Personal development junkies are obsessed with doing things better, being more productive, and increasing efficiency. Tim Ferriss will literally teach you “how to peel an egg without actually peeling it.”
When those productivity tools are stacked together, they create efficiency. And yet, being efficient doing ineffective things moves you farther away from your goals.
When I was in college in Ireland, I had an elaborate routine around drinking. As someone obsessed with crushing it at work and in life, I wanted to minimize the consequences of drinking. To prevent hangovers, I switched to a clean liquor with lime and soda water. I scheduled low-effort work for the morning after, as my output for mentally changing tasks would be capped very low. All of the optimization I’ve done around social drinking, although felt right, shied away from the root of the problem. Drinking as an activity is a massive productivity killer. I learned the lesson. Cut it out. And reclaimed back almost the entire day of productivity.
Before optimizing and systematizing, one should eliminate.
This article explores the peak performers’ mindset around elimination and shares practical processes to get back your time and energy.
Elimination Principles & Mindset
Elimination is very straight forward. You just stop partaking an undesired behavior. And yet only by building a peak performers’ belief system can you overwrite your brain software to make elimination second nature. It’s like seeing the world from a brand new angle.
If you find yourself distracted by small things, reactive and constantly busy, you must become a relentless eliminator.
“Get shit done” will transform into “get only the right shit done.”
Neuroscience & Cognitive Load
According to cognitive psychology, we humans can hold about 7 things in our heads at a time. We are increasingly bombarded with sensory information. That information is deposited into sensory memory, from where important information is filtered into working memory and non-important that is disregarded entirely. That happens because working memory has limited capacity.
As a result, the more things you do, the less likely important information will be stored.
John Sweller developed the Cognitive Load Theory that explores how information is deposited into our brains. He concludes that overloading ourselves with activities that do not directly contribute to one area of learning / optimization should be avoided.
Holding information in your working memory at any given time exerts a toll on you. It uses up a certain amount of your ﬁxed cognitive capacities.
Reducing cognitive load stimulates dopamine and norepinephrine, the chemicals produced in flow states. As a result, killing distractions gives you a neurochemical advantage.
Having too many possibilities is unworkable. Only by creating constraints, by putting ourselves in a box, can we liberate ourselves.
A rule restricts freedom in one direction, to enable greater freedom in another direction.
It feels counterintuitive. How can you possibly have more freedom by having fewer options? And yet, your attention, time, and resources are limited. Creating constraints frees you up from distractions that eat up your time and attention.
You can think about it as a benevolent dictatorship. Some of your liberties might be limited in order to create the best outcome for you.
Be RUTHLESS cutting out distractions for good! Do not tolerate them.
Elimination before Systematization & Optimization
“The best code is no code”
Before optimizing or systematizing, you should think if you can avoid the very activity entirely. Earlier I’ve shared my elaborate optimization around drinking. It avoided seeing the problem for what it was. It’s not that the traditional way of drinking is ineffective. It’s drinking as a whole that creates negative externalities, like hangovers, mental fog and staying up until late.
You can apply the same logic in other areas of your life. Instead of finding a better way to do grocery shopping, you may consider eliminating it as a whole.
Understanding The Trade-Offs
Every choice we make has an associated “opportunity cost” - the cost of NOT getting the benefits of the best alternative.
Tradeoffs are strategic choices that consider the advantages and disadvantages of alternatives.
They are particularly useful when deciding between two things that you want to do.
Eliminating what you do not want is simple since you are removing an area of pain.
The challenge is in determining what we want MORE. You can’t have ice cream, cheesecake, lava cake, and keep your 10% body fat all at once. Even if you do manage to do it somehow (run a marathon next morning?), the extra effort will cost you dearly in other areas of your life.
Considering tradeoffs allows you to make better decisions holistically.
For example, watching TV to relax.
Mental Recovery: very low.
Fun Factor: medium.
Are there more effective alternatives to relax and recover? Many: taking a nap, spending quality time with someone you love, etc. Although watching TV maybe what you want to do, the tradeoffs are too high.
Thus, watching TV is a suboptimal choice.
In addition, you should consider externalities.
For example, 10 minutes of grocery shopping creates decision fatigue and steel so much energy from me. I have an incredibly difficult time getting back into the flow and concentrating for the following TWO hours. I hate it. Making hundreds of unimportant decisions and loading my brain with useless info. The trip to the grocery store costs me 2h and 10 min, not 10 min.
