10 lessons for living life to the fullest

I’ve spent my entire life over-committed, to a fault actually. It came to a crunch a few years ago when the exhaustion hit me.

Fast forward to now and I’ve got my priorities in much better order. I’ve picked up a bunch of useful techniques to help me try and get the most out of my limited time on this planet so I thought I could share some of my life hacking and productivity tips… put my inner-nerd to good use.

On that note, let me introduce the 10 things I’m learning about taking control of my life to live it to the fullest (disclaimer: I’m certainly no expert, these are just anecdotes, but I hope they can be helpful for some people).

1. Sorting out our priorities is the first step to taking life by the reins

First and foremost, before I could do much of what I’m about to tell you successfully I needed to sort out my priorities. For a very long time I had gone along with life just assuming that I was living life in a way that was in line with my priorities. It just made intuitive sense to me that it couldn’t be any other way. I would think to myself, “if I’m doing X instead of Y then X must be a higher priority to me.” For a long time I didn’t realise that some things might just be more urgent, easier to think of, or maybe just more enjoyable in that moment.

As time has gone on I have started to be more intentional about my life. Ultimately I seek to have not just a life that I could look back on and be proud of but also one that was full of joy along the way.

I’ve come to know that the things that are a priority for me are happiness (both ‘hedonic’ and ‘eudaimonic’), a sense of purpose (can be defined subjectively), continual growth and learning, developing and maintaining good relationships, maximising my experiences, living in an ethical way and, most importantly, seeing the lives of others improved.

I could write an essay on each of these “meta-priorities” (in fact I hope to at some point), but these priorities have helped in deciding on more tangible goals and categorical priorities.

A good example of a categorical priority is keeping in good health, as it is integral to many of these. If I’m not in good health then I become a burden to others, I’m less happy, it’s harder to think, it puts strains on relationships, it limits my experiences and impacts my meta-priorities negatively.

Other categorical priorities can include things like health, career, relationships or creative endeavours. These priorities can translate into specific goals like entering into a sporting competition, presenting at a conference, going out for dinner with my wife or booking a gig to play music. The specific goals are things that are much more open to change — life gets in the way. Things falling to the back-burner or getting completely reassessed is not just absolutely okay, it’s to be expected.

2. Understanding our psychology is incredibly empowering

The more I read about our psychology (from trained professionals, not so-called “self-help gurus”) the more I understand how to account for basic human tendencies and develop techniques to not just compensate for them but to leverage them to my advantage.

An important lesson is that we are almost entirely creatures of habit. Most of our brainpower, energy and time is spent on following our habits. We rarely stop to question why we do things and we often fail to make changes in our lives because we’re entrenched in many habits that are hard to change. This knowledge was very empowering because it taught me that forming one good habit at a time is the way to get to where I want to be, and not to feel like I’ve failed for just being human.

From biology right through to psychology it’s pretty darn obvious that we’re not perfect. We’re products of evolution and that means that we have traits that were advantageous in some circumstances but not others and we have some traits that are just vestigial (may have once been useful but no longer are). For example, we naturally gravitate to eating sugar and fat; this is quite likely due to spending most of our existence chasing calories to stay alive (note: while this example fairly straightforward, be careful of evolutionary psychological explanations as they can have issues).

Knowing this is empowering because I don’t have to feel that I’m a failure for seeking out these things that are naturally pleasurable. However, I can use other psychological tools to combat this. The book “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think” is fantastic for understanding the psychology of food — not just to help in finding ways to eat less but to also in understanding ways to get more enjoyment out of our interacting with food.

Understanding our basic tendencies, biases and heuristics can help in leveraging them to our advantage.

On this point I also strongly recommend reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, The Happiness Hypothesis and 59 Seconds.

This simple video by Richard Wiseman demonstrates how you can leverage knowledge of our psychology to change your eating habits.

3. There is no substitute for good planning

This really point kind of speaks for itself. My whole life I’ve found it pretty consistent that if I don’t plan for many things they won’t happen. However, this doesn’t mean that if I do plan for things they will happen, planning just makes things much more likely.

Setting aside ample time to plan is incredibly important whether it is budgeting finances, planning a trip overseas, getting a project done or putting together a training program.

4. Following a good productivity system will help with getting things done

This doesn’t mean entirely follow a system that someone else has developed, we each have to figure out what works for us.

In 2002 when David Allen first published Getting Things Done (GTD) many people would have been pretty well placed to follow his advice down to the smallest detail. However it was pretty quickly out of date as email and smartphones became the norm. I recommend reading Getting Things Done but the system that seems to be working for me is The Secret Weapon (TSW) which is based on GTD but uses a system of email, diary and Evernote.

When I first started following the GTD methodology I couldn’t believe how much more stuff I got done. This is certainly one of the most useful techniques I’ve learned for getting the most out of life and clearing my head. Anything that is floating around in our heads instead of written down is just clogging up our brains and stopping it doing the stuff that brains do well — thinking!

5. Filtering out distractions helps with focusing on what’s important

We are bombarded with things stimulating and distracting us everyday. We cannot possibly absorb everything and it makes it incredibly hard to focus and hard to get things done. We really don’t have an option, our brain IS going to filter things out (it does it all the time) so we need to make sure that we focus on which things we filter and which things we focus on.

Personally I’ve found it helpful to turn off all social media notifications, only check things when I have the time to and use a variety of tools to help surface things that are of high quality instead of wasting time sifting through things which don’t give much value to my life.

