Can you do one thing at a time?

Cartoon man juggling many items

Here’s something to ask yourself: can you do one thing at a time? For instance, can you ride a bus and only ride the bus? I mean doing so without simultaneously checking your Facebook, listening to music, having a phone conversation, or reading a news article. Can you simply ride the bus?

I find it incredibly difficult to button one of my dress shirts, for instance, without trying to do something else simultaneously. It happens far too often that I button half the buttons on my shirt, then walk over to the living room to address something that popped into my mind while buttoning. I might water the plants or clear out the dishwasher. Then when I realize that I’m walking around with a half-buttoned shirt, I feel ridiculous!

In one of his wonderful talks, Alan Watts said something to the effect of “Zen is sweeping the floor when you’re sweeping the floor”. I don’t claim any personal knowledge of what Zen is, but I understand this idea—sometimes a task requires hardly any effort at all when you give it your full attention. Conversely, the simplest things, such as buttoning your shirt or tying your shoelaces, can be maddeningly difficult when you’re just trying to get them over with.

Things reach a new level of difficulty once you realize that thinking is a form of doing too. Can you do something without thinking about another thing at the same time? For instance, can you shower without mulling over important decisions you’ll need to make and without making mental lists of all you want to accomplish that day?

It’s trendy to observe that the world is moving quickly and to suggest that you can find more peace or calm if you slow down. So you might imagine that life will be better in some way when you do one thing at a time, which is really a form of slowing down. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. For instance, your job might ask you to keep an eye on several processes at once and being able to do so might be a big part of the value you add to your employer. In that case, it’s useful be able to do several things at once.

But I do think it’s important to have the skill of doing only one thing at a time so that you can do it when you want to. Maybe that’s when you want to enjoy a beautiful moment rather than worrying about something unrelated. Or maybe that’s when you want to calm yourself down before an event that makes you nervous, such as speaking in front of a group. Either way, if you’re not used to doing one thing at a time, you can make those moments more difficult than they need to be. So try doing one thing at a time. If you can’t do it, it might be worth considering how you can add this skill to your toolbox.

A plug for LibreOffice

In the coming weeks I hope to start volunteering for a small organization as treasurer, a position that involves some data analysis and display. In my previous day job, I became adept at analyzing and displaying data using various software packages, but particularly good at doing so in Microsoft Excel. I don’t own a copy of Excel for my personal computer, so I thought about purchasing one for this volunteer work. But I recently came across an open source software suite called LibreOffice that I’ll use instead. It’s terrific, it’s free, and it does most of what Microsoft Office does, so let me tell you about it.

LibreOffice is a suite of office programs, just like the Microsoft Office suite, and includes a word processor (like Word), a spreadsheet program (like Excel), a program to create presentations (like PowerPoint), and several other programs. The suite is open source, allowing anyone to contribute to it. Many people do contribute to LibreOffice and that results in frequent updates to the entire suite, improving features, adding new features, and fixing bugs.

By default, LibreOffice uses open document formats, which are designed to standardize the data format for office documents, much like PDF has done for documents that don’t need to be edited. Right now, most people exchange documents using Microsoft’s formats, such as .doc, .docx, and .xlsx. While most people use software that can open these formats, files stored in these formats don’t display in the same way in all programs. For instance, Apple’s Pages does not display Word files (.docx) in the exact same way that Microsoft Office does. If you’ve encountered this problem before, you know it can be frustrating to deal with and take up needless time. The open document format aims to address this problem, so it’s a great cause that I love to support. The open document formats aren’t widespread yet, but fortunately LibreOffice supports all the other document formats I can think of as well.

For this volunteering project I’ll be using LibreOffice’s spreadsheet program Calc. Its interface isn’t as polished as Excel’s—that’s something for the LibreOffice team to work on. It’s generally easy to find your way around, though. It will probably take me a while to become just as efficient in Calc as I am in Excel, because Calc has different keyboard shortcuts and because its menus are organized differently. Fortunately, for this project I have the time to learn to use Calc.

