11 Things That, Simply, Make Sense
If You’ve Decided To Be, To Do Or Not Do Is The Next Logical Question
We spend a large chunk of our lives stressing about things that either are important to us or should be important to us. A lot of the stress is also over deciding what is truly important and what is not.
I normally am very vary of absolutes — things that are unquestionable or gospel truths — but of late, I’ve realized that it’s also important to identify some of the absolutes so that you can focus your limited time, energy and mindspace on things that do not necessarily have absolutes. This list is my attempt at explaining 11 such absolutely good things that everyone must, simply, do.
One of the reasons why you read articles like this, even though once you have read them, you end up thinking — I already knew that! — is that you need to be reminded about the importance of things that you know you should be doing but find hard to stick to.
Typically, You plan →(loss)→You try some of them →They are hard →(loss) → You drop them. I’ve been guilty of that too.
Why does that happen? Here’s something that I recently realized:
The Activation Barrier Theory
I am a chemical engineer (only by training) and it’s a fairly common concept in chemistry. What it means is this:
Activation Barrier, or Activation Energy, is the energy barrier that a bunch of reactants must overcome in order to react with each other. It’s the energy which a chemist would need to supply to the reactants if he wants the reaction to happen.
Just take a quick glance at the black line (the without catalyst one) in image below:
What this chart basically means is that to go from energy level X to energy level Y, the reactants need more energy than just (Y-X). They basically need to go over a hill to attain the higher final state of energy.
How this translates into (non-chemical) life is that while you know that you’ll be more content (or peaceful, different from happiness) after doing something that you know is important, it seems difficult or energy consuming to start doing it.
Simple enough, right?
Alright, so let’s complicate this a little. Let’s look at the red line now:
When you add a catalyst to the reaction, it helps lower the Activation Energy barrier making it a little easier than before to make the reaction happen.
As per it’s chemical definition,
A catalyst itself does not undergo any change. It’s role is just to precipitate the series of events that lead to the reaction and hence the higher state of energy.
The good news in all that is that once you have the catalyst, it stays with you forever. You can use it over and over again, without a worry!
Although I am sure you understand why should you aspire to get to Y from X, it’s probably worth spending a few seconds on that. Y is the state in which you know you are living life a little fuller than at X. It’s the level at which you are able to rise above the mundane worries, characterized by the daily struggles, and are able to focus on things that are truly important.
If that’s vague, picture this. At X, people tend to be inward looking. They are net takers. They need more than they can give. They need to live for themselves for their survival.
On being elevated to Y, the same people are suddenly net givers. Of course everyone needs support, love and help. But these people are secure enough to give more than they need. There’s an increased mental bandwidth to feel empathy, which is the genesis of understanding more about the people and the world around you and getting out of the limited ideas and agendas that you might have had at X. At Y, people become truly capable of being constructive. With their enhanced understanding of the world, they can constructively challenge the status quo where it is needed (as opposed to merely cribbing about it behind the veil of learned cynicism or applauding for junk in learned obedience — both of which are detrimental) and actually do something to fix it.
The most important thing, however, is that when you are at level Y you will start being able to mentor people around you as well. This allows you to be the catalyst in their journey from X to Y. And that could be the start of a chain reaction that the world needs.
Picture a bunch of X-people. They do their jobs, they are economically engaged. They have a positive contribution in the world in economical terms. But since a lot of their energy is spent in self-preservation, their net output is less than what they are individually capable of (due to, what I like to call, some destructive interference):
∑X < X1+X2+X3…
Now picture yourself being surrounded by more and more Y-people. The thoughts and ideas that you exchange, the things that you work on together, would start being more than the sum of your individual contributions and even capabilities. That’s true collaboration.
∑Y > Y1+Y2+Y3…
That’s inter-personal synergies coming into play. That’s a world that I would want to live in. And that’s why it’s important to summit that bloody Activation Barrier Mountain.
Now that we understand this conceptually, let’s take a look at the 11 things that you know are most definitely important and understand what catalysts can help lower the activation barrier to help us go over to the higher state of existence.
