This obviously seems counterintuitive. But I’m here to argue that adding restrictions and structure to your life can actually make you more free. In Think about saving time, not just money we already talked about the importance of taking a low-maintenance perspective in your lifestyle design to prevent getting overburdened with obligations that you don’t ultimately value very much. As discussed in that article, automating routine activities is one way to lower ongoing maintenance and we discussed several examples such as automatic 401K contributions that come out of your paycheck. When you automate something you are also giving up flexibility. But in many cases, giving up the ability to make ongoing decisions is actually a very good thing, since it frees your mind and time to be spend on other things. You take choice/freedom away from one area in order to create more of it in another area. This is an important idea to master for two big reasons.
- Time is limited and we usually take it for granted way too often. When you have to make choices, it takes time that could be used for something else. We need to make sure we are making choices in the right areas of our lives. That means, somewhat counterintuitively, that we benefit by limiting our choices in other areas to save time.
- It turns out willpower is also limited. Recent research on willpower shows that we have a reserve of willpower that gets drained every time we have to make a decision. In order to allocate that willpower to the most important parts of your life, it means that you need to look for ways to structure other parts of your life so that willpower is not required.
Let’s dig into this a little deeper.
First, let’s review some of the research in this areas. When it comes to choice, a top voice in the area is Barry Swartz. His book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less details how more choice is often not good for us, despite the intuitive view that more choice is always better.
This is something that is also well known by master product marketers, where a general rule of thumb is that about 7 choices is optimum in a particular category. Less than this and consumers typically complain about lack of choice (although are often still happy post-purchase since they never really had an alternative choice to regret). More than this, and most people get paralyzed, typically leading to lower total sales. The idea is that with so many choices, consumers feel like they should be able to pick the perfect product. But it becomes very difficult to ultimately determine which product is the best when the total pros and cons list is complicated and hard to differentiate. There are several concrete examples such as free jelly samples in a grocery store leading to higher sales when the number of flavors is limited but actually decreasing significantly when a large number of flavors is available. Interestingly, more people were drawn to the sample station when more flavors were available and more total sampling was done but the actual sales were still significantly lower. Consumers just found it difficult to make a decision on which flavor they wanted to buy and many ultimately gave up completely. There are many more studies done in this field that reinforce the basic premise here of more choice being bad.
Somewhat relatedly , smart product developers focus on the KISS principle even when creating very complicated technology products. KISS stands for KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID. Easy-to-use products outsell hard to use products significantly. The user-friendly interface that Apple creates in its products is a good example. An incredible amount of effort goes into to making complex products simple to use.
So if less choice is often better, at least psychologically, what can we do individually to use this research to improve our own lives? Can we think of examples where we can remove freedom (choice) to make things simpler and more efficient for us? I can think of several examples and if you think about, I’m sure you can create a long list yourself.
How about grocery shopping? It’s well known that when you shop without a list, you spend more time at the grocery store and spend more money. So a simple habit is to always shop with a list. You’ll be in and out faster, you’ll spend less money, and you won’t have to drain your precious willpower trying to figure out what to buy. In addition, creating the list when you’re in a good state of mind helps prevent the problems of buying too many items because you’re hungry when you go to the store. The same approach goes with shopping in general. Go to the store when you need something. Get it. Get out. Go back to something more important. If aimlessly shopping as entertainment is something you do, I suggest you question whether this habit really fits your life values and goals. Is it really where you want to spend your money, time, and mental energy?
What about your investment portfolio? Simple is better, especially if you’re not really that interested in investing. Just target a few broad index funds, automate your contributions and get on with living your life. We are all pretty lazy by nature and it’s been well proven that if you have to make decisions such as opting into your 401K plan at work, or deciding your investments, often people do nothing. When companies make the simple change of automatically opting workers in, participation rates go up tremendously even when opting in or out is as simple as checking a box on an easy-to-access form. In addition, similar to the jelly example, participation rates (and I suspect overall % contributions and investment performance), consistently drop as more investment choices are added.
What about willpower? Again, the research shows quite clearly that as we make decisions, our mental willpower decreases. Many clever, well-controlled studies have shown this. People who make a lot of decisions are less likely to choose a healthy snack over a cookie after doing so. We all make worse decisions when we are fatigued or hungry.
I was frightened by a controlled study of judges passing much harsher sentences right before lunch and late in the afternoons. This was clearly statistically significant. However, the judges adamantly denied that being hungry or tired affected their sentencing which they felt was clearly rational and rule-based. They were wrong (pro tip, if you get in big trouble, try to get an early morning or after lunch appointment at court!).
There are many more examples that prove the point. So conserve your willpower for the things you say are important, like building healthier eating habits, or going to sleep on time, or reducing the amount of TV you watch, or whatever it is that is important to you. This means reducing the willpower you use on less important things by automating and reducing the decisions you have to make.
