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I Was Wrong: Simple is Easy
simple is easy, mental fortresses, how many reps are you away from greatness?, when inaction is harder than action
The best way to encourage me to write more is to offer me a fellowship or to share this with someone who will love it:
A bit over 24 hours ago, I was wrong on the internet. One of my Twitter friends, ‘the booty warrior’, posted “Y’all are going to hate to hear this, but it’s actually easy to improve your life.” I replied, “Simple but not necessarily easy." She doubled down, “Simple = easy.” I changed my mind. She’s right. Simple is easy.
The gap between easy and simple doesn’t exist and is filled with excuses and cope.
There are no shortage of good or fun habits that we believe would improve our lives. For example, regular zone 2 cardio helps to improve and sustain your VO2 max—one of the best measurements of health, particularly in the elderly. This habit can be the difference between independence and dependence as you age. “…the study by Lee et al. showed reduced mortality from all-cause (30%) and cardiovascular disease (45%) from 5- to 10-min runs per day.” (Strasser, Burtscher—pubmed pdf)
You now know this information. I know this information. There is a $200 stationary bike that purchased off of Amazon ($183.99) in my room. I have not used this bike in a month. If you asked me why I haven’t used it, I could make up a story to explain my behavior. The entire explanation would be cope. It would be both simple and easy for me to spend 20-30 minutes on the bike in the morning.
Get out of bed. Put on shoes. Sit on bike. Pedal. Not only would my future self thank me but zone 2 training improves the efficiency of mitochondria (metabolism), improves insulin sensitivity, and simply feels good. This would be a trivial habit to develop and it would improve my life. Simple is easy.
A big beautiful fortress
When I first replied to my friend, I felt it was important to make the distinction between simple and easy. There was a time in my early 20s when I thought everything was easy. You learn about something. You do it. You win. You learn about something new. You do that. You keep winning. Momentum carries you forward. Easy.
My perception has changed as I’ve gotten older and struggled with new challenges. Tasks that I used to consider easy started to be reframed as ‘simple but…’ A mental prison was built one excuse at a time, as I half-heartedly tried to build or maintain good habits. “I can’t today, I have plans with <friend>. I can’t today, I am stressed about paying my rent. I can’t today, I need to prioritize my job search. I need to focus on strength because I’m getting weak [doesn’t go to the gym after using this excuse]. It’s 107 degrees out. I’ll wait until the weekend when I have more time.” These notions and excuses begin to weigh you down and keep you from taking intentional, easy actions that will get you where you want to go.
Your own mental prison may be visible to you now. Perhaps it’s just a few bricks that you skip over on your way to the gym at 5 a.m., or as you turn your lights off and read your Kindle for 30 minutes before bed. Not much of a prison.
Or it may be an elaborate fortress that you have meticulously constructed over years or decades. As you read this, you’re not only wherever you are in the physical world but also sitting in a metaphorical high tower, surrounded by defenses that could deter any advancing army. Instead of trying to breach the walls of your fortress, an army would simply blockade you. Your reserves dwindle and, as you and your people begin to feel the pangs of hunger, you surrender. There is no army. There is no fortress. There is no ‘King’s guard’. There is no cake. You can walk out of the fortress right now. Publish a blog to your Substack. Meditate for 10 minutes. Call your Grandma. The gap between easy and simple has collapsed. Simple is easy.
What if it’s even easier [for you] than you think?
People are bad at estimating how difficult something will be. It is often not even useful to think about difficulty without first trying something. When you first try anything, you are unlikely to be great at it. In domains with high skill capacity (where the best ‘player’ is orders of magnitude better than the worst player, ie. basketball), even the greatest players of all time started out terrible in comparison to where they ended up. You cannot judge your ability to do something well by your success on the first attempt.
People are bad at estimating their rate of improvement compared to others. I’ve been writing online for awhile. Am I good at writing? I don’t know. Am I better than someone else who had spent a similar amount of time, ie. am I talented? I have no idea. I do not know how I would try to argue one way or another.
These questions are kind of ridiculous but people do try to make judgements about their performance in a similar way. They view something as hard when they’re just a beginner. Instead of viewing yourself as ungifted or struggling, it would be just as reasonable to believe that you’re 10 or 10,000 reps away from greatness. It may not be true but it’s a good reason to simply do another rep.
