Essentialism

Essentialism

Quick review

I’m doing a 3-part series on how to overcome obstacles and achieve the real, significant and lasting change necessary to live the life you want, both now and in retirement.  It’s a 3-part series, because we’re covering 3 big ideas.  Idea #1 was minimalism: Deciding what doesn’t belong in your life—stuff, expenses, obligations, hassles, commitments, projects—and getting rid of it.  Idea #2 is Essentialism: Deciding what IS important and DOES belong in your life and then doing it more often and better.

Essentialism

After simplifying and getting rid of things you don’t want, you have room to add more of the things (relationships, projects, experiences, possessions) that you do want.  What’s the best way to do that?  For me, the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown gives a good roadmap.  I’ll summarize the key takeaways below.  Many of the ideas in this post are straight from the book, so just pretend there are quotation marks around everything.  You can buy a copy of the book here.

What

Most of what we do doesn’t matter.  John Maxwell summarized this best when he said “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of almost everything.”  It’s not that we’re idle.  We’re all busy.  We’re just busy with many things that don’t matter.  Essentialism is about getting rid of the trivial many and focusing on the vital few.  It’s not about how to get more things done, it’s about how to get the right things done.  It doesn’t mean doing less for the sake of doing less either.  It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy.  It is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining what matters to you and then focusing your time and effort there.

Why

When we’re unclear about our real purpose and highest values, we waste time and energy on nonessential things.  As a result, our life becomes a hodge podge of the things we truly want and the unimportant things that are allowed in by default.  Essentialism helps you define your highest ideals and priorities so you can live by design, not by default.

How

Essentialism is not about getting more things done.  It’s about getting the right things done.  To do that, you need to figure out what the “right” things are.  The answer is different for everyone.  Minimalism helped you decide what the wrong things were so you could remove them.  Essentialism will help you determine what the right things are so you can add them.  Here are some thoughts from the book on how to do that:

Step 1: McKeown says the first step is to get your mind right.  Realize that you have a choice in these matters.  You are the curator of your life.  Understand that practically everything is unimportant and that every yes and no decision you make is a tradeoff. A yes means a no somewhere else.  A no means you’ll have the ability to say yes somewhere else.  Is your yes worth the no that it creates?  Is your no justified by the yes it allows?  The problem is that we think we can do it all.  Who needs sleep?  Just cram more in.  The reality is, we can’t have it all and when we try we end up with mediocre results.  An example I really connected with in the book was Dieter Rams who was the lead designer at Braun for many years.  His mantra was “Less, but better.”  In other words, the disciplined pursuit of doing fewer things, but doing those things really well.

Step 2: Give yourself time and space to think.  The nonessentialist is too busy to even contemplate what things are important and where he should be spending his time.  Schedule time to think.  Start by asking yourself key questions: What do I feel inspired by?  What am I talented at?  What meets a significant need in the world right now?  What makes me happy?  What things am I most proud of?  Journal about your life.  Look for the lead in your story.  The important things that matter.  The things that actually excite you about your life.  Begin to filter out the noise. Look for patterns or trends, both good and bad.  Think about your life and what you want.  Do this exercise with the understanding that you will eventually focus on fewer things, but you’ll do them better.  Less, but better.

Step 3: As you contemplate those different things, they’ll probably fall into 3 categories: bad, good and best.  The “bad” will be an obvious no.  It will be clear that you shouldn’t be focusing future time on those things and you’ll be shocked that you’ve wasted any time on them at all.  The second two categories will be harder.  One will be a bunch of good things.  On a scale of zero to 100, where 100 is awesome, you’ll have a bunch of 70s and 80s.  They’re all things that you can justify, but they’re not great.  Still, you’ll have a lot of them because it’s hard to say no when there is some obvious benefit.  But remember, a yes to a 70 means a no to a 95, so the 70s and 80s should go as well.  Then you’ll have a shorter list that are all 90s and above.  Those are your essentials.  Those are the things that are important to you.  That is where you should invest your time, energy, resources and talents.