Be Frugal with your time
I think this is very important. Just like being frugal with your money is to find the best personal value you can get through your spending, being frugal with your time and mental effort is very important. It’s important to allocate your time and effort towards the more important things to you. If you don’t prioritize your time and instead try to do too many things or a perfect job when a good-enough one will do, then you are being a spendthrift with your time (which is really your life).
Since I’m inherently an optimizer, I find myself researching rather unimportant things way too much. I also sometimes minimize effort on more important things because I find them less interesting. This is irrational but also quite common. As an example, I’ve spent lots of time researching purchases on small things like socks (Darn tough socks are great by the way!) or water bottles while spending less time on big purchases like a new roof, computer, or washing machine. This is pretty dumb when you think about the relative impact of these purchases.
I’ve often heard the comment that people spend more time planning their vacations than they ever spend planning their lives. Similarly, the amount of time spent managing savings/investments is a small multiple of time spent shopping for most people as well.
Instead of optimizing everything, consciously pick your battles and focus on the areas that are most important and don’t worry about making a sub-optimal choice in the other areas…..worry about making a quick decision and moving on with your life. Satisfying is a better approach than optimizing. Someone that is focused on meeting their needs vs someone that tries to make the perfect choice, will be happier. I personally struggle with this since I hate the idea of making a decision that is not the best I could have made. However, when I factor in the time required to make the best choice in many areas, it makes perfect sense to just find something “good enough” and move on if that area is not really important or impactful to your life. You might even save money since the better choices often cost more and may not be needed.
Have a consistent set of core foods and meals so you don’t have to think about what you’ll make for each meal every day.
Create a minimal wardrobe of high quality items with timeless styling that you can mix and match. Your clothes shopping, outfit decisions, and clothing budget will drop to almost nothing.
If you have kids, structure their days. When they do homework. When they go to bed. The routine for dinner, teeth brushing, baths, etc. It’s actually a comfort for kids to have a routine and if you don’t have one, be prepared for frequent arguments as you continually surprise them with unexpected demands, especially when their (and your) willpower is low due to fatigue or hunger.
There are many more examples you can think of. The point is to look at your own life, decide what is most important to you, and structure your lifestyle so you can spend your time and willpower on the most important and fun things for you. Try to structure the rest so that it becomes easy and automatic.
Some of the most successful and efficient people in the world go to extreme lengths to focus on what they want, and automate or outsource the rest. I personally don’t advocate significant outsourcing in your personal lifestyle (better to avoid adding something to your life that then requires you to outsource it!) but there is a lot to learn from people who are very conscious about how they allocate their time. Business owners are a good example here as they are forced to delegate in order to grow and create more value…..there is no way they can or should do everything themselves.
Analogous to choice, is whether active effort/decisions are needed on an ongoing basis. How can you reduce the low-level but constant stressful mental clutter in your mind? Add calendar reminders or to-do lists so you don’t have to keep it all in your head. Create a low-maintenance lifestyle. Automate routine things as much as possible. In other words, make things unconscious habits so they don’t take active effort.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business is a highly rated book that delves into the details of habits and provides nice insights to help you break (or more accurately, redirect) bad habits and form good habits. It breaks habits into three component parts; cue, routine, reward and details how each of these works. I found it a useful book for trying to change my habits.
Back to pragmatic tips for automating or simplifying more of your ongoing tasks, use tools like Mint for financial management items such as budgeting and tracking spending (use your rewards credit cards so its automatically tracked), and set reminders so you only look at it at specific times and aren’t constantly checking it.
A lot of automation can be done for saving and investing as well including auto reinvestment of dividends, auto 401K contributions, automatic transfers of money to different accounts with each paycheck, automatic rebalancing, and more.
Create routines and schedules so things you want to do become habit. Exercise is a perfect example. Create a routine. Workout at specific times and days so it becomes habit and you don’t have to use your willpower to “decide” to go. Have your workout clothes at work, or next to your bed, or whatever it takes to lower the activation energy you need to get going. Make sure it’s on your calendar.
I live by my calendar since I have a busy job and it makes a significant difference if something is scheduled on my calendar. In the past, I’ve tried to stay flexible in my schedule to fit workouts in. However, meetings end up on the calendar and my exercise time gets lost. Now I block the time on my calendar. Sometimes a conflict comes up, but as long as I’m not traveling, more often than not I am able to go for a run at lunch when it’s scheduled as though it’s an important meeting (which it is!). Since it’s a routine now, if I have to miss a day, it bothers me more and I usually find another time soon to make up for it.
Create Freedom Where It Really Matters
To sum it up, absolute freedom is not the goal. Freedom to spend your time doing the things you enjoy is the goal. If everything in your life is too wide open and unstructured, you will drain your willpower on unimportant things as you constantly make more decisions than are necessary. Free up your time and mental energy for what your truly value. In areas that aren’t as important to you, create restrictions and remove choice to give yourself more freedom to do the things you want to do, and have the energy to enjoy them more.
As always, please feel free to share your own thoughts on the topic.