Mental Minimalism: The Magic of Thinking Less

Note: inspiration for this essay came from Shaan Puri talking about mental minimalism on this podcast with Chris Williamson.

I was 14. I wanted to make more money. Getting $5 per week for mowing the lawns wasn’t hitting the mark for me.

A quick google search, “how to make money online as a teenager” suggested a number of options. One of them was to start a blog.

And that’s when I thought to myself, “Screw it, let’s give it a go.”

30 minutes later I was writing my first blog post.

No overthinking. No second-guessing. Just pure, simple, straightforward action.

It’s this action-oriented mentality that took me from starting that first blog to a running a successful online business a few years later.

The same mentality that nudged me to ask my now-wife out on a date after seeing her in the grocery store one day.

The same mentality that’s expanded my life in ways I could never have predicted. Running New Zealand’s toughest marathon, starting my YouTube channel, backcountry hunting, meeting interesting people. The list goes on.

Most of the enjoyment, growth and success I’ve had in my life can be attributed not to complex planning, strategizing or “thinking through the decision.” But rather, action. The more I cultivate this bias towards action—towards doing—the better my life becomes.

Unfortunately, this is not how I typically operate. I overthink, overplan, and overstrategize. Let’s call it mental maximalism.

The mental maximalist spends months making decisions that could be made in a day. He overthinks, over-analyzes, and second-guesses himself. He reads about mental models but never actually uses them.

By always being in his own head, the mental maximalist is always in his own way.

If you identify with this archetype, then you already know that mental maximalism is a broken operating system. The only thing it maximizes is confusion, worry, procrastination and a relentless low-level feeling of anxiety and dissatisfaction.

“Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply.”

—Peter Thiel

The solution to mental maximalism is not found in cognition. You can’t think your way out of overthinking.

The real cure is to courageously turn 180 degrees and embrace mental minimalism. I use the word “courageously” because if you’re a mental maximalist, every fiber of your being will want to reject you taking rapid and imperfect action.

Mental minimalism is an action-centric philosophy. It prioritizes doing over thinking. Experimentation over endless hypothesizing. Gut instinct over pros and cons lists.

You Can’t Think Your Way Out Of Overthinking

“Trying to think your way out of overthinking is like trying to snort your way out of a cocaine addiction.”

— George Mack

We try to think our way out of overthinking because it’s the path of least resistance. Even the idea of taking action induces resistance because it’s a threat to the comfort zone. It’s a threat to stasis.

But you will not escape the inertia of overthinking without taking action. You need to get in motion. Out of your head and into the physical world.

Vacuum your house, wash the dishes, answer some emails. Do the obvious, menial work in front of you. You’ll be surprised at what happens.

“But Sam, what about avoiding busywork? Don’t I need to work on high priority tasks? Eisenhower’s matrix and all that?”

I mean, yes. But that assumes you’re already busy and in a state of action. If you are, then you need to avoid sophisticated procrastination (aka busywork) and focus on needle-movers.

But for the mental maximalist who’s stuck in debilitating inertia, there’s no such thing as busywork. Anything that creates motion and momentum is good. Anything that gets you out of your head is good.

Further Reading: How Overcoming “Activation Threshold” Can Make You More Productive

Clarity Exists on the Other Side of Action

Much of our overthinking is an attempt to gain clarity. If we just “think through it” enough, then we’ll eventually get to a point where we have perfect clarity. And when we have perfect clarity, then it will be easy for us to take action. Or so we think.

But clarity rarely comes through reactive overthinking. It’s more likely to be a product of imperfect action. You can only get so much data by sitting around pondering.

Consider two people wanting to start a business. One is a mental maximalist, the other a mental minimalist. They want clarity on which business model to choose.

The mental maximalist spends months researching, thinking, pondering, reading books, and analyzing different business models. He agonizes over different options. He hopes that it will all “click” and then he’ll finally take action.

The mental minimalist (AKA the action-taker) reads a blog post about how to start a power-washing business. He thinks, “That can’t be too hard, let’s give it a go.”

He buys some equipment and knocks on a bunch of doors. Maybe he makes a sale on his first day and validates his service offering. Maybe he doesn’t but he gets a bunch of feedback that can help him refine his offering and sales process. Either way, he gets clarity as a result of his taking action.

There’s a sub-principle here, which is to trust in iteration. The mental minimalist takes action as a way to iterate towards clarity.

Trusting in iteration means not being married to a precise end goal, but instead embracing redirection. The mental maximalist tries to predict and think through all potential redirections before they even begin. That’s futile.

Pressure is the Antidote to Stasis

Mental maximalist behavior often arises from low pressure situations. When you have the luxury of overthinking, then you’re more likely do it. There’s no forcing function.

I experienced this first-hand. I was a disciple of the Four Hour Work Week life philosophy. At the age of 24, I’d built an online business that paid me good money without me having to work more than 10 hours a week.

This produced a vacuum, which I filled with chronic overthinking and paralysis-by-analysis. I had the luxury of mucking around and avoiding taking action.

I hated this. I’d have these weird fantasies about waking up one day to find that my business had completely failed. Or that I’d get sued. Anything to kick me out of the stasis I was in.

If you lack pressure like I did, then that’s part of the problem. You need skin in the game. Discomfort. Intensity. Speed. Deadlines. Accountability.

Pressure directs your thinking. Instead of wandering aimlessly around the cognitive playground, you’re forced to think with intention. The open-ended question “What should I do?” Becomes, “I need to do something. Here’s one thing that makes sense. What’s the first step I need to take, today?”

Note: This is the driving philosophy behind WorkSprint. Speed. Deadlines. Accountability. Skin in the game. You can join the waiting list here.

Embracing Uncertainty Expands Life

Playing a video game where you know exactly what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, and how it’s going to happen is not a fun game to play. There’s a degree of uncertainty and surprise that makes games interesting.

The same applies to life. The best moments in life don’t come from obsessive certainty-seeking, but serendipity.

Mental minimalism is about embracing uncertainty. Adopting the “screw it, let’s give it a go” philosophy and seeing where it leads. Choosing adventure over precise blueprints. Childlike curiosity over calculation.

Pull Yourself Into The Present

The further you mentally project out into the future, the more opaque your vision becomes. And the easier it is to get stuck in overthinking loops.

To combat this, you must pull yourself back to the present.

Don’t worry about how the marathon that’s 4 months away is going to turn out. Go run 5 miles today as per your training plan.

Not sure where your business is going to be in two years? Neither does anyone else. Do what you know you need to do today to move things forward.

If your vision for the year is blurry, then focus on the quarter. If the quarter is blurry, then focus on the month. If the month is blurry, focus on the week. And if the week is blurry, focus on today.

These are operating principles. They are not for pondering and philosophizing over. They are for living by.

It’s time to embrace mental minimalism. To trade mental maximalism for action maximalism.

Start. Get in motion by doing the obvious work in front of you. Commit to something. Iterate. Adapt.

Don’t think about taking action. Take it.

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