Then again, I would have had to spend some time re-learning Excel too. You see, at my previous job I had a PC, but I use a MacBook at home. Microsoft Office does exist for OS X, but I’ve always found it more difficult to use and less stable than Microsoft Office for Windows. LibreOffice doesn’t have that problem because it’s the same on Windows, OS X, and Linux.

There are other free office suites out there, of course. Maybe your Mac came with iWork installed, or maybe you like using Google Docs and its siblings. But if you like using a traditional office suite and you like your software free, open source, and available cross-platform, give LibreOffice a shot!

What are you not getting around to?

Do many of your days end with you wishing you had gotten around to more things? It happens to me too often. Sometimes the things I didn’t get to will be small, such as cleaning the kitchen counter or reading a chapter of a book. Other days it will be activities that I claim to care more about, such as stretching, drafting a blog post, or meditating. But if I care so much about doing those things, how come I’m not getting to them?

As I wrote recently, you can organize your days to prioritize what’s most important to you. But you can’t prioritize everything, so unless there are only a few things you want to do on a given day—not a bad thing to aim for, really!—you might not get around to some of the other things. If that bothers you, first ask yourself whether your expectations are realistic. Is it simply matter of wanting to get around to fewer things to avoid being disappointed when you don’t get around to everything?

I asked myself that question and decided that this line of thinking rubs me the wrong way. Lowering expectations seems like a partial answer. Some things that can make you happy are easy to accomplish with little time or effort, such as enjoying a sunset. Other things that can make you happy, though, do require time and effort. I don’t want low expectations to prevent me from putting in the time or effort that some long-term goals require.

For instance, if I set a goal to write two brilliant blog posts every day, I’m likely to disappoint myself. My creative muse just doesn’t strike that often and even when she does, the odds of writing a post that’s brilliant are slim. Then again, if I truly wanted to write two brilliant blog posts every day, I should at least allot some time to trying. I might not succeed, but how will I ever find out whether I’ll succeed if I don’t sit down in front of my computer twice a day and start typing?

Put differently, there is a fine line between setting your expectations too high on the one hand and not getting your priorities straight on the other. If you’re always postponing what you claim to want to do, take a moment to consider whether you really want to do those things. What’s the number one thing you wish you got around to more often? Go ahead, think about it now—I’ll wait here.

Do you actually want to do this number one thing you don’t seem to get around to? Maybe you don’t really want to do it, but think that you should do it. Or, worse, maybe you think you should want to do it, but you know deep down that you don’t want to. In that case, you’re lying to yourself! For instance, if you’ve been putting off scheduling lunch with a particular person for a few months now, odds are you don’t really want to have lunch with them.

To stop wishing you had gotten around to this thing, you only need to do one of two things. If you don’t want to do it, figure out how you can get away with not doing it! There’s always a way. If you do want to do it, change something about your life so you can do this thing consistently. It really is that simple. Try it on the number one thing you’re not getting around to and then on the number two things. If you keep going, eventually you’ll spend more of your time doing things you want to do and less time on things you don’t.

Investing in stocks requires hardly any skill and you can do it too

Stock section of a newspaper

Several years ago I learned something wonderful: investing in stocks requires almost no skill. This might sound outrageous if you watch financial programs on TV, if you hear about large pension funds that don’t have enough money to meet future obligations, or if you have perused the investment books section of your local bookstore. Yet for the vast majority of people who want to invest, skill at picking stocks or evaluating the prospects of particular companies is not required. Let me explain.

When I began to research how to invest in stocks, my goal was to build wealth in the long run. By that I mean that I wanted to be wealthier ten, twenty, or thirty years from now, because I wasn’t planning to make large purchases such as a buying a car or a house any time soon. I simply wanted to invest my savings so that I’ll have more savings later in life. If that’s what you’re after too, there’s an easy strategy to follow that requires no skill, but only discipline. It won’t make you wealthy quickly, but if you follow the strategy diligently, you’ll very likely become wealthy eventually.

