As humans, we’re terrifying good at making things complicated.
Take sleeping, for example. It’s one of the most basic life functions, along with eating and taking a shit. But today, a lack of sleep has become a global epidemic because we just… can’t? We somehow beat the general flow of the Universe and managed to ruin the one function we were born to do. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s now an entire industry of products, sleep gadgets, and even sleep guides to help us… fall asleep.
But sleep isn’t the only thing we’ve complicated. We’ve even managed to take the idea of doing things and make it into a market focused on productivity. Remember when you were just able to finish your to do list and call it a day? Now though, you must be maximizing your every second. From learning speed reading to read the most books in a year, to the Pomodoro technique that times you like a cooked chicken – just finishing your list isn’t enough. You have to optimize, optimize, OPTIMIZE! Or else how else you going to get everything done?
But that’s where the real problem lies, right? Being able to get EVERYTHING done? Back in the day, it was possible. For anything you did, there was only a few options for what you could be doing. When you were at work, there wasn’t much to do besides work. When you were at home, you only had your immediate environment to take care of. Trying to fall asleep meant either watching TV, reading an actual book, or staring into the ceiling.
It’s a much different picture now. Work phone means you’re available – and expected to be – around the clock. Bed time rituals include hours of Instagram surfing and blue light that makes it harder to sleep.
This isn’t a post about how the digital age sucks (I love technology!), but about how we haven’t learned to adapt with all the choices it’s brought us. Instead of thinking of it as a buffet with more options to choose from, we took everything on the menu and overloaded our plates. Then complained why we we’re stuffed and about to throw up.
I know because I’ve been totally sucked into this the past few years. I remember first getting into the whole side hustle movement back in college, and soaking up all the bloggers and entrepreneurs who were so successful because the optimized every second of their time. At the time, I was trying to build a little eCommerce business on top of school and full time Resident Advisor job. I idolized people who would wake up at 5 AM every day, go for a run, do some writing, and then work on their business and be finished before most people would wake up!
I wanted to be like them. I tried to be like them. I copied their routines, their schedules, and even their morning/night time rituals so I could optimize my own life, too. And when I didn’t find myself suddenly successful, I would head back online to find the next productivity hack that would be my magic bullet. It didn’t matter what I was getting done as long as it was optimized.
Only when a close family member had a medical emergency, causing me to suddenly become a caregiver overnight, did the reality of the productivity myth hit me. Even though I had now had increased responsibilities, I still found myself trying to optimize everything and make it fit into a day.
Have to give medicine at 11:00 PM? Yeah that works.
Still trying to get up at 5:00 AM? May be dropping some sleep but gotta #hustle
Trying to work out today? Darn, should I go to the gym for 2 hours or help out at home…
Still on for dinner plans this week? I would but also need to make sure dinner is prepared at home…
Needless to say, I hit burnout hard. It felt more like an internal wild fire raging through. I was trying to balance a total social life, full time work, part time gig, an intense workout program, attempting to learn another language, AND now the well-being of a complete other person. There’s only so much calendar color coding to organize all that before you realize all the colors are mixed into a metaphorical, shit colored brown.
I then realized that the only way to get everything I needed to done would be to simplify and put a stop on everything else. With a simpler schedule, I could give proper time and focus to the things that actually mattered. With simpler things to do, I could actually fit everything into my calendar without crashing. With simpler ways of doing them, I could actually do them and eliminate excuses for why I couldn’t. Now that I’ve simplified, I feel like I am able to get the things I need to done without
Simplifying came in three steps: narrowing down what you have to do, deciding which ones are more important, and then making it as easy as possible to do it.
Narrowing Down: Think About the Bigger Commitment
It’s embarrassingly easy to get sucked into a commitment. Sometimes you don’t want FOMO and say yes to dinner plans during a busy week, other times you’ll visualize yourself speaking French on your next Paris trip and sign up for lessons after work because wouldn’t speaking French be cool? Yes by yes, these commitments pile up until you’ve reached a full schedule.
One easy way I found is – before saying yes to something – to ask yourself “Is this another responsibility I want to take on?”
Some are decided for us – like being a parent or a caregiver. But everything else is something we allow into our lives, so we should be ruthless about what we let in and how much time and energy it takes up. I found this to be helpful because it helps you paint a picture for what that commitment actually looks like. French lessons, while still cool, means I would have to drive 20 minutes after work, sit in class for an hour, drive another 30 back once a week and then have homework to do. By the time I get home, it would be around 9:00 PM and I’d still have to make dinner, clean up, and get ready for the next day. Now, it’s not looking so cool.
You can not only do this for any new commitments, but also current ones as well. Go through each commitment you have, and pretend someone just came to you a second ago asking if you can do it. If you can, then keep it on your calendar. If you don’t want to, then try to get out as soon as possible. There’s a limit to how many responsibilities you can handle.
Priority is Not Plural
Once you’ve got a list of things you’re choosing to be responsible for, you have to prioritize. I read in Essentialism that priorities is a made up word, because priority can only be singular. You can’t have multiple things of focus…that ruins the focus of it. But what you can do is Rank them in order of how important they are to you. This decides in advance what takes precedence.
Out of everything you have on your list (which should only be things you have to and want to do) – some will be more important. It helps give you an order of what will and won’t get done if time is short and stopping you from stressing out. As a caregiver, my number #1 is being there to take care, so if I’m missing a workout, I know that’s a sacrifice I’ve already decide to make.
Imagine if you had one hour and everything on your list was due at the end of it…think worst case scenario for time management…which ONE THING would you always make sure to get done? If a magic genie popped up, gave you another hour, what is the NEXT thing you’d get done? And so on, and so on. At the end, you’ll have a list of priorities in the order they matter to you.
Remove the Friction
Science says the hardest part is getting started. So if you now have a list of things you are responsible for, and have even figured out how important they are, doing them is still a challenge. Your next step is to then simplify how to do it. The quickest way is to remove the friction.
Friction is what I consider how complicated you make something. When I first started working out, I would pop in a DVD from Shaun T’s INSANITY program collection and just follow him yelling at me. Eventually, I added weights and shifted to mostly weightlifting which required getting ready and driving to/back from the gym. While I had similar workouts, adding those extra steps made it harder to get started. You might relate – it’s a challenge to get dressed and drive in slightly icy weather when it’s cold outside. Most times I ended up just skipping.
To remove the friction of workout, I just brought it back to simple body weight exercises and a set of weights at home. And because I’m super lazy, I switched from DVDs to an app that starts my workout in 1 click. Now I can do a complete workout in my living room, and have been more consistent with it since I made it as easy as possible to get started. I have more embrasasment of missing an easy workout than making an excuse not to do it. That’s the power of removing friction.
Simplifying is the most underrated life hack because it gets rid of what causes the need for over-time management in the first place: doing too much. When you pare down what you choosing to be responsible for and eliminate the extra steps in doing it, you’ll find your time starts managing itself. And what better life hack then that?