How to eliminate the good in favor of the better?  Writer Derek Sivers uses the criteria: “Hell yes, or no.”  That’s how he decides whether or not to pursue a new opportunity.  He’s either totally excited about it and can’t wait to start or he turns it down.  There is no “I guess so” or “maybe” or “why not.”  It’s either hell yes or it’s no.  Numerically, McKeown describes this as the 90% rule.  If you’re evaluating an opportunity and you rate it 90% or up, you automatically switch that to 100% and do it.  If instead, it’s some number below 90%–say 80%–you automatically switch that to 0% and cross it off your list.

Here’s something else that might help with your decision-making process.  Write down the opportunity.  Then write down 3 minimum criteria it would need to have for you to even consider saying yes.  Then write down 3 ideal/extreme criteria that it would need to be a 90% type of opportunity.  If it doesn’t pass the minimum, it’s an obvious no.  And if it doesn’t pass at least 2 of the extreme criteria, it’s a no as well.  If we’re going to have less, but better, we need to be tougher curators and have strict criteria.  Said another way, essentialists only say yes to the top 10% of opportunities.  It’s not about rejecting the bad in favor of the good.  It’s about rejecting the good AND bad and in favor of the great (or best).

Step 4:  Once you’ve eliminated the nonessential and determined what is essential, the goal is to make the execution of those essential things almost effortless.  We’ll save that discussion for Part 3 in our series.

Benefits of Essentialism

Below are some of the benefits of essentialism.  Some I experienced first-hand.  Some are taken directly from Greg’s book Essentialism.

  • We live by design, not by default
  • Less stress and floundering
  • Easier decision making. When you have ultra-selective criteria, it makes decision making easier in life.  If it has to be a 90, anything less is an automatic no.  If your criteria are too broad, you end up evaluating too many things.  That leads to either analysis paralysis or over commitment.
  • Better results on more important things.
  • Greater satisfaction in life and retirement
  • A feeling of significance and purpose
  • More time for the people and projects that matter
  • More clarity
  • More control
  • More joy
  • Less regret

Additional Thoughts

Throughout the process, I’ve learned all sorts of lessons.  I’ll list some of those below along with several more taken directly from Greg’s book (have I mentioned you should read it).

  • You have a choice about what comes into your life and doesn’t. You’re a curator.
  • Clarity equals success. When you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, all change is arbitrary.
  • Every yes and no decision is a trade-off. A yes means a no somewhere else and vice versa.
  • Beware of Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). We let too many mediocre opportunities in our life because we’re afraid of missing out if we say no.
  • Beware the tyranny of the good. Saying yes to a bunch of good things pretty much guarantees that you won’t be able to focus on the best things.
  • Once you have identified your essentials, have metrics that allow you to measure how you’re doing with them. That which gets measured gets managed.
  • Stop making casual commitments. These creep in and overwhelm kind of like the frog that slowly boils as the water gets gradually hotter.
  • Say no fast. Say yes slow.
  • Sometimes it’s hard to say no because we don’t want to disappoint someone or miss a potential opportunity. Just realize that if you say no to something that isn’t essential, you will regret it for a few minutes, but if you say yes to something that isn’t essential, you will regret it for days, weeks, months or years.
  • Beware of the status quo bias. We tend to continue doing things simply because we have always done them.  That’s not a good reason to keep doing something.
  • Use zero based budgeting with your time. Rather than allocating time to things because you’ve previously allocated time to them, start from zero each year and only allocate time to things that you can justify based on essentialism.
  • Be a good editor. Use deliberate subtraction to enhance the results.  Less, but better.
  • Pause constantly and ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?” Are you doing what you want to do?  Are you doing it as efficiently and excellently as possible?
  • Once you get clarity and start saying yes based on a certain mission or set of principles, you will start to reap the benefits of making that consistent set of choices.
  • Grapple with the tough decisions. Making one tough decision will often make a thousand future decisions automatically.  Said another way, clarity is the action that makes thousands of future actions unnecessary.
  • Work to remove obstacles. The nonessentialist will pile on pressure and solutions.  The essentialist will make a one-time investment in removing obstacles.
  • When we don’t have our own metrics for success, we waste time trying to look good in comparison to other people’s priorities and according to other people’s yard sticks. Know what you want and how you will measure success in those areas.
  • Make sure the essential things get the resources they need (time, attention, money) and allow the non-essential things to just fall out of your life.

