Digging Deep with Happiness Through Subtraction

Columbia Gorge Munra Point View Hike

Ten million self-help books exist, all promising to improve our lives. Many focus on a strict schedule and the addition of various tasks or practices: Meditating, exercising, time scheduling, eating well, always smiling, never complaining, being a perfect person…

Just turn into a robot and BOOM, life becomes easy.

Except it doesn’t work for most of us, including me. Changing multiple variables usually creates overload and a short circuit back to old habits.

A Different Approach

I prefer happiness through subtraction. Cut out the activities and habits that create misery, then add back things that make you grin each day when you open your eyes.

I was introduced to this concept by Nassim Taleb’s book AntifragileHe writes:

Happiness is best dealt with as a negative concept…the pursuit of happiness is not equivalent to the avoidance of unhappiness. Each of us certainly knows not only what makes us unhappy, but what to do about it.

Unfortunately, humans are terrible at guessing what will make us happy. We are great at figuring out what makes us miserable though! As Francis Jourdain said, “One can furnish a room very luxuriously by taking out furniture rather than putting it in.”

A magical spot at the base of Elowah Falls in Oregon.

A magical spot at the base of Elowah Falls in Oregon.

Subtract the Unhappy

Start with basic activities that make you unhappy. Perhaps it’s feeling guilty about a caffeine addiction, loathing daily mind-numbing conference calls, or the overwhelm of emails stacking up like Tetris blocks. What are the root causes of those things, and would eliminating them add considerably to your happiness?

Maybe we need caffeine because we’re exhausted each morning. But why are we tired? (New parents, you know why…sorry, but I can’t help you there!)

Was it from staying up late flipping through social media, or not sleeping well because computer screens churn out mind-stimulating blue waves? (Try Flux to address the latter; Apple’s new OS incorporates this idea.) Cutting social media or computer time after dinner might result in better sleep, decrease the need for caffeine, and create a cascading positive effect.

Spring flowers in the Columbia Gorge looking west toward Portland.

Spring flowers in the Columbia Gorge looking west toward Portland.

Hitting inbox-zero feels great, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory since doing so in a hurry often creates more work. There’s no faster way to build giant email chains than a quick email. (Try Cal Newport’s technique to fix this.)

Still, developing an efficient system to deal with email doesn’t address the core question: why are we getting so many emails?

We can be efficient, but at some point there’s too much to handle, or the work itself is mind-numbing. I faced this in 2013 when I received 5,000 emails per month (and sent 2,500). I was efficient, but even using canned (saved) responses and other templates only worked to a degree.

Drilling deep, I saw the source of my unhappiness wasn’t email. Instead, I was completely burned out from working daily with clients who asked for (and deserved) immediate responses. My solution was to hire staff to take over those duties. This lowered my income, but allowed me a more flexible schedule to focus on other things.

I still work daily, but incoming email has dropped to a fraction of the volume. It also isn’t as time-sensitive, so I can deal with it when convenient.

My solution is only one approach. For my industry, I didn’t see another way since automation wasn’t an option. Your situation is probably different, but figuring out the root causes of what makes you unhappy is a powerful place to start.

Tenuous ground on the way to Munra Point.

A day hike in Oregon.

Work unhappiness is only the beginning. We can apply happiness through  subtraction to all aspect of our lives, including friendships, food, and physical workouts that we dread. I hate indoor cycling, but will mountain bike until my legs fall off.

As Leo Babauta of Zen Habits wrote recently, “we fear only one thing really: not having control, certainty, security, comfort.” Cutting away activities that make us unhappy leaves us with fewer stress points. We can’t erase the fear of losing control or security, but blowing away negative chaff in our life gives us more energy to powerfully deal with the headaches that do come up.

The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or down, don’t add habits to your life. Take to heart the old Swedish proverb: “Fear less, hope more; eat less, chew more; whine less, breathe more; talk less, say more; love more, and all good things will be yours.” What else could we possibly need?

Straddling a narrow ridge near Munra Point in Oregon.

Straddling a narrow ridge near Munra Point in Oregon.

Simple Tools to Help You Focus and Be More Productive

Santa Cruz West Cliffs

It’s one thing to talk about cutting away busyness at a high level, but how we do it in our day-to-day lives? I suggest using simple tools to remove distractions.

