Tag Archives: Productivity

Focus on the 1% of the Activities that Matter

You might have heard about the Pareto Principle that says 20% of the actions produce 80% of the results.

Some people take the Pareto Principle to the extreme. For example, Gary Vaynerchuk says that 99% of the things don’t matter.

The art of success is finding that 20 % or in Vaynerchuk’s case finding those 1% actions.

Think about it. You only work one day a week and yet produce the same value as you would produce if you worked four days a week. Wouldn’t you like that? That’s basically what the Pareto Principle is saying.

The problem with the Pareto Principle is that it doesn’t work for employees. Employees are paid by the time they spend at work, not by the results they produce.

As a result, employees tend to do busy work, things that keep them busy, but don’t produce any valuable results.

If you want to become an entrepreneur, you need to perfect the Pareto Principle. You need to focus on the 20% of the actions that produce the 80% of the results. You need to let go of the 80% of the actions that produce low or no value at all.

Distinguishing between high and low-value actions is an art you perfect over time.

What are the high-value actions? In my opinion, these are learning, thinking, and applying what you learned and thought. I know that that sounds too general, so let me go into more detail.

The most valuable action is to come up with a vision. This is a long-term goal like a life goal. Then, the second most valuable action is learning and thinking about how to realize your vision. And eventually, applying the ideas that you learned and came up with in your life.

Your vision acts as a compass. It helps you find the 20% of the activities that produce the 80% of the results. Which activities bring you closer to the realization of your vision? Determine them and focus on them.

Let go of all the activities that don’t contribute to your vision. They are not only a waste of your time, but they are also potentially dangerous. The things that you do just to be busy can produce liabilities down the road. And they do.

Most of the time, doing nothing is better than wasting time on busy work. When you do nothing, you give yourself the space where new ideas can bubble up. You can also use that time to learn and think of course.

Eliminating waste, including waste of time, is crucial to making the most of your life. Distractions are obvious time wasters, but busy work is also a waste of time, and more dangerous than distractions because it gives you the false impression that you’re actually doing something useful.

If you’re interested in starting your own business, I recommend reading the book The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. It will help you start a business by yourself or with a co-founder with limited resources.

How would your life look like if you let go of the 99% of the things that didn’t contribute to your vision and focused on the 1% that did?

Waking Up Early Can Make the Difference between Success and Failure

But there’s a catch…

Waking up early is common advice in the personal development literature. “Join the 5:00 am club.” “I woke up at 4:30 am, and my life changed.” “Ex-seal wakes up at 4:00 am every day.” These are the headlines you come across frequently.

I believe I have the credits to write about waking up early. Since 2017, I regularly wake up around 5:00 am. There have been long stretches when I woke up around 4:00 am and sometimes earlier. Today’s post will be an honest review of my experience.

Waking up early has its advantages and disadvantages. Depending on your goals and life situation, it can make the difference between success and failure, or it might not make any difference at all. In some cases, it could be counterproductive.

I recommend that you assess your life situation and goals first before committing to waking up at 5:00 am or earlier.

Let’s assume you sleep eight hours per day, and you wake up at 7:00 am to barely make it to your work at 8:30. You work until 5:30 pm. And after a hard day of working, you’re at home at 6:00 pm. That means you have five yours at your hands in the evening.

What are you going to do with those five hours in the evening? Let me tell you. Most of those five hours will be wasted on useless activities like watching TV, drinking, or hanging out. That’s to be expected because you’ve worked hard throughout the day in your day job, and you’re mentally and physically exhausted.

5 hours a day is a lot of wasted time. If you waste 240 days per year, that makes 1200 wasted hours per year. That makes 75 days if you take into account only waking hours. That’s one-fifth of every year. By waking up early, you can claim some of that wasted time.

What to Do with Those Extra Hours in the Morning?

You can wake up an hour earlier every day and squeeze in a workout there. Depending on where and how you work out, that might mean an extra 30 to 45 minutes of physical exercise every morning.

