The Plus-and-Minus Theory of Living Happily Cover

The Plus-and-Minus Theory of Living Happily

On most days, I don’t shower to not feel dirty. I shower to feel clean. It may not sound like it, but there’s a difference.

Have you ever wasted away in bed for a few days until, at some point, you couldn’t stand your greasy hair anymore and lugged yourself into the shower? If so, by turning on the water, you took care of what Frederick Herzberg would have called “a hygiene factor” — pun present but not intended.

In his 1959 book The Motivation to Work, Herzberg, a clinical psychologist and professor, introduced a model of motivation called “the two-factor theory.” It stipulates that in order to feel happy in our jobs, two conditions must come together: a lack of dissatisfaction and a presence of satisfaction.

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7 Lessons From the 7th Year of Running a Book Summary Business Cover

7 Lessons From the 7th Year of Running a Book Summary Business

My business has lasted as long as the average American marriage — seven years. The level of commitment surely feels on par.

When I launched Four Minute Books, I had no idea what it would grow into. All I thought about was how to get better at writing and maybe make a few bucks along the way.

Seven years later, in what has been, undoubtedly, my hardest year in business yet, it turns out that this little book summary site is, so far, the only consistently growing revenue generator. Here’s a chart contrasting its revenue vs. Medium and Write Like a Pro, my writing course.

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Routines vs Rituals Cover

Protect Your Routines, Not Your Rituals

When I don’t leave the house, I won’t get much done. That’s the deal my brain has struck with itself. Little of my best work has happened at home. I’ve always been most productive when I separated the two, and being self-employed while living in a studio apartment has only confirmed that trend.

It doesn’t matter when I leave the house. As long as I do and arrive at an office, a Starbucks, literally anywhere with wifi, productivity will follow. The other day, I went to WeWork at 6 PM on a Saturday to shop Christmas gifts. It worked! Even a task as trivial as booking a train ticket, I’d rather do “at work” if you gave me a choice.

Lately, my mornings look like this: I wake up at 7, drink water, and brush teeth. I do some push-ups, some sit-ups, and shower. I meditate for 10–15 minutes, get dressed, grab a banana or prep some food, and go. That’s a lot of stuff. The part that matters, however, is that I leave the house. I could skip all the rest, and sometimes, I do. I might meditate at work or shower at night. I’ll move my workout or get food on the way.

The point here is that some habits deserve protection, whereas others do not. To determine which is which, I like to separate them into two categories: Routines vs rituals.

A routine is a recurring, cornerstone behavior that enables many others. It should be flexible in how you do it, but the fact that you do it is important to who you want to be. In my example, leaving the house is a routine. It doesn’t matter when I do it, and there are a million places I could go, but I know leaving the house makes me productive — and I want to be a productive person. Therefore, it’s a routine I must protect.

Showing up for practice is a routine. Cooking your own food is a routine. So is listening to your partner. There are many ways to live up to these routines. One day, you practice the topspin by yourself. On another, you have a session with a trainer. But you’re always showing up to practice tennis. Similarly, there are a million dishes you can cook, and which one you pick will depend on your mood and what you have in your fridge — but if it’s important to you to only eat what you’ve prepared, you’ll find a way.

A ritual is a fixed, intentional expression of who you are. It’s an exact set of steps, done in a certain way. If you go out of said way, you’ve failed to perform the ritual correctly. For me, doing 50 push-ups is a ritual. I’ve never been an exercise nut, but I do pride myself on moving a little every day. I’ve done 50 push-ups for so long, doing 10 no longer feels valid. The ritual has become fixed. At the same time, a million options would suffice my “move a little” criterion. I could switch to jumping jacks, squats, or running around the block any day of the week, and that’s important to remember. My rituals are expressive, not aspirational. Therefore, I should keep adjusting them as I go.

For religious people, lighting a candle is a ritual. So is meditation. Drinking coffee can be a ritual, as can making your partner’s bed and the 7-minute ab workout. People love to argue about the rules of various rituals, but in truth there are as many rituals as there are ways to do them. Even if others disagree with you, you’ll always have a specific idea of what it means to perform a certain ritual “correctly.” In that sense, each ritual is rigid on its own, but there are countless ones you can choose from to show who you are.

