Instagram started as a mobile web app that was in many ways similar to Foursquare: check in to locations, make plans (future check-ins), earn points for hanging out with friends, post pictures, and much more. At the time, it was called Burbn.
A few weeks later, the idea pivoted. In the words of co-founder Kevin Systrom: “We decided that if we were going to build a company, we wanted to focus on being really good at one thing.”
They saw mobile photos as an opportunity. They cut everything in the Burbn app except for its photo, comment, and like capabilities. What remained was Instagram.
The rest, as they say, is history.
One of the reasons Instagram was so successful is because it removed what is known as Product Debt.
By focusing on only having the core feature that the majority of the users needed, they narrowed down to a very specific niche, acquiring early adopters that were eager to share the app (following the Diffusion of Innovations).
They removed complexity, thus reducing technical debt. Code didn’t have to be rewritten for scaling down the line because most of it had been removed.
They stayed lean, helping Instagram stay mean.
The True Cost of Things
In marketing, there’s a concept called carrying cost. It refers to the total cost of holding inventory, such as storage, staff, shipping, depreciation, and opportunity cost.
Carrying costs are decreased when no excess inventory is held at all, effectively working as a Just in Time production system.
Carrying costs also exist in our personal lives.
The maintenance of everyday things means losing time to understand how products work, putting it away after using, regularly check in if they are still properly functioning, and cleaning every now and then.
And it goes even beyond products: relationships and hobbies, for example, constantly require our time, focus, and money.
In tech, you minimize carrying costs by reducing technical and product debt by zeroing in on core features. In retail, your goal is to build a Just in Time system.
But how can we reduce the carrying costs in our personal lives?
Big-Ass Monitors and Flashy Shoes
Almost two years ago I moved to Sydney to join Freelancer.com.
I was given a “free pass” (within reason) to my choose work equipment, which translated with a MacBook Pro and dual 4K 27-inch monitors, amongst other goodies. I got used to working every day with two monitors and loved the productivity that I got out of this new-found work stack.
A couple of months later, I returned home and started working on my own projects. The first thing I did? You guessed it. I bought two big-ass monitors.
A few weeks later, I joined LeWagon intensive coding Bootcamp to finally learn how to code. This meant around 10 hours per day for 9 weeks staring at my MacBook 13-inch display. By the time I got home, I was too lazy to connect the monitors. Plus, by then I was used to working just with the laptop display.
Being forced to work on a single monitor led to the discovery of something I hadn’t questioned before: do I really needed two monitors to get stuff done? Or, instead, was a lot easier to work on a single monitor?
It turns out it was the latter. A few months after I sold the monitors and never looked back. At $600, it was not a cheap discovery. But I would argue there are way more expensive Eureka moments.
Another upside? The desk is a lot cleaner now.
During my time at Freelancer.com, I also joined their “soccer” team (soccer in Australia means bumping into each other until the ball accidentally goes into the goal). We played league games every Wednesday.
As fate would have, on the first last game of the “season”, I twisted my knee and damaged my anterior cruciate ligament tried to score a goal from an impossible angle. It was one of those Ronaldo moments that, if done right, lifts the entire stadium (or, in this case, our one spectator). If done wrong, though, you break your knee and also miss the goal (I still stand by it!).
There are injuries galore in soccer. As such, I treated it as a small twist of the knee, got some ice on it, and went on with life. No doctor, no pill, all is fine, small injury, no biggie.
The next day, still in horrendous pain (well it was, after all, broken), I made a different choice for shoes: I wore my super-duper comfortable and very fashionable (they were orange; again, I stand by it!) Asics running shoes. Because of all the extra cushion, it made walking slightly more bearable.
And I kept using them every day, even after surgery (pro tip: always go to the doctor when you can’t walk, trust me on this). I had packed a couple of shoes when I moved to Australia, but now I used one pair 95% of the time.
A few months later, when I “retired” the almighty orange sneakers, I started wearing the new blue-dazzling Asics trainers I had bought weeks earlier at discount (don’t believe what other people say, they are awesome!).
I’ve since sold or given away most of my other shoes, keeping only flip-flops and dress shoes.
A discovery that was only made possible because I broke my knee and wanted to be more comfortable. And yes, I would have preferred to keep the knee intact and never find this level of comfort in my feet ever in my life.
Having Too Much of a Good Thing
In economics, utility represents the measure of fulfillment a person gains from obtaining or consuming a good.
Thus Marginal Utility is the additional bit of satisfaction from an increase in the consumption of that good. For example: eating just one more cookie.
