Remove the Obstacles that Prevent You from Becoming Your Best Self

Shane Melaugh
October 19, 2020

Note for context: this post is based on one of the documents I shared with the Ikario team, to create a shared vision for our team culture.

Our goal is to build a team that is capable of doing extremely high quality work at an optimal pace. If the team reaches this goal, it's a ticket to freedom - it means that we can choose how to spend our time and how to invest the potential of the team.

So, how does an individual in the team and the team as a whole reach this high level of performance?

Let's start with big picture view.

There are things to add and things to remove in order to achieve optimal results. I believe that the removal part is often overlooked and underestimated.

Removing Obstacles

The average person is being held back from doing their best work and living their best life by a long list of obstacles. Many of these obstacles we're not aware of and many of them are just "normal" in our culture. Nonetheless, removing them is one of the most significant things you can do to improve.

Here are a couple of examples of what I mean:

Sleep Deprived & Atrophied

We all have basic physical needs that need to be taken care of. On the whole, we're not great at taking care of them.

For example, most people need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every night. But few people sleep that much. It's "normal" to get less sleep during the week and then catch up on sleep on the weekends. But the truth is that this leaves us chronically sleep deprived.

There aren't many things you can do that so reliably lower a person's performance across the board than deprive them of sleep. Focus, creativity, happiness, health, energy levels - you name it, lack of sleep affects all these things negatively (and often dramatically).

This means that most people could level up their productivity as well as life quality significantly by sleeping more (source).

Movement and exercise is another basic need that usually goes unmet. In our culture, you're considered highly active if you go to the gym every day. But the reality is that if you're spending an hour a day at the gym, you're still spending most of the other 23 hours either sitting on a chair or lying in bed. This is less bad than not going to the gym at all, but it's still pretty bad.

Getting more exercise is good for human beings, across the board. I'm sure that's not news to anyone. What's less commonly known is how closely movement is connected to cognitive ability. A lack of movement doesn't only atrophy the body, it atrophies the brain (source). In fact, there's an argument to be made that the original purpose of larger brains is to enable more complex movement (source).

"We have a brain for one reason and one reason only: and that's to produce adaptable and complex movement." - Daniel Wolpert

Complex movement and high cognitive performance are interlinked. Being sedentary for most of the day is an obstacle to doing your best work. And moving only in limited and simple ways is also an obstacle to doing your best work.

What about food? That's a basic need as well. And it's another area in which the "normal" of our culture is not particularly good for humans. The food we eat has wide ranging effects on our energy levels and our overall health, of course. And it's reasonable to assume that a poor diet impairs cognitive performance. It's difficult to find well founded information on the specifics of this, though. For now, I'll leave it at this: if you're eating lots of sugar and processed foods and if you're eating a lot more or a lot less than what your body needs, that's definitely an obstacle to living your best life.

Perpetual Distraction, Inside & Out

More than ever before, we live in a world of distraction. We live, unbeknownst to many of us, in a globe spanning attention economy. The most powerful players in this economy have weaponized attention-getting & behavior manipulating technology in ways that would have been science fiction mere decades ago (source 1, source 2).

On an individual level, this means that our distractability and our basic instincts are being hijacked at every turn. The goal is to capture our attention, get us clicking, tapping and scrolling, syphon data from this activity and serve up ads for revenue (although the ads are the least of it).

"Today’s tech platforms are caught in a race to the bottom of the brain stem to extract human attention." - Tristan Harris

Obviously, this isn't good for humans.

A study conducted by Gloria Mark showed that it takes an average of over 20 minutes to get back to full focus, after a distraction. Switching from doing one thing to another, even if the distraction is minor, comes at a major cost in terms of doing focused work.

We also know from various studies that most people check their phones, email, social media and other sources of distraction multiple times an hour, even at work. On average, people tend to get distracted every few minutes.

Put 2 and 2 together and we can see the conclusion that should shock us all: most people are never fully focused. Most people don't know what deep focus feels like anymore.

Why are we so distractable in the first place? At least in part, it's because there are many things in our lives that we don't want to be confronted with. Outrageous news and funny memes are a welcome distraction from negative self talk, existential dread and feelings of loneliness that plague the average person in our culture.

Most people are walking around with a huge burden of pain and trauma which manifests in countless ways. My own experience of this is that when I was younger, things like negative self talk, constant, self-imposed pressure and worries about what other people think of me took up a considerable part of my brain bandwidth.

Needless to say, such habits of mind are a further obstacle in our lives. The more time and energy spent on this internal chatter, the less time and energy is left to do anything productive with.

What Does Freedom from Obstacles Mean?

The examples above are far from exhaustive, but you get the idea. If you take an average person at an average moment, they're bogged down by all these obstacles. They're sleep deprived, nutritionally deficient, permanently distracted, physically and mentally atrophied and beaten down by neurotic thought and excessive self concern.

If all we did is free this person from these sources of suffering, it would unlock loads of potential in them. Most people have no idea what they're capable of.

More importantly, freeing ourselves from these obstacles is often what needs to happen first, before anything else can really take hold. Trying to apply a complex productivity system when all of your basic needs are deprived probably won't amount to much.

So, that's step one. Identify and remove the obstacles.

Strategy & Tactics

Our next concern is about what to add, to do our best work.

I believe in a balancing act between foundational work and a crucible of skill development. This basically means a pragmatic combination of theory and practice.

The Foundation

Why is foundational work important? Let me illustrate with a business related example.