1. Less Mindless Consumption
This is probably the most important item on the list. Mindless Consumption means when you are just gorging on unrealistic romcoms or brainless comedies. Anything that’s effortless and does not stimulate your mind, really. While reading is generally more engaging an activity than watching, it is possible to mindlessly consume books as well.
I’ll take a little digression here to share my disgust over content that celebrates everything that’s wrong with the world in the name of senseless comedy or entertainment. Movies and books are powerful tools that help shape people’s imagination and if they are replete with misogyny or white supremacy, they tend to subconsciously make these things OK for people who are anyway required to (a) suspend their disbelief, or, (b) leave their minds in the refrigerator when they are just chilling out at the end of a long day/week/weeks.
Coming back, I do understand the value of mindless consumption. On occasion, it helps you relax and clear your head. When you are really stressed out, you need this to have some semblance of normalcy. But it’s like smoking. You know it’s injurious to health, but you still don’t/can’t seem to stop.
But stop, you must. (#inneryoda)
When we indulge in Mindless Consumption, beyond just for relief, and realize that we are doing something crappy, we tend to seek external validation to normalize it and to assuage any guilt arising from the pleasure so that we can continue to binge.
If your parents, spouse or roommates join you in, for example, it’s easy to make an event or a celebration out of it. Like when you watch Friends for the 20th time with your wife. If the whole society joins in — it’s made even easier. Like when you read Chetan Bhagat or EL James because everyone is reading it.
One of the simpler ways to reduce Mindless Consumption is by doing it alone or on a personal screen (phone, tablet or PC) with headphones. That way, you are at least not doing this in common areas of your house. If you live with parents, or a spouse, or roommates, they’ll not get sucked in and it’ll at least save their time. Since you can’t match mindless consumption time tables, try and make sure that you are not getting sucked into doing it when you have the energy to actually be doing something useful instead. Additionally, if people don’t get sucked in, you are not celebrating watching junk.
For social media, stop all notifications. Open the app when you really want to. Let it not lure you in whenever your “friend” shares a cat video. For books, read the first chapter before you decide to buy or borrow. Don’t let peer pressure be the dominating force in influencing what you read.
It’s true that mass consumption of a thing starts defining the culture around you (Murakami, Norwegian Wood — not an exact quote). But if everyone around you is watching/reading the same fresh from the gutter, brainless, prose-less, or misogynistic movie/tv series/book — you are better off not being a part of that culture.
2. More mindful consumption
Mindful or deliberate consumption is important.
When you engage in mindless consumption, try and be aware of what it means to the society and what it might be doing to you, sub-consciously. If you catch it trying to plant a crap-bomb in your brain, warn others by writing a scathing review on your social media page. Which would be time well spent on social media instead of scrolling through your endless wall / feed.
But much better would be to be selective in what you watch and read. There’s more content out there than we can possibly consume and it’s critical to prioritize. Fads die out, so just get through Monday at work when people discuss the crappy Friday release and you’ll be fine.
But the prioritized, important content it’s not always the easiest to consume. And that’s because it is demanding attention and focus from your brain.
This seemingly Catch-22-ish situation can be resolved by the same tool that reduces Mindless Consumption. Watch these movies on a big screen at home and rope in your parents/spouse/roommate/friends. Subscribe to websites, magazines, and other content that makes you smarter. Pay for these subscriptions, if you can, so that you feel a little more driven to actually read them.
It also helps if you can discuss these things with like minded people. Join a book club or a movie screening club or a live performance club. It gets you out of your home to a nice cafeteria or a small theater where you meet new and interesting people over beverages who encourage you to be a better versions of yourself.
It’s cool to be introverted, but there are some social interactions that help you get to Y and are hence necessary. If you are thoroughly engaged, these interactions stop feeling like a chore and start enriching your life. But the first step is to accept that you need people — Smart People — in your life. Being a loner might leave you with your half-baked ideas and thoughts. Bounce them off of Smart People and they’ll get enriched. You also help them, similarly.
Writing reviews on Goodreads, IMDB, or even on your blog is a great idea after you have found something meaningful. It helps you form your thoughts about what you’ve Mindfully Consumed. It also helps revisit your experience on-demand, several years later when you might have forgotten what it was exactly about. And it, hopefully, is your bit to pull the society in a direction that’s better than mindless consumption.