To begin with, I wanted to know which stocks to buy. As a teenager, I received some money to learn to invest with and I bought TomTom stock. The stock fluctuated heavily within the span of a few years and I realized that owning just one stock is risky! A couple of years later, during the financial crisis, I dabbled with bank stocks, such as Barclays stock, and their prices fluctuated wildly too. After those two experiences, I knew that investing in one or even a few stocks made no sense. So I wanted to buy shares of many stocks to reduce risk—this is called diversification.

An efficient way to diversify is to buy shares of a stock fund. A stock fund buys shares of many stocks so that when you buy shares of the fund, you indirectly own shares of all the stocks that the fund owns. When the stocks in the fund pay dividends, you are entitled to your share of those dividends—after the fund subtracts fees. Buying shares of a fund is a lot more convenient than buying shares of many individual stocks and has the added benefit that you only need to choose which stock fund to buy rather than which individual stocks to buy. What about those fund fees, though?

Traditionally, each fund is run by a fund manager, who picks which stocks to include in the fund. He decides when the fund buys or sells shares, so the performance of the fund is determined not only by the performance of the underlying stocks, but also by whether the fund manager is any good at picking stocks.

In the past decades, however, a practice called index investing has become popular. A stock index is simply a list of stocks, for example all stocks that are listed on the New York Stock Exchange, or all stocks in the S&P 500. When you practice index investing, you buy a so-called index fund, which is simply a stock fund that owns shares of all stocks that appear in a given index. An index fund does not have a fund manager who picks which stocks to buy or sell. Instead, a computer buys or sells shares so that the index fund owns shares of stocks proportional to how those stocks are represented in the given index.

Which funds perform better: traditional funds run by fund managers or index funds? If a fund manager could predict which stocks would produce high returns in the future, he could add them to his fund and the fund could produce high returns. Unfortunately, it turns out that most fund managers can’t predict future stock returns at all. One year a fund manager might get lucky and have picked the right stocks, but the next year he’s just as—if not more—likely to pick the wrong stocks so that his fund performs poorly.

That’s why research shows that fund managers rarely outperform index funds over time. In fact, it’s debatable whether there are any fund managers who can consistently outperform index funds over time, and if they do exist, you probably can’t identify them ahead of time. Index funds tend to outperform traditional funds partly because the stock market is naturally unpredictable and partly because the computers running them are much cheaper than fund managers. That second bit is the impact of the fund fees that I mentioned earlier.

When professional fund managers can rarely outperform index funds for long periods, I’d have to be delusional to think I can outperform index funds by picking individual stocks. And you’d have to be delusional to think you can, too! So it became clear to me that index funds are the only sensible way to invest in stocks.

In particular, the only sensible strategy is to buy shares of index funds and hold those shares of index funds for a long time. If you’re interested in a more detailed explanation of why that is, I suggest that you read JL Collins’ series of articles covering what index investing is and how to do it, that you watch Sensible TV’s documentary explaining why index investing works, and that you peruse the Bogleheads wiki.

Most importantly, remember that unless you have special investing requirements, you probably don’t need skill to invest in stocks, only discipline. Don’t let fund managers or others who simply want to make money off of you convince you otherwise.

Reasons to (not) finish a book

Apple on top of a pile of books

Do you read multiple books at once? I sometimes claim that I do, but it’s not really true. It’s not literally true, of course, because my eyes can’t focus on two books simultaneously. But it’s also not true in the sense that when I put down one book to start another, I often don’t return to the first book until I’ve finished the second book. As a result, I normally have a few books lying around that I’m in the middle of, but haven’t opened in months. Quite often, I don’t end up finishing those books that I stopped reading. Overall, I probably make it through two thirds or so of the books I start.

When a book does not interest me, I tend to give the author another chapter or two before I stop reading. When a book is interesting to me but poorly written—and this happens far too often—I’m likely to lose my patience quickly. No disrespect to writers, by the way—particularly if I’ve enjoyed some of your other writing, I’ll likely plough through some tough bits. But there’s a limit.