This is no easy task. Most of us work on a computer (a.k.a. distraction machine) for large parts of our day and spend entertainment hours in front of glowing screens as well. Whether we’re at work or at home, how can we carve out the space to focus and think deeply?

As Cal Newport writes in Deep Work, “To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing—a task that requires depth.” Off the grid in a cabin is one method, but not everyone’s work allows that. (Mine doesn’t.) For those of us who must stay connected while maintaining focus and productivity beyond just answering emails, we can use technology to our advantage.

Here are some of my favorite tools or techniques and a brief description of how I use them to stay focused and remove needless distraction. My advice is to sample some of these for a week. If there’s a positive result, try creating a habit the same way you would with exercise or meditation.

Block the ‘Nets: Freedom

Freedom is a great program with one simple function — shutting off your connection to the internet. Simply select the duration and hit Start.

I use this as a formal start to trigger a writing or video editing session. This keeps me from researching minutiae or feeling stuck mid-project, only to end up wandering Internet Land for an hour.

After all, most distractions stem from the online entertainment expanse, a time suck where two hours we slated for a project whirls away down the toilet. Cue up Freedom when you need to sketch a design, write a memo, or perform any concentrated, complex task for an extended period of time.

Freedom

Track Your Time: Toggl

I quoted Derek Sivers in my busyness post: “If you’re busy, you’re out of control.” Well, how do you know what’s devouring your time if you don’t track it? I had no idea until I started tracking my time via Toggl in 15 minute increments about five years ago.

This wound up dropping my hours worked — it’s amazing how a ticking timer keeps me focused. The best part, however, was that I knew where my time was going.

That awareness helped me determine the core efforts that yielded the best results (Pareto Principle again). I started outsourcing and hiring capable people to handle basic tasks (or those I’d mastered and could delegate) so I could focus on my the best use of my skills. Whether you’re an employee, a solo creative, or business owner, tracking your time is a game-changer.

If you think I’m crazy, I got the idea from Jim Collins, the business consultant and best-selling author of Good to Great. He carries a timer with him everywhere he goes. (I assume he doesn’t shower with it!)

Maintain Focus: Momentum

Momentum is a simple, free extension for your internet browser that helps keep your daily priority top of mind whenever you open a new tab. Instead of a list of favorite sites, news or a search bar to drag you into the quicksand of the interwebs, the new tab simply reminds you to keep on task. There’s also a nice picture and quote to make you feel all warm inside.

Momentum

Train Your Brain: Music on Repeat

I picked up this hack from Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic. While I often listen to relaxed music (classical or electronic) when I write or edit video/photos, picking a single song and leaving it on repeat keeps me company while staying more in the background. (The song Shimmer by Tracey Chattaway is my current favorite.)

Shut Out Social Media: Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator

Can’t curb the twitch to scan through Facebook when you’re tired, bored, or cranking hard to solve a problem? This browser extension blocks your feed so you have to search for a friend to see what they’re up to.

I use this off and on, but have found that it helps moderate my desire to be constantly connected. If you aren’t feeling so hard core, try the StayFocused app instead, which limits the time you can spend on various websites.

I also highly recommend deleting all social apps on your phone. Spend the time you’d normally use flipping through Instagram or Facebook to allow your mind to just laze about, read a few pages in a book or even talk to a stranger next to you.

Outsource the Small Stuff: UpWork

Some tasks just aren’t worth doing yourself. Data entry, simple research, basic website coding and other work can siphon off hours of otherwise productive time.

My mindset is always to track my time and identify where I spend it, then see if I can automate a task. If I can’t, I try to outsource to someone who does it faster and better than I can. That could of course be an employee or delegated to a co-worker, but if you’re self-employed than a Upwork or other freelance sites are fantastic.

Sometimes you need help to accomplish that mountain of work.

Sometimes you need help to accomplish that mountain of work. (Mt. Shasta, California)

Keep Track of Passwords: LastPass

Websites are only making password criteria tougher. Six symbols, a number, and your favorite calculus symbol make it tough to remember any of them. Resetting passwords or getting locked out and calling customer service sucks, which is why a password vault is a necessity.

If you aren’t using one yet, my favorite is LastPass. I guarantee it will save you time and keep you on point rather than searching for that password iteration you left on a slip of paper somewhere on your desk.