Related to both these concepts, there is a third one called the law of diminishing marginal utility:
“The first unit of consumption of a good or service yields more utility than the second and subsequent units, with a continuing reduction for greater amounts. Therefore, the fall in marginal utility as consumption increases is known as diminishing marginal utility.”
In other words: not only the fourth pair of headphones won’t provide as much satisfaction as the first, but it might also lead to dissatisfaction. You would have negative marginal utility, meaning that the fourth pair made you worse off.
Usually, you end up worse off in one of two variables: time or money.
Going out with your friends every night might not make a dent in your finances (because you’re cheap and only drink one beer per night), but you could put all that time to better use to invest in compound knowledge, such as reading books or watching documentaries, start a side business or develop a new habit.
Eating out at fancy restaurants multiple times during the week, on the other hand, depletes your finances. Instead, you could use that money to invest or save up for the rainy day.
And in most cases, you end up losing in both variables: using too many productivity apps can lead to wasting time just to keep them running (valuable time that you could use to do Deep Work) and racking up the expenses in software.
Invariably, you end up in all sorts of debt:
- Money: most commonly known as credit, acquiring things with money you don’t have
- Time: a status symbol of our time, being “busy” is often mislabeled as being successful
- Health: your levels of stress are a proxy of money and time debts
- Productivity: known as “shallow work”, instead of making progress in meaningful work
- Space: cluttering your house or office with things you don’t need, not having enough space for the things you love
One extra sweater to join the 10 you already have isn’t going to make a positive difference. You can only wear one at a time (unless it’s freezing outside and you think 11 layers of sweaters is the way to go). The additional item is making you worse off, not better.
But how can you be sure of it?
Removing by Default
My first job fresh out of grad school was working for a bank. I worked in Costs and Performance, which meant that our department had the tasks of reducing costs and improving the overall performance.
My manager once told me a story:
Once upon a time, the CEO of a bank wanted to reduce costs in paper and printing. They wanted to move to digital platforms to be more efficient and save money in the process.
However, many of the Directors were “old-timers” that wanted their charts and graphs printed (and preferably in color). This meant hundreds of thousands of pages every month, with new prints every time there was an amendment. The pressure from the Directors was too big and so the bank did not manage to cut their spending.
So they hired a consultant.
The consultant gathered all the Directors in a meeting and asked: “Which one of these graphs and charts are essential to the business and which ones can we move to a digital platform?” The Directors were puzzled. “All of them!”, they replied.
Frustrated with the outcome of the meeting, the consultant changed his course of action: he banned the printing of any chart and graph by default.
If you wanted to print something, you had to ask permission in writing directly to the CEO. Only after approval (which could take days or weeks, depending on his work schedule) could the Directors print their beloved charts in the only machine in the building, next to the CEO’s office.
In a matter of weeks, the bank started operating almost everything digitally, printing only the true digitally irreplaceable graphs.
Default to Zero
It doesn’t matter if the story is true or not. What matters is the lesson:
Removing an option by default is the quickest way to change behavior.
Adding friction is a surefire way to quit bad habits. In this story, getting something printed was such an exhausting process that most Directors simply gave up. The ones who went through the excruciating process of getting a chart printed were rewarded: they wanted and needed it that bad.
In other words: default to remove and then adjust the rope and give it more leeway.
Can we also default things to zero in our lives? Here are a couple of examples that I think can:
- People. You can avoid someone altogether, given that it’s outside your circle of friends and colleagues. Stop replying to their texts or emails. Default to zero.
- Credit Card Debt. Go to your bank and cancel all your credit cards. There, no way to spend money you don’t have.
- Fast Food. An easy one: don’t go in fast-food restaurants, ever. Not even with friends. Default to zero.
- Car. Only in big cities: sell your car and start taking public transportation. If in a rush for whatever reason or out of the public transportation routes, use Uber.
- Notifications. Step 1: Remove all notifications from your phone, tablet, and computer. Step 2: enjoy the new-found tranquility. If it’s urgent, they’ll call.
Unfortunately, few things can default to zero. We still need clothes, shelter, and food. The utility of one unit of our basic needs is huge.
How do you simplify life when you can’t default to zero?
What Can You Remove?
There are two sure-fire ways to find out what you can remove:
- Storing Things
- The Pareto Principle
Both have their merits and pitfalls.
The first is a little bit more radical and takes more time, while the second can be done right away and assumes you are truthful in your analysis.
#1 Storing Things
Side note: “Things” here refers not only to physical items — such as clothes and toiletries, but also friends, business tasks, and hobbies, amongst others. It basically means everything that is in your life.