From a technological perspective I’ve found using things like email filters/rules, Unroll.me, Gmail Tabs and many other tools incredibly useful in making sure that I only see what I need to see but I do continue to see new things that challenge me. I structure serendipity into my life (by using digests such as Nuzzel and HASO) in a way that reduces procrastination.

Filtering also applies to our head space and our priorities. We shouldn’t get distracted by baseless hype or worrying about things that are incredibly unlikely (e.g. worrying about wind turbine syndrome). All this does is distract us, it doesn’t do any good. Instead I’ve found it helps to focus on reality and on what really matters. If we care intimately about the well-being of other people we shouldn’t go campaigning against wind turbines (little scientific basis, low likelihood of success, mentally exhausting) but instead donate money or time to help people get out of poverty (using proven ways of actually helping people). We’re better off focusing on what’s effective, focusing on reality and filtering out the rest.

6. Wait… because patience pays off

As someone who naturally operates at a thousand miles (1,609 kilometres) an hour, taking things slowly doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve had to learn to be patient the hard way.

I find I get less distracted if I write down all my ideas when they come to me and then come back to them later instead of starting on them straight away. Waiting actually helps with filtering and also with sorting out priorities.

Daniel Kahneman (psychologist, author and winner of Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics) wrote a great book called Thinking, Fast and Slow which emphasises the value of thinking slowly (using what he calls “system 1”) to reduce falling into the traps of our biases and heuristics. Waiting helps us to withhold judgment where possible and to give ourselves the time to think about things properly. The bonus of waiting is it also allows our subconscious to have a go while we’re doing other things or quite literally “sleeping on it”.

Another great book on waiting is Frank Partnoy’s Wait: The Art and Science of Delay which talks about waiting long enough (but not too long) to get the best decision or result.

7. Money is (just) a tool

I’m an incredibly frugal person but I like to be frugal for two main reasons: (1) it allows me to be generous to others which I find more fulfilling; and (2) it allows me enough money to use strategically.

Although the competitive side of me will want to get as much as possible and social norms will pressure me in all sorts of ways, it works when I remember this:
Money is (just) a tool

I’m hesitant to spend money if it’s unnecessary; but I don’t hesitate for a second if it is. I apply the above strategies of prioritising, understanding psychology (e.g. how much happiness can I “buy” for $10), planning, creating lists, filtering and waiting in my money management.

8. Automate it, delegate it, outsource it or crowdsource it

For this point the main lesson is to stop doing anything that doesn’t make sense for you to do — whether it’s using technology to automate a monotonous task, delegating work to other people (where appropriate), asking people directly for help, employing a virtual assistant or putting a request out on Facebook for travel recommendations.

We’re not good at everything, not everything is of equal importance and we just don’t have enough time to do everything ourselves. Some things are worth our time, some things are worth our money, some things we don’t need to do at all and some things we enjoy doing even though it’s not worth our time from a financial perspective (I get intrinsic value from brewing beer).

I use a lot of apps and services like ANZ Money Manager, Auto TextExpander, Automator, Buffer, Canned Responses, FollowUpThen, Freelancer, Hootsuite, IFTTT, keyboard shortcuts, LastPass, MS Excel, PhraseExpress (just to list a few that come to mind) and if all else fails a little bit of programming skills will help! If there is something that you do regularly try googling ways to make your process more efficient.

If I have to do something myself that is time consuming or monotonous then I at least try and multi-task (e.g. cooking whilst listening to audiobooks/podcasts) or to do it in bulk (e.g. cooking large batches) so that I can squeeze out a bit more efficiency.

9. Failure is always an option

Failure is always an option
Failure is always an option
As the legendary team over at Mythbusters like to remind us “failure is always an option”. I’ve got enough silver and bronze medals sitting in my sock draw from all my years of rowing to know that I can’t always win. In fact some of those medals are from experiences that I treasure much more than any gold medal.

Furthermore, something I’ve learned about our psychology is that the one route towards guaranteed failure is to try and do everything at once! Instead, it’s better to take things one step at a time and have the discipline and confidence to start again… and again… and again.

Sometimes we have to just cut our losses, move on and come back to it later. That’s completely okay.

I’m not perfect and us humans can never have perfect information, that’s why we can’t be too hard on ourselves, we need to be nimble and bounce back.

Fear of failure is much more debilitating than failure itself.

Failing teaches us a lot, strengthens our character and gives us direction.

10. Reassess, rinse and repeat

One great thing I find about writing down priorities, plans and systems is that it makes it really easy to go back to look at them and reassess if they are right for me.

Something that I’ve found useful on that front (that I am however currently failing at) is journaling. Picking regular intervals to reflect, muse and reassess can help cut through the drudgery, give a sense of purpose and increase satisfaction.

It also helps to seek external feedback both indirectly (through things like reading books and assessing people’s body language) and directly (by asking others for their feedback). When I ask other people I try to have specific questions that they are well-placed to answer (e.g. asking my boss what I could be doing better to help the organisation meet its core goals).

These steps are not things to I do once and move on, they’re things that I try to integrate into my daily routines, my thought process and my personality.

Final Thoughts

I’ve written this in the first person because this is just my personal anecdote (albeit with links to some more objective reference material).

I know that people’s experiences vary and while some things are fairly universal, other things come down to personal preference, personality and biology (for example, #9 is difficult if you have clinical anxiety or depression).

From my perspective, I’m aware of how limited my life is and I want to use it well. My goal is to get the most personal fulfilment and while doing as much as I can to help others. Objectively I am certainly going to fail at this goal, but I want to have at least given it a red hot go.

I hope someone finds this useful… especially if they’ve read the whole way through!

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