This brings us neatly to our third thing that, simply, makes sense:
3. Investing in Long Term Gratification (LTG) and avoiding whatever’s Instant
Sort of relates to both 1 and 2, but there’s more to it and this is why it merits it’s own section. The inter-linkages are deep enough for me to not stress a lot over untangling them, so if you want this to read as 1+2, instead of 3, be my guest. That’s accidentally smart placement.
Instant gratification is one of the motivators for Mindless Consumption. Especially on social media. Instead of working on a comprehensive idea, it’s so easy to spit it out in 140 characters, right? Or to just watch 60 second cat videos for tickling that funny bone. At 3:40 AM.
Even when you are posting something elsewhere, that “Send” button actually comes in the way of telling a complete story. It’s always lurking on the side, teasing you to stop the effort and see what your friends think. You lurk for hours after posting something, waiting for likes, comments and reactions. That’s instant gratification.
Also, given the nature of our impatient society, any discussion or debate needs to happen in the now. The moment there’s a breaking news, we are expected to have an opinion. There’s added pressure because there’s not likely to be a discussion on this tomorrow (or in a week) — so point in forming a solid, well researched opinion on anything.
As a result, however, we have ‘instant experts’. Demonetization in India on 8th November 2016, for example, saw a sudden surge of a billion plus economists with strong opinions for or against, whatever they were batting for. Like instant noodles, they put their brain through boiling FB posts and WhatsApp shares to be ‘ready’. I am sure there were people on the evening of November 8 who, when asked about their opinion, said three words that shunted them into anonymity forever (also known as ‘that weekend’), “I don’t know.” Or maybe it was “Gotta read up.”
Subscribing to religious or political ideologies, similarly, without constructively challenging them comprises what I earlier called ‘learned obedience’. To have a bias against them without understanding it is 'learned cynicism’.
Invest in Long Term Gratification by reading more than one opinion — and preferably from both the sides of the argument. You’ll see pros and cons on both sides and you’ll need all your tenacity to avoid being cornered by people into the false binary of ‘good or bad’, in it’s myriad forms. Human beings, not surprisingly, have enough brain power to hold multiple and often conflicting emotions and ideas in their brain simultaneously.
Comprehensive understanding is critical before forming an opinion to ensure that you are not manipulated into thinking what is expected of you, but rather truly believe in whatever you do. Try and find sources that provide a comprehensive series or history of events to avoid being swayed by something that’s just recent or a fad.
To catalyze LTG is damn hard. I am open to finding a better catalyst, but for now the one I have found is to accept being relegated to anonymity among a certain section of people. You might actually like some of them, but it’s important to let your self preservation kick in to avoid being corrupted or beaten into shape till you become a zombie with learned behavior of cynicism or obedience.
The 2x2 here is an oversimplification because it tries to bucket people on just two personality defining traits. It’s not, however, unimportant. Most of the people are intelligent, but tend be arrogant about it. Or not very smart, but at least humble. Neither of these is a bad thing and perhaps also a little important to be either a BOP or a HOP. I wouldn’t even say that to be saint-like is an important life goal or the ideal state. What I will say, however, is that it makes sense to be careful around DFs, or avoid them altogether, even if they throw great parties.
Facts and information are not knowledge until they have passed through your mental filters and are processed. Once processed, the knowledge makes you smarter in the long run. So investing in LTG, simply, makes sense.
And again, we neatly progress to the 4th thing that, simply, makes sense:
4. Being Curious and Learning New Things (some that, simply, make sense)
1, 2, and 3 together help you focus on learning new things. It means that you need to be forever curious and have the guts to question the accepted normal.
Why is not being curious a problem? Lack of curiosity is tantamount to putting your blinds on, never digging beyond the superficial, and it, simply, makes sense to do a little more than that. If you are questioning the accepted normal, you’ll see many things that the world can do without and many more that it needs to be a better version of itself. The Y-world, so to speak.
For example, I was taken by surprise when a colleague pointed out to me the problem with the demographic in our office, which was predominantly men from Delhi. I was genuinely surprised, but that made me and others take a hard look at our hiring practices. Once we understood that there was problem, we consciously tried to fix it. Things could have gone on with the inertia that most things have and we would have probably not even know what we were missing. As they say, you never know till you know.
