I hear about the idea of ‘choosing to be happy’ frequently. When we talk about improving our lives during our short existence, it’s oft-repeated advice.

Here’s the idea: when you’re not happy, or when you’re not satisfied, or even when you’re depressed, you can make the decision to be happy instead. You have the choice to be happy or sad – and, given the fact that you only have limited time on Earth, which one do you want to pick? Happy, of course.

So, ‘always choose to be happy.’

I find this approach to be extremely ineffective. Although it’s nice to acknowledge that you always have the choice to be happy or not when dealing with a situation, I think that there is less value in simply ‘choosing to be happy’ and more value in choosing to be unhappy and doing something about it.

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Sebastian Marshall wrote a great article about a way to prevent yourself from “giving in” when you’re working towards a goal. Often times, I say “screw it, I finished such-and-such medium-sized project, let’s dig into some steak/these brownies/some dessert… I haven’t in a long time.” Not only is it dangerous, but you eventually lower the criteria for “event for celebration”, and it’s so easy to give in.

One way to suppress this urge to give in, says Sebastian, is thinking the following: “Self destruction is generally counterproductive.” It’s smart. The idea is that, all things considered, giving in is almost always net negative. So why do it?

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The Optimization–Cognitive Load Tradeoff

The effect of optimization on cognitive load

Lately, I’ve been exploring what the tradeoffs of optimization are. That is, when we try to optimize what we do in work and life, what are the effects? What actually gets worse when we try to make things better?

One that seems obvious is that more optimization leads to higher cognitive load. The more we want to do something well, the more mental effort we’ll have to put into doing that task. This doesn’t just amount to the additional work needed to do something well, but I hypothesize that optimizing also seems to involve a second track of thinking, running alongside the track of the action itself, that is dedicated to observing how we are doing that action and evaluating whether we are doing it well or not.

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The Listserve is an email listserve with about 25,000 subscribers, in which one person every day is selected to email the entire group. A few days ago, the random number generator smiled upon my user ID (or some such). I didn’t know what to write about, and I didn’t want to give some obvious life advice—so I asked for some, and told a story to add some value.

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I’ve always had a nagging feeling (since writing Building Sustainable Habits: Why We Make Excuses and Resist Habit Change) that sometimes building habits using small steps isn’t always the right way to go. There are people who are able to start a new habit, ramp up fast, build a self-reinforcing loop of motivation, and continue to execute over and over—without the need for small steps. So, which one is the right way to build a new habit? Using small steps, or using the fast-track approach of getting motivated and going hard on the new habit?

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