Welcome back, everybody. I am your host, Greg McKeown. I’m the author of Essentialism and also of Effortless, and I am here with you on this journey to learn how we can design and then live a life that really matters.
Many of us have been told that if we are good at making decisions, we’re good at everything, but this, I think, is wrong. What we know now is that making the right one-time decisions is the real game changer in part four of this series on 10 x leverage, that is, how to be able to achieve residual results in your life. You will learn why and then how to be able to make one-time decisions that can change your life. Let’s get to it.
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When our children were toddlers, we lived next door to a family quite similar to our own. They had two young children just like us. We traveled in the same social circles and saw each other every weekend. Even the floor plan of their house was literally the mirror image of ours.
One day, the husband told me about his recent knee surgery. All had appeared to go well during the procedure, but his recovery was not progressing as expected. Instead of subsiding, the pain had increased as the weeks went by. Eventually, they got to the bottom of the matter. The surgical team had inadvertently left a small surgical instrument inside his knee. One would never expect this kind of mistake from highly trained medical professionals, and the team that performed the surgery was indeed highly trained. They had degrees from top medical schools. They had many years of experience still in the midst of this complex operation, they made a shockingly careless, utterly avoidable mistake.
The explanation for this is simple. They had relied on their memory. As a result, they forgot an essential step in the process. Now, it’s tempting to say if only the medical staff had been thinking, but I see it as if only the medical staff had not needed to think. Alfred North Whitehead, the British mathematician turned American philosopher, once said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations we can perform without thinking about them.”
Another way of saying as many essential steps and activities as possible should be automated. Now, I share that story in chapter 13 of Effortless in a chapter called Automate: Do It Once and Never Again, but I want to shift to a very particular kind of automation. Instead of do it once and never again, it’s decided once and never again.
I read years ago this idea that we need to make certain decisions only once – that we can push some things away from us once and be done with them. We can make a single decision about certain things that we will incorporate in our lives and then make them ours without having to brood and redecide a hundred times what it is we will do and what we will not do. I’ll put the link in the show notes, but let’s just reflect on it for a moment.
Think of the burden of indecision. Think about the costs mentally and emotionally. That tax us, leading to anxiety and stress. Every time we have to decide what to do in a certain situation. There’s a name for it, decision fatigue. This is why by 11 o’clock in the morning, we’re just exhausted sometimes because we live in an era of unbelievable choices and opportunities, and so we just get pulled in a million different directions, and each thing has to be decided on its own merits.
But what if we didn’t have to do it that way?
What if we could think in terms of whole categories that we’re just going to say no to? Or whole situations that we can decide in advance? That’s a no for me, that’s a clear no, that’s a hard pass. What if we could make one-time decisions about personal values or healthy habits or committing, deciding to pursue particular long-term goals?
For instance, long-time listeners of this podcast will know that the idea of establishing a power half an hour is an idea we have discussed recently, but in other words, the same idea other times before. That is to create a space of half an hour or perhaps as much as an hour in the morning that you don’t check texts, that you don’t check email so that you don’t get pulled into the whirlwind of distraction and nonsense and feel that frenetic frantic noise filling you from the first instant that you’re awake.
But what if you could decide that one time? What if you didn’t wake up in the morning? Well, do I check my phone or not? Do I want to see what’s in email or not? Should I just check a few texts or not? What if you could decide once and that was it, that you just don’t make exceptions to this because it turns out that a hundred percent commitment to a decision is easier than a 95% commitment to it because you remove all of that mental exertion to try to work out, well, is this something I do or don’t do?
What about exercise? I know from personal experience, I’m sure you do in your life, that if you have to think about that each morning, if you have to decide will I or won’t I that many mornings, perhaps most mornings you are not going to feel like doing it. I listened to somebody recently who made the point that for him, even when he’s traveling, he treats exercise, going to the gym, like cleaning his teeth. It’s nonnegotiable. The decision has been made so that when he arrives at the hotel, instead of going to do other things, he immediately heads to the gym. This is a one-time decision. He’s decided to trade off ahead of time, but not just for a day or for a week, but for many years, perhaps for his whole life.
Think of how that’s freeing and liberating. Anna described this kind of decision recently to me in her own life that the real change for her with this exercise we’re talking about with protecting the asset changed when she thought about that appointment to exercise as if it was a class in university, she isn’t deciding whether to attend or not. That’s the routine. That’s built-in.