Being curious also points to picking up new things. While a lot of people will tell you that it’s better to pick up marketable skills, like a data science course on Coursera or doing a bachelor’s degree in psychology through correspondence, I believe that it’s OK to pick up non-marketable skills as well. Cooking, for example (disclaimer, I haven’t tried it yet). Or ironing clothes (recently mastered).
But if you are so far down in this article, you probably already got this one covered. ;)
5. Working Out
I am not going to bore you with how a healthy mind resides in a healthy body. Of course you know that already. But in case you, like me, are prone to forgetting it, let’s think of this as a not-very-cleverly-veiled reminder.
What I will explain, however, is that exercise (any physical activity) or training (physical activity with an end goal) helps in dissipating some of the negative energy that we all have. Negative energy increases your activation barriers for most of the other things that you, simply, must do. If allowed to accumulate, this negative energy has the potential to set you into a downward spiral, which nobody needs. It’s, hence, important to also think working out as a small sacrifice for a greater good for people who are likely to not think of it as being particularly important for them in isolation.
Working out also releases serotonin and dopamine in your body and can increase the sense of general well being, thereby, reducing stress and anxiety. Your social interactions improve and, provided that you are doing the other 10 things too, allowing you to start being a proactive Y-version of yourself.
It’s not easy to overcome the activation barrier to start working out. For me, personally, it’s the hardest one. I haven’t had fitness goals ever in my life so I am struggling to prioritize this one. What, however, did catalyze it for me was when I pulled a muscle while lifting a 20 kg jar of water. Pathetic, right? Guilt over neglecting my fitness for a long time and tangible evidence of my weakness worked like the best catalyst ever.
I think everyone should have fitness goals. Or maybe a minimum standard that they think they should meet. Like being able to walk 10 km on your next vacation without getting so exhausted that you need to head back to sleep. It might be hiking capability. Or jogging 5 km without collapsing. Whatever works.
But that would just be a trigger to start working out. When your whole body hurts the day after a session, it’s hard to keep going every day. How to stay motivated then?
I started making a video log of my work outs to see if the vanity of seeing visible changes in my body helps me stay motivated and I have to confess that it worked. I’ve been regular so far, so I have reason to believe that it’s probably a long term catalyst.
But I feel the need to justify that what might be vanity, is probably a little more than that. Aside from the tangible benefits of a healthy body (picking up 20 kg without pulling a muscle, for starters), the intangible benefits of a healthy body image, coupled with the confidence you feel on account of it, helps in making a daily conscious effort to work out. As with other things that, simply, make sense — at some point, this will become a habit and take you above the hill into the Y-state.
6. Having a caped (or maybe not-caped) alter ego
Having a passion outside your job is probably one of the most critical things to insulate and protect your sanity. In its absence, it’s easy to get carried away with your job related enthusiasm and ambition.
We spend more than 10–12 hours of daily life at our job, on an average. If you add the commute, that might be higher. Then add the fact that you have a push-email configured on your phone so you are notified of any action instantaneously. The ping and the blinking light on the phone keeps pulling you back into your job-world.
In a 24 hour day, if you sleep for 7 hours on an average, you are spending more than 75% of your awake time engaged with your job. Let’s say that your daily chores take-up another 5-10% of your time. If you are in a relationship or a marriage, a minimum of 10% should be invested in that. That leaves you with 5–10%. And weekends, of course.
This small remainder of time for yourself is what’s responsible for mindless consumption and also adds to the activation barrier. If I have only about an hour or two each day, I need that to unwind. Right?
Now, catalyzing this is not too hard. Most people already know what they are passionate about. If you don’t, it’s not that hard to find. Especially if you are consuming mindfully, being curious and meeting more people, you are sure to discover it no time.
The coolest thing about following your passion is that once you start devoting time and energy to it, the improved energy levels, excitement and the joy you feel in its pursuit, keep propelling you forward.
If you have something pressing to go to, you tend to make time for it. Gradually, the 5–10% time could become 10–15% once you try and optimize all the demands that the world makes on your time to squeeze out more for your passion.
