Small problems

To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. ‘Tis much better to do a little with certainty, & leave the rest for others that come after you, than to explain all things by conjecture without making sure of any thing.

-Isaac Newton

I often get the feeling of working on too small of a problem. I spend my days figuring out how to reduce energy consumption in buildings. One building at a time. As I work through project after project, the energy savings directly attributable to my work continue to add up, but it still feels very small.

I’ve been wondering: If I’m going to devote my life to something, shouldn’t it be higher impact? Shouldn’t I be working on entire cities at a time? Countries? If I’m in the energy field, shouldn’t I be solving climate change? Shouldn’t I be working on buildings + transportation + shipping + generation + renewables, etc., etc.?

It wasn’t until I came across the Freakanomics concept of thinking small and Newton’s quote (via Think Like A Freak) that I began to relax about this. Huge problems like climate change are really a “dense mass of intertwined small problems” disguised as one problem. You can’t solve the big one without experts solving all the little ones.

New Habits

At Plant Eaters’ Manifesto, we’re out to change how people eat. We want our readers to understand the act of feeding ourselves is really just a bunch of habits strung together. Some eating habits we learned from our parents (meat at the center of the plate?), some we learned in college (pizza at 2am?), some were taught to us by corporate marketers (better eat your Wheaties!), and some we just acquired over the years.

Habits are routines we do deliberately at first and then stop thinking about, often every day. The automatic nature of our habits can make us feel hopeless against them, but even our most-ingrained habits can be changed – we just need the tools to do so.

…just as a piece of land has to be prepared beforehand if it is to nourish the seed, so the mind of the pupil has to be prepared in its habits if it is to enjoy and dislike the right things. 


Each of our habits follows a simple formula. First, there is a cue – a trigger that tells your brain it’s time to go into autopilot and which habit to follow. Then, there’s the routine or behavior like eating. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain determine whether this cue + routine combination is worth remembering for the future.

Charles Duhigg, author of Power of Habit, recommends a simple framework for re-engineering our habits:

Identify the Routine

This is the behavior we want to change. e.g. that afternoon Mountain Dew at the office routine 

Experiment with Rewards

It’s our cravings that drive our routines, and most cravings are hard to detect. After the routine happens, write down your thoughts and feelings. Experiment by switching out certain details of the routine with the end goal of figuring out which craving is in the driver’s seat. e.g. try a coffee instead of Mountain Dew. If you’re still craving, it’s not the caffeine… try again. 

Isolate the Cue

What triggers the behavior? This is hard work – we’re always processing tons of information as our behaviors unfold. Which piece is the cue amid the noise? Is it stress? Time of day? Location? Emotional state? What were you doing just before the routine took place?

Have a Plan

Once we understand the different components of our habits, we need to begin making choices for ourselves again. By planning ahead, we can re-engineer our habits by having the right routines ready when the cue shows up. Just as our brains make it so easy for us to carry out a bad habit, the goal with planning is to put good routines on autopilot.




Over the weekend I sustained a minor injury playing soccer. It’s the equivalent of a dead leg (bruise), except it’s in the middle of my pectoral muscle. Until this week, I never realized how many simple movements the pectoral muscles support. I mean, they help you do everything.

It brings to mind many past injuries on seemingly insignificant body parts. They don’t seem like a big deal at first, but they turn out to be quite painful with everyday movements. This highlights the lack of redundancy built into our bodies. We evolved on a shoestring budget with only the tools we absolutely need – except maybe the appendix and tonsils.

Sometimes our lifestyles can evolve this way, too. Take personal finance for example. As our income grows, we try to improve our lives by leveling up – a better house, a better car, a better wardrobe, more vacations, a maid. It’s tempting to keep increasing our level until there’s nothing left over.

Another example is our time commitments: We keep adding commitments until there’s no time left. We assume our involvement in more things means more impact.

In both of these examples, we end up spread pretty thin. One bump in the road or worse, a black swan event can take us down. We’re fragile.

I’m feeling fragile these days and taking some time to look at each facet of life. Where are the weak spots? Where do we lack redundancy? Where are we fragile?


Each day, it seems like we’re under more and more pressure. The pressure guides us toward a way of life that’s more like our neighbors. It says:

Do more. 

Be busy.

Say yes to every opportunity.  

Fill your time with something productive. 

Hurry up and get the gist rather than truly understand. 

Go with the status quo rather than thinking for yourself.

Faster, faster, faster. More, more, more. We succumb to the pressure under the guise of efficiency, productivity, work ethic, motivation, and the like. We want to accomplish as much as possible with every minute. If we slow down, we lose ground – whether we’re racing against everyone else or time itself.

We only have one life, after all, so we might as well go all out… right?

I have the natural tendency to succumb to the pressure, but I’m realizing most of the benefits of fast & more have diminished returns when put into practice. Here’s what I’ve noticed after the busiest month of my life:

I make bad decisions…

With a million things swirling around in my head, important decisions become just another box to check rather than something to put thought into.

I make more mistakes…

…and they eat up more time than I saved by rushing around, by a long shot.

I’m a lot like a hummingbird…

…moving very, very fast but just hovering in place. The time costs of switching between many different thoughts all day means less gets done.

I’m rarely engaged in the present moment…

When I’m doing or thinking about two things at once, I’m guaranteed to be doing a shitty job at both of them.

