Published on:10 July, 2019
The basic steps to reduce mental clutter appear to be relatively straightforward: (1) Start with your goals, (2) Then prioritise your tasks & actions, and (3) Then use checklists for planning & execution. As I cut down on my mental clutter, it is becoming easier to focus longer and deeper on the sorts of things which I like to do eg. reading and thinking at length about a very small number of companies.
“Nothing contributes so much to tranquilize the mind as a steady purpose – a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye.”– Mary Shelley
Five sequential steps to reducing mental clutter
- Start with your Goals: Each of us has to figure out what we want from our lives. Over the years, I have with great envy watched people wiser than me lay out their goals with great clarity. A friend, who also manages a fund, recently told me “In an ever more complicated world, I have sought to simplify my life and focus on fewer things – starting with my family, my investors and closest colleagues”. Another helpful way to figure out what to focus on comes from Greg McKeown in his outstanding book ‘Essentialism’ (2011): “If it isn’t a clear yes, it’s a clear no.” What McKeown is saying is that eliminating all the “maybes” from our life allows us – perhaps forces us – to focus on the stuff that we know we really want to focus on.
A very different philosophy to use to settle upon what to do with your life comes from Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Before he started Amazon, Bezos was a trader in the New York offices of the investment manager, DE Shaw & Co. Not only was Bezos highly paid, the founder of the firm liked him and seemed to have earmarked him for bigger things. To leave all this behind him and start an online bookstore in the early 1990s – at a time when few people had heard of the internet let alone understand what an online bookstore would be – was a massive deal for Bezos. Most people around him – including his boss and Bezos’ parents – urged caution.
So how did Bezos convince himself to take the plunge and chart a course which not only reset his goals in life but changed the way the world shops? In Bezos’ own words:
“The framework I found, which made the decision incredibly easy, was what I called – which only a nerd would call – a “regret minimisation framework”. So I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, “Okay, now I’m looking back on my life. I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have.” I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing that I might regret is not ever having tried. I knew that that would haunt me every day, and so, when I thought about it that way it was an incredibly easy decision.”
Our goals don’t always have to be profound life goals hinging around our family & friends; they can be practical goals such us getting promoted at work or saving money for retirement or becoming the best drummer in the country. Whatever they might be, goals are the foundation of mental decluttering. Goals give our life purpose and, as highlighted in the Mary Shelley quote, that plays a major role in decluttering our mind
2. Then prioritise: Even a basic “to do” list helps me declutter my mind and frees up mental space. For most of us, if we don’t write things down, the chances are high that we will forget that action point. More recently, I have moved to using the memo function available on my smartphone to create a “to do” list which can easily be turned into a prioritised list of action points. When it comes prioritising, the most useful principle is to do the ‘tough things first’ (Ray Zinn wrote a famous book with this title and with the management philosophy that leaders need to tackle the most difficult problems first.)
But suppose you were to say that your goals are not as profound as those of the fund manager in the preceding paragraph; instead you are trying to achieve something as practical as, say, buying a flat or getting a well-paid job or finding a husband. How should you prioritise?
In a beautiful book on how maths can help us optimize our goal seeking in everyday life, Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths explain in “Algorithms to Live By” (2016) that all of these are variants of the “optimal stopping” problem i.e. problems where faced with a range of possible choices (which usually appear to you in sequential form such that once you have rejected an option, that option never reappears) we need to decide when to stop looking and grab the first best option which appears thereafter. The answer to these sorts of problems is usually 37%. So, if, for example, you are planning to sell your house over the next 100 days, you should wait to see what offers you get until day 37 and then take the best offer you get on any day thereafter. It’s worth Googling on this subject (of optimal stopping) to see how high school probability calculations can help us reduce mental clutter and improve clarity of thought.
3. Then use checklists for planning & execution: Thanks to Atul Gawande and his bestselling book “The Checklist Manifesto” (2009), millions of professionals have understood the power of this seemingly simple process. Gawande highlighted that checklists break down complex tasks whilst ensuring consistency and efficiency especially if more than one person is working on a project. Everybody – from ambulance crews to ariline pilots to architects – can benefit from checklists.
At Marcellus, we have turned the investment process of assessing a stock into a checklist (step 1: check accounting quality; step 2: check consistency of ROCE generation and revenue growth over the past 15 years; step 3: read the last 15 years of annual reports to assess capital allocation; step 4: assess sustainable competitive advantages, etc).
4. Use a jotter for thoughts & ideas: More often than not, many of us get our best ideas not when we are at our desk trying to solve a problem. Instead, the breakthrough ideas, the lightbulb moments often arise when our brain is relaxed, say, in the shower or during the morning run. Rather than merging these ideas with the “to do” list or with the execution plan, it is usually a better to create a separate repository for such creative ideas. Save your best ideas in your chosen repository so that you neither lose them and nor do they take up valuable mental real estate.
5. Reduce time spent on the smartphone: Most smartphones allow you to track how much time you are spending staring at that screen. Given that many professionals now end up having to do 50-60 hour weeks (including commuting time), if over and above that you are spending any more than an hour a day on your smartphone, it will be hard for you to think straight. (Until a year ago, I was doing 3 hours of phone screentime per day on average.)
The obvious way to reduce time spent on the phone is to eliminate social media and newsfeeds from your life. Life will become a little boring at first as you miss out on those great jokes on Whatsapp, the daily trolling of liberals on Facebook and the latest update on politics & sport but soon you will find yourself enjoying your new, freed up mental real estate. Cal Newport has laid out of the merits of reduced smartphone usage in his fabulous books – ‘Deep Work’ (2016) and ‘Digital Minimalism’ (2019).
Many of us at Marcellus are refugees from the large corporate world where our life was a daily blur of meetings, targets, budgets, travel, deadlines, networking, etc. We walked away from that world partly because we realised that no matter what our abilities were, if we couldn’t control our working environment, we wouldn’t be able to function effectively. As Phil Dobson says in ‘The Brain Book’ (2016), “Even if you meditate every day, if you can’t manage your tasks and your projects, you system will go back into stress due to cognitive overload.”
Whilst I often struggle with the definition of what’s important in my personal life, it has become easier to de-clutter my professional life. For example, I have found that one of the biggest time wasters in corporate life are “networking events” where people whose own objectives of attending the event are fuzzy meet others with equally fuzzy objectives in a noisy setting. Pulling out of work-related events where no work really gets done is a relatively straightforward to reducing mental clutter.
As I gradually seek to reduce mental clutter, I am finding that it is becoming easier to focus longer and deeper on the sorts of things which I like to do eg. thinking about which companies are better than others and why they are better than others; then reading up more on these companies, meeting interesting people who know more about these companies than I do and then thinking further. It is the sort of work I haven’t had a chance to do for a long time.
Around the time my fellow founders and I were setting up Marcellus, we read Cal Newport’s ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’. Newport says: “The ability to perform deep work is increasingly rare at exactly the same time that the work is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life will thrive.”
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Saurabh Mukherjea is the author of “The Unusual Billionaires” and “Coffee Can Investing: the Low Risk Route to Stupendous Wealth”.
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