One of the main topics in productivity and self-improvement is the asymmetry between present and future desires. On one side of the asymmetry, enjoying the present often costs you a harder future: ice cream tastes great now, but it makes you unhealthy later. On the other side, an easier future often costs you a less decadent present: you can enjoy good health, but only if you don’t eat too much ice cream.
I noticed recently that there are two schools of thought about how to address this asymmetry, and I’ve started referring to them as “embracers” and “equalizers”.
Embrace the asymmetry between present and future.
The core tenet of this view is that the best way to make things easy in the long term is to consistently choose the hard way in the short term. Embracers see unpleasantness as a good sign. It makes you stronger, and should be designed into the rhythm of your life.
Here are some tweets I’ve seen recently that express embracer views:
Most productivity problems are symptoms of just not trying hard enough.— Michael (@mmay3r) December 16, 2018
Aftermath.— Jocko Willinck (@jockowillink) December 11, 2018
I didn’t feel like doing this today.
SO I DID.
Equalize the asymmetry between present and future.
The core tenet of this view is that the best way to make things easy in the long term is to make your investments more enjoyable and your indulgences less costly. Equalizers see unpleasantness as a bad sign. It saps your energy, and should be designed out of the rhythm of your life.
Here are some tweets I’ve seen recently that express equalizer views:
“It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.”— Naval (@naval) December 16, 2018
Paradoxically, the people who have the results that so many desire don’t actually care much about it.— James Clear (@JamesClear) November 13, 2018
The fittest people love the pursuit of fitness, not fitness itself.
The smartest people love the pursuit of knowledge, not showing off.
Everyone is probably a little bit of both. It’s hard to see value in pointless suffering or wasted effort, so there aren’t many pure embracers. And life is too messy to be completely intolerant of unpleasantness, so there aren’t many pure equalizers.
Still, I think it’s helpful to know that the two styles exist, especially if you’re still in the process of establishing the patterns of your life. There’s a lot of advice out there, and it will buffet you around if you don’t recognize that most of it comes from one or the other mindset.
I also think it’s useful to understand which of the two styles suits you better. While there are pros and cons to each, it seems to me that the most productive people I know are those who could most readily identify their style. Perhaps by committing to one, you waste less time second-guessing your decisions and more time building toward a better future. When embracers are faced with something unpleasant, they already know what to do: confront it. When equalizers are faced with something unpleasant, they already know what to do: eliminate it. It’s only the people who don’t know their style who get stuck in loops of fruitless strategizing or passive self-disparagement.