I’ve been traveling the last couple of weeks, and while traveling offers many thought-provoking experiences and opportunities to reflect, it can offer very little time to get those reflections out on a keyboard. So I offer up to you a small thought for the week: I tie my shoes differently now than I did when I was younger. If my experience is any indication of general trends, I tie my shoes differently than much of the population. Whether that’s the case or not, the fact is I changed how I tied my shoes one day.

Changing a long-ingrained habit is not easy. Our brains wire themselves ever more strongly with each passing repetition of a habitual action. Nobody consciously thinks about tying their shoes while they do it—it just happens reflexively. So to change one of these behaviors and re-wire that part of the brain takes a conscious effort, for a while, before the new habit takes the place of the old one.

I changed because it seemed worth it. I had seen a TED talk (see below) in which the speaker explained why a simple change in the sequence of hand motions produced a knot that was more robust and even aesthetically a bit better than the standard knot I was taught to tie. And I thought: I rarely care about how my shoes are tied, except when they come loose. But then again, if making an improvement requires such a small investment of effort, then surely it must be worth it?

If I have avoided two or three episodes of untied laces thanks to my mid-life reprogramming, then I’ve earned back the time it took to re-train myself in this simple skill. But the practice of upending habits and looking everywhere for improvement is an essential feature of the Jailbreak mentality. It is good for the brain, and in making improvements, it is good for life.

In similar fashion, I have in the past re-trained myself away from the QWERTY keyboard layout to the more-efficient Dvorak layout; I’ve changed the entire language of my computer operating system (and the keyboard) while learning another language; a thousand tweaks made to how I handle implements in the kitchen have improved the quality and speed of my cooking. Next up: breaking the tyranny of right-handedness and learning to write excellent script as a leftie.

What ingrained habit have you broken and replaced to make some small part of your life more efficient?

Small Observations

It rained the other day, hard and heavy and quick. My wife and I were in the grocery store, stocking up for the week. I had seen a dust storm on the horizon as we went in; by the time we came out, the rainstorm that followed the dust had already come and gone. But boy had it done its job.

The ten-minute drive to the store translated into over an hour to get home. A big wreck on the freeway shut it down just before our exit; so we got turned around and shunted onto side streets when we were almost home. What followed was a slow crawl around the neighborhood, and in several places the water left by the rain—remember it was no more than an hour’s storm—was running through the streets close to knee-high. This city gets maybe three days of rain per year, so it is not built to handle a deluge.

One reason the traffic snaked slowly was because of everyone’s anxiety at crossing the deep parts of these impromptu waterways. Large trucks and SUVs plowed through with no problem, but smaller sedan-like cars—like mine—were much more cautious, and each one evaluated whether it was going to be able to make it through such deep water. At first I wondered myself whether I could make it through.

Then I realized: I have no idea at all at what depth water becomes a problem for a car. Is too much water splashed up the undercarriage a problem? Maybe it’s when the water is deep enough to run into the exhaust pipe? Maybe if the cooling fans at the front ingest too much water and spray it over the engine compartment? I’m sure that at some point any of those would be problematic. But which would go first? No clue. And also, I concluded: it didn’t matter.

Analysis paralysis, as it’s called, keeps lots of people from doing lots of things. People put off projects forever, because they are gathering information and don’t know when they have enough. Retail investors, who should be doing their retirement investing by buying-and-holding whole-stock-market funds, stay in cash because they don’t understand how options, puts, and carried calls work. Who, as a college student, didn’t put off writing a paper because they just needed to do “a little more research”?

The vast majority of the time, the trick to actually accomplishing something is not to do the best research possible; it’s to put the right filters in place. Ignoring what doesn’t matter can be just as challenging as doing what does matter. And, in a way, it’s far more important. If you just get started, you can always stop and learn a little more if you find you need more information; and you’re likely to then spend your time learning just what was really important to accomplish the task at hand.

Clearing the mind is absolutely essential. Practice putting up filters, keeping out anything that’s not completely relevant to the situation at hand, and see that you are more effective—at resting, working, exercising, anything.

Back in my car, the only thing that really mattered was that traffic was still moving. Why did that matter? It meant that everyone with a car like mine—and even some with cars smaller than mine—must have been making it through. And if they were, I would too. I was fortunate enough to see some similar cars plowing through the water before my turn, and that was it. I didn’t need to know the maximum depth of water that my car could get through. I just needed to know it could get through this depth. Done. Rather than spend any time worrying about whether we’d make it home, we just pushed through the waves and drove on home.

Apply the right filters; take in relevant and useful information. All the rest just holds you back.

Small Observations