Task Management: Boomerang/Google Inbox or Evernote

I’ve already written about The Secret Weapon, my organization and task management system for keeping my life on track and in balance. If that seems like too much, try using a simple task list coupled with either Google Inbox or Boomerang, an email plug-in whose features are built into Inbox or can be paired with Gmail.

Inbox and Boomerang allow you to “snooze” emails (i.e. hide them after picking a date for them to reappear). You can also set follow up reminders when you send an email, or schedule an email to send at a particular date/time. With Evernote as my external brain, I no longer use these two, but they are a great gateway to a full-blown task management system if committing to The Secret Weapon is too daunting right now.

This guy obviously has things in balance.

This guy obviously has things in balance.

Automate Your Finances

If you’re anything like me, you hate the process of paying bills. Believe it or not, many people still do it manually, which is why I’m bringing it up.

Take advantage of technology and automate your payments – credit card, utilities, cell phone, car, mortgage, and so on. Go through three months of spending and schedule every single monthly bill. You’ll recoup that initial time investment in a single month, plus not have to worry about when bills are due. Finance guru Ramit Sethi has a comprehensive how-to on all this; his 12-minute video will save you days of your future life.

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Don’t start using all of these at once! My approach is to question why a tool is beneficial before trying it out. Too complex and it will take a lot of time to set up and then be forgotten. Simple is great.

We can accomplish more work, free up leisure time, and decrease stress by cutting out the noise. As the saying goes, focus is more important than intelligence. In our increasingly distracting world, I couldn’t agree more.

When you're done with the work, I recommend hiking someplace like Palouse Falls in Washington.

When you’re done with the work, I recommend hiking somewhere like Palouse Falls in Washington.

How to Escape the Busyness Trap

Santa Cruz west cliffs

Thoreau said it well: “It is not enough to be busy. The question is: what are we busy about?”

We bury ourselves in activities, put our head down, and toil away. Popping up to breathe years later, we look around and wonder where we are. This isn’t the life I wanted!

The new year is a great time to pause and ask ourselves, “do my daily activities support my dreams?”

I know this well because in 2008, I said yes to everything. Meetings. Networking events. Speaking engagements. Newly self-employed, I lacked the skills to turn away low-paying or difficult clients, much less good ones.

Starting out in business, we need the money, so we shoulder any available work. If life is a tree, branches of obligations grow haphazardly, leaves of busyness sprouting from those branches. The trunk, core dreams and goals, can stand forgotten.

It’s logical for us to create systems to maximize productivity and then accept additional clients. The risk is that the calendar dictates our days and we end up swimming relentless laps in an exhausting pool of stress.

For me, it all came to a head in the middle of 2012. I was doing well financially, but the effort consumed my mind. I struggled to stay present. My temptress phone beckoned during “free time” while anxiety gremlins roamed my mind at night.

I was overwhelmed, but a solution slowly evolved. Looking back, I see simple steps can help anyone fend off busyness.

A Santa Cruz sunset.

Walkers enjoy a perfect Santa Cruz sunset.

Acknowledging we’re too busy

It’s hard to realize our own misery. A line from Derek Sivers‘, one of my favorite thinkers, summed up my situation: “If you’re busy, you’re out of control.”

My insightful wife guided me toward making a change; a partner, friend, or coworker may help you as well. Even with her prodding, it took awhile. Like many fundamental changes, the realization hit when the pain of staying outweighed making a change.

The difficult part was deciding which branches to chop from the busy tree.

Questioning the reasons why

It’s tough to escape the momentum of a plan set in motion years earlier. How do we slow things down?

A solution is to focus on asking why we do any action. We meet clients in-person. Why. We go to networking events. Why.

This process helps us identify work that results in wasted effort or tremendous headaches. Time tracking is a powerful way to quantify how we spend our hours. From there, choose the 20% of business that nets 80% of the goal — classic Pareto principle . My personal goal wasn’t just income: free time, lower stress, and revenue were equal tripod legs.

Since we often build success on a Foundation of Yes, this isn’t easy. Even when we can finally afford to say no, turning down an energy-draining client feels like throwing money away. Politely refusing referrals is flipping the bird to years of building connections. It seems wasteful, entitled, and even stupid.