Routines determine your identity, rituals merely express it.

If I wanted to be “a fit person,” I wouldn’t keep doing 50 push-ups. I’d commit to the routine of “working out,” and the rituals I’d pick as part of living up to that commitment would change drastically over time. I’d also do a whole bunch of other things, like reading fitness articles while sitting on the toilet and curating workout playlists. Many non-ritualistic behaviors would follow. The routine would encompass many rituals, but it would be a lot bigger than the concept of rituals altogether.

Naturally, there are exceptions. Some rituals are so important, almost all of us perform them. Brushing our teeth, for example. But those are far and few between. For the most part, rituals serve the sole purpose of enabling our routines. Therefore, if they get in the way, it is our duty to change them.

Writing is one of my routines. It’s important to me to do it regularly. Coffee is a ritual to help with said routine. The smell, the taste, the feeling of a warm cup in my hand — it just gets the muse talking in the morning. There is, however, a limit to this ritual: If I perform it more than once or twice a day, it stops supporting my writing and starts hindering it.

I go from alert to jittery and from focused to distracted. After my third cup, I can no longer sit still, and neither can my brain. It races from thought to thought, from browser tab to browser tab, and my word count goes downhill. If I have coffee too late in the day, it even affects my sleep and thus next day’s performance! Clearly, this ritual needs to be reined in to serve its purpose.

On a good day, I’ll only have one coffee. I’ll combat post-lunch tiredness with a break or a walk, or I’ll have tea to simulate the feeling minus the caffeine. That’s a ritual well-swapped! Whatever it takes to aid the routine. Similarly, if I insisted on all my morning rituals, on some days, I’d lose all my writing time! What does it matter how good they are individually if, collectively, they prevent me from doing the most important thing? That’s why sometimes, I shorten my mediation or workout or shower in the evening.

You can’t have many routines. They grow quickly. The more you do them, the more meaningful they’ll become, and the more space in your life they’ll take. That’s a beautiful process, and even when it gets boring, a good routine will offer enough room for a break, be it a literal one or a change of rituals and patterns. Your tolerance for routines should be high. They’ll carry you to your goals. Better yet, in time, they’ll become their own reward.

Rituals, on the other hand, should be like books in a library: As long as you only pull them out when you need them, you can’t possibly have too many. Insist on doing them all at once, all the time, however, and you’ll become a fanatic. Consider “The Power 5,” a cheat sheet from billionaire trader Paul Tudor Jones’s early days:

Five times a day on each and every trading day, I will break from the momentum of the moment and take control of all trading situations by reestablishing my vision, my game plan, and my invincible physiology. I will enter my Power Room, drink fresh water, take 3 deep abdominal breaths, and take the following 5 steps…

It only gets more ridiculous from there. “Be Mr. Tough and hold contempt for the weak trader!” “Take pain! Take pain! Take pain!” No matter how much you love them in isolation, a long list of rituals compressed into one big ceremony will often feel like a cultish rite, and if you perform said rite five times a day, when will you get anything done?

Rituals are the gears in your routine machine — interchangeable parts of a much larger whole. Rituals are the means, the routine is the end. Treat your rituals like a general treats his soldiers: Value them, respect them, but dismiss them when their service is done. Let them rest once they’ve done their fair share, and if the situation requires it, swap one out and put in another. Some, you might not replace at all.

Protect your routines, not your rituals. Use one as the tool it is to maintain the other — nothing more, nothing less. Stay flexible, replace good with better, and throw out what doesn’t work as soon as it stops working — and yes, that does include our new ideal of working from home.

Sometimes, the Work Is Easier Than the Workaround Cover

Sometimes, the Work Is Easier Than the Workaround

When my favorite writer stopped writing, I decided to save all his articles, lest he delete them. I knew I could save them one by one in Evernote, but since he had published over 100 pieces, I thought there might be a way to avoid this tedium.

I asked a developer friend for help, and he referred me to another mutual friend of ours. I messaged that friend on Slack but didn’t get a response. A week later, I emailed him. A few more days went by, but then, he responded.