How to say no

Saying no is sometimes hard because we don’t want to let down our friends, family or co-workers.  Here are some thoughts from the book that can help.

  • When you must say no to someone, separate the decision from the relationship. You’re not saying no to your friend or coworker.  You’re saying no to an opportunity that doesn’t match your priorities.
  • Focus on the tradeoff. Focus on what you’d have to give up if you said yes.  Saying yes to a nonessential means you need to say no to one of your essentials.  Not worth it.
  • Ask yourself, “What is the consequence of saying no?” Sometimes we’re in the “have to” mindset and we don’t look at the consequences of saying no.  Sometimes the consequences are not that big a deal.  And yet, we default to “have to” and worry that we’re causing problems if we say no.  Honestly look at what the consequence of saying no is.
  • Remember that saying no often means trading popularity for respect.
  • Pause or delay before you say yes. Tell them you need to check your schedule and get back to them.  Anything to give you some real time to truly evaluate the opportunity rather than just succumbing to the pressure of a quick yes.
  • A clear no can be better than a vague or noncommitted yes. Don’t string people along.
  • Saying no is often in the asker’s best interest as well because they’re not bringing someone onto their team who is uncommitted and not 100%.
  • Be gracious, but don’t always feel compelled to justify or explain yourself. As Anne Lamott said, “No is a complete sentence.”

Subtract, Add, Execute

Once you’ve gotten rid of things you don’t want (minimalism) and identified the things that you do want (essentialism), it’s time to set up systems that help you execute those things effortlessly.  That’s what we’ll cover in Part 3.

Have a great weekend!

Joe

Note: Since I have my own books for sale on Amazon, I am a part of their Amazon Affiliate program. The links above are affiliate links, which simply means that if you buy a book after clicking one of the links, Amazon (at no additional cost to you) will pay me a small commission that I use to help cover the costs of this site. That’s not why I recommend the books, of course, but I wanted to make you aware of it.
The more of less

The more of less

Well, we’re one month in.  How is your New Year going so far?  Any progress on your goals or resolutions?  I’m not a huge New Year’s Resolution guy, but I am all in on the idea of living a life that has joy, meaning and purpose.

That often requires change (hence the resolutions), but change is hard.  The urgent overwhelms the important.  A host of bad habits smothers the few fledgling good ones.  How do you overcome those obstacles and achieve real, significant and lasting change in your life?  How do you decide what’s important to you and follow through on making it a reality, both now and in retirement?

I’ve been thinking about that for months and experimenting with what I’ve learned.  Along the way, I’ve wrestled with three big ideas that are essential to the process.  I’ll write an article about each and recommend 3 books for further reading.  Today is Part I.

The More of Less

It’s tough to live the life you want if the life you have is cluttered with stuff you don’t want.  So idea #1 is simplicity.  Simplify your life and get rid of things that don’t belong.  Some of you may remember my interview with Joshua Becker on minimalism and how to simplify life in retirement.  Not long after that, Joshua published a book called The More of Less, which I highly recommend.  After reading it and taking a class he offered, I decided to get serious about the clutter (stuff, projects, obligations, etc.) in my life.  I’m well along in that process now, so I thought I’d share the “why, what and how” in the hopes that it would be helpful to some of you.

Why

Lesson one of Joshua’s course was to define why you want to simplify in the first place. My why was simple: I want to minimize so I can maximize.  In other words, minimize stuff, expenses, obligations, hassles, commitments and projects that aren’t that important to me so I can maximize those that are and maximize things like time with family, time with friends, time for clients, freedom, financial peace, writing, traveling and doing.  It’s about becoming a minimalist in the things that don’t matter so I can become a maximalist in the things that do.