It’s why a famous actor says yes to a movie they know is bad. To paraphrase Kevin Costner, “Who am I to turn away a role other people need so much?”

Yet no is the path to redemption.

Looking north along the coast of Big Sur at Bixby Canyon Bridge.

Looking north along the coast of Big Sur at Bixby Canyon Bridge.

Targeting bloated obligations and responsibilities

Saying no feels awkward at first, but we improve. We finish up tough projects and new work that better fits our wheelhouse fills the void. Building on that success to examine other facets of life like eliminating energy-draining vampires and possessions can further transform our world.

Continually pruning our obligations is an important ongoing action. Do this by focusing on hell yeah activities, those that speak to our core interests. If it isn’t hell yeah, say no. As a bonus, curtailing the chaos leaves more time for deeper, focused efforts that yield richer fruit.

Seeing new opportunities through a mist during a hike in Big Sur.

Redwoods in the mist during a hike in Big Sur.

Filling the space

Once we prune the leaves on the busy tree, new opportunities feel the warm sun and blossom. While I still run my streamlined business, now I also can say hell yeah to flowers of travel and a budding creativity I’d sidelined for years.

This is not an ode to laziness; hard work and perseverance are good for us. Saying yes to crappy jobs in high school trains our muscles – physical and mental – to strain through running a business. Those experiences are integral to our journey. We all need those struggles to better appreciate the fruits of future labors.

YouTube star Casey Neistat nails it when he says “success is measured by the amount of time we don’t spend doing things we hate.” Saying yes to everything results in unintentional busyness. Focus. Lop off a few branches. Take control.

As the year unfolds, ponder new goals and “required” schedule items. Ask why you’re doing them.

Then start saying no.

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P.S. Dig this? You might like the list of tools I use to stay focused.

My friend Reese enjoys a quiet sunset on the west cliffs of Santa Cruz.

My friend Reese enjoys a quiet moment on the west cliffs of Santa Cruz.

The Secret Weapon for Organizing Your Life and Achieving Bucket List Goals

Santa Cruz pier

Staying on top of life’s tasks can be overwhelming. Post-It notes disappear beneath the fridge; long-term goals get punted downfield, bouncing into the weeds. That’s no surprise, given all the activities of a busy life, plus the huge amounts of information we all consume daily. Tracking tasks for work, fun, travel, and hobbies is enough to short out C3PO. Some aspirations drift away into the mist like an unmoored boat.

As my friend Sean says, there are only seven days in the week, and Someday isn’t one of them. It’s easy to put off mailing that passport renewal app, delay signing up for Spanish or guitar lessons, or procrastinate starting your dream side business.

Organize Your Life!

To help people avoid looking back at a giant pile of Somedays, I always recommend one powerful tool.

It’s called The Secret Weapon (TSW). TSW is a free technique that helps me organize my life, stops things from slipping through the cracks, and empowers me to execute on both annoying to-dos as well as bigger projects.

Like most good things in my life, my wonderful wife brought it to my attention. The Secret Weapon is now the cornerstone for organizing all the information and tasks that cross my path.

I use it both professionally and personally and hope (/know!) you will benefit too.

Mendocino coast line

What Is The Secret Weapon?

Simply put, TSW is a combination of Evernote and the Getting Things Done (GTD) method.

Evernote is a web, phone and computer app that allows you to easily clip, save, record or otherwise archive information of any type.

GTD is a popular technique introduced by productivity consultant David Allen that moves planned tasks and projects out of the mind by recording them externally and breaking them into actionable work items.

TSW merges technology and work-flow techniques. In the words of its creators, the Secret Weapon is:

A free organizational methodology for both professional and personal aspects of life that re-organizes emails, ideas, and every to-do big and small into one system that stays synchronized across a person’s computers as well as their smart phones.

Deploying TSW allows me to keep track of personal and business tasks for both near-term and distant timelines without taxing my brain with stuff that clutters the corners and makes my eyes glaze over.

How the Secret Weapon Works

TSW organizes my life into discrete chunks to manage tasks. That ranges from copying a house key to negotiating business contracts to organizing a future bucket list trip like bikepacking the Colorado Trail. I also track quotes and book passages while I’m reading, clipping all my ebook highlights and importing them into Evernote for easy reference. You can use TSW for anything!