My friend suggested two scraping tools for the job. I started comparing their features and pricing. As it turned out, one tool would limit exports on a free trial, so I went with the other one. I downloaded it, installed it, and made an account.

The tool was pretty technical, so it took a while to grasp the basics. Eventually, I got it to load my favorite author’s index page, where all his stories were linked. Then, however, the tool required making complex workflows, and to top it all off, it only seemed to export to CSV, not PDF.

At this point, I finally decided the juice was no longer worth the squeeze. I sat down after lunch, sipped some coffee, cranked up the music, and went to work. One by one, I opened each article in a new tab, clicked the Evernote Web Clipper, chose the right output settings, and saved it.

Some pages took forever to load. Chrome groaned under the pressure. Evernote kept changing its settings, so I had to fiddle with them each time. After about an hour, however, I made it. There it was: My favorite author’s entire essay collection, preserved for future readings.

All in all, saving 100+ articles by hand was boring, tedious, and eye-roll inducing. I felt grumpy, annoyed, and frustrated at times. In short, it was exactly what you’d expect it to be. It was also, however, the 100% right thing to do — the shortest path to results, and thus the quickest way to satisfaction.

“Work smarter, not harder!” It’s a piece of advice cited like gospel in meetings, speeches, and job interviews. But how much time do you spend trying to out-smart the work? Isn’t thinking the hardest work of all? Thinking a lot without meaningful breakthroughs — there’s hardly a faster way to exhaustion.

Sometimes, it’s better to admit you’re not that good at it. Sometimes, the work is easier than the workaround.


“The long way is the shortcut,” says entrepreneur and author Seth Godin. When it comes to strategy, that’s easy-to-take advice. Of course you shouldn’t rush your novel, launch your business without a plan, or sell out your audience for a quick buck.

But what about tactics? What about the everyday chores life asks us to grind through? Here, we resist the high road for its seeming length when, often, it is not just the ethically sound but actually the shortest — albeit strenuous — path to success. That doesn’t make any sense.

This week, my year-long struggle with taxes came to a head: The government wants to see proper invoices, including names, addresses, and VAT charges. When you’re a German sole proprietor with strangers abroad buying your online courses based solely on an email address, however, that’s easier said than done.

I had spent months looking for a solution. I tried every accounting software, every table-formatting trick, and every bulk import tool I could find. In the end, what did it come down to? Me, sitting on a couch at WeWork, manually generating 400 invoices by hand to submit at the last minute — and you know what? Once I got started, it wasn’t that bad.

In fact, doing accounting — something I hate with a passion — the hard way, taught me several valuable lessons. For one, I learned that I can (still) focus on one task for five hours straight. For another, I realized that, despite hating it, I can take care of my books well enough for them to be presentable. Finally, and this is the big one, slicing through one tedious task gave me the courage to not shy away from another. I’m sure my article-saving stint had a similar, confidence-boosting effect.

We tell ourselves we’re being smart for avoiding the work, but the truth is that only applies in certain scenarios. When the work repeats endlessly, for example, or when it’s impossible to deliver it on time. If it’s a one-off project you are uniquely prepared to do well, however, wasting time on workarounds is a distraction. It’s a pseudo-justifiable symptom of what’s really going on under your skin: You are afraid.

You’re afraid of monotony, misery, and frustration. You’re afraid your ego might shatter when it catches you doing menial work. You’re afraid you might fail despite doing the right thing — what if you take the high road, the long road, and you still won’t reach your destination? You’re afraid you’re not cut out for the simplest solution. If you type the wrong thing on the invoice, there’s no software you can blame. Most of all, however, you’re afraid grinding it out will work. What if grunt work turns out to be smart? Terrifying! After all, there’d be no reason left to avoid it.

When he went skydiving, Will Smith learned that “the point of maximum danger is the point of minimum fear.” He had spent an entire day fretting, only to feel blissful and excited at the exact time when he had the most reason to worry — the moment he jumped out of the plane. He wondered: “Why were you scared in your bed the night before? What do you need that fear for?”

Now I don’t know much about extreme sports, but my recent bouts with banal tasks indicate Will’s lesson runs parallel to how we should approach our everyday jobs: “The point of maximum friction is the point of minimum fear.”