Let's say we look at a highly successful business that we want to model. We want to learn from this business' success, so we can replicate it. The most obvious things about the business, the things that stand out first, are specific, tactical things. Maybe we see that this business uses Facebook ads to drive people to an online webinar and then sells a product through that webinar.

We can go into even more myopic detail and look at specific words the business uses in their ads and copy. We can see that the business' site uses a certain color scheme, a certain design language and so on.

Unfortunately, if we take these tactical details and apply them to our own business, it probably won't make much of a difference. You can use the same stylish design, the same kind of Facebook ad, the same kind of webinar, but if your business lacks the foundation of a great product, it won't amount to anything.

On the other hand, if we look at the more abstract fundamentals of the business, we could get far more benefit out of it. We can understand how and why the product or products of this business are so desirable, learn how they appeal to their target audience, and see how they structure their offer, copy and pricing in such a way that it feels like a no-brainer to become a customer.

If we take these fundamentals and model them in our own business, it can make a real difference to our results, regardless of whether we also use Facebook ads and webinars or not.

I believe that modeling fundamentals and principles is always more useful than modeling tactics.

It's about more than learning interesting facts or exploring new ideas. It's about learning how to think, learning how to use the mind to its full potential.

It's not just about trying new habits and routines, it's about mastering habit building and behavior change at a fundamental level.

The Skill Development Crucible

Now, if all we do is philosophize about the principles and theories all day long, there's a good chance we'll disappear up our own arses without actually accomplishing anything. It's no good to be an armchair philosopher.

The counterbalance to this is skill development. Fundamental principles are only as good as the results they help you get, in the real world. And the way to turn theoretical learning into a long term asset is to focus on skills.

Skills are an incredibly valuable, compounding asset. And they're the only asset no one can take from you.

Here's a thought experiment to illustrate the point: let's say I lost everything I have and everything I've built from one moment to the next. No more money in my account, no more business, no posessions, just reset everything back to zero. That would be very unpleasant. But on the other hand, I wouldn't really break a sweat about it. Even if you took literally everything I own and all my assets away from me, I know I could use my skills to create enough income before the end of the month that I wouldn't have to skip a beat. And I'd guess that 12 months after this calamity, I'd be back in a place in my life where you couldn't tell anything had ever gone wrong.

That's the value of skills.

And because skill development is hard, the further you develop a skill, the more valuable it becomes - because most other people don't take it that far.

BUT... and I can't emphasize this enough... skills are only useful if they are real skills that translate into real results.

I can't tell you how many people I've seen who have a marketing degree, but no marketing skills to speak of. If you want to work in marketing, you have to be able to make marketing results happen. You have to be able to build traffic, generate sales, write ads that convert etc.

This is why I want to always work on specific, ambitious, real world projects that require a high level of skill to succeed. Doing so ensures that we can't drop the ball and that we have to connect what we learn to actual, meaningful outcomes.

As long as we successfully develop foundational knowledge and real world skills while making cool stuff happen, we're on the right track.

Team Culture

When people work together, the team ideally becomes greater than the sum its parts. In practice, this is rarely the case, though.

Just like on an individual level, there are things to remove and things to add, to get the most out of a team. A poorly performing team will be plagued by social friction, infighting, envious comparison and so on. All this conflict adds more cognitive noise and stress for everyone involved and makes collaboration worse.

I believe that the first step is to be highly aware of social dynamics in the team and to put systems in place to address them. I believe that a team culture of open, honest communication is crucial. And I believe everyone has to be willing to show vulnerability from themselves and acceptance for others, to build a strong, healthy team (source).

When these basics are in place, we can experiment with different ways to collaborate and communicate and build team-level skills.

Values, Deliberate Action & the Optimal Environment

Getting enough sleep & movement, eating right, building good habits and acquiring the right skills and knowledge - on the face of it, everyone knows that these things are good. Anyone who wants to live a better life can find endless information about how to do so, online.

The problem isn't in the knowing, it's in the doing.

Our bad habits and behaviors that keep us from achieving our goals are generally things that we do, without consciously or deliberately choosing to. For example, if you asked people: "how long would you ideally want to spend each day, looking at your phone and swiping through various updates on social media?" most people would probably give an answer that's well under one hour.

When we think about it, we can easily see that our time is valuable and limited and scrolling through a social feed isn't a great use of it.

But most people spend more than an hour on social media every day. More than 2 hours, even (source).

The same is true for loads of other distractions. How long do you want to spend in your email inbox? In Slack? Browsing news websites? On YouTube? On Reddit? Whatever the answer, chances are you spend more time there than you want to.

More often than not, our actions are not aligned with our values.

There are many ways to explain why this is. To me, the one explanation that matters above all else is: it's because of the environment we live in.

Our physical and social environment determines our behavior to a much greater degree than we like to admit. We can change our habits, but our environment will pull us back to where we started. That is, unless we change our environment.

This is another fundamental building block and I'll have more on this shortly. For now, let me just close with this: an important part of our work is to become more aware of how environment influences behavior. And then to change our environment in order to change our behavior until it is as perfectly aligned with our values as possible.

Shane Melaugh

About the author

Shane is a serial entrepreneur with a long-standing obsession for personal development and life optimization. He has a habit of buying more books than he can ever read. During his childhood his worldview was significantly influenced by Jackie Chan movies, the Vorkosigan Saga and the writings of Miyamoto Musashi.

You may also like
{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Take one of Our Classes to Start Unleashing Your Full Potential