What does this look like? Here’s a sample section of my list prior to departing for Utah in late March, sorted for most pressing actions (1-Now, in TSW lingo). This is just part of the list – I’d wager most of you have similar things bumping around in your head that wake you up at night slapping your forehead.  (“AH, I forgot to drop the bike off for a tune up!”) By referencing this list every morning as our trip approached, we whittled down tasks until we were ready to launch.

Secret weapon

It’s Easier Than It Looks!

Not gonna lie: it took me awhile to start using TSW. I used Gmail’s task feature for years and thought it worked great. I’d type in tasks, handle pressing or easy items, and delete the ones that slipped to the bottom of the list. This worked well in some respects, but wasn’t ideal. It was task management fire fighting: spraying the biggest flames and praying small, untended fires would go out.

The power of TSW became apparent in 2013 when we were prepping our house so we could travel, building out the van, handling business changes, and generally burying ourselves with a stack of tasks taller than Paul Bunyan on growth hormones. With an endless pile of to-dos, my simple Gmail-based task system blew up into a hairy snarl of too much to do and no way to prioritize anything. We needed to crank out a serious volume of work. Our tenants’ arrival grew closer…

Enter TSW. I watched the free video tutorials that walked me through setting up GTD with Evernote , and dialed in the system. It continues to deliver value to this day!

Chelsea herded me along, focusing my efforts with skill a pyramid-building Egyptian foreman would envy. Maybe we were sweeping the front porch as our new tenants rolled up to the house, but we got it done! I’ve used TSW ever since. (I’ll say it again: this may sound complicated, but the video tutorials are short, easy to understand, and walk you through everything step-by-step. You don’t even have to be Type A. TSW can help anyone!)

The key to realizing TSW’s full potential is creating a habit for each morning. After my morning reading, meditation, and writing routine, I cue up Evernote, brain dump tasks on my mind, and then scan for things to accomplish that day.

As a rule, I immediately handle anything that takes less than two minutes, unless that item requires some research or coordination of some kind. In a few minutes, I’ve got my day’s road map.

Open road in Utah

An Example of The Secret Weapon

For a concrete example of how TSW works, let’s use the van buildout that I completed over the course of a few months in late summer 2013. This was an intimidating, time consuming, and complicated task. Put “build out the Sprinter van” on the task list and you’ll get to it later than “sort Tupperware lids.”

Instead, I broke everything down into smaller chunks and actions.  Every pending item for the van was tagged with “Sprinter,” and then given a When/Where/Who designation. Once everything was chunked up, it was a simple matter to add tasks based on priority, location (pick up at Home Depot) or who (me, Chelsea, or hiring someone, if needed).

Over the course of a few months, hundreds of tasks were researched, parts and components purchased, and the project was methodically completed in time for departure. (To be clear, “methodically” also involves me running about in a frenzy sometimes.)

Here’s a shot from the “Sprinter” tag that I pulled from Evernote, since we still have items we plan on updating or repairing.  A metal strip on our counter just ripped off and needs to repaired soon, hence the “1-Now” priority designation. If I decide something can be handled later, I can move it to 2-Next, or kick it way down the line to 5-Someday.

Sprinter TSW

This may seem complicated. It’s not. Once you get in a good workflow, maintaining this system from your computer or phone becomes a routine like brushing your teeth. The morning check-in prioritizes my day, and then I add or update items as needed, plus a late afternoon scan and update.

I’ve never felt more on top of things, even with my life pulled in many directions these days between managing investment properties, remotely handling my business and employees, writing this blog, and arranging our travel plans and friend meetups. (And sneaking off to mountain bike for hours at a time, of course.)

If you’re looking for a straight-forward technique for managing your life, look no further than The Secret Weapon. Not only is it totally free, I guarantee it will increase your productivity, get you to the fabled Inbox Zero, and help “free” time really be free time.

No more wasting minutes searching for lost info, or forgetting that small detail that hangs up a business deal at the last minute. You’re going to crank that stuff out and have time to focus on writing that book, starting a side business, or finally organizing all the photos from high school.

Head over to TheSecretWeapon.org now and get rolling! The tutorials are broken into bite-size snippets that are easy to fit in over the course of a week. Cheers to organizing your life!

Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls in Yosemite.