What

“Minimalism is the promotion of things I most value and the removal of everything that distracts me from it.”   – Joshua Becker

So when we talk about simplicity or minimalism, it’s not necessarily about how many shirts you have or how big your house is.  It’s about defining what’s important to you and what isn’t.  Then you ruthlessly cut the latter in order to create space, time and money for the former.

Key areas I set out to simplify and declutter

  • Home (wardrobe, bathroom, desk, basement, garage, car, etc.)
  • Office
  • Electronics
  • Digital life (apps, email, T.V.)
  • Health and body (eating, exercise, excess weight, etc.)
  • Commitments
  • Work
  • Budget
  • Personal finances

How

I decided to tackle physical clutter first.  I started with my car, because it seemed like an easy win.  The first thing I did was throw away everything that was garbage.  Then I took everything else from inside the car and sorted it into 3 piles: Things to keep in the car, things to relocate somewhere else and things to give or throw away.

I was surprised how much there was.  When you empty out the door compartments, seat pockets, center console, glove box, trunk and everything that is strewn about the floor and seats, there is a lot of stuff.  Most of it didn’t belong and it felt great to get rid of it.

Next up was the night stand by my bed.  Same process with an equally satisfying result.  Then my sink area and cabinet in the bathroom.  Then my desk, files, tools, wardrobe, the garage and basement.  My wife is in charge of most of the other rooms in the house, so I wisely left those alone.

I’m not done yet, but I’ve made a ton of progress.  Our garbage and recycling bins have been full each week.  We’ve taken load after load of clothes, books, tools, furniture, electronics and toys to our local mission or Habitat for Humanity.  A shredding company comes regularly to our office so we can securely get rid of old documents.  Between my home and work offices, I’ve added 20 banker’s boxes full of old papers to the shred pile.

After making progress on the physical clutter, I started working on other areas like projects, my health and my finances.  The process is a little different with those, but the desired result is the same: The promotion of things I value and the removal of whatever distracts me from it.  That meant working hard to finish up projects that I didn’t want to leave half done.  It meant looking at how we spend our money and making sure that we were investing it in our priorities rather than wasting it.  It meant simplifying my eating and exercise so I could be healthier (I’m down 18 pounds since September 1st).

So to review.  Make a list of the areas you want to simplify, minimalize and declutter.  For physical clutter, follow the simple 3 pile process (keep, relocate, trash/give away).  For non-physical clutter like projects, finish them up so you can get them off your To-Do list.  Don’t worry about having all the answers.  Just learn as you go and do what works best for you.

Benefits

Below are some of the benefits of a less cluttered life.  Some I experienced first-hand.  Some are taken from Joshua’s book The More of Less.

  • More than just a clean house. You get a more meaningful life.
  • More time and energy (our stuff takes a lot of time and energy to maintain)
  • More money (buying less, maintaining less, leaner expenses)
  • More freedom
  • More security (need less)
  • Less stress
  • Less distraction
  • Less environmental impact
  • Higher quality belongings
  • A better example for our kids
  • Less work for others (e.g. dealing with our stuff after we die)
  • Less comparison
  • More contentment
  • Ultimately more happiness and fulfillment
  • Enables you to fulfill your greatest passions
  • Enables you to be more generous
  • Enables you to live a more intentional life

Misconceptions

Below are the two biggest misconceptions about minimalism that Joshua mentioned in his book.

  • It’s not about giving everything up. It’s about getting the right stuff, commitments, etc.
  • It’s not just about organizing. It’s about de-owning, de-committing, etc.  Actually getting rid of the stuff that is getting in the way of what you want.

Thoughts and Lessons

Throughout the process, I’ve learned all sorts of lessons.  I’ll list some of those below along with several more taken directly from Joshua’s book or from other people prominent in the minimalism movement.