I don’t plan ahead…

I’m always looking forward to the next thing, but not far enough to think in advance and design life how I want it to be.

Worst of all, my life is fragile…

When my life is built on speed, the smallest delays or setbacks send me into a tailspin.


Our differences

We don’t have a TV and our friends and family members think we’re freaks weird because of it.

Last weekend we were all gathered around a big flat screen watching baseball… And here it comes: “What do you guys do at night when normal people are watching TV?” 

Kayli and I get really excited for opportunities like this. We like talking about real life. Instead of continuing to stare at the big screen with 8 different baseball games on it, we were on the brink of a real conversation that could help everyone get to know each other better. We gave our answer: we usually read, write, and cook; and we don’t miss having cable, or a TV for that matter, one iota.

There was an awkward silence… then someone changed the subject and it was over. Just when we thought the conversation was going somewhere, we couldn’t sustain it. What did we do wrong? My theory: it’s just really hard to talk about our differences.

This is something I’m trying to get better at. What’s standing in the way of getting to know people better? I want to learn to:

  • lean in to real conversation instead of hanging out on the surface
  • ask the right questions that get people to come out of their shell
  • describe why I choose to go against the social norm or status quo without making someone feel judged or uncomfortable
  • be fully present – never half-ass a conversation again

It’s so easy to coast through conversation after conversation and never really talk about anything important. But is that living? Is that how we show people we care about them?





What if everyone did it?

We humans consume our natural resources faster than the earth renews them. How much faster? In 2014, the world average Ecological Footprint was 1.5 Plant Equivalents, meaning we would need about 1.5 earths to meet our demands on our natural systems.

Taking it one step further, many of us consume much more than the average planet offender. Americans consume roughly 4 times the world average biocapacity per person.

Sobering, yes, but what can we do about it? We can start by asking ourselves a simple, but powerful question. Ray Anderson says it best in his book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist:

There is a flawed view that treats the earth as though it were an infinite source of raw materials to feed our industrial system, stock our shelves, fill our houses, crowd our garages, and spill out into rental storage units or in landfills, waterways, oceans, and the air.

There is the flawed view that forgets to ask one simple question when assessing the environmental costs of a business decision: what if everyone did it?

What if everyone – all 7+ billion people – lived how I do?



Small Talk

I hate small talk.

It’s one of the activities that makes me think of the limited time we have on this Earth. How can we spend our time this way?

Family reunions, talking on the phone, networking, water cooler talk, meetings with clients. We try to avoid vulnerability, unfamiliarity, controversial topics, and problems in our lives by keeping people at arm’s length.

This weekend I had lengthy conversations with two of my best friends. It had been a while since I had spoken to either of them, and I was really missing them and looking forward to talking. After we talked, I realized even the best of friends need some introductory small talk before any meaningful conversation can ensue.


This lesson can be applied to any conversation – small talk is very useful as a gateway from the unfamiliar to a more in-depth relationship.

The key is to live with the small talk and use it to feel people out and find your way in – then ask a more opening question.


You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything. 

– John Maxwell

The internet is 99.9% noise.

It can be easy to get caught up thinking we need to be sifting through all the noise all the time.

In a time-starved world, we must ask ourselves: what is essential?

If you’re a learner, it’s easy to think everything is. You love learning, and you’re looking to become well-rounded.

That mindset can lead to making “an inch of progress in 1000 directions”, as Greg McKeown puts it.

The essentials are the few people or ideas that directly contribute to the mission.

But what is the mission?

That thing that you’ll look back on when you’re 5 years older (or when you’re 60) and wish you’d focused on instead of all the noise.


A second pass

I’m slowly making my way through a second reading of Peter Thiel’s Zero to One. While I often have trouble convincing myself to read a book twice given all the great unread books out there, my reasoning here is two-fold.

First, this book is brilliant so it’s quite a pleasure to read again. Second, this book is brilliant so a chump like me needs another pass to truly understand the author and decide where the messages can be applied in my life.

In the past, I gave myself a hard time for needing to read something twice to really get it. It felt like I had a comprehension problem or something… all those times using Cliff’s Notes in school coming back to bite me.

But at some point I realized learning new things means stretching my limits. If I can read through something once and fully understand it, then I should be lifting some heavier weights.

With this mindset, I’ve learned that the first pass can be used to get a lay of the land and decide whether the book is worth a deeper dive. When I do take a deeper dive, I have a good grasp of the big picture so I can view each detail in context of the whole message.

Safe is risky

One of Seth Godin’s most popular ideas is: the things that used to make us feel safe are now risky. The safe thing is to take risks.

Understand that the only thing between you and the success you seek in a chaotic world is a lizard that figures out that safe is risky and risky is safe. The paradox of our time is that the instincts that kept us safe in the day of the saber tooth tiger and General Motors are precisely the instincts that will turn us into road kill in a faster than fast internet-fueled era.

Seth Godin

I’m just now hearing of it. I heard it on “On Being”, thought it novel, wrote it down, googled it and it’s quoted everywhere. Where have I been?

And yet, it feels so right. The moment I heard it I knew it was true.

The world is moving so fast – if you aren’t setting yourself up to be ready for change (i.e. holding on to the past), you’re risking more than you think.

I want to ask myself: “Is this putting me in a place where I feel uncomfortable?” Okay, good.