Elimination as an action is straightforward - just stop doing something. And yet there is a simple process to determine what to eliminate and make sure you actually stick to it.
I found that the best way to change a behavior is through running an experiment. Experiment implies that there are a clear beginning and an end. There are clear rules of what is allowed and what is not. And each experiment is followed by insight.
The framework of an experiment also eases the emotional effort needed to give up an unwanted behavior. You will not feel like you’d never ever be able to watch an episode of your favorite TV show. Because then the steaks would be too high. During challenging times, your narrative will shift to “it’s just a couple weeks left more. I can do it! And then I can binge all I want.”
Do an elimination experiment for 30 days. You will have a retrospect of how life looks without distractions. You can re-introduce what you eliminated later on if you prefer, but at least you will know what you are giving up.
1. Determine Your Life Priorities (Values)
2. Make a List of Things You Do that Does not Contribute to Your Priorities
3. Identify Hidden Distractions
Since everything in life is a tradeoff, we need to be smart about trading the things we want less for what is most important to us. This is why we come up with a list of life priorities (aka “values”) that will bring clarity to our decision making.
Here is an example of how life priorities can look like (“prioritized”, obviously):
- Impact & Biz
- Relationships & Family
- Health & Energy
- Learning & Personal Growth
Those priorities are what you want the most out of life. Everything else is a distraction.
Then we make a list of distractions:
Credit: Flow Research Collective - Zero To Dangerous
We should then actively consider hidden distractions, the ones we got accustomed to culturally, without questioning. For example: cooking, laundry, driving, cleaning. Those activities take hooooours every single day and massive demands on our cognitive load.
At first glance, hidden distractions might seem impossible to get rid of. Should you give up eating? Not really.
You can eliminate by delegation or automation. Use Uber for commenting. Sign up for a meal plan like Fit Kitchen. Eliminating those may require a little bit of an investment. And yet, if you are making more than $25/h, those are phenomenal choices.
You can’t buy back time in the future. But you can buy time for the future today!
I recommend getting rid of the top 5 distractions based on time and cognitive load costs. Eliminating more items at once may be more challenging and you may be less likely to stick to it. If you are unable to remember all items off the top of your head, you are doing it wrong.
Write those down on a piece of paper and hang somewhere visible. If you prefer, you can create 30 boxes [ ] for each day to cross off. It should give you a sense of progress.
The Blank Slate Approach
Elimination process #1 is about subtraction: taking things off your plate.
An alternative practice is about addition. You start with NOTHING on your schedule.
Then based on your priorities (values), you add the fundamental activities on your schedule.
Here is an example of how a calendar can look like:
The key is to avoid doing anything outside each block’s focus area.
If you stick to the focus areas of each block no matter what (tired, hungry, anything!) for a couple of weeks, a lot of distractions will automatically get eliminated.
This approach is good to eliminate big systematic time suckers. The subtraction approach is fantastic to eradicate more granular distractions that increase cognitive load.
The Traps of Elimination
Elimination practice is such a powerful tool, it can easily double your overall productivity.
Ironically, when we have more time at hand, we tend to fill the idleness with new distractions.
A friend of mine eliminated 80% of the management work by streamlining operations. He built a solid schedule. He hired people to take care of low-impact tasks.
He could work for about 2h / day and his company would run the same. The extra time he spent on socializing, learning unrelated things and hobbies, none of which advanced his core goals.
If you are an effective eliminator, you will certainly reach a point when you have more time than you know what to do with. This is a pivotal moment, during which you shall look at the big picture and gain clarity about the NEXT highest priority activity / area. Without this clarity, you can’t possibly perform your best and stay hyper-focused.
Elimination is foremost a mindset. Shaping your belief system will make elimination second nature.
Your brain can adequately process no more than 7 things. Eliminating distractions reduces cognitive load, which in turn stimulates the production of dopamine and norepinephrine. Reducing cognitive load allows you to enter flow states more easily and stay in them longer.
Creating constraints is liberating, not limiting.
To optimize & systematize what can be eliminated.
Consider the tradeoffs between things that you want to do both.
Finally, use one or both processes to start cutting out distractions from your life.
Elimination is just one of the many concepts that we uncover in-depth in Zero to Dangerous, a program designed to help overwhelmed business leaders leverage science-backed peak performance so they can get more done, in less time, with greater ease.
Co-Authored with Renat Gabitov