If there's one long-term state that I won't tolerate for myself, it's treading water, putting out effort just to stay where I am. I want to either expend effort to move something ahead, or triage it and let it sink. If it's important enough to me to do, I'll put everything into it and do it right, otherwise I'll make the hard decision and reserve that energy for something else.
All forward momentum requires your effort and attention. Want your business to grow? You'd better be dedicating a huge chunk of your time to making sure that happens. Want to get healthy and in shape? Then you've got to be in the gym moving metal. Want your relationship to be more satisfying for both of you? Then you have to actively think about how to make it better and put that into action.
Autopilot is awesome on airplanes, terrible on humans. We each have a limited well of time, attention, focus, money, and other resources. When we go on autopilot, we tend to expend resources just to keep the status quo. We put enough thought and effort into our relationships not to get dumped, we earn and save just enough money to pay our bills, and we watch our diet just enough that we only get a little bit fatter every year.
That's what autopilot gets you. Scared to lose anything we have, regardless of how important it may or may not be to us, we spread out resources so thinly that we never have time to really surge forward in any way. When something great comes our way, we don't have enough in reserve to take advantage of the opportunity.
I see so many people stuck in the same relationship year after year that's actually getting worse all the time. Why would you do that? Either decide you're going to make it the best relationship you've ever had, or break up! People stay in the same jobs they hate, earning just enough money to pay the bills. Ten years later their net worth hasn't moved and they've given up thousands of hours of their life. How many people's health efforts swing ebb and flow, leaving their increasing years of age as the only major input to their health?
I always use health, wealth, and relationships as examples, but there are thousands of areas of your life that require your attention. No one likes to admit it, but to get big gains in areas that matter to you, you have to cut something.
A couple years ago I stopped dating. About a year ago I started saying no to almost all social engagements outside a core group of good friends. A year ago I stopped choosing what I'd eat, and started eating the same thing every day. I've also cut out almost every form of entertainment. Several years ago I gave up the concept of weekends.
All of the energy that would have been directed to those, and other things, has been focused into areas I care about. I spend a ton of time working on Sett. I travel around to get new experiences and keep a fresh perspective. I write a lot and read 50-100 books per year. Even with all that, I have enough left over to build better relationships with people I'm close with.
The only reason I can do all of those things is because I committed to stop treading water. Things move forward or backwards, but never just stagnate and occupy my time and focus.
There's no one-size-fits-all prescription for what to cut and what to focus on, because we all have different priorities and goals. The key is to look at where you want your life to be in five, ten, and twenty years, and think about what could be dropped and what would need real progress. Looking through that lens makes it easy to make the hard decisions, both to drop things and to commit to others.
Photo is one of the first phrases I learned in Romanian: "You have to play to win." -- seems appropriate.
Speaking of learning languages, I'm on day 10 of German. The grammar and pronunciation are harder than I expected, but I'm loving it. Leo is experimenting with doing two tapes per day, so I might try that too if it works well.
I think I understand what you are trying to say and agree with a lot of points, but not with the generalization.
Taking your first line definition of “treading water” as “putting out effort just to stay where I am”, I find it easy to imagine situations where I would want to do exactly that, and neither “expend effort to move something ahead, or triage it and let it sink”. The key point would be when the marginal returns for additional effort diminish beyond a certain degree.
Take health, for example. Imagine a very fit person with a generally very healthy lifestyle which could only be improved through highly individualized, minute adjustment in small variables, e.g. micronutrient intake. There would not be much sense to take it further, but it would also obviously be a very bad idea to abandon the area. Here, treading water would be a good course of action - keep eating healthy, working out regularly, etc. to maintain the good health.
It gets different when something you only mentioned in the post title is taken into account: “the shore”. For your other example, wealth, it can be a good idea to push well beyond the point of diminishing marginal returns for income to reach a point where you generate said income from your assets with negligible amount of effort.
So you could divide life areas into two categories: Those where it is possible to reach a “shore”, where the effort necessary to maintain satisfactory results is negligible, and those where it is not. In one case, you would be “treading water” to stay at the level you want to stay at (e.g. health), while in the other you are lounging on the metaphorical (or physical, if that’s your thing) beach (e.g. wealth).
Neither is a bad thing, and it can be somewhat of a sliding scale between those. A learned language decays without practice, but not as quickly as health does. So if you have achieved whatever level you deem satisfactory in a certain area of life, treading water can be a very reasonable course of action.
Event though that’s not in the title, a large part of your post seems to be about eliminating distracting and unnecessary activities and focusing on important areas. This is actually one of the main meta-areas I planned to focus on this year, and you are a great example and inspiration for precisely this. Thank you for that.
