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How much of our time and energy in any given week is spent mulling over small-scale problems? Probably too much, if we think about it.
Someone shoots down our idea in a meeting and it puts us in a funk for the rest of the day. We agonize over an email we need to send, or equally bad, one we're waiting receive. There is a new crisis! shoved in our face by the entertainment-driven news media. Hundreds of little, teeny problems each competing for our precious attention.
In a way we exist in what Robert Greene calls tactical hell, reacting constantly to what others around us say or do, brooding over a minor inconvenience or a snide remark, and getting worked-up over problems that likely will be resolved in a week or less. Stumbling through the daily minutiae, it can be easy to lose focus of long-term goals and values and neglect the serious problems brewing right under our nose.
King Philip and His Toilets
King Philip II of Spain is a classic historical example of someone who struggled to put the larger priorities into perspective while he was distracted with too much daily trivia.
Extremely detail-oriented, he would read countless reports on the armies and plans of rival nations until he'd experience headaches from exhaustion. He spent hours analyzing the optimal location of new toilets in his palace Escorial or calculating precisely how much different clergy members should be paid. In preparing to attack England – the famed Spanish Armada of 1588 – he read comprehensive reports on the size and structure of the English navy as well as the country's finances, political climate and geography. He meticulously assembled a massive fleet of 130 galleons to at last conquer the English.
But then he chose an aristocrat with no prior naval military experience to lead the expedition. And before the attack, he somehow forgot to look at the weather reports. The expedition failed after the ships were outmaneuvered by the English and then destroyed by storms. None of the painstaking research King Philip II prepared even mattered because he ignored two of the most critical factors of all: his commander and the weather.
I think Nassim Taleb put it best when he said (1):
"More data – such as paying attention to the eye colors of the people around when crossing the street – can make you miss the big truck."
In our day-to-day activities, most of us probably pay too much attention to the eye colors of the people around us when crossing the street. Everyone likes to think of themselves as Steve Jobs, a brilliant big-picture visionary, but in reality, we're probably more like King Philip, far too absorbed in the details or engaged in petty battles, worrying about getting a deliverable to our boss by Friday instead of kicking a nicotine habit. And which will kill us?
Which is the big truck?
Too Many Small Trucks
We're bumping up against a critical question: what are the problems, opportunities, experiences we face that really matter? How do we make sure we're paying attention to the big trucks, both the good and bad?
A good start can be to simply eliminate all of of unnecessary B.S. we welcome into our lives – either out of habit or timidity – which make it impossible to correctly line up our priorities. Bombarded with 150+ emails a day, fed a constant stream of the latest political vitriol, drawn into social media's narcissistic echo chamber, we have to take a defensive posture just to absorb it all. Forget about strategizing for 5 or 10 years down the road, we end up hoping to just survive each week... or even each day. High priority items start to blur together with the trivia. The location of toilets in the Escorial seem just as crucial as preparing an invasion of another country.
We need a way to cut-out the distracting short-term priorities, the small trucks, not only to free up space for what matters, but also because focusing on the short-term can be a massive waste of time. Again, to quote Nassim Taleb (2):
"To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week's newspapers."
Let's take this exercise further. Spend a year thinking about what you worried about exactly one week prior. Do you even remember it? Have you already replaced it with something new?
I don't think it's a coincidence Steve Jobs wore the same black turtleneck every day; that choice alone freed his mind to prioritize the decisions, the big trucks, that truly mattered.
Or, consider what Michael Lewis wrote in his article about President Obama and his working habits:
"You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. 'You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,' [Obama] said. 'I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.' He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions."
Now, I'm not suggesting you should go out and buy 25 black t-shirts from Uniqlo to simplify your wardrobe and become like Obama.
But perhaps by cutting out the small decisions, and not sweating the short-term issues that come along with them, we can get a lot closer to whatever long-term goals lie beyond. And then we can cultivate a more elevated perspective that allows us to throw our weight behind the priorities that are most significant.
(1) Antifragile by Nassim Taleb (p. 307)
(2) The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Taleb