I was talking to someone a couple of days ago who pushed back a little against some of my recent posts. In particular, she was resistant to the idea that there were special techniques or skills that could be learnt that might help with writing, studying and learning.
I obviously disagree with the premise that we can’t get better at the things we do in a domain like learning, but it encouraged me to define the core principles as something separate from the less important lessons.
I’m writing something on the specific question of software — i.e. do we really need to buy all this expensive software to be able to do great work — so I’ll set that part of the problem to one side for now. For the rest, I think it’s useful to make a distinction between fundamentals and ‘hacks’.
The idea of a hack or ‘lifehack’ has garnered a decent amount of criticism over the years, often for good reason. Whole sites exist to tell you small things you can change — little tweaks to the way you’re already doing things — that will supposedly free you up to do the important work. My experience is that these are mostly cosmetic changes, and that they don’t deliver 10x (or more) improvements. The only time when you should be looking for tweaks of that kind is if you’re already in the 99.9% bracket for what you do.
For whatever reason, people seem to prefer the idea of hacks to fundamentals. Perhaps because fundamentals are harder to change, more ossified and because to change a fundamental belief or practice is to question who you are on some level.
A preference for hacks is why people think that drinking some new type of tea or a particular kind of food is better for their ability to make decisions in the long run than simply making sure to get enough sleep.
I have read a lot in and around the productivity / health domain, and there’s a strong tendency towards these small ‘hack’-like tweaks. But what are the fundamentals? I think often a lot of that comes down to things we already know:
- get more sleep
- eat more vegetables
- move your body more
- prioritise the long-term over the short-term
- Find a way to do the ‘hard thing’ earlier in your day
Some other principles that I’ve found useful:
- Subtract first, then add — if you can find a way to simplify your current process (or whatever it is) by taking something away, I’ve found that that really helps. This can apply to big things (like the conflict in Afghanistan and the international involvement there — see this for more) as well as smaller things (your daily work schedule).
- Perfect the process; think less about results — I’ve noticed this most profoundly in my exercise and movement work over the past few years. Whenever I’ve focused too much on the hoped-for results of a particular routine or programme, I’ve had things go wrong (either injuries or setbacks of other kinds). When I stay focused on the process, trying to make each movement as good as I can, trying to stay mindful of where I am on a particular day vs where I want to be, then I find this really beneficial.
The fundamentals are low-hanging fruit that offer big returns, albeit in a slightly less sexy packaging. Hacks are shortcuts that offer minute incremental improvements, at the expense of your time and energy.
There is a time and place for tweaks and fine-tuning and smaller productivity wins, but unless you’re finding a way to sort out your fundamentals, you’re missing a great opportunity.