Large Gains from Small Choices

by Srdjan Miletic3 min read28th Dec 20202 comments

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Looking at my average day, I often think that I'm lazy and wasting most of my time. Usually I work for 8 hours, although probably only half of that time is productive. I go on a short walk, buy food and eat. After work, I mostly play videogames, do household chores and sometimes spend an hour or two talking to my girlfriend. I'm by no means a paragon of productivity. Still there are a few small things I do regularly that over a decade have compounded into substantial gains. These include:

  • Reading a good book a month (or trying to)
  • Using an RSS feed to stream high quality writing to myself daily
  • Subscribing to various good podcasts and listening to them as I go on walks. Usually summing up to 30 mins per day.
  • Going for a walk a day and doing weightlifting at least twice a week for 30 mins or so.

The more I look back, the more I think that being productive is not a matter of using every minute well or being busy all or even most of the time. Rather, I think productivity is a matter of gradually building high-impact, low-cost habits into your days. These habits don't lead to magic changes in the short term but the small differences they do make compound over the days and years. After a decade the difference between the person with good habits and the person without them is night and day.

I don't have anything more than plausible sounding arguments to prove this, but I think playing with a few numbers can help.

Let's say you commit to studying one chapter of a textbook per week. I'm currently working through [[Modern Principles of Economics 4th Edition]]. It has 38 chapters. I think that's a bit above average but let's be conservative and assume that the average textbook has 40 chapters. Let's also assume that you miss a few weeks a year. Instead of studying 52 chapters per year, you study 40. One year, one textbook. Over the course of a single decade you could get a grounding (a.k.a: know more than 95% of people) in economics, world history, criminology, law, philosophy, warfare, agriculture and four more topics of your choice. Would you be an expert in these topics? No. But the relevant comparison is not to the person who knows more than you but to the hypothetical alternate you who didn't study a chapter a day and didn't know about the green revolution in food production or that high housing prices are a result of constrained supply and increasing demand. It's the difference between being oblivious and being able to recognize obviously wrong statements or at least somewhat understand the evidence for and against policy positions.

Let's repeat the exercise for books. One person reads a book a quarter. Another reads a book a month. Over the course of a year the person who reads a book a month will have read 12 books. A difference of 9. Over the course of 10 years they will have read 120 books. A difference of 90. Assuming you're choosing well and reading things that have meaning, think of the amount of knowledge those 90 books could contain. From a visions of 20 years in the gulag to a blow by blow account of the occupation of Iraq to the social dynamics of chimps to theories on technological stagnation. Whole new worlds opening to you, thousands of branching questions and thoughts. Just from a few hours a month.

These specific habits are just examples. There's a large space of possible habits. I aim to write about a few I have found particularly useful eventually but don't think that the habit's I've stumbled on are particularly original. I think the most important point is not that habit X is effective but that self improvement is possible and really not that difficult, at least over the medium to long term.

status: [[Published]][[Finished]]

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It's all about the basics. If you can get the basics right, you're highly likely to win life (within the constraints of your own personal limits).

Eat simple healthy food. Move your body substantially sometimes. Sleep. Maintain a close-knit group of family and friends.

If you do these things you will already be ahead of 99% of humanity, including many people who spend far more effort (and money) optimising some particular aspect of their lives (e.g. expensive workout gear or 'superfoods').

(It takes me up to a year to "digest" a book. (One that I read of my own volition, to expand my world.) I would not want another thousand thoughts come so soon.)