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Stop Wasting Time on the Details and Commit to the Fundamentals

Stop Wasting Time on the Details and Commit to the Fundamentals
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I was in the gym one day, training like usual, when my coach made an important observation. It didn’t take me long to see how this discovery applied to other areas of my life as well.

Here’s what happened.

We looked across the gym and saw someone performing lateral raises with dumbbells while standing on a Bosu ball. (This is an exercise that focuses on smaller muscles in the shoulder and doesn’t do much for the rest of the body.)

My coach watched for a moment and then said, “Imagine how good you have to be for that exercise to be the thing that gets you to the next level.”

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His point was that this person was focusing on an exercise that improved a few, tiny muscles in their body while ignoring the more important foundational movements. Even an Olympic athlete who had mastered the basic movements (squats, bench press, etc.) could not honestly look in the mirror and say, “You know what’s holding me back? I’m not doing enough lateral raises.”

In other words, the problem is that too many people waste time on the details before mastering the fundamentals. And I’d say the same in true outside of the gym as well.

The Courage to Master the Fundamentals

Everybody has the same basic body and needs, and we have to have the courage to train the fundamentals, the basics, at least 80% of the time. Sure, add some spice in there now and again, but focus on the basics.
—Dan John

Committing to the basics and mastering the fundamentals can be hard. And I get it. I’ve struggled to fall in love with boredom and focus on the basics many times.

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For example, as an entrepreneur it is very easy for me to spend my days working on the details. Should I make a small tweak to my website design? Should I answer these 50 emails? Should I switch my payment processor so that I can save an extra 2 percent on fees?

All of these things have a place, but that place should not be at the top of my to-do list. Instead, my time would be better spent focusing on the fundamentals. For example, writing two really good articles each week.

Avoid the “Edge Cases”

In the words of my friend, Corbett Barr, people waste too much time debating edge cases. Edge cases are the what-ifs, the could-bes, the minor details — the things that might make a 2 percent difference, but mostly distract you from the real work that would make 80 percent of the difference.

  • If you’re considering a new diet, but you’re worried that you might not be able to stick with it when you go out with your friends on Thursday nights, then you’re worrying about an edge case. Thursday night isn’t going to make or break you. It’s the work you put in during the other 20 meals of the week that matters.
  • If you’re starting a business and you’re debating over business cards or shipping methods or a thousand other things that could delay you from finding your first paying customer, then you’re stuck on the edge cases. You can optimize later. Meanwhile, delaying this decision is bringing in exactly zero dollars.
  • If you’re trying to “get all of your ducks in a row” or figure out “the right way to do this” then you’re probably giving yourself an excuse to avoid the hard decisions. Research is only useful until it becomes a form of procrastination. In most cases, you’ll discover better answers by doing than by researching.

The greatest skill in any endeavor is doing the work. And for that reason, most people don’t need more time, more money, or better strategies. They just need to do the real work and master the basics.

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Don’t Fear the Fundamentals

Most people avoid the fundamentals because they don’t have the guts to become great at them. When you eliminate everything that is unnecessary, there are no details to hide behind. You’re left with just the basics and whether or not you have mastered them.

It’s easier to tell people that you’re “working on a new strategy” or you’re “doing more research.” It’s hard to say, “I’m focusing on the basics, but I haven’t made much progress yet.”

Do you have the courage to simplify and become the best at the basics? Stop wasting time on the details that make the last 10% of difference.

What good is a lateral raise if you can’t do a proper press? What good is a fancy business logo if you haven’t found your first paying customer? What good is a better guitar if you haven’t built the habit of practicing each day?

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Without the fundamentals, the details are useless.

Originally appeared in JamesClear.com.

Featured photo credit: vintage watch machinery macro detail monochrome via shutterstock.com

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James Clear

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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