If working out every day is too much for you, you can spend the first hour on reading and learning on some days and working out on others.

If both activities are essential for you, you can wake up two hours earlier and spend the first hour on your workout and the second hour on learning. That would mean you wake up at 5:00 am.

Waking up at 5:00 am leaves you with three extra hours to spend with your family and loved ones in the evening.

You can go to your work one hour earlier, and start working in the peace and silence of the morning before other people arrive. That could make a difference if your job requires deep concentration.

If your commute involves traffic jams, you can save a lot of time by shifting your working hours one hour earlier if your job allows that.

Unlike some personal gurus out there, I’m not going to preach you strict schedules and what to do in every quarter of those hours. It’s up to you to decide what to do with those extra hours in the morning.

You might decide to have a morning routine that is balanced between physical and intellectual activities. Or you might want to dedicate all of your extra hours to a single activity.

Anthony Trollope was an English writer who wrote three hours per day before his day job. He wrote 3000 words per day and produced 49 novels in 35 years. So, never underestimate those extra hours in the morning.

The Disadvantages of Waking Up Early

I found it relatively easy to wake up at 4:00 am in the winter, as I could go to bed at 8:00 pm to get my daily eight hours of sleep. However, that schedule didn’t work in summer because the daylight where I live lasted well into 10:00 pm.

I still went to bed at 8:00 pm and woke up at 4:00 am, but it was hard to get into sleep when there was daylight outside.

I heard from Dan Peña that some of his mentees sleep only four hours a day, but they make it up on the weekend. That’s a hack I haven’t tried yet, but it’s an option that you could try.

If changing your daily schedule overnight doesn’t work for you, you can ease into it using 1% improvements. Just wake up 5 minutes earlier every day until you reach your target wake up time.

Last but not least, you don’t need to wake up early to be successful. Some people are more efficient working at night when everybody is asleep.

I’ve written my Ph.D. thesis after the dinner in the working days. I drank some green tea to stay awake and concentrated and worked well into midnight.

This is also what Gary Vaynerchuk recommends, working between 7:00 pm and 2:00 am on your side hustle.


Depending on your metabolism, life situation, and goals, waking up at 5:00 am or even at 4:00 am can have its advantages.

You can use those extra morning hours to work out, to learn, to work on your side hustle, to avoid the traffic jams on your way to work, or to squeeze extra working hours in your day job.

There are some disadvantages to waking up early, especially if the daylight lasts until 10:00 pm during the summer days, and you still want to get your eight hours of sleep per day.

Don’t forget that everybody has a different metabolism. Some people are more productive late at night than early in the morning.

Last but not least, waking up early is a tool that’s available to you. You can use it to your advantage if you know how to use it toward a worthy goal.

If you don’t have a worthy goal, if it doesn’t work well with your metabolism, or if you don’t know how to make the most of those extra hours, waking up early won’t make a difference in your life.

On the upside, those extra hours could make the difference between the success and failure in your career or side hustle.

A Racing Mind, a Blessing or a Curse?

Do you have a racing mind that jumps from thought to thought and comes up with new ideas all the time? That sounds like a blessing because you have a constant stream of new ideas. What can be wrong with that?

On the other hand, a racing mind can be a serious liability, keeping you from focusing on a task until you complete it. How would you deal with such a problem, if you’re distracted by your racing thoughts?

I had a similar problem. On any given day, my mind would bombard me with dozens of ideas, nudging me to act upon them immediately. At a certain moment, I realized that my to-do list had thousands of tasks. It was impossible for me to complete all of those tasks.

Overestimating Ideas

When a new idea came up, I used to think that it was the Holy Grail. After a while, I realized that it wasn’t. However, I wasn’t ready to let go of all the ideas that my mind came up with. My solution was simple, write them down and move on.

Whenever I come up with a new idea, I write it down in my Evernote and move on. When I have time, I go over those ideas and pick the ones that are worth considering.

Throughout the time, I made a few conclusions about my ideas. They are usually repetitive. My mind comes up with similar ideas over and over. That’s why it’s important to expose our minds to new ideas. The best way to do that is to read books, but there’s some valuable online content as well.

The second conclusion I made about my ideas is that I will never have the time to implement all of them, even the majority of them. In a way, that discouraged my mind from coming up with new ideas all the time.

Do Your Ideas Serve Your Goals?

Moreover, I realized that the majority of my ideas were about irrelevant topics that didn’t serve my goals. That realization helped me to focus on my goals, on my tasks, and on what mattered to me. Nowadays, I don’t come up with new ideas about topics that don’t matter to me.

If you have racing thoughts, you’re probably feeding your mind with lots of stimulation, social media, TV, caffeine, and so on. Reducing social media and caffeine helped me with mental clarity.

Mental clarity is the absence of irrelevant racing thoughts in your mind. That way you can focus a greater portion of your mental capacity on what matters.


Having a racing mind that produces new thoughts and ideas all the time sounds like a blessing, but it has its disadvantages.

Our minds usually produce the same thoughts over and over. We also don’t have the time to implement all the ideas that our minds come up with. Majority of those ideas are on topics that don’t serve our goals anyway.

What’s the best way to deal with a racing mind? Just write down those ideas and carry on with your day. You can go over your notes over the weekend. You’ll realize that majority of your thoughts are repetitive and irrelevant to your goals.

When you let go of your racing thoughts, you’ll be left with mental clarity, which leaves you with greater mental capacity to focus on the tasks that serve your goals.

24 / 7 / 365 Productivity

When we’re thinking about productivity, the first thing that comes to our minds is work. From that context, being productive 24 / 7 / 365 is impossible.

If we define productivity as making the most of our lives, then 24 / 7 / 365 productivity is possible. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely within our reach.

The 24 / 7 / 365 productivity goal might look like an unreachable pinnacle for you. In reality, it’s a meaningful target.

Inversion is a useful method to approach a goal like 24 / 7 / 365 productivity. The first step is to ask yourself the following question.

What keeps me from reaching 24 / 7 / 365 productivity?

When we find the answers to that question, all we have to do is to eliminate those obstacles between us and our goal. Now, take a moment, and answer that question.


I expect most people to mention sleep as one of the obstacles to 24 / 7 / 365 productivity. I disagree. Sleep is one of the essentials of our lives. How productive can you be without sufficient quality sleep?

If you want to maximize your productivity, you don’t have to minimize your sleep. On the contrary, you need to optimize it. You need to make sure that you get sufficient quality sleep every day. That’s one of the pillars of high performance.

Time Spent with Family

Time spent with family doesn’t count as an obstacle to maximum productivity either. Remember, how we defined productivity? It’s making the most of your life.

If your family is higher than your work on your priorities list, time spent with your family isn’t an obstacle to productivity. On the contrary, just like sufficient quality sleep, you need to optimize your days for quality time with your family.

Watching TV, scrolling social media feeds, and drinking alcohol don’t qualify for quality time with family.

Vacation and Recreation

Would you consider vacation and recreation as an obstacle to productivity? Absolutely not. Just like quality sleep and family time, vacation and recreation charge our batteries so that we become even more productive when we’re back to work.


Now, we’re approaching the real obstacles to our 24 / 7 / 365 productivity goal. What are your distractions? How much time do you waste on distractions on a given day?

We usually underestimate the time we spend on our distractions because they are a few minutes here and there. This is what I call the fallacy of minimum marginal costs. The problem is that those minutes add up to hours on a given day.

A few hours a day add up to weeks in a year, to months in a decade, and to years in a lifetime. Do you really want to lose years of your life to distraction?

Worse than that, every time you give in to distraction, you lose your focus. It takes another quarter of an hour to concentrate again. Sometimes, it’s much better to do nothing at all than to give in to distraction.


You might think that alcohol relaxes you in the evening and coffee fires you up in the morning, but what are the long-term effects of those habits on your energy levels?

Caffeine might give you an energy peak when you consume it, but excessive consumption can definitely wear you out and leave you lethargic. How does that affect your productivity?

I’m not going into other substances here. You can reflect on their effects on your productivity if you consume them regularly.

Unhealthy Diet and Lack of Physical Exercise

Maybe, you skip preparing healthy food and exercising to save some time. Have you considered the effects of those dietary and lifestyle choices on your energy levels, and as a result on your productivity?

You don’t need to eliminate all the obstacles to your productivity overnight. You can gradually reduce them using the 1% method. That is aiming for 1% daily improvements.

24 / 7 / 365 productivity comes down to resource allocation, and your most valuable resources are your time, attention, and energy.


You might consider 24 / 7 / 365 productivity an impossible goal to achieve. You might think that sleep, time spent with your family, vacation, and recreation are obstacles to achieve that goal. However, they don’t keep you from maximizing your performance. Those are ingredients of a healthy, prosperous lifestyle.

What keeps you from achieving 24 / 7 / 365 productivity is your distractions, substances like alcohol and caffeine, your unhealthy diet, and your lack of physical exercise. They hurt your productivity by wasting your time, disrupting your attention, and lowering your energy.

What keeps you from reaching 24 / 7 / 365 productivity? How can you eliminate those obstacles from your lifestyle?

The Paradox of Time Management

With all the automation and productivity tools available to us, you would expect that we have a lot of spare time nowadays.

That’s obviously not the case for most of us. More and more people are struggling with time management today. How’s that possible?

The technology that brought us the automation and productivity tools also brought us a wider range of distractions. On top of that, new ways of filling our spare time became available to most of us.

We have more spare time than before, but we have even more videos, podcasts, events, and Tinder dates fighting for our time.

Obvious distractions such as social media and video gaming are easy to be labeled as time wasters. I already discussed several ways of eliminating them.

This post is about pursuits that seem to be beneficial on the surface but a waste of time, energy, money, and attention in reality. Time is only one of the resources that we have to manage in our lives.

An Example

When I first started training with weights, I followed the advice on YouTube and trained with the heaviest weights that I could lift for a certain amount of repetitions.

I had a good workout, but I had less energy for other activities during the rest of the day. My energy allocation wasn’t optimal, because having an athletic body wasn’t very high on my list of priorities.

The solution to this problem wasn’t to give up training altogether but to reduce the time and energy I invested in it. I decreased the number of days I went to the gym and the intensity of the workouts.

Nowadays, I have a moderate workout in the gym three days a week, and I have more energy to invest in other endeavors during the rest of the day.

Resource Allocation Based on Your Priorities

Prioritizing your life doesn’t mean to invest all of your time, energy, finances, and attention to a single endeavor. It means that your resource allocation is in alignment with your priorities.

Robert S. Kaplan points out the connection between vision, priorities, and time management in his HBR article What to Ask the Person in the Mirror, also available in the book HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Managing Yourself.

You draft a vision for your future. Based on your vision, you come up with a list of priorities. Finally, you adjust your usage of your time according to the list of your priorities.

I’d rather call it vision, priorities, and resource allocation because there’s so much more to resource allocation than just time management.

Needless to say a list of priorities needs to be restricted. If you have a dozen priorities, you don’t have any priorities.

Success requires sacrifices because we have unlimited desires but limited resources.


Our desires are unlimited, and the marketplace offers us numerous opportunities to fulfill them. This is a challenge for our time management in particular and our resource allocation in general.

Obvious distractions are easier to detect, but there are other activities in our lives that seem to be beneficial on the surface but wasting our resources in reality.

The road to success starts with defining our vision of our future, determining our priorities, and then auditing and adjusting our resource allocation accordingly.

The First Step to Productivity

Productivity is a popular but often misunderstood topic in business and personal development. Here’s a question for you before we start.

What does productivity mean to you? How do you define it?

Take a moment to reflect on this question and come up with an answer before you move on.

The Definition of Productivity

To me, productivity is the ratio of results to the resources used to create those results.

Maximizing my productivity means creating the most results with the least amount of resources. By resources, I mean time, money, energy, and anything I spend while working toward the results.

You might have a similar definition, and you might be satisfied with that definition. If you disagree with that definition and you have a different one, please let me know in the comments.

A Context Is Needed for Productivity

Productivity is an empty concept unless it is used in a meaningful context. That meaning comes from how well you define the results you’re aiming for.

You might aim for a bunch of papers with a dot on them. In that case, being productive would mean being efficient at placing a dot on a paper. But why would you do that in the first place?

You might be trying to improve your productivity, but did you define the results that you’re aiming for? If not, you might be optimizing your workflow to achieve nothing. You might as well put dots on papers.

Define the Results You’re Aiming For

The first step to improve your productivity is to define the results you’re aiming for.

What do you want to accomplish?

If you answer that question, then you can reflect on the related productivity question.

How can you accomplish it with fewer resources?

Let Go of the Inessentials

When I bought my first smartphone, I downloaded a bunch of apps to increase my productivity. After a while, I realized that my smartphone decreased my productivity instead of increasing it.

I was spending more time on “working” on the productivity apps compared to working toward my goals. As soon as I realized that, I quit using those apps and started to use only Evernote for that purpose.

Whenever you come up with an idea or whenever you come across a task, ask yourself the following question.

Does this idea or task serve the results that I’m aiming for?

If it doesn’t, it is inessential. Let it go. Or do it in your spare time for fun, because it isn’t a part of your work.

Letting go of the inessentials is one of the fundamentals of productivity.


Unless you define the results you’re aiming for, any effort spent on improving your productivity will be futile.

The Impact of Your Environment on Your Success

What comes to your mind when you think about success? For most of us, it’s working harder, longer, and smarter.

Sure you can improve your results through hard and smart work, but that’s just one factor in the formula of success. There are others factors such as environment and identity.

Creating the right environment will increase your productivity, effectiveness, and even your motivation. It will result in improved results.

Work from Home! Be Your Own Boss!

Those are the slogans many online marketers use to sell their make-money-online courses. The landing pages usually feature a woman in a bikini with a laptop on her lap “working” on the beach.

We all know that it’s impossible to work on a beach with a laptop due to the sun glare. And a laptop isn’t meant to be used on your lap because it gets hot.

Still, new people enter their emails and credit card information into those landing pages, year after year. How come?

Let’s Be Honest

Here are two scenarios.

  1. You work in an office. You wear serious clothes. You work from nine to five.
  2. You work at home. You wear PJs. You work whenever you feel like it.

In which scenario are you the most productive? In which scenario do you produce the most results?

You might prefer the second scenario over the first one, but you would agree that you’d be more productive and effective in the first scenario.

An office setting and serious clothes help you get into the mood of working. Your home and PJs make you feel resting and relaxing.

Home Office

Working from home has its advantages.

  • Avoiding the daily commute.
  • Flexible working hours.
  • Relaxed, comfortable environment.

However, that doesn’t mean working in your PJs, lying in your bed, with the daytime TV in the background. You need to have an environment that helps you focus and motivates you to do your best work.

Create an Environment for Success

How can you improve your working environment to increase your performance?

  • Is there any clutter on your desk and bookshelves that you can get rid of?
  • Can you get a better desk and office chair to improve your performance?
  • What are the distractions around you?
  • Do you need to switch off your phone or activate the “do not disturb” mode?
  • Can you clean up your computer desktop?
  • Is your desktop wallpaper distracting you?

My favorite work accessory is noise canceling headphones. I listen to relaxing classical music. And I drink a few cups of coffee and green tea throughout the day. All of that helps me focus on the task at hand.

You might think that these are just details, but a series of small adjustments in combination make a big difference. If you made a 1% improvement every day, you would improve your life 38 times in a single year.

Which 1% improvements can you make in your working environment?

Investing in Your Environment

Do you use the best tools that money can buy? Do you use the best computer, smartphone, and software that you can afford?

Which apps are on the home screen of your smartphone? Do they increase your productivity or do they distract you?

How close is your home to your work? In what kind of a neighborhood do you live? I know these are the decisions you cannot make overnight, but they are worth thinking about.

Some of these changes might sound like a lot of time, money, and effort to implement at the beginning, but think about the dividends they’ll pay over time. If you can save an hour every day, wouldn’t that make a big difference over your entire career?

Design Your Home for Success

High performance doesn’t depend only on your working environment. Your home is as important as your working environment.

Does a big TV dominate your living environment and is it switched on all the time? Is your home, clean, neat, and tidy?

Do you have a quality bed to rest properly? I even pay attention to the temperature and humidity of my bedroom. I realized this plays a huge role in how good I rest at night and how good I perform the next day.


Your environment has a big impact on your success. If you haven’t paid any attention to your environment before, it’s time to take a critical look at it and optimize it for focus, productivity, and success.

You don’t need to change everything at once. You can start by making a list and go over the list one by one over time.

Changing your environment might demand your effort, time, and money, but it will pay its dividends in higher performance and success over time.

The Bug That’s Trying to Mate with a Beer Bottle

This post isn’t my attempt to dethrone Franz Kafka from his position in the royal family of literature. It’s about a species of beetles from Australia, and the similarities of our behavior with them.

The males of this species are attracted to a particular beer bottle and try to mate with it. These beer bottles resemble the females of the species, but they are just bigger and brighter. This behavior is an example of a phenomenon called supernormal stimulus.

If you look up from your phone and look at the people around, you can see many examples of the same phenomenon. In the last decade, technology evolved to take advantage of supernormal stimulus in humans.

The high-resolution screens of our devices and endless streams of bright and colorful content on social media channels such as YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook are hijacking our attention.

Just like the male beetle that’s wasting its time and energy trying to mate with a beer bottle, we’re depleting our attention with an activity that doesn’t add any value to our lives.

Similarities with Alcoholism

Our device addiction is built in a similar way to alcohol addiction, as a result of a positive feedback loop. Jordan B. Peterson explains the positive feedback loop in his book 12 Rules for Life.

A person consumes alcohol, and they feel good. This state reverses when their body starts to break down alcohol. Then, they realize that they can cure the bad feelings of withdrawal by drinking more alcohol. Once this feedback loop is established, the person gets more and more addicted to alcohol.

A similar mechanism is in play with the device addiction. We become stressed or bored in a specific situation. Instead of dealing with the stress or boredom directly, we use our gadgets to avoid them.

As we get used to the stimulation of our devices, not checking them causes withdrawal symptoms, which we cure by spending more time on them.

The Motivation to Quit

If you’re addicted to your device, you can use those two pieces of information as motivation to quit. Whenever you feel like checking your device unnecessarily, remind yourself that your device is to you what the beer bottle is to the Australian beetle.

Moreover, remind yourself that the positive feedback loop is drawing you further into the deeper levels of addiction hell.

If you need further tips to let go of your device addiction, you can check the three steps to quit and how to deal with the withdrawal symptoms.

Last but not least, take a deep breath, look up from your phone, and take a look around. You’ll realize that there’s a beautiful, real life out there, which feels much better than looking at a bright screen all the time.

High Performance Isn’t What You Think It Is

One of the most misunderstood concepts in personal development is high performance.

What does high performance mean to you?

Take a moment to answer that question.

To me, high performance means producing great results. To produce great results, I need to be productive.

What does productivity mean to you?

Again, take a moment to answer that question.

To me, productivity means output divided by input.

The Formula of Productivity

We can derive several conclusions from that formula.

We can increase our output by increasing our input and keeping our productivity constant.

That’s what most people understand from high performance. Do you want to increase your output? Increase your input. They make the assumption that your productivity will remain the same. This type of thinking can be summarized as “work hard.”

We can increase our output by increasing our productivity and keeping our input constant.

Some people realize that you can only increase your input to a limited level without sacrificing your productivity. There are only 24 hours on a day, and you need some sleep too. To increase your output, you need to improve your productivity. The motto of this type of thinking is “work smart.”

High Performance: Work Hard and Work Smart

Obviously, high performance involves working hard and working smart at the same time.

Believe it or not, working hard is the easiest part. Self-discipline is a muscle you can develop over time. The hardest part is to work smart.

Working smart, in other words increasing your productivity, requires innovation. Innovation requires taking a step back from your work. Looking at your processes from a higher level, detecting bottlenecks, and solving those bottlenecks.

Innovation requires taking a step back from your work.

You might need to replace some processes altogether. Sometimes, you’ll come across challenges to which you won’t have immediate solutions. In other words, you’ll bump across some roadblocks that you can’t overcome with hard work.

Solving those roadblocks requires reflection. Reflection isn’t working hard. When somebody observes you reflecting, they might think that you aren’t doing anything. You might as well believe that you aren’t doing anything, and be tempted to stop reflecting and start working hard again.

In some cases, you might need to stop working altogether and to rest so that “the answers come to you.” That means giving your mind the rest it needs to function properly again. But that doesn’t mean to distract yourself with the Internet or hanging out. It means doing nothing, and actually, it’s a hard thing to do in this day and age.


High performance requires working hard and working smart. Working smart requires increasing your productivity, innovation, and reflection. You can’t reflect while working hard.

Reflection involves getting into a relaxed state of mind and letting the answers come to you instead of actively pursuing them. Sometimes, you need to stop working altogether and rest your mind to make that happen.

That doesn’t mean distracting yourself with all kinds of other intense experiences. It means doing nothing and relaxing, which is harder than working hard.

Working hard is necessary for high performance, but if you avoid the working smart part of the formula, no amount of hard work will produce the results you’re aiming for.

An Analytical Way to Making Decisions and Solving Problems

“We cannot solve our problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

That’s a quote attributed to Einstein and the idea behind today’s post. Today, I’ll discuss how to get to the higher level of thinking with which we can solve our problems.

Let me explain the low-level and high-level thinking on an example. This example might sound simple to you but bear with me. You can use the same approach successfully on more complex problems in your professional and private life.

A Sample Problem: Multiple File Hosting Services

At the moment, I use three different file hosting services, iCloud, OneDrive, and Google Drive. They came with my iPhone, MS Office, and Google account.

As a result, my files are scattered around in three different services. They’re also installed on my laptop, which makes it slower to boot.

That’s a problem, and I decided to solve that problem. Now, there are two approaches to solving that problem.

The Default Approach to Solving Problems

The default approach is to randomly choose one of the services, start moving files to that service in a haphazard manner, and start deleting files and software from my laptop and smartphone.

Can you see the problem with that?

With that approach, I can easily choose the wrong service, lose some important files, and end up with an incorrect configuration on my laptop or smartphone.

That might sound obvious to you, but more often than not, we follow that casual approach in solving problems, not only in trivial matters but also in critical professional endeavors. As a result, we create greater problems than we intend to solve.

“Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.” Peter Senge

The Higher Level Thinking Approach to Solving Problems

In this approach, we go one level higher in our thinking. Instead of working on the problem directly, we work on the problem of solving the problem at hand.

The first step is to come up with the answer to the following question: “What’s the best way of solving this problem?” In my case, the answer is as follows.

  • Decide on a file hosting service.
  • Move the files to that hosting service.
  • Remove the duplicate files from my laptop, smartphone, and tablet.
  • Remove the unnecessary software from my laptop, smartphone, and tablet.

Now, that gives us a high-level breakdown of the solution. That’s one step toward the ideal solution, but still imperfect. Can you see why?

These four steps are too high-level to be executed directly. We need to break them down further.

Making the Right Decisions

The first step above is a decision. That might look like a simple decision to you, but I want to apply the same problem-solving technique in this step to demonstrate its use in decision making.

There are two ways to make a decision, instinctively vs. analytically. In the first approach, we make a decision without thinking, with our instincts, emotions, and intuitions.

If you developed your intuition in a field over the years, deciding on autopilot might be efficient for you, but most of the time, we don’t make the best decisions with this approach.

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Laurate behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman explains how our biases misguide our decision making when we operate on autopilot mode.

An Analytical Approach to Making Decisions

With the analytical approach, our goal is to overcome our biases and to make an informed decision. Here are the steps of the analytical approach.

  • Decide on a set of decision criteria.
  • Determine your options.
  • Analyze your options according to your decision criteria.
  • Choose the option that satisfies your criteria the most.

In my case, my decision criteria are the following.

  • 100 GB disk space
  • Price
  • Works on Windows and iOS
  • Preferably, a service that I’m already using
  • Preferably, a company that I haven’t paid yet

My options are the following.

  • iCloud
  • OneDrive
  • Google Drive
  • Dropbox

The option that satisfies all of my decision criteria is Google Drive. I don’t like the fact that I paid hundreds of euros to Apple and Microsoft and still have to pay them an extra for anything more than 5 GB disk space.

I don’t need the 1 TB disk space of Dropbox. Therefore, I don’t want to pay an extra 80 euro each year for a service I won’t use.

Google is probably using my files to collect data about me to show me personalized ads, but I’m fine with that. So, my final decision is Google Drive.

Break Down Solution Steps into Action Items

I need to break down the remaining three steps before I start to execute them.

Move the files to Google Drive.

  • Move the files in OneDrive to Google Drive. This is a cut and paste operation on my laptop.
  • Backup the photo and video files in my iPhone to Google Drive.
  • Make sure there aren’t any photo and video files in my iCloud that aren’t backed up to Google Drive.

Remove the duplicate files from my laptop, smartphone, and tablet.

  • Remove the photo and video files from my iCloud.
  • Remove the photo and video files from my iPad.

Remove the unnecessary software from my laptop, smartphone, and tablet.

  • Remove iCloud from my laptop.
  • Remove OneDrive from my laptop.
  • Stop backing up my photo and video files to iCloud.
  • Set up my iPhone to back up my photo and video files to Google Drive.

When to Use the Default Approach

In some cases, writing down the solution steps might feel like too much work to you. You might be tempted to skip it and attack the problem at hand right away. Sometimes, you might save some time with the default approach when solving trivial problems.

More often than not, we underestimate the challenges we face. We attack the problem head first. As a result, we either end up in a dead end or create a problem that’s greater than the one we tried to solve.

In most cases, except the trivial ones, it pays off to write down a general overview of how we’re going to solve the problem hand. In more complicated cases, we can treat each step as a problem in itself and break it down into further steps.

You can go into as much detail as you want until you reach clear action steps. Don’t worry about wasting time planning, because as Brian Tracy says “every minute you spend in planning saves 10 minutes in execution.” That’s an approximation of course, but it gives you a good idea.


Our default reaction to problems and decisions is to dive head first into them. That results in greater problems in the future.

We can improve our decision making by coming up with decision criteria, determining our options, analyzing our options according to the decision criteria, and choosing the option that satisfies our criteria the most.

We can solve our problems effectively by writing down the solution steps and breaking down each step until we come up with clear action items.

The analytical way of making decisions and solving problems seems to be a lot of work, but it prevents us from greater problems in the future.