James Clear writes about using behavioral science to master your habits and improve your health. His free guide, Transform Your Habits, has been downloaded more than 80,000 times. This post originally appeared on his blog.
When I built my first website a little over three years ago, I had no idea what I was doing.
Naturally, I figured that looking at what other websites and blogs had on their pages would be a good place to start. I started seeing sites with social media buttons, email popups, advertisements, comments and all sorts of other things. At first glance, these things seemed important. After all, every other website had them and they appeared to serve a purpose.
But as I continued tweaking my site design, I tested what would happen if I eliminated the unessential pieces. I didn’t run any advertisements. I took down all of the social media buttons. I eliminated the sidebars, the suggested content, and anything else that wasn’t absolutely essential.
As I pulled away each piece, a funny thing happened. People were less distracted. Visitors spent more time reading my articles. More people joined my email list. The simpler things became, the better the results were.
But it’s not just websites. Once my eyes were opened, I noticed impact of simplicity in other areas of life as well.
The power of less
When I was a kid, I looked like a string bean. As an athlete, I knew I needed to get stronger and I thought that I needed to devise the ultimate, optimized workout plan.
I spent hours trying to come up with the right combination of exercises and the perfect split routines for each week. When I barely got stronger, I assumed that I was missing an exercise. I figured the answer to gaining muscle and getting stronger was adding something else to the mix.
It took me about seven years (I’m a slow learner), but eventually I figured out that the answer was the exact opposite: simplicity.
I abandoned the complex workouts, focused on one foundational movement (the back squat), and did just two or three exercises per workout. I increased my strength more in four months than I did in the previous four years.
Just like with my website, the simpler things became, the better the results were.
From websites to workouts, simplicity can make a big difference. But in both cases, my skills didn’t increase overnight. Instead, I made progress by eliminating the things that were distracting me from the essentials.
It was a commitment to mastering the fundamentals, not the details, that made the difference. I think this principle applies to most things in life.
Eliminate your distractions
The simplest way to get better is to eliminate your distractions.
Want your software program to run faster? Delete every line of code that isn’t essential.
Want to get stronger arms? Stop wasting energy on unrelated exercises.
Want more people to read your blog? Stop distracting them with ads, buttons, and widgets.
These choices have nothing to do with gaining new skills. They are simply about eliminating the things that are distracting from the essential. Learning to ignore, reduce, and remove the inessential choices can be just as beneficial as teaching yourself to make better ones.
This principle extends to many “good” uses of time as well. Eliminating bad habits and wasteful resources is like picking the low-hanging fruit. Simplicity becomes harder when you have to choose between two good options. But those choices are just as important.
It took me a long time to learn this, but just because you can easily justify spending your time on something doesn’t mean it’s essential to your progress. Decide what is really important to you and eliminate the rest.
Simplifying your options immediately makes you better because it’s so much easier to do the right thing when you’re not surrounded by the extra things. The simplest way to improve is to eliminate your distractions.