A marble statue of Marcus Aurelius in widescreen format, writing on a fresh papyrus scroll. The scroll is affixed with scroll holders, adding to the authenticity of the scene. Marcus Aurelius is depicted in deep thought, his iconic beard and Roman attire meticulously detailed. The background is black, highlighting the marble texture of the statue and the freshness of the papyrus scroll.

The most impactful practice of my life is the way I’m capturing insights. Whenever I realize something that alleviates a problem in my life, I write down the insight. Every week, I read through my list of insights and use them to improve an ever-evolving list of principles I use to guide my life.

I think of this list as a set of personal heuristics, used to compensate for recurring mistakes I make. My guess is that people all have their own set of “life biases” that lead to them acting in unskillful and suboptimal ways. A list of principles is a great way to compensate.

I’m not sure this system will work for anyone, but I suggest giving it a try. My principles have saved me a huge amount of time and suffering.

 

Example Principle

My first and favourite principle is “Don’t wait for things to get better”. I wrote this down to alleviate a recurring issue in my life. I occasionally find myself in dysfunctional situations that cause me to suffer. It can be a job I’ve grown dissatisfied with, a relationship that doesn’t work out, or similar.

A bad habit of mine is to “wait it out”, hoping that the situation will magically improve. My favourite principle helps me remember to opt for action instead of remaining dissatisfied. I either shift my mindset and find ways to enjoy the situation; or make an external change happen.

I recently quit my job. I waited for way too long, telling myself that I was in a special situation where the principle didn’t apply. I shouldn’t have waited for things to get better.

 

The weekly review

I recommend reviewing the principles once a week, reading down the list while considering whether any of the principles apply to a situation in your life. If it does, consider the implications and either act immediately, or add a task to handle it later.

Besides reviewing the list of principles, also read the list of accumulated insights. Clear the ones that feel unnecessary, integrate others into the list of principles, and leave some be, to be reread next week.

There’s no hard cap on the number of principles, but I find 8-10 to be a sweet spot. It’s usually possible to find common themes, allowing you to merge principles. Having too many principles makes the practice unwieldy, it’s better to keep to opt for fewer of them.

Having room for new ones is vital - if there is no room, innovation is blocked.

 

Make your own principles!

There is a vital difference between your own principles and ones you get from elsewhere. Adding “Carpe Diem” to your list is unhelpful, even if the principle seems to be a good counter to your personal “life biases”.

There is a tendency for “wise sayings” to turn into meaningless platitudes. The power of a principle is not in the words themselves, but rather the insight that the principle “points to”. Adopting someone else’s principle doesn’t give you access to the corresponding insight.

A principle’s power comes from the real-life insights you used to create it. When you read the principle, you activate the part of your brain that has been trained to resolve a cluster of recurring issues. This activation puts your brain in just the right mode to interpret and resolve issues brought on by your “life biases”.

A sign without the corresponding signifier is useless.

 

Getting started

The prerequisite for this practice is a proper task/information management system. I recommend Todoist, seeing as it supports adding tasks through a website, an app and through email.

The steps to getting started are:

  1. Whenever you have an insight that alleviates suffering or unskilled behaviour, record it and categorize it as an “Insight”
  2. Set up a time slot for a weekly review. At first, you will have a list of insights, which is powerful in itself. Over time, during your reviews, you will evolve and develop these insights.
    1. Start simple, and add principles once you start seeing recurring patterns. The goal of the principles is to help you recall the insights - you will iterate on the principles, no need to get them perfect immediately.
    2. Review template:
      1. Read your list of insights. Go through them one by one, and:
        1. Drop it if it’s not important
        2. Use it to improve/add a principle, if possible (then drop it).
        3. Leave it to be reread next week.
      2. Read your list of principles, and relate them to your life. If you aren’t in alignment with one or more of them, do something about it immediately, or make sure you do it later through a reminder, task or similar.
      3. Refine the list of principles, combining them into more general ones if possible.

 

Another example

Besides “Don’t wait for things to get better”, my second favourite principle reads “You live in a rain forest, not a desert”. I’ve written about it in two different posts:

The Rainforest and the Desert

Some thoughts on "The Rainforest and the Desert"

Two examples should be enough to get going. Listing more principles at this point might cause you to anchor yourself to my principles, biasing your principle-crafting process. I hope this post finds you well and empowers you to live a brilliant life.

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6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:32 AM

I have followed a similar strategy using Anki cards. However, I think that allocating a specific time slot to review your principles and then "act" on then is probably much more effective than passively remind those principles. I will adopt this.

Simply memorizing the principles a la anki seems risky - it's easy to accidentally disconnect the principle from its insight-generating potential, turning it into a disconnected fact to memorize.

This risk is minimised by reviewing the principles in connection to real life.

Putting art in posts is nice, but this kind of midjourney art is really creepy to me. I wish people used good art instead.

I'm looking for a pro bono art selector with 24/7 availability, hit me up if you know any takers!

(on a more serious note: I don't find joy in browsing for fitting art pieces, and this seems like a pareto-optimal solution. Sorry if I impinge on you with uncanny valley vibes)

I've been doing this for a while, mostly because I've had so many insights that I've managed to forget them again. The benefit of loose principles (as opposed to concrete rules) is also that they are less limiting.

Societies rules are often more limiting than they're helpful. The same goes for trauma and insecurity. People have a tendency of learning what not to do until they find themselves in a prison which doesn't allow for any movements or actions. Such people tend to harm even their personality.

I recommend internalizing everything which truly help you, this is a step above remembering. Of course, one should do away with insights which overstay their welcome. Flexibility is vital.
Speaking of principles, have you read Og Mandino's 10 scrolls? (from The Greatest Salesman In The World).

Edit: May I ask if your method keeps the "insight" feeling alive? I thought the feeling goes away naturally as you get used to the insight, but it may just be that I lost my connection to the thoughts which lead to the insight initially

It does keep them alive - my guess is that the reviewing method I'm using anchors them in reality