My friends like to play board games. If your friends like to play board games, you might be familiar with the feeling in your neck and shoulders when they say “Let’s play a game.Oh you’ll love Dominion. It’s easy and a ton of fun. I’ll explain it to you.” If you’re lucky, your friend will instead say, “Oh you’ll love Dominion. It’s easy and a ton of fun. Let’s just watch the Rules Girl video. It’s short and great.” Either way, you’re preparing your ego to get thrashed by your friends. The game sounds complicated as hell. It’s not simple. It’s not easy. It’s not fun.
Maybe the first game that’s true, unless you are blessed with the real and blessed phenomenon of beginner’s luck. But if you play two games of Dominion, you will likely come to an undeniable realization. It was nothing to be stressed about. It’s a fun game to play with your friends. Dominion is simple. Dominion is easy. Simple is easy.
When inaction becomes hard
When I talk about doing cardio, I do not talk about going for a run. Despite running cross country and track for a few seasons in middle school and high school, it has not been my preferred form of cardio for a decade.
Running in the grass or a long trail in the woods is great. The feeling of a cool breeze on your sweaty forehead. A deep sleep after carb-loading to prepare for your next distance run. I could get addicted to it all over again. I was never serious about training outside of the season but I did get into it after a few reps.
I have friends who never stopped running. One of my best friends needs to run. If she doesn’t get to run for several days, she is miserable. The same activity that others would describe as hard is a critical part of her routine. For her, not running is harder than running.
The same may be true for you. If you start running, you may never look back. If you start learning songs on the ukulele, you may never stop. If you stop drinking soda, you may never enjoy it again. You may not even have your own ideas about an activity being hard. Or even if you struggled to start or stop a habit, it may be because you told yourself it wasn’t easy. But you do know that it’s simple. Buy a ukulele. Figure out how to tune it (dozens of apps and YouTube videos). Learn how to play one song. Practice it. Learn another song. Practice it. With four chords, you can play dozens of songs. What other skills and habits could you pick up with a bit of intentional effort? Simple is easy.
Simplify, simplify, simplify
Whatever you want to do, you can at least try. There’s no reason to delay action any longer. Most of the things that you want to do are well within your capabilities. If you’re not doing something, it may not be a real priority. Maybe you’re stuck in a pattern of wanting to be someone who wants to do a particular thing. You like the idea of being someone who reads. You don’t read. No one else can figure that out for you. You’ll have to look around and see if that’s part of the structure you’ve built around yourself.
If you know you want to do something, make it simple for yourself. If it helps write your own little sentence explaining the basic steps. We’re going to read 15 minutes before bed tonight.
How to read before bed:
Set alarm. Brush teeth. Floss teeth. Put on pajamas. Grab Kindle. Turn off light. Grab Kindle. Open book you plan to read. Read until you get sleepy.
It may feel condescending to write this out but there’s many traps people set for themselves. That’s why I used this example which is near and dear to my heart.
How to not read before bed:
Set alarm on phone. Check Twitter. Check Email. Check Twitter. Brush teeth. Floss teeth. Put on pajamas. Grab Kindle. Put Kindle on bed. Grab laptop. Put laptop on bed. Turn off light. Open laptop. Check Twitter. Open YouTube. Watch a 1v1 between the best two players in Age of Empires 2. Go to sleep.
There’s a clear failure mode here. There’s a few potential solutions to simplify this for myself: Put laptop in work bag. Use non-phone alarm clock. Delete my Twitter account forever.
Simple is easy.
Hopefully something in this piece was insightful or fun for you. I’ve thought about writing a series about things that I’ve been wrong about and this seemed like a fairly lighthearted place to start. I also have been working hard to try to better align my life with my own ideal. I need to work harder. I like it.
Since my last piece here I have:
Started a full-time at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity as a Resident Fellow, writing about [federal] nuclear and energy policy
Participated as a guest on a podcast episode of Pirate Wires (light on nuclear compared to the Nuclear Barbarian)
Started a fellowship launched by Roots of Progress to help accelerate my career as a writer and develop a contemporary philosophy of progress
So many other things that are not highly linkable
Seeking Tribe Tour locations and dates:
Washington, D.C. 11/1-11/7
San Francisco, CA 11/12-11/17
Rochester, NY 12/8-12/18
All dates subject to change, no refunds—sorry.
Life in Austin is good. In the process of renewing my lease and will continue to have a guest room. If you’re looking to visit or move here, please feel free to reach out. It will not be so long until the next time that you hear from me. I am obligated to publish many blogs over the next few months as part of the fellowship—and let’s hope I never stop!
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