PS: You read 50-100 books per year? What kind of books are you reading? What’s an average page count for those books? Maybe it’s just that a lot of the books I read tend to be doorstoppers that the number strikes me as intense.
This is a great counter-argument to Tynan's article.
I think it's important to consider ROI and opportunity costs. Say, I speak English fluently, make a living writing in English, and read pretty much only in English. However, when people hear me speak, they can clearly hear I'm not a native speaker. You know that accent Eastern European thugs have in movies? Yup, that's me. Could I improve my accent? Sure. Would it be nice to speak Queen's English? Sure. Does it make sense to invest my limited time, energy, and cognition there? Not really. I would get a much better ROI by investing my resources into improving Russian or Spanish, or learning a new language, or learning to code, etc.
There's always a space for improvement. However, we have limited resources, therefore it's important to use them wisely. It might seem counter-intuitive, but "always strive for excellence" mindset can lead you astray, since it's easy to obsess over minor improvements that yield negligible returns. It's important to know when to say "Enough.".
Hey Tynan, I'm interested in your comment that you eat the same thing every day. I've been considering doing that for a while now, and was wondering if you would share your daily meal plan with us. Thanks!
Very informative post. You seem very disciplined and focused in your life. What do you attribute your ability to focus so well to? What methods do you implore to stay so focused and dedicated to your endeavors to their success, such as SETT?
within two months I will be divorced. We chose to end it bc neither of us were happy. I'm getting my freelancing career back on track and made a list this morning of things taking up my time that don't help me with my goals. Then I read this timely post--thanks Tynan.
Autopilot is awesome in airplanes and terrible in humans - a perfect description. Why spend our days and nights of energy just trying to keep our heads above water or as you are saying treading water merely to stay in the same location.
Move forward, fix something from your past if you like but do something productive. This is my first visit here and I sincerely appreciate your ideas in this post. Thank you.
I think personal productivity can be likened a bit to the Industrial Revolution:
Once a person decides to stop dreaming excellence, and instead re-orients toward shipping excellence, economics start to enter into the picture. In a daydream one can do anything, but in real reality there is always a finite set of resources that one is juggling. Resource management and constancy of production become key. For sure, qualitative breakthroughs can happen, just as in macro-economics (new types of machines, new energy sources, etc - I guess things like modafinil would somewhat qualify as analogues in this context), but most of the work is quantitative: building up better production by getting economies of scale in place and having division of labor so one is specialized in a few areas of production, not running the personal productivity equivalent of a feudal manor: low output, lots of different things being produced.
I think this deep realization of the fact of economics at the individual level, and the radical raising of personal "GDP" using production thinking, is one of the core things that separates out the achievers from the wannabes.
Interesting mental image: researching a bunch of esoteric self-help tactics, without having your fundamental production in place, is a bit like the Soviet Union in the 30s: everyone is starving to death, yet the government is spending a bunch of resources on wacky wonder technology to fix everything in one fell swoop. For further reading, see this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lysenkoism
SETT, the new blogging platform that Todd and I are building, which this blog is running on, is going really well. With every project comes this fantasy that as soon as the world catches the briefest glimpse of your work, it will respond by showering you with praise and instantly recognizing that what you have created is important and the best possible solution to an significant problem. That's not actually what happens, though. Ever. For anyone.
Being at the beginning of the success curve is more like being a puppy dog. People like you and are interested in what you're doing, but you're not necessarily taken seriously and you stumble from time to time. That's where we are.
According to the recent SETT survey I did, most readers prefer SETT to Wordpress. Not everyone will like it better, but I've been really thrilled with how people are embracing some of the new features we've built. It confirms my belief that blogging is currently broken fundamentally, and that we're building the next version of blogging, and not just sprinkling some glitter an an existing solution.
Since releasing, we've rebuilt a lot of stuff to make it easier to use, more consistent, and accessible on a number of devices. We've introduced bugs in the process, but we are also working hard to fix them. Readers have contributed a lot of great content in the community side of the site, and two of the posts were so good that I promoted them to the front page.
By Steven Chaffin, Jr.
This posted is dedicated to a great friend of mine named Valerie. She worked hard to convince me that I was making the wrong decision by deleting my Facebook account, and I appreciate the time she took to do that.
Less than twenty-four hours ago, I deactivated my Facebook account. I did this to the confusion of some close friends, surrounded by a world dependent and hopelessly addicted to it.
I was given reason after reason why I should keep the account, why I should stop “being irrational” and come back to my senses. Here are some popular reasons: