Things that are hard to begin but near-impossible to quit

In my list of ideas for future blog posts, I noticed a pattern between some topics:

  • “What’s a decision I can make now that removes the need for future decisions?”
  • “Which question, if answered first, would provide answers to most other questions?”
  • “What problem, once solved, would prevent me from having future problems?”

My mind has come back to this idea repeatedly, always from a different angle.

(In fact, I’ve already kind-of written about this topic earlier: in “Passive Productivity: Get more done, by default”, I tried to list things you can do once that will make you more productive forever.)

It’s time to tackle this idea. And I think I finally know how.

Hard to begin, near-impossible to quit

If you look at the questions above, all of them have the same structure: do something now that gives benefits forever. Let’s analyze this structure deeper.

If something that gave us benefits for a long time were easy, we’d all be doing it, and we wouldn’t need to ask the questions I asked in the beginning. So the things must be hard to do, hard to put to a start.

For the things to bring us benefits for a long time, the things must be near-impossible to quit or stop. The default must be a continuation of the benefits, and only an exception would cause the benefits to stop.

So the formula we’re going after is “things that are hard to begin but near-impossible to quit”. It would be better to chase these things sooner rather than later, since there’d be more benefits accrued over time.

Another way to frame this: big initial push, then automatic operation.

What are things you can do once that will benefit you forever?

When I researched this topic on the internet, most of the answers I found were to the tune of “get rid of your bad habits / addictions” or “marry the right person” or “get fit”. Sure, these will benefit you forever. But there’s too much continuous effort required to keep the benefits coming for my liking (don’t relapse, don’t neglect your marriage, don’t stop working out…). 

We’re after a different variety of actions altogether if we are to answer my question, not some easier, peripheral question.

So far, I’ve discovered 3 rough categories of things that could work according to the pattern of “do now, benefit forever (with minimal to zero extra effort)”.

1. Foundational principles

“What’s a decision I can make now that removes the need for future decisions?”

If you establish a principle so foundational that it becomes a part of you, you will never have to make the same decision again. The principle will do it for you on auto-pilot.

For example, if you truly believe that fast fashion is ruining the world, you’ll shop used or sustainable clothes only, if you shop at all. You won’t have a decision to make when H&M blasts you with ads - unless, of course, you want to contribute to ruining the world. Or if you are deeply religious, and it is part of that religion not to eat shrimp, it simply becomes a thing you don’t do. 

Now, these were easy examples to illustrate that principles, when taken seriously, are decisions that remove the need for future decisions. Let’s go deeper. Here’s a more foundational principle: “I’ll only do things for myself, no one else.”

If you take this principle seriously, a lot of decisions become simple:

  • Should I growth hack on Twitter? No, because I’m not after followers. I do this for myself.
  • Should I get a better car? Yes, if I really need it. No if it’s for signaling and making my neighbor jealous.
  • How should I exercise? Probably not only with huge weights and with a focus on gaining muscle (so other people think I’m healthy), but in a way that makes me happy and actually feeling like I’m healthy.

So it simplifies your life to have foundational principles in place. But how to establish them? I think foundational principles are something you establish not because you decide to, but because you cannot not establish them. Because you understand something that moves you so deeply that acting some way or not acting another way becomes as natural to you as breathing.

There’s a sort of hack to establishing principles: to say “I have a rule not to…”. “I have a rule not to buy chocolate, or to work overtime on a Friday.” Here, the game isn’t one of understanding but discipline, how long you can go before breaking the rule. I’d choose a principle founded on understanding any time though because in all other cases, you’ll doubt them and thus you have a decision to make whenever you’re tempted: ditch the principle or not? If the principle is foundational, based on understanding, you won’t consider ditching it - at least very easily.

2. Foundational answers

“Which question, if answered first, would provide answers to most other questions?”

If you know what you want out of life, most other questions are answered for you. You know what to avoid, what to add, where to live, who to live with, what to do and care about... If you don't know what you want, the most important thing is to figure out your answer to that question.

You could try to figure out the other questions - like where to live - but the answer to that question may change when you figure out an answer to the foundational question. Or right now you may think you care about x, but then you figure out what you really want out of life and your priorities change altogether. So you can save yourself a lot of trouble by focusing on the right question.

It’s tough to figure out an answer to this question, but once you do, everything else will start falling into place. I don’t have a blueprint, but you can invert the question, if that makes it easier to answer: What don't you want out of life?

3. Foundational problems

“What problem, once solved, would prevent me from having future problems?”

The problem with problems is that once you solve one, another one emerges. 

But what if instead of combating all of life’s problems individually or as they emerge, we could solve all problems within one category at once? Or better yet, solve all problems, once and for all? Let’s first consider the case of categories, later the holistic case.

Process:

  1. Pick a major category in life
  2. Figure out the major problems relating to that category
  3. Identify the foundational problem that, once solved, would solve all other problems in that category as a side effect
  4. Solve the foundational problem

Example #1: Health

Can you imagine an animal who has as many health issues as humans do today? It feels like nearly everyone has some sort of major health issue, if not presently, then within their lifetime. There’s widespread obesity, so many physical conditions that no one can count them, and even if someone were physically in pristine condition, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they had mental health issues or showed signs of addiction for a modern invention like social media.

Why are humans so extraordinarily unhealthy today while other animals seem to be doing just fine without doctors and medical intervention?

Evolutionary traits generally change slower than the environment. Therefore, the traits that were once helpful can now be harmful because the environment is different. When this is the case, we talk of evolutionary mismatch. 

  • We evolved to value sweet and fatty foods. But now this trait is a disadvantage because sugary and fatty foods aren't scarce anymore - you can get them delivered to your door with one button.
  • Our bodies evolved to be alert under stress, such as when hunting. But now we have chronic stress, and the constant alertness leads to burnout and health issues.
  • We evolved to value newness: for example, a new female/male is a new chance at spreading your genes, or new information in the form of gossip is valuable in choosing who to trust or mate. But now we can get 10,000x the amount of newness and stimuli over the internet (social media, news, porn...), leading to addiction and mental health issues.

I believe humans have the most health issues out of all animals because we have the largest evolutionary mismatch. (And also because we can survive such mismatch while other species die if the mismatch gets too big - we simply suffer, but don’t die)

It is important to understand that we essentially have a hunter-gatherer brain and body in a modern society, so there is huge (and rapidly increasing) mismatch. If we could minimize the mismatch, we could minimize most if not all of the problems in the health category. 

Mismatch is the foundational health problem that, if solved, would prevent you from having future health problems to a large extent. Instead of working on each problem individually, target this foundational problem.

Naturally, one minimizes the mismatch by shaping their environment into one that more closely resembles our ancestral environment (but only a fool would discard the modern developments that are beneficial to our health). While an interesting topic, this isn’t the place to discuss the practicalities of this (let’s do that in a future post, maybe).


Example #2: Money

For most people, money is or becomes a psychological problem. The first problem is having what is necessary, which most people achieve. The second problem is deciding what is enough, and most people struggle with this, leading to a whole host of other problems (taking risks to make more money, stressing about those risks, doing a job you don’t like because it pays well…).

What’s interesting about psychological problems is that you don’t necessarily solve the problem with a solution. You solve it with a deep awareness of the problem itself. The solution is hidden in the problem.

The money problem isn’t solved by making more money, but by understanding the problem itself - that you haven’t decided what is enough - and then understanding why that is - you are deeply insecure, or maybe you don’t have anything in your life that you value more than money - and then tackling that core issue head on.

Solving this problem - and solving it once and for all, not just until someone figures out a better way to sell you a yacht - solves many other money problems automatically. Linking back to the earlier sections, a deep understanding of money, your principles and what you want out of life could lead you to realize that money and material, beyond the amount you’ve decided is enough, really isn’t what you want.


So you can solve these whole categories of problems at once, whether the category is health or money or relationships or your appearance or anything. Just imagine how many modern problems you could get rid of if you simply learned how not to desire, how to be content with whatever you have right now - being okay with what is, not what could be.

Anyway, metaphor time.

Your average problems are your average enemies in a video game. You slay one, another emerges. There’s always another one.

Category problems are the nests. Once you destroy the goblin nest, hurray, no more goblins. It’s a big battle to destroy the nest, and there will probably be a few times when you think you’ve destroyed it but then you see an angry goblin running at you and you realize you didn’t. But once you destroy the nest, no more goblins!

But… There’s still the final boss.

This is the meta problem. The idea of a problem itself. Approaching “having problems” as one big problem. 

Why do you have problems? Could you solve all problems at once, by dismissing the idea of a problem?

Instead of something being a problem - something we need to fix - let’s just view it as something that simply is. A problem is dissatisfaction with the current situation. If we were completely satisfied with our bodies, or our house, or our financial situation, we’d have 0 problems, no? So the problem isn’t that there are “imperfections” with the situation, the problem is that we are dissatisfied, that we cannot accept those “imperfections”.

Let’s say you have a big nose. You think this is a problem - almost everyone else has a smaller nose! Objectively, though, your nose is neutral. If a dog or a tree looked at your nose, they’d just think it’s a nose. But if a human looks at it, we think it’s big, thus an imperfection, thus a problem.

So it is us who create the problems, with our own expectations and perspective. We turn neutral into negative through expectation. Surely you see now that if we could remove this expectation or the idea of an “imperfection”, we’d remove most, if not all, problems? We wouldn’t view problems as problems, simply as things that are.

Reality is perfect as it is. Human perception introduces the problems, then tries so hard to fix reality when there is nothing to fix. The intervention breeds more problems, and so we enter the never-ending flow of problems-solutions-problems that we call life. 

(Note that I’m not advocating we don’t act, for example, on societal issues. Just sharing thoughts on a person-level. Scale changes things.)

We tend to think of the internal and external as separate. That there’s an objective experience and then there’s my interpretation of the experience, two separate things. But they are the same. How you perceive things is how the things are (to you at least). If you think it’s an ugly nose, it’s an ugly nose. To someone else it’s a beautiful nose because they think so. "Problems" in the physical world only exist because of your internal world.

So the ultimate problem you want to solve is the concept of problems. This is the final boss.

When you don’t see problems as problems, you won’t feel stress about 99% of the stuff that most people feel stress about. Someone else would look at your house and see loads of things to fix: you need to repaint the walls, fix that shrieking door, and get a better table. They’d find many problems with your clothing and attitude to life and you in general. If they were you, they’d for sure be stressed out and so busy fixing problem after problem. But to you, there wouldn’t be anything to fix.

Your reward for defeating the final boss is everlasting peace and indifference.

There are surprisingly many things that are hard to begin but near-impossible to quit

I thought there would be very few things that fit the bill. Now I see there are surprisingly many. And these things are surprisingly important - perhaps the most important things in life. After all, we’re talking about personal revolution on a fundamental level.

Most of these things are matters of the mind, not of the physical world. The physical world is easy: in my passive productivity post, I said that learning touch typing will benefit you forever because you’ll self-sustain the skill simply by typing, which you do nearly every day.

Matters of the mind are rarely this simple. To get persistent benefits, something must change in you that prevents you from quitting (personal revolution):

  • When you establish a foundational principle (hard), it becomes near-impossible to break that principle.
  • When you discover a foundational answer (hard), it becomes near-impossible to ignore that answer; it’s a truth you can’t unsee.
  • When you solve a foundational problem (hard), it becomes near-impossible to create the problem again because the understanding required for solving a foundational problem will ensure you don’t stray off-course.

As I wrote both explicitly and implicitly, the key to all three is a deep understanding, a deep awareness. It is the mind that has created all these questions and all these problems, so one must use the mind to cut through them.

Read next:

Get each new post to your email:

RSS feed
Follow me on Twitter for more content.