Once you get going, you’re going — and in the going lies peace of mind. Your unfounded worry disappears, and with each sigh-accompanied step, you’re accelerating towards your goal. It doesn’t matter if you walk slowly, if you think the work is beneath you, or whether you know someone else could have done it faster. What matters is you’re the one doing it, and you’re still here, so, ultimately, life can’t be that bad. It’s the kind of tangible proof no amount of thinking can conjure, and that’s why grunt work has value beyond its results.


There’s a scene in Game of Thrones where, after being taken in by a not-so-kind stranger, two members of the Night’s Watch, a once revered military order charged with protecting the world, are shoveling pig poop out of a latrine.

“When people talk about the Night’s Watch, they never mention the shoveling,” Grenn says. “Or the shit,” his friend Edd comments. “They tell you about honor, pardoning crimes, and protecting the realm, but shoveling really is most of it.” “And getting attacked, or killed, or worse.” “And that. But when you’re not getting attacked or killed, usually you’re shoveling.”

I haven’t watched all of Game of Thrones, but I doubt the fate of any one character in that show is preferable to whatever constitutes your everyday shoveling. Yes, work sucks sometimes. It’s not all collecting checks and after-work margaritas. Often, your biggest win of the day will be produced by shoveling a pile of shit — I mean, papers — from one side of your desk to the other. That may not be sexy, but it proves that, especially when we feel the most resistance towards it, shoveling is, usually, the right thing to do.

When an unpleasant task stares you in the face, do look for the obvious detour. But when there’s none to be found, don’t keep scouring the digital forest for hours. Let out a “pfff” if you must, but then, like Edd and Grenn, relent with humor to your immediate fate: “Ah, look. More shit. I was starting to wonder what to do with the rest of me day.”

Step up to your role in the small scheme of things, and before you know it, you’ll see: Small roles are not to be feared. They give us strength to star on bigger stages, and without them, the shoes of our heroes will always feel too big to fill. Work smart, sure, but remember that includes knowing when working hard is the smartest thing to do.

Do Self-Help Books Work? Cover

How Modern Non-Fiction Books Waste Your Time (and Why You Should Read Them Anyway)

When I first discovered non-fiction books, I thought they were the best thing since sliced bread. Whatever problem you could possibly have, there’s a book out there to help you solve it. I had a lot of challenges at the time, and so I started devouring lots of books.

I read books about money, productivity, and choosing a career. Then, I read books about marketing, creativity, and entrepreneurship. I read and read and read, and, eventually, I realized I had forgotten to implement any of the advice! The only habit I had built was reading, and as wonderful as it was, it left me only with information overwhelm.

After that phase, I flipped to the other, equally extreme end of the spectrum: I read almost no books, got all my insights from summaries, and only tried to learn what I needed to improve a given situation at any time.

So, do self-help books work? As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

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Don't Forget to Inhale Cover

Don’t Forget to Inhale

Living is exhaling.

You wake up, jump out, and make your bed. You brush teeth, get dressed, and race to the breakfast table. Phew!

You work. You type. You work harder. You type faster. Pheeew.

You buy groceries. You sort your bills. You tuck your kid in. Pheeeeeeeew.

You watch Netflix. You doomscroll. You listen to a friend yap for hours. Phew, phew, pheeeeeeeeeeeew.

By the time your head hits the pillow, you are exhausted. You’re wheezing.

What happened? Simple: You forgot to inhale. That’s also living.

Matthew Inman says creativity is like breathing: “When you make stuff, you’re exhaling. But you can’t exhale forever. Eventually, you have to breathe in. Or you’ll be dead.”

It’s not just creativity. It’s everything. The adulting. The job you’re trying to be good at. Even the experiencing of awesome things. As long as you’re doing, you’re exhaling. But eventually, you have to breathe in — or you’ll be dead.

Your health might not really be at risk, but often, you’ll literally feel it: You’re panting. Between meetings, homeschooling, and picking stocks, you ran out of air! You’re gasping. So settle down. Sit. Relax. Inhale!

Inhaling is living.

You stare out the window. Nothing moves. Ahhh.