  • Clutter is a visual sign of procrastination and carries with it just as much anxiety. (Leo Babauta)
  • In essence then, clutter is a sign of laziness just as much as it’s a sign of overconsumption, disorganization, etc.
  • It is easier to see everyone else’s clutter than it is to see your own.
  • Live it yourself before you ask it from others (i.e. around your home).
  • We live in a world where 6 billion people live on less than $13,000 per year. Most of our financially related stress occurs because of artificially manufactured need.
  • A busy life is an unreflective life.
  • Busyness is a form of laziness (Tim Ferriss).
  • Minimalism serves as a gateway to intentionality in every area.
  • Opportunity cost: Life is about choices, but some choices are more valuable than others. Each time we choose something, there is an opportunity cost.  By choosing to do something, we are choosing not to do alternatives.  Therefore, we give up the potential benefit of those things.  Make sure that the benefits you gain from your choices are greater than the ones you’re giving up.
  • Deal with clutter right away. If you don’t, it builds up and procrastination gets easier as the task at hand gets larger.
  • The best thing to do is start and then figure it out as you go.
  • You clarify your goals and settle into a less-encumbered lifestyle at the same time.
  • Becoming Unbusy: Cultivate space in your daily routine. Reduce distractions.  Say “no.”  Appreciate and schedule rest.
  • This process will probably take months. Maybe an entire year.  I cleaned out my car in an hour, but I’ve got projects I’m trying to finish that will take months.
  • Success and excess are not the same.
  • Be very intentional about what you add into your life. Be a tough curator.

Fill the void

Once you’ve gotten rid of things you don’t want, you have room to add more of the things (relationships, projects, experiences, work, possessions) that you do want.  The next article in the series will help with that process and will cover some of the key ideas in the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown.  Until then, I hope you’ll spend time using the ideas in this article to pare back things that are unimportant to you with the ultimate goal of creating the life you want, both now and in retirement.

~ Joe

Note: Since I have my own books for sale on Amazon, I am a part of their Amazon Affiliate program. The links above are affiliate links, which simply means that if you buy a book after clicking one of the links, Amazon (at no additional cost to you) will pay me a small commission that I use to help cover the costs of this site. That’s not why I recommend the books, of course, but I wanted to make you aware of it.
35 Quick ideas to make 2017 great

35 Quick ideas to make 2017 great

Happy New Year!  What do you have planned?  Need a little inspiration?  Try this:

I want more purpose

I want to be happy

I want to be more proactive

I want to be healthy

I’m tired of waiting for retirement

I want to do something big

I want to finally plan my retirement

I want to be less busy

I want to focus more on things that matter

I want to avoid regrets

Am I ready to retire?

 

A life changing lesson on loss

A life changing lesson on loss

The Lesson

This past week a close friend of mine lost his mom.  She was in the hospital recovering from an illness, but her prognosis was good and the staff was ready to send her home.  A few hours later a blood clot took her life.

In a tribute he wrote for her funeral, my friend described an epiphany he had while attending the funeral of his grandfather some years earlier.  As he looked around the church and saw all the sadness and emotion, he thought: “I wonder how much of this is grief and how much of this is regret?”

As he reflected on that, he realized that he would one day be burying his own parents.  When that day came, he knew there would be plenty of grief, but he didn’t want that grief to be “stained and pained” by regret as well.  So he got very intentional about those relationships.  He invested time, effort and money to make sure they were as good as they could be.  And when he got word about his mom, here’s how he described his feelings:

“Pure grief…uncontaminated by regret.” 

Yes, he felt incredible pain, but the pain was not compounded by feelings of lost opportunities and missed chances.  If anything, the grief was softened by the many joyful memories that were a byproduct of his close relationship with his mom.

The Life Change

“I wonder how much of this is grief and how much of this is regret?”  When I read that statement, it stopped me cold.  I thought of painful losses in my own life and realized that, almost without exception, part of what I was feeling was regret.  Sometimes, MOST of what I was feeling was regret.  How about you?  I’m guessing you have one or two examples in your own life as well.  We all get plenty of “at bats” with pain.

