How to Make Your Best Decisions by Shifting Ease

The wonders of basic environmental design

Photo by Hansjörg Keller on Unsplash

2020 was an important year for me, and not just for the COVID of it all. This time that year,

  • I was running to the finish of a long-overdue weight loss plan, having lost 19kg (42 lbs).
  • I had written myself into a corner with a commitment to a daily journal, which I’ve maintained ever since.
  • I was presenting the conclusion to my Toastmasters performance, having spent 5 years there.
  • I tried on a challenge for size as a friend taught me to dress better.

It was a year of incredible growth and learning for me. I had multiple projects going on. To this day, I always find myself in three to six “big projects”.

It is overwhelming to have your fingers in several pies, but it can also be incredibly gratifying. I find myself learning more self-love and self-respect and always trying something new.

It would be nice to have superhuman mental fortitude.

You live a complicated life. There are several different “domains of health” you manage — physical, mental, financial, spiritual, social, emotional, intellectual and more.

Based on who you are, you may have different domains, and you may focus on some more than others. But they all require you to MANAGE them.

There’s a reason management is a sought-after profession. Management requires patience, planning, and decision-making over long periods of time. It’s an incredibly taxing job. It requires you not just to make decisions, but also follow through on them.

If you had superhuman mental fortitude, you would be able to follow-through on the decisions you make. You’d be able to be at 12% body fat, have a year’s worth of money saved and/or invested, and published your book.

You would have started a business, started a garden, just… started.

Superhuman mental fortitude would be so nice.

But you don’t have it, and neither do I.

I’m with you. I’m still working on my first book, I’m still carrying more weight than I want to, and I still haven’t started a garden (though that last one is probably because I don’t want to).

Regardless, it is important to keep trying. If you and I don’t, then we’re forever stuck in a cycle of misery and what-ifs. If we don’t fix this, we’ll still be here while time passes us by.

What is the suck?

When you attempt to solve a problem, you need to pinpoint what sucks about it. Doing so will give you clues on what needs to be fixed.

For example, let’s say you haven’t met your fitness goals. This is not because you’re lazy. Calling yourself lazy is a lazy answer. What is the suck that stops you?

Being fit sucks because:

  1. You eat too much and don’t track it. Perhaps you eat emotionally, like I do.
  2. You don’t know a dumbbell from a barbell and the gym is intimidating.
  3. You’re scared of being judged.
  4. You struggle with DOMS and pain after workouts.

Each of those problems has its own solution, e.g.

  1. You can focus on food and stop training for a while. Start by writing down everything you eat, without judging yourself.
  2. You can play a sport you like instead of going to the gym.
  3. You can train alone, or you can practice meeting people.
  4. You can reduce how much you’re working out and slowly build up tolerance.

Each of these is a DIFFERENT plan of action. Identifying what sucks helps you decide which plan works for you.

For myself, I’ve found that I generally struggle with three things:

  • I don’t want to do something because it is tedious or boring.
  • I am overwhelmed because I’m doing too much.
  • I am scared that I’ll fail when I try.

Here, I will address points 1 and 2.

Shift ease through environmental design

Environmental design is just a fancy term for keeping things in their place. Based on how you keep things, you can make things easier or more difficult.

The classic example is for people who want to cut back on fried snacks — keep the fried snacks in the top shelf of a pantry behind a door, while keeping healthy snacks like fruits and nuts outside. Basically, when you see the fruits often, you’ll be reminded to go to them. Since you’re seeing the fried snacks less, you’ll want them less. It’s that simple.

So let’s take the two sucks we’re addressing — tasks are tedious, and there are too many tasks.

For tedious tasks, narrow them down to single decisions

For example, I like going to bed before midnight if I can. I’ve got an alarm set on my phone for 11 PM, which reminds me everyday to go to bed.

I don’t always listen to the alarm, but I do get the reminder everyday. The reminder is my single decision point to get some good rest.

Then when I follow it once, I feel the results in the morning. Initial successes lead to repeated practice. Over a week, a month, three months, you really start feeling the benefits.

Another example, my dentist has asked me to floss my teeth. It feels like the most tedious thing in the world.

Well, I’ve got my dental floss and gum massage powder right next to my toothbrush. When I finish brushing my teeth and put the toothbrush down, my eye immediately falls to the box of mounted floss, and I pick one out and I quickly go through it. Seeing the box of floss is my single decision point to have a refreshed mouth.

These single decision points come up everyday, and I start associating the decision point with the task. This repeatability is important.

My success rate on these simple health choices is about 60–70%. I’m succeeding more often than I’m failing, and that adds up to big benefits over time.

Also, the more you succeed, the less tedious the task becomes. This is called a virtuous cycle (opposite of a vicious cycle).

Exercise for you to try: Make sleeping easier.
What do you do before bed? Are you gaming or watching YouTube? Try shifting to reading instead. It's less stimulating and helps you sleep better.
If you're already reading adventure novels, try shifting to reading biographies and self-help instead. The boring nature of these books helps you fall asleep faster. The decision to sleep becomes easier than the decision to stay awake.

For too many tasks, use compartmentalization

Between work, blog & podcast, D&D, physical fitness, cooking, and being social, I’ve also got a lot of domains of health I’m trying to manage.

My current setup for work-writing and blog-writing is split across two laptops — my personal laptop for blog and podcast, and a work laptop for work stuff. I also have a second screen, which is important for writers to look at multiple resources. This is level one of compartmentalization — physical.

Then I found that switching HDMI ports again and again was getting annoying, so I got this little HDMI switcher which lets me do it at the push of a button.

Now I can switch between laptops easily, and the button is my cue to change my mindset for tasks. That’s level two — mental compartmentalization.

Level three is time compartmentalization AKA batching. I generally work on one laptop in the morning and the other in the afternoon. In between those two sessions is a break — for gym, food, or hobbies.

Everything I have to do that day on one laptop is done together in the morning, and everything with the other laptop is done together in the afternoon. When you group similar tasks together, it becomes easier to take care of them all.

The benefit of compartmentalization is not having to think about anything else. While I’m doing one thing, I don’t have to think about the other. This focus makes work, and life, easier.

Exercise for you to try: Batch tasks. In your work, break up your tasks into three buckets:
1. creative - requires you to come up with ideas, e.g. writing a blog
2. analytical - requires you to find patterns, e.g. looking at website data
3. mundane - requires time and grunt work, e.g. answering emails.
Then break up your day into three sections and handle a bucket in each.

Summary

  1. We don’t have superhuman mental fortitude, and need to reduce complexity in our lives.
  2. Identifying what sucks helps us figure out a plan of action.
  3. Design your environment to make good habits easier and bad habits harder.
  4. For tedious tasks, narrow them down to a single repeating decision.
  5. For too many tasks, batch similar tasks into group and tackle them one group at a time.

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Vaibhav Gupta

Professional technical writer, 2x Distinguished Toastmaster. I write about mental health and self-awareness. Also see https://medium.com/thorough-and-unkempt