This also has a cascading benefit. (a) A passion is probably the best way to blow out steam that does not involve spoiling your health. (b) It’s something that keeps you mindful while you are at it. (c) It also lets out any negative energy that you’ve been accumulating at work. And most importantly, (d) it tempers your ambition because your energy is now split between two important things.
How does (d) help? There are several things that happen in a typical workplace. And as with most worldly things, with the good comes the inevitable bad. There’s politics, there’s power play, there are turf wars. In short, a miniature Game of Thrones with a metaphorical Iron Throne that everyone wants to sit on till they realize that it’s not a comfortable chair at all. The bloody iron seat will hurt your bum and the back-rest is old rusted swords. Can’t imagine it to be comfortable.
Coming back, if you’ve limited energy left, you might be kind of forced to not worry about the less important and mostly negative things. Negative things are energy sinks. They dampen your morale and you might start imagining your job as a battle that you don’t want to fight. And then, you want to move on. It’s a vicious cycle.
If you change, ‘I want get promoted next year’ or ‘I want to earn more than person P’ or ‘I want to be the division head in 3 years’ or ‘I want to be a/the CEO in 15 years’ with ‘I want to be damn good at what I do so that I can continue to pay the bills and more and be able to pursue my passion’, it lets you focus more on the real ‘why I do what I do’. That, feeds back into your work and a happy-you does better work than a disgruntled-you. So in effect, taking your eye off the game, just a tad, might actually be good in the long run.
The graphic below helps illustrate the same.
7. Save Diligently
Another, simply, sensible thing you should be doing.
Your lifestyle needs to be a notch below your income level. There are all sorts of rule-of-thumbs out there that are designed to create an ecosystem of heightened consumerism.
‘Paying 25% of your salary on rent is OK’. No, it’s not OK. Unless you can’t help it, help it.
‘Buy a house worth 5X of your salary’. No. Buy it only if you can find a house that’s 30-50 times your annual rent.
And many more.
Your savings are your cushion to fall back on. A reduced dependence on a job goes a long way in being a little stress free.
Insecurity about anything is likely to keep you at X. Being financially secure is something that’s in your control. Even if you are consciously working towards it, it helps in operating at Y. Hence, it just, simply, makes sense.
Plan an early retirement with not the most lavish, but with a good enough lifestyle. That way, you have your bases covered. Worst case scenario, you can still live a good life. Once you have your retirement corpus, and you don’t feel like retiring, you can start gradually upping your lifestyle. Not before.
To catalyze this, plan your monthly expenses conservatively and invest the rest of your salary every month. Out of sight, out of mind. This makes sure that you don’t have any money for impulsive purchases or for splurging. Keep a buffer amount for exigencies, but don’t tap into it for a non-exigency.
8. Giving Back
Sounds selfless right. It is. But it also benefits you in turn.
You can give back in one of many ways, including but not limited to donations, charity, volunteering, mentoring, sharing what you know and are learning, etc.
When you give back, you are investing in shaping a world that you want to see around you. If you genuinely care, as most actually do, you are not just being shallow when you crib in frustration over the sad state of affairs in the world on several counts. Poverty, healthcare access, access to education, racism, sexism, global warming, politics of hate, refugee crisis, whatever gets your goat (metaphorically, of course), do something about it. If you have time, that’s the best contribution you can make. Clean up your neighborhood. Mentor kids in your neighborhood and juniors in your office. Volunteer with an organization that’s doing something impactful for a cause that you believe in.
When you read about things still being wrong/bad, you will be sad. But you will also be proud of doing your bit. But there’s more to it.
In the pie of misery, you’ll see a sliver of hope. You’ll meet very smart, motivated people who are working on solving the problems that get your goat. Through them, you’ll be exposed to many more. You’ll know what needs to be done to fix the problem a little better and that gives you optimism.
Optimism is the energy source that cynicism is the sink for…
… and that gets you closer to Y.
The purpose of meditation is thoughtless awareness which helps you clear your mind. Blanking the mind takes effort and practice, but works more or less like a shutting down your over heated computer. A lot of problems are solved because a shut down clears up the cache, frees up the RAM and takes things out of CPU memory, which is essentially the slowest way of processing anything.
