure doing the things that matter the most first. I leave work without lingering anxieties of incomplete tasks at hand.

The exercise is not as simple as than you’d think. The prime difficulty is the prioritisation of tasks. But once you start doing it, you realise through trial and error how to find those three MITs. And it is that which really changed how I work.

Bonus: There are two more tweaks that I’m trying to implement to this routine. First is to ensure that I leave work at a certain time. This is to respect Parkinson’s law that states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

Second is to choose one of those three MITs to be a task towards a long-term goal. On days when I have been able to do that, I feel I’ve accomplished more than what is needed of me at work, and I sleep a little better that night.

This is the first post in “the best hack series”, where the aim is to find small ideas that have a big impact in improving everyday life.

Image credit: naomi_pincher, CC-BY-NC-ND