Everyone is looking for shortcuts.
We want to speed read books in a matter of minutes, while somehow remembering every detail of the contents. We want to take a powdered Chinese mushroom or algae extract and experience a miraculous boost in brainpower. We want to sleep less than 8 hours a night and still be energetic. We want to be millionaires by the time we're thirty or to start the next Facebook in our garage while maintaining a social life. We want a 7-minute workout or a 2-minute meditation session or a 15-minute nap.
We want to hack and negotiate and manipulate and outsource and trick our way towards productivity, success, happiness. We want to read a clickbait-y article and learn the top ten tips for whatever it is we're aiming for. We want takeaways, action points, shortcuts, secrets, an edge.
The problem is that shortcuts just don't work.
They really don't. The older I get, the more amazed I am at my own ignorance and incompetence. I am astounded by how far I have to go in so many areas of my life. So I understand the craving for shortcuts. I too wish they existed.
But they don't, and more often than not they prove to be a harmful waste of time. Harmful because they lead us to try, fail, and decide we can't do it (whatever it is.) A waste of time because we could be truly learning or progressing in that time we waste trying to beat the system.
Cram for a test and you will forget the information a day later. Speed read or listen to sped up audiobooks and you won't enjoy or remember anything. Try to learn a complex skill in a short time span and you'll probably develop bad habits which make moving beyond the basics harder than it should be. Take a bunch of nootropics and something else will give. Try to make or break a habit too fast and you'll just backslide. Shortcuts come back to bite us.
Invest a little more time and effort into playing the long game and the real benefits manifest.
Sure, we can streamline and improve processes, refine techniques, use the right tools and figure out which pitfalls to avoid.
But there are limits. There's a limit to how fast we can read, how much we can get done, how efficiently we can learn, how many pills we can take.
One thing I have realized this year is that there are two key components to growing, improving and learning:
2. Setting priorities.
That's it. Nothing progresses if we don't know how to focus. Nothing can be changed or learned if we don't prioritize it. And to do that means choosing a small number of things to work on. I have drastically simplified my life this year so I can focus on writing and reading at the exclusion of pretty much anything else. Much of it is work, a good chunk is done for the joy of it and the sense of tangible improvement.
I have a self-enforced 'no shortcuts' policy. Whenever I find myself veering towards one, I do the opposite. I take the long cut. I do the difficult thing. The Navy Seals have a saying that when you think you’re done, you are actually only 40% done.
It can be small.
I might catch myself arriving home and only giving my cat a cursory pat, so I stop and spend 15 minutes playing with her. I might find myself tempted to undercut my writing goal for the day by 100 words, so I decide to reach it, then do 100 extra. Or I might notice myself skimming over a page of a book, so I go back and reread it twice. It's about discipline, not efficiency.
Or it can be bigger.
When I first started getting serious about writing back in secondary school, I wanted to get to the level of the people I admired as soon as possible. I wrote hundreds of blog posts, I pitched more publications than I care to count and produced pages of crap. Most of it ended up being deleted or burnt. I have been out of school for three years now and have finally reached the point of not hating everything I write. Along the way, I learned to stop searching for shortcuts and just focus on doing the work. I made it my priority. I practiced every day. English wasn’t my first language so I was probably at a disadvantage, to begin with. Even so, writing is hard work. There are no shortcuts and whenever I catch myself hunting for one, it's time to do the opposite. The same goes for many other areas of my life which I won't go into here.
I turn 20 in a couple of months.
For a while, the prospect of not being a teenager anymore felt terrifying. Now I feel the opposite - I feel excited about the vast swathes of time (accompanied by freedom and a brain less addled by hormones) which are opening up. The time ahead will doubtless be challenging as I work on getting to where I want to be, and a few other places I don't yet know about. All I know is that, wherever I end up, I'll be sure to take the long road and enjoy the process.