Most of the time, our brain has so many open threads at any given point in time that they end-up entangled. Have you ever let out a work frustration on an unrelated issue at home? Or argued with your Uber driver because your boss or client was being an ass that day? That’s because of the entanglement.
I read that brain does clear up a lot of this mess when you sleep, so getting a good sleep is important. But I think sleeping is more like hibernating your computer. It’s not a real shut down. This is because when you are either consciously worrying about something or when there are several unresolved and entangled thoughts floating in your mind’s back, your sleep is hardly as peaceful as it needs to be. This diminishes your ability to resolve new issues in the coming day which leads to even more unresolved, entangled threads.
To break out of this loop, I have found that being consciously thoughtless for 10 minutes a day, goes a very long way.
The purpose of meditating is to learn to live more in the present. It’s like a nice warm-up for mindful living for the rest of your day.
For this one, I don’t have to explain why, I guess. The very tangible benefits of meeting new people, going through new experiences, getting your life juices flowing again are very well understood by almost all.
I want to caution, however, that everyone has varying degree of travel desires and you just need to embrace what’s yours. Not travelling at all is really bad. Traveling a lot, under some sort of peer pressure or for Facebook’s sake is probably equally bad. It doesn’t need to be a life-altering six month long Eat Pray Love travel. It doesn’t need to be Into The Wild like break from the society.
But it does need to be. In the shape and form that makes sense for you.
Travel let’s you leave your familiar circumstances and embrace unfamiliar ones. It forces different parts of your brain to kick in. There’s so much activity in your brain when you travel because it’s like being a kid again. In a new city, or on a new mountain, there’s just so much new information for your brain to process that it’s excitedly abuzz.
This reduces the stress you might be under from your familiar circumstances because you are able to put it on the back-burner for a while. As a result, your brain’s stress centers also start gradually relaxing.
Once you are back after your travel, you approach problems with a combination of renewed energy and practical application of your newly acquired experiences and skills. You also tend to continue to consciously push out things that might bring the unnecessary stress back. For a while, at least, you sort of live in a bubble of ecstasy.
11. Maintaining a journal
Now this is a logical last thing in the post. A journal, I have found, works wonders in keeping you motivated and to manage your time to help you accomplish the other 10.
I started writing journal as a kid but quickly gave up because writing a page a day seemed like a very daunting ask. It was the only way I knew a journal works. I’ve since found that writing just two to three lines everyday is good enough. A single page of my diary now covers 3–4 days sometimes.
Other days, when you are travelling, for example, you can of course write a lot more than 2–3 lines. But if you don’t feel like prose, write in bullet points.
Woke up at 6:30. Read the newspaper (finally!). Office. Read 42 pages of Exit West in the evening, saw an episode of This Is Us and went for 3K jog. Slept at 11:30.
A great day, right? A journal will motivate you to have more of these.
But that level of detail is sufficient. It helps you record progress against your goals. Motivates to keep reading and logging and working-out and logging and mindfully consuming and logging, etc.
In a world where everyone has become self-centered (and it’s actually not all bad, I think, for it has reduced the number of nosy neighbors and unsolicited opinions and advice from acquaintances) you need to find ways to validate yourself and celebrate winning your own battles. Logging your successes in a journal sets up a positive feedback loop that keeps propelling you.
A journal is good check point for when you lapse. You’ll feel an urge to explain your lazy self of today to your future self who you really owe an answer to. You can’t just keep saying, “I didn’t feel like it today,” for three months, right? That would be so ridiculous that it’ll jump start you into action!
And hence, your journal is also your favorite catalyst. It’s like an early warning indicator of a potential issue and a flywheel with all the momentum you need to keep going on the 10 things that you, simply, must do.
A side benefit is how it works like a Pensieve. When you pick up the journal in 2022, you’ll see how childish you were in 2017 (hopefully, right? We should be more mature a few years in the future). Why was I stressing out about who’ll win more Grand Slams between Federer and Nadal in July? It was so obvious that ________ (*censored for spoilers*) was going to end up in the lead! Ah, that November Goa trip! We had so much fun just relaxing on that kayak in the deep sea for hours. Oh, of course October 18 — when I wrote a blog on Medium in which I mentioned that I’d be reading this journal today.
Now, isn’t that meta!