Here’s the simple recipe for improvement and for happiness. It comes from Marcus Aurelius and the fact that it came from such a busy man with so many obligations and responsibilities should not be forgotten. “If you seek tranquility,” he said, “do less.” And then he follows the note to himself with some clarification. Not nothing, less. Do only what’s essential. “Which brings a double satisfaction,” he writes “to do less, better.”
Follow this advice today and everyday. So much of what we think we must do, so much of what we end up doing is not essential. We do it out of habit. We do it out of guilt. We do it out of laziness or we do it out of greedy ambition. And then we wonder why our performance suffers. We wonder why our heart isn’t really in it. Of course it isn’t. We know deep down there’s no point. But if we could do less inessential stuff, we’d be able to better do what is essential.
We’d also get a taste of that tranquility that Marcus was talking about. A double satisfaction.The Daily Stoic
The transcript above (emphasis my own) comes from one of the recent episodes in “The Daily Stoic” podcast, talking about the idea of “Do Less, Better” . In this modern age of rapid information and content flow day in, day out, we might sometimes find ourselves lost in figuring out our true objectives in life. There seems to be too many things to work on and optimize, with too little time.
What then, is (in)essential?
It’s not difficult to comprehend the underlying message at first glance - focus on what’s essential (do less), and do them well (better). What then, would be considered essential? Well, for most people, it would along the lines of health, wealth, family and friends, etc. As I reflect on my experiences and perspective in life today, these are the things that I deem are essential to me:
- My health - maintaining my health with diet and exercise
- My livelihood - increasing my proficiency and knowledge in data science and machine learning, as this is my current and (very likely) future livelihood
- My family and friends
- Reading and writing - the best outlets for thoughts, reflections, analysis, and planning
- My finances - investing well, seeking sustainable, feasible passive and alternative income. Instead of trading time for money like everyone in this modern rat race of life, choose to trade money for time and experience in this world.
- My skills - self-sufficient skills that reasonably reduces living expenses and my reliance on society and others.
However, I find it a lot more instructive in this case to think about what then would be inessential? Think about that for a moment. What is inessential in your life?
To me, there is a clear relationship between essential/inessential and needs/wants. Inessential things are things that you don’t need, but they became talking points and occupy your “brainspace” in the first place simply because you want these things. And there are many things out there that induces a sense of want, though they are not necessarily needed. This is especially so on the typical social media platforms.
In this sense, to be truly efficient and satisfied, identify things that you might once thought you really need, but not necessarily so. Then, Do Less - focus on the essential, and do them Better. Spend your waking time and your physical and mental energy on them to optimize or master them.
I am in this stage in my life right now where my focus in life gets sharper as time passes. Yes, sometimes I do get a little lost and confused, especially when my mental guard is down. However, that sense of tranquility will always kick in when you realize that at the end of the day, your time has been well-spent, improving, optimizing, and mastering the essential, while weeding out the inessential. It is indeed a satisfying experience.