Finding the One Decision That Removes 100 Decisions (or, Why I’m Reading No New Books in 2020)

Donald Knuth, a renowned mathematician and recipient of the Turing Award (considered the Nobel Prize of computer science), retired from using email in 1990. 

He issued a public statement on his Stanford faculty page, which I saved to Evernote 1–2 years ago. I think of it often, and my favorite portion is below:

“I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime. Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.

I want to make 2020 a year of smarter decisions. 

To make that a reality, I’ve been pondering how much I want to specialize in speed versus finding targets that don’t require speed. That is why I bolded and underlined the above lines in Donald’s post.

Looking back over the last decade, I have made many good fast decisions, but I have nearly never made good rushed decisions. The former can be made from a place of calm, whereas the latter come from a place of turbulence and blurred judgment.

How can we create an environment that fosters better, often non-obvious, decisions?

There are many approaches, no doubt. But I realized a few weeks ago that one of the keys appeared twice in conversations from 2019. It wasn’t until New Year’s Eve that I noticed the pattern.

To paraphrase both Greg McKeown and Jim Collins, here it is: look for single decisions that remove hundreds or thousands of other decisions.

This was one of the most important lessons Jim learned from legendary management theorist Peter Drucker. As Jim recounted on the podcast, “Don’t make a hundred decisions when one will do. . . . Peter believed that you tend to think that you’re making a lot of different decisions. But then, actually, if you kind of strip it away, you can begin to realize that a whole lot of decisions that look like different decisions are really part of the same category of a decision.”

Much like my startup vacation/retirement in 2015, I’m now asking myself across the board: what can I categorically and completely remove, even temporarily, to create space for seeing the bigger picture and finding gems?

To that end, I’m committing to *not* reading any new books in 2020. This means I will not read any books published in 2020.

Here are a few reasons why:

  • New books, often from recommendations or external pressure, elicit a fear of missing out (FOMO) in me that is both unpleasant and unproductive and that leaves little room for original thought, discovery, or creation.
  • We don’t have that much time left to read books. Tim Urban’s The Tail End makes this clear. Based on his calculus, he might only read another 300 books before he dies. He and I are roughly the same age, and Tim is a very fast reader. Considering that, taking a year to only read books that have stood the test of time seems worthwhile.   
  • Each week, dozens of unsolicited books are mailed to me. Here’s an example from one day(!) in 2008, which is perhaps 20% of the current deluge. These books have recently come from publishers like Avery Books and Knopf, among others. I immediately donate all such books to libraries, but it still consumes energy and is a waste of trees. Thanks for permanently removing me from your lists, guys.
  • I’m not good at moderation. I’m much better with fasting than caloric restriction, for instance. “No dessert” is a lot easier for me than “some dessert.” I thrive with loving constraints: strict, binary rules that remove all deliberation and protect me from my lesser self. 
  • For years, I’ve had a public policy of not blurbing books. This is to avoid picking and choosing among friends, which is awful. I’ve put this policy on the blog and in my email auto-response, but it’s not visible enough; I am still asked on a weekly basis. Things can and do get uncomfortable. So, I’m publishing this blog post and fixing the problem further upstream: I’m not even reading any new books in 2020.  No “What I’m reading” bullets in the “5-Bullet Friday” newsletter will feature books published in 2020.
  • I am prone to procrastinating via reading. It’s a socially acceptable form of avoiding things, but let’s make no mistake: reading is often used to avoid things. If I want to write more, for example, it behooves me to dramatically limit the types of books I’m allowed to read.

To quote Bishop Desmond Tutu, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

Making too many decisions is often symptomatic of poor systems or process. I’m as guilty of this as the next person. In 2019, I made waaaay too many decisions, and it exhausted me.

But guilt can serve as a useful diagnostic tool. As one of my favorite people, Maria Popova, said in our last conversation: “Guilt is the flip side of prestige, and they’re both horrible reasons to do something.”

Here are some questions that have helped me think through all of this:

  • In my life, where am I making decisions or saying “yes” out of guilt? Can I create a blanket policy that makes it easier for me to say “no”?
  • In what areas am I making a lot of decisions, or sending a lot of communication? Are they concentrated anywhere? Can I create a blanket policy that makes it easier for other people to make those decisions?
  • In what areas am I making a lot of decisions, or sending a lot of communication? Are they concentrated anywhere? Can I create a blanket policy that entirely removes the need to make those decisions?

How can you make higher-level decisions? Look further upstream.

Do you want to try to stay on top of things, or do you want to try to get to the bottom of things?

Personally, I’ve vowed to focus on the latter in 2020. No new books is part of that, and there will be more divesting. Much more.

Where have you made single decisions that removed many decisions? Or where could you make single decisions that remove many decisions? Please let me know in the comments, as I’d love to share ideas as a community.

Here’s to making the right de-cisions (as in “cutting away”) . . .

Onward and upward,


P.S. If you’re interested, this is the last “new” book I’m allowing myself to read. There are two reasons for this particular book: 1) it was sent to me in 2019, and 2) it’s the updated version of an older book that helped me out of a dark place when I needed it most.