The Quantity of Stuff in Your Life is More Important than Your System

Praxis grad James Walpole blogged today about the problems of too much focus on optimization and “life hacking”.

It got me thinking about those I know who struggle to keep their head above water.  People who are creative and productive, but perpetually behind and stressed and overwhelmed.  If you’re in that position, I’m going to share a belief that might be depressing, but it might also be heartening: there is no system that can fix it.

You can’t implement a new schedule, or tool, or plugin, or diet, or any other new way of organizing and executing on your stuff that will save you.  These systems may be better or worse, but they can’t address the fundamental thing keeping you buried.  It’s the quantity of stuff in your life that’s the problem.

I don’t mean physical possessions, though that can be part of it, I mean stuff that’s not core to your mission but that you do or pay attention to or simply keep around anyway.  It’s open tabs on your browser that you don’t need to read.  It’s emails in your inbox you don’t need to keep.  It’s events and engagements you can do without.

If your day is a pipeline transforming inputs to outcomes, no re-arrangement of the pipes can handle the fact that you’re flooding the system with three times the volume it can handle.  Or, to use another water analogy, if your progress is a body of water, compare the power of a highly concentrated, pressurized stream like a fire hose, vs. a flood plain sloppily sloshing around.

Cut the stuff out.  Focus only on the things that give and create energy.  That’s when your systems and life-hacks will begin to work.  Then they can improve things at the margin.  But until you reduce the overwhelming quantity of stuff in your life, no system can save you.

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