Recently, for instance, I stopped reading Flow by Mihali Csiksentmihalyi a couple of chapters before the end. It’s an interesting book, or rather, the author’s description of “flow” and his research on the subject are interesting. But three quarters into the book, I had gotten the gist of it and felt that Csiksentmihalyi was only belaboring points he’d made earlier.

I felt guilty for “giving up”, though! Am I a quitter? Isn’t is disrespectful to put down a book before reading all of it, like it would be disrespectful to walk out of a lecture halfway through? In the end, the rational part of my brain “won”. I decided that guilt is a silly emotion in this instance, because I had not promised to anyone else that I’d finish the book. I think I felt guilt because when I start a book, I make an implicit promise to myself that I’ll try to finish it. When I give up, it’s easy to feel like I failed.

Reasons to finish a book you started reading

To help myself and you to decide whether to finish a book, I wrote out some of the pros and cons. Reasons in favor of finishing a book:

  1. To better understand the writer’s point
  2. To finish the story (if there is one)
  3. Respect for the author
  4. Guilt (for example if you paid for the book and you want to maximize the time you spend “enjoying” your purchase)
  5. Fear of being seen as a quitter
  6. To follow a line of thinking or a story that spans several books
  7. The book might get better later
  8. You know the author

Reasons not to finish a book you started reading

  1. Nobody makes you
  2. You might have better things to do with your time
  3. You got the point already
  4. The author is repeating himself
  5. The book won’t capture your attention anymore
  6. You want to start reading another book
  7. The writing is difficult to understand

Can you think of any other reasons?

So… what do I do?

To lose the guilt, I decided to stop promising to myself (even implicitly) that I’ll finish each book. Instead, I decided that I’ll read a book only for as long as I enjoy reading it. Time is the most precious commodity I have and I want to spend it doing things I enjoy, not doing things that I think I “have to” do. Of course there are things that aren’t fun as you do them, but that have long-term benefits, such as cleaning the toilet. But I don’t think that finishing each book I start reading, no matter whether the middle or end of the book is enjoyable, is one of those things. In that sense I’m glad that I stopped reading Flow when it no longer effortlessly kept my attention. I hope to do more of that in the future.

Your daily priorities

Sunrays in a forest

What’s the first thing you choose to do each day? And what are the second and the third? I don’t mean using the bathroom or brushing your teeth. I mean things you do that not everybody else does. Perhaps you check your phone or you cuddle with your spouse. Maybe, like my grandma, you spend a few minutes on gymnastics to keep your body healthy.

After much experimentation with structuring my days, I realized that the tasks I choose to do early in the morning are the ones I’ll get done almost every day. Sometimes I get to other things I want to do later in the day, but too often I don’t. Knowing this about myself, the most sensible structure of my day is to do the most important things in the mornings. For instance, it is important to me that I get enough sleep, so I structured my mornings so that I can sleep in. I’d like to gain some weight, so after waking up the first thing I do is preparing and eating a healthy breakfast. Then I move on to various mental and physical exercises. Some days, I then spend some time writing.

It might sound tedious to have such a routine. Perhaps some would be bored starting each day in the same way. What’s the alternative, though? If you want to make sure you get around to what’s most important to you, each day you either have to do it first or you have to get to it later. I suspect many people are like in me in that they don’t have the discipline to get to the most important things later. For instance, if you don’t sleep in, will you go to bed earlier in the evening? I find it incredibly difficult to go to bed earlier. There are so many fun little things to do in the evenings, whether it’s playing with my phone or watching a tv show with my girlfriend.

So try doing what’s most important to you early on in your day, preferably first thing in the morning. It won’t always work, because there are things you can only do at certain times of day, especially if they involve other people. But try to start your day with those activities you can do alone that you really want to do every day. If that means you’ll need to get up earlier, then get up earlier! Just go to sleep earlier, too.

I’m betting that if you get around to the most important things early on, you won’t even notice that you’ll have a little less time left in the rest of your day. Just like life becomes easier when you get enough sleep, your days will become easier when you don’t have to worry about finding time for important things later.