The Time-Saving Magic of Not Doing Unimportant Things


“Or — and I think this could be a real time saver — we don’t do any of this.”

-Tim Allen, “Last Man Standing”

You know what I hate? Doing pointless things.

I hate driving an hour to spend half an hour somewhere. Unless I’m starving and that place has the only food on Earth, there’s probably no reason to do that.

I also hate writing introductions that go on and on. This one’s already too long. You read the title. You know what this post is about.

Problem #1: Doing small, unimportant thing opens Zeigarnikonian loops.

Full disclosure: I made up “Zeigarnikonian” to sound more knowledgable than I really am.

The Zeigarnik effect, as detailed in “Willpower” by Baumeister and Tierney, suggests that uncompleted tasks–no mater how unimportant they may actually be–will weigh on you disproportionately to their importance.

For example: one way to get a song out of your head is to hum through to its resolution. This closes the open “loop” and settles you back to equilibrium.

Problem #2: Unimportant Decisions Use Up Willpower RAM That Should Be Spent on Important Things Instead

When Barack Obama allowed Jerry Seinfeld to the White House for an episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” they both agreed that there’s no reason to have to choose what color of underwear you wear that morning. In fact, you might as well just buy all gray, because

  1. who cares? and
  2. why add to your workload with pointless choices?

Here’s another way of putting it, in another selection from “Willpower”:

Making choices is exhausting. Researchers did an experiment where they showed college students a various assortment of trinkets. One group of students was asked to think about which trinket they wanted. The other group was asked to make a series of choices between pairs of trinkets (“would you rather have the candle or the toothbrush?”, “The brown candle or the red candle?”, etc). After this process, students were asked to hold their hand in ice cold water for as long as possible (a standard willpower measurement). The group which had to make choices did significantly worse than the group which did not.

Ever notice how once you settle into a routine–even a rigorous, demanding one–it doesn’t really seem all that hard? When you don’t leave yourself any choice, you’re free to devote all of your energy to achievement, not on micromanaging how you spend this hour.

Problem #3: Everything in life costs you more than you think it does

This applies for both money and time.

Want to know something fun? A loan of $250,000 over 30 years with 4% interest isn’t $260,000, or 4% added to the loan. Not even close.

It’s $429,673.77.

The cost of a $250,000 loan isn’t 4%. It’s 71% of the loan amount. Add maintenance, taxes, keeping teenage riffraff off your lawn, and gas for your lawn mower, and the cost will well exceed 100% of the loan itself. You’re paying twice what the house is worth to acquire it.

There’s nothing wrong with paying a little more for real estate equity, of course. And everybody has to pay that much to own a house. That’s a debate for another day.

The point is that most people drastically underestimate the total all-in cost of most things they do: time, money, and energy alike. In fact, some productivity experts say that a distraction in work flow isn’t just the time it takes out of your schedule, but the time you spend recovering from the distraction.

That’s a recovery that didn’t have to happen in the first place.

Don’t but something unless you know the real cost.

Problem #4: Obsessing over knowledge and not action.

I can’t tell you how many things I’ve put off because I wanted to get the launch right. Waiting to know everything about business before you start one? Good luck. You’ll die of old age before you ever feel remotely comfortable with launching.

The irony is, action is the best thing you can do for your knowledge. Life lessons stick far better than anything you read.

There’s no doubt that learning a key tip here and there can dramatically improve your productivity. If you’re an old granny, I guarantee that taking 30 minutes to learn how to email is going to change your life for the better.

But action is always more important. I’d rather run for 60 minutes than read 60 pages on the cardiovascular system.

Problem #5: Stupid little habits give you stupid little results. It’s not worth it.

I often browse a “discipline” websites when being hypocritical about this post, and I see users swearing to spend 0.75 minutes per day meditating, or vowing to spend 20 minutes a day clipping their nose hairs, or pledging to eat an orange every day for no discernible reason, or learning some new dumb hobby they’re going to give up once they run out of steam because it doesn’t really matter to them.

As you gathered, I think this is dumb.

It’s far more powerful to spend 8 hours a day improving your career so you can purchase a nose-hair trimmer that will do it in 10 seconds. If you do it right, you can also pay a butler to deliver that orange for you every day so it becomes automatic. A vast improvement.

I’m not opposed to hobbies, but if try them a few times and don’t find them compelling, why on earth would you add it expense and obligation to your life?

As Ron Swanson once put it, “don’t half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”

Solution #1: Avoid opening loops and create a system to close them.

The Getting Things Done system advocates that you do this, and it sounds like a good idea:

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For essential items, this is good.

But here’s what I suggest.

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That isn’t to say you should ONLY [insert your hobby of choice], because that just makes you a directionless loser. But if you’re being a good, productive member of society and you’ve worked hard to achieve your goals today…why not just let the rest go? If you’ve done all you set out to do today, what else could you possibly do today to improve your life?

The Internet tells me this is Einstein’s desk the day he died in 1955.

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If you’re working on your goals, then great, have a desk that looks like that. Organize it with the GTD system.

If that’s all extraneous nonsense that has nothing to do with your goals, take it all outside, find a campfire, and burn it.

Solution #2: Monitor all of your daily choices, write them down, and then go about solving them.

This sounds like busywork, I know. But investing 30 minutes to change your underwear wardrobe so you never have to think about underwear again? That’s an investment of time, not a waste.

Find the other areas of “underwear” in your life that you can improve. Then improve it. And forget about it completely.

Solution #3: Focus only on the important stuff.

Is something important to you? Then it’s worth spending energy on.

Is something not important to you, but required by society? Like Jury Duty? You should probably do it.

Is something not important to you and not important to anyone else?

Maybe watching TV tonight isn’t so wrong.

Solution #4: …Just stop doing stuff, like I’m going to stop writing this post right now.

No, really, that’s it.

I’m going to go play computer games.

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