  • The pain we feel when a loved one dies
  • The pain we feel when our kids grow up and leave the house
  • The pain we feel when a relationship ends
  • The pain we feel when a close friend moves away
  • The pain we feel when our health changes, placing limits on what we can do
  • The pain we feel with missed opportunities or risks not taken
  • The pain we feel when life draws to a close

We don’t have our kids, spouse, friends, family, health, youth, jobs, money or opportunities forever.  For this one brief life, we get to be a steward of those things.  They ebb and flow as we live, but one day they’re gone.  For most of us, that will happen gradually.  For others, it may happen all at once.  We can’t control the loss, nor can we can control the grief we feel because of it.  But we can control the regret by doing everything possible to make the most out of our opportunities.  Are you doing that?  Will you do that?  The holidays are here and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to make the most out of your time with friends and family.  The New Year is coming and you’ll get a chance to start fresh and focus on what matters.  To paraphrase Mary Oliver, make the most out of your one wild and precious life.  Then, when time closes the door on something, you can be sad to see it go, but so glad that it happened to begin with.

Merry Christmas to you and your family.  Thanks for following along in 2016 and stay tuned for much more in 2017.

~ Joe

Methods vs Principles

Methods vs Principles

I’m still alive!  Sorry I haven’t posted much lately, but life got a little crazy.  Thankfully, things are starting to return to normal, so I thought I’d ease back into the swing of things with a quick post on an unexpected challenge that sometimes arises during retirement.

I’m retired.  Now what?

I was in L.A. a few weeks ago speaking to a group and during the Q&A a lady raised her hand and said something like: “Retirement is harder than most people think.  Not necessarily the money part, but figuring out what to do.  I thought I’d spend 20 years traveling, but got bored with it after 6 months.  Any advice for someone like me who is trying to figure out what my typical day will look like?”

Some version of that question comes up more often than you’d think when I’m speaking to a group or talking with clients.  It turns out that daydreaming about what to do with your free time is pretty easy when you don’t have any free time.  Once you’re retired, however, and all you have is free time, it can be a challenge to fill your days with interesting and meaningful activities.

So, what advice to give?  Thankfully, I’ve written on this topic before (e.g. 10 Questions That Will Help You Decide What to Do During Retirement), so I had a few ideas.  What I didn’t want to do was answer her question by suggesting a bunch of activities.  “Have you tried Cross Fit?  What about volunteering?  You could learn to paint.  That Bob Ross guy always looked happy.”  Somehow, “randomly try stuff” doesn’t seem like great advice.

Instead, I focused on two things.  First, I reiterated something that experience had already taught her: Retirement is more than a math problem.  Yes, money is important, but the recipe for a happy retirement includes many ingredients and financial security is only one of them.

Second, I shared this quote from Harrington Emerson, an efficiency engineer and management consultant in the early 1900s:

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few.  The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods.  The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

Methods vs Principles

Let’s unpack that a bit.  Think of principles as the laws, rules or beliefs that are foundational to a particular thing.  For example, the principles of flight are lift, gravity, thrust and drag.  That’s only four things, but if you want to make a flying machine, it needs to tick all those boxes.

Once you understand the principles, you can use any number of methods to accomplish them. In fact, as long as you understand the principles and how they interact (e.g. a heavier plane needs more thrust and lift) then you’re free to do pretty much whatever you want in the design and construction of the craft.  It can have a jet engine or propeller.  The wings could be made of cloth, steel or some type of composite.  It can be big or small.  Fast or slow.  Have one seat or hundreds.  It can serve a specific purpose (e.g. float plane, fighter jet, crop duster) or be a jack of all trades.  You get the idea.

Just like with flight, retirement has certain principles that are foundational to success.  Things like financial security, meaningful relationships, health, time control, purpose and a sense of belonging, to name a few.  Once you understand what those are, you’re free to try pretty much whatever methods (procedures, techniques, tactics) you want to accomplish them.  And since a) you understand the principles and b) you know yourself, you can choose methods that both serve the underlying principle and align with your interests, skills, desires and priorities.

