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The Power of Less: I Removed Every Inessential Thing From My Website and Here’s What Happened

The Power of Less: I Removed Every Inessential Thing From My Website and Here’s What Happened

When I built my first website a little over 3 years ago, I had no idea what I was doing.

Naturally, I figured that looking at what other websites and blogs had on their pages would be a good place to start. I started seeing sites with social media buttons, email popups, advertisements, comments, and all sorts of other things. At first glance, these things seemed important. After all, every other website had them and they appeared to serve a purpose.

But as I continued tweaking my site design, I tested what would happen if I eliminated the unessential pieces. I didn’t run any advertisements. I took down all of the social media buttons. I eliminated the sidebars, the suggested content, and anything else that wasn’t absolutely essential.

As I pulled away each piece, a funny thing happened. People were less distracted. Visitors spent more time reading my articles. More people joined my email list. The simpler things became, the better the results were.

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But it’s not just websites. Once my eyes were opened, I noticed the impact of simplicity in other areas of life as well.

The Power of Less

When I was a kid, I looked like a string bean. As an athlete, I knew I needed to get stronger, and I thought that I needed to devise the ultimate, optimized workout plan.

I spent hours trying to come up with the right combination of exercises and the perfect split routines for each week. When I barely got stronger, I assumed that I was missing an exercise. I figured the answer to gaining muscle and getting stronger was adding something else to the mix.

It took me about 7 years (I’m a slow learner), but eventually I figured out that the answer was the exact opposite: simplicity.

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I abandoned the complex workouts, focused on one foundational movement (the back squat), and did just 2 or 3 exercises per workout. I increased my strength more in 4 months than I did in the previous 4 years. Just like with my website, the simpler things became, the better the results were.

From websites to workouts, simplicity can make a big difference. But in both cases, my skills didn’t increase overnight. Instead, I made progress by eliminating the things that were distracting me from the essentials.

It was a commitment to mastering the fundamentals, not the details, that made the difference. I think this principle applies to most things in life.

Eliminate Your Distractions

The simplest way to get better is to eliminate your distractions.

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Want your software program to run faster? Delete every line of code that isn’t essential.

Want to get stronger arms? Stop wasting energy on unrelated exercises.

Want more people to read your blog? Stop distracting them with ads, buttons, and widgets.

These choices have nothing to do with gaining new skills. They are simply about eliminating the things that are distracting from the essential. Learning to ignore, reduce, and remove the inessential choices can be just as beneficial as teaching yourself to make better ones.

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This principle extends to many “good” uses of time as well. Eliminating bad habits and wasteful resources is like picking the low-hanging fruit. Simplicity becomes harder when you have to choose between two good options. But those choices are just as important. It took me a long time to learn this, but just because you can easily justify spending your time on something doesn’t mean it’s essential to your progress. Decide what is really important to you and eliminate the rest.

Simplifying your options immediately makes you better because it’s so much easier to do the right thing when you’re not surrounded by the extra things. The simplest way to improve is to eliminate your distractions.

James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he shares science-based ideas for living a better life and building habits that stick. To get strategies for boosting your mental and physical performance by 10x, join his free newsletter.

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

Featured photo credit: Caden Crawford via flickr.com

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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