To be perfectly honest, with my own exercise routine right now, I think I feel I don’t really want to do it ever when I wake up, I never regret it afterward, and the experience itself, the moment that I arrive, has become a ritual that I do enjoy in the but just before, if I had to decide each day, I don’t know if I’d even make it 50/50. I think I’d be below that because then you just get into a sort of discouraging cycle.
What about one-time life decisions in relationships? I spent some time listening to a new acquaintance recently. He talked about his partner, the mother of his children. He talked about how he has spent years vacillating about getting married, about really deciding this is the person. He loves her, she loves him, but he hasn’t yet learned how to make a one-time life decision in his relationships, and so think of the cost. Well, he articulated it to me, this ambiguity, this holding back the inability to give himself fully to her, to be completely vulnerable, to be completely committed, decide as we know, means to cut or to kill. It’s to cut off something else. In relationships, of course, it’s to cut off all other relationships to say this is the person.
No one-time decision in my life can be compared to the decision to fully give myself to my wife, Anna, and her. To me, that is a residual result that has paid me back us back a thousand times, and as the years go by, the exponential advantages of it become more and more apparent when we’re in a relationship, but we’re really looking over somebody’s shoulder to see if there’s somebody better out there that the relationship we’re in simply cannot evolve and grow roots that can produce the really important fruit and results that we want in life.
What about eating habits? For the last couple of years, I’ve had this tapping that I needed to stop eating after nine o’clock at night, and in two years, I might have achieved that five times. I mean something appallingly low on what I would like to have achieved and do You see, that’s the illustration of the problem.
Every day I have to decide in the moment. Every day I’m having to decide at the worst moment I’m having to decide when I’m hungry, when I’m fatigued from the day, when my self-control is at its lowest, and so it’s been my unfortunate habit to eat probably more unhealthily from nine o’clock to the time I go to sleep. Then the entire rest of the day combined. That is until a few weeks ago, a one-time decision. Now, it would be even better if I had done that for the whole rest of my life, but I’ve committed six months. It’s a one-time decision for six months, no exceptions. So far, I’m on track with that because every day, I don’t have to rethink. I don’t have to overthink. I don’t have to try and weigh up the advantages and the disadvantages. The decision is made in advance. The trade-off is established. The strategy is laid.
In another example, just this last week, my office received a request to have me go and speak at a major conference. It was an international event. They had something close to an unlimited budget. It’s a country I haven’t been to, and I really want to see these countries and so it fits a lot of the criteria, but as part of the natural research that my office does, they found out that the values of the company, it’s inherent purpose was not in alignment with my values. So what went from being something, and I have so many errors and mistakes every day of my life, but this was a powerful moment for me. It was such an easy no because the no didn’t take place in the midst of this conversation. It did not take place in the midst of the opportunity.
Again, that is really the worst way of making important trade-off decisions. When the temptation is highest, when we’re most aware of the endowment effect, what we’re going to lose, the decision needs to be made previously when we are clear-eyed, we’re sure of what the values are, when we know what is right, when we know what is wrong and we make the decision there so when the actual situation pops up, it’s already done. This was a moment like that. An effortless no, a smiling no, and that enjoyable experience afterward of knowing that you have kept to that one-time decision.
So here’s the homework assignment. Make a one-time decision for your life. You might look at something that’s nonessential that you keep coming back to habitually, perhaps to your frustration, or perhaps you look at something that’s essential, you know, should say yes to it, but you keep having to decide and vacillate back and forth on and off and make a one-time decision and see the advantage of never second guessing it. This itself may be almost a new idea to you that you can think through a whole variety of future scenarios and make that decision in all of them before they happen.
I’ll share again this central idea. We can make certain decisions only once. We can push some things away from us once and have done with them. We can make a single decision without certain things. We can make a single decision about certain things that we will incorporate in our lives and then make them ours without having to brood and redecide a hundred times what it is we will do and what we will not do.
Thank you. Really, thank you for listening. What is one thing that stood out to you? What is a one-time decision that you can make right now for the rest of your life? Think of the advantage. And who is somebody that you can share this episode with so that you can help each other stay accountable to a single, one-time decision so that you can take advantage of something you decide once and never again. That is a way to achieve residual results. That is a way to achieve 10 x results, but without burning out.
Remember that the first five people who write a review of this episode will get access to the Essentialism Academy. You can go to gregmckeown.com/essential for the details. I’ll see you next time.