This is a psychological hack: you are going to have a hard look at all the Things in your life and decide what you love, what you like and what you dislike.
If it’s physical, put all items in a category in your bed or table. For example, grab all your clothes and start sorting them into three physical piles: love, like, and dislike. Repeat for all other sets of items that you own (even when you have just one).
For the rest, grab a piece of paper and divide it into three columns with the same names. If you are doing friends, start by listing all your friends and then put them in each category as you see fit. Repeat the exercise for hobbies.
Everything in the dislike pile should be discarded right away. Sell, donate, throw away, remove, get rid of it.
But here’s the fun part: store Things that you put in the like pile. For items, grab a box and put them in the back of your closet. For intangibles, put them on hold.
If you find yourself thinking about and missing a shirt, you can always go back to the box and retrieve it. The same for the friend that just doesn’t seem to be reciprocal in your relationship but always ends having a blast with. Give him a call and set a night out.
Allow yourself the break: you want it that bad.
The hack is the same as the consultant in the bank: remove first and then adjust as you see fit.
Let three months pass and see how many Things you bring back.
Remove the ones you didn’t.
#2 The Pareto Principle
One of the mental models I keep referring back in my life is the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. I use it in business tasks, grocery shopping, defining personal goals or allocating free time.
The rule can be simplified to:
80% of the output or results will come from 20% of the input or action. The little things are the ones that account for the majority of the results.
Grab your Things and ask: “Do 20% of my Things bring me 80% of results?”
You’ll be surprised to learn that the answer is almost always yes.
If I asked you to write down, without looking in the closet, your favorite pieces of clothing, how many do you think you would list?
Here are some of mine:
- Blue Asics (there’s a reason it deserved its own section)
- Awesome grey dress shoes, makes me look like I’m a 50-year millionaire while being super comfy
- That green Boss shirt that always gets me compliments
- Tailor-made suit made it China (because nothing suits you like a suit)
- Awesome Lacoste polo with hooks that just “gets me”
Repeat the exercise with everything else. If you to broaden the question to usage:
“Do you use 20% of your Things 80% of the time?”
Everything that falls under the 20% brings you more happiness.
Everything else brings negative marginal utility. Again: sell, donate, throw away, remove, get rid of it.
Going One Level Deeper: Questioning Assumptions
The final step to simplify life is to question assumptions that are deeply ingrained in our brains as beliefs. You know the ones… They get passed as advice with good intentions but you might never have stopped yourself to question it.
I’m talking anything from big ones — “you must own a house”, or “put 30% of your pay check in savings since your first job” — , to smaller ones — such as “don’t cram for exams the night before”, or “wash your teeth twice a day”.
How do you know for sure that these things are right?
First, doubt everything. As Descartes would say: “In order to seek truth, it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.”
Then, test these assumptions and reach a conclusion by yourself. Only then will you know right and wrong assumptions. Here’s a simple mental hack:
Instead of trying to be right, ask “How can I be wrong?” Reversing the way you look at Things can be a very powerful way to discover other angles.
Here are three examples:
Touted as the most important meal of the deal. In fact, here’s a study that “proves” this assumption. Read the fine print and you will see that it was funded by Kellogg. How convenient…
In order to test this, I recently changed my breakfast from eggs and bacon to a babybel light and some crackers.
Does the job just fine.
#2 Shampoo and Conditioner
Being lazy and poor has its pros. While in college, there was a month that I ran out of shampoo (and a week later conditioner) and was particularly low on funds. I use vinegar for a while but eventually ran out of that too.
So I did what any sane college kid would do: I didn’t buy shampoo and conditioner (and vinegar, for that matter) and instead spend all the money on beer.
My hair actually looked better than before.
This one I picked up from an early age. The experience of watching a movie at the cinema isn’t complete without popcorn and coke. Or is it?
When watching movies or TV shows at home I never feel the urge to eat popcorn. If I do crave popcorn, I need to get down two flights of stairs, walk a few meters, buy a pack, walk back and climb back up. That’s way too much friction, so I rarely do it.
You are now free to stop eating overpriced popcorn menus at the movies. You’re welcome!
Simplify Life: Subtraction, Not Addition
Once you start questioning everything, you start seeing the pattern everywhere. The trick is to know if someones is profiting directly from you naivety.
And the more you know for sure what assumptions are right and what assumptions are wrong, you learn what you can remove for your life.
To simplify life, think subtraction, not addition.
In the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery:
“Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”
What can you remove?