Consider our flight analogy again. You’ve probably seen those old videos that show the blooper real of early flying machines.  The bicycle with the oscillating bird wings attached.  The man jumping off the hill with cardboard wings strapped to his arms.  The man on roller skates with…you guessed it…bird wings attached to his arms.  It’s clear that these Wilbur and Orville wannabes were doing their best to copy the “methods” of birds without understanding the principles involved that make those birds successful.

Likewise, retirees will sometimes copy things like golf, travel or relocating without realizing that they’re confusing principles and methods.  Travel is not a principle of retirement.  Having meaningful pursuits is.  Volunteering is not a principle of retirement.  Purpose is.  Tennis is not a principle of retirement.  Being healthy is.  If you ignore the principles or don’t understand them, any method you try will feel random, ineffective, unstructured and ultimately disappointing.  But if you understand the principles then, to paraphrase Emerson, you’ll have unlimited methods to choose from and you can experiment and settle on those which suit you best.

Great to talk to you all again.  Touch base if there’s anything I can help you with.

Joe

Routine is the enemy of time

Routine is the enemy of time

Last year I read a book called The Power of Habit that gave me some insight into what happens in our brain when we develop habits or get into a routine.  I’ve thought about this topic before and had the sense that, while some routine is often necessary, too much routine can make life feel dull and short.  It turns out that research backs this up.

In the book, the author talked about an experiment that the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department at MIT did on rats.  They hooked their brains up to a bunch monitoring devices and then put them, one at a time, into a simple T shaped maze.  At one end of the maze, behind a partition, was a rat.  Down the hall and around the corner was some chocolate.  With the flip of a switch, the researcher would drop the partition (which made a loud click) and the rat would be standing there staring down the hall.

Slowly, it would start to sniff.  It could smell the chocolate, but didn’t know where it was, so it would wander down the hall, stopping, sniffing, scratching and looking around.  When it got to the end, it would usually look to the right, sniff, look to the left, sniff and then follow its nose to the left where the rat would discover the chocolate.

The more they did this experiment, the more the rats would hear the loud click, the partition would disappear and they would go straight to the chocolate.  Once the rats had figured out the maze and developed a routine for getting the chocolate, the researchers compared the before and after brain scans.  When the rat was new to the situation, his brain exploded with activity when he heard the click and the partition disappeared.  Each time it scratched, sniffed and looked around the brain was buzzing with activity as it analyzed the sights, sounds and smells.

After repeating that experiment hundreds of times, however, the way their brains reacted started to change.  Once they had the routine down—walk down hall, turn left, get chocolate—their mental activity started to decrease.  The more automatic it became, the less the rats had to think.   Almost every area of their brains quieted down.  Even the part of the brain responsible for memory went quiet.

The only part of the brain that was still active was the basal ganglia, which is this ancient part of the brain that, up until then, scientist didn’t understand very well.  What they learned from their experiments is that the basal ganglia is responsible for identifying the habits and routines that we have.  Once it recognizes those patterns, it takes over and allows the rest of the brain to pretty much shut down.

The basal ganglia is your best friend when you’re trying to form new habits like going to the gym or eating healthy, but it’s bad news if life becomes so routine that your brain basically switches to autopilot.  In that case, you’re not really creating new memories or being an active participant in big chunks of your day because major parts of your brain are switched off.  If you do the same thing every day for a year, you don’t remember a bunch of unique days.  You basically remember 1 day that you lived 365 times.  The entire year kind of feels like it took 24 hours.

So if we want time to feel as if it’s passing more slowly and we want our memory banks full of unique experiences, we need to find a good balance between routine and novelty.  Yes, we want a good exercise routine, but we also want to steer off the well-worn path of life once in a while.  Especially in retirement.  We need to find ways to break up the routine.  We need to try new things and seek out new experiences.  How can you do that in your life?  What can you do this week to break routine?  Experiment and see what happens.

Here’s a short video for inspiration.  It’s by Jed Jenkins where he talks about coming to the realization that routine is the enemy of time so he quit his job and took a thousand-mile bike trip from Oregon to Patagonia.  Some of you may remember the video from our Facebook page a while back.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it will likely be the best 4 minutes of your day.  Enjoy.

Joe