You enjoy the meal that’s in front of you. No music. No TV. You can taste every spice. Ahhhhh.

You walk around the block. You see a tree. The leaves are swaying in the wind. “Is it breathing?” you wonder. Ahhhhhhhhhh.

You lie down on your back. You stretch your arms and legs into the star that you are. You look at the ceiling. How could you forget to inhale? It’s the most natural thing in the world!

Doing is wonderful. Life is a one-time chance to do everything you’ll ever do, and I hope most of yours will be a joy to experience. But if do is all you do, it’ll be impossible to extract happiness from even the most fortunate of events. So don’t. Sometimes, just don’t.

Life is not a vacuum, and so nothingness is not empty. It provides us with the very air we need to witness the full spectrum of the gift we’ve been given.

Don’t forget to inhale.

You Must Meme Your Dreams Into Existence Cover

You Must Meme Your Dreams Into Existence

Why is America “The Greatest Country in the World™?”

Unlike Italy (Caesar), Greece (Alexander the Great), and Mongolia (Genghis Khan), America never ruled half the known world. In fact, America is only 200 years old. It’s one of the youngest countries of all.

So why do they get that slogan? America gets that slogan because for all 200 of those years, they’ve been yelling it at the top of their lungs. When the founding fathers put their signatures on that document, they said: “This is what makes a country great.”

Ever since, America at large has been saying, “Look! This is what makes a country great. And we’re doing it! Look at us! That is why our country is the greatest.” It’s marketing — but it works.

“Which country is the best?” is a stupid question, of course, but let’s ignore that for a second. For any of the years it has existed, including this one, you could argue a thousand ways that America is not the greatest country in the world. You could use facts. You could use opinions. You could use ideas. What about originally taking the land from Native Americans? What about slavery? What about the problems with energy, finance, poverty, food, race, and a million other things? Every country has problems. America is no exception.

And yet, if you could put your ear on the global chatter-chamber, you’d find there’s no debate: By and large, people around the world agree that the USA are “The Greatest Country in the World™.” It might not be more than half the global population, but it sure is a hell of a lot more than just the 328 million people who live there. How many dream of moving to the USA? Billions.

USA wins, and it wins because when it comes to “the country reputation scoreboard,” Americans have made up a competition and declared themselves the winner. They’ve memed the outcome they wanted into existence, and even if the memes were just made up, the result is very much real.

Achieving your dreams works the exact same way.


The sooner you wrap your head around the fact that all large-scale change must — in large part — be memed into existence, the better. It’s not all of it but most of it.

Most people don’t want to accept this. People who don’t understand Bitcoin, the GameStop drama, or how Trump could ever win the election want logical explanations for why things work.

“But it’s not backed by anything.”

“But it’s not a good stock fundamentally.”

“But he’s not equipped to be president.”

The truth is most things work because we collectively decide they should. Much more so than with facts and figures, we back them with belief — and human belief is one of the most powerful forces in the world. The story matters more than the data.

If we could travel through time and be there for some of the big moments of history, we’d understand this much faster. Imagine how skeptical the first users of paper US dollars must have been. “What the hell is this? I can’t bite on it to verify it’s real. It’s just paper!” Imagine how freaked out people were by the first light bulbs. “It must be witchcraft! They should hang this Edison guy.”

Early on, Martin Luther King was just a hot-headed guy with crazy ideas. So were Newton, Steve Jobs, Lady Gaga, and Amelia Earhart. Then, the story changed.

When you actively try to change your story, you are taking back your power. You’re starting to meme your dreams into existence.


There’s a great scene in The Dark Knight where Alfred explains why Bruce doesn’t have what it takes to defeat Bane: “I see the power of belief.”

A few weeks ago, Jake Paul knocked out Ben Askren in the first round. How can a Youtuber (repeatedly) beat professionals? Training, circumstance, luck — sure, but at some point, you have to admit: “I see the power of belief.”

Ten days before the fight, one of Jake’s security guards died. That guard told Jake he had a dream of him knocking out Ben in the first round. Imagine what it feels like to fight for that. Imagine the power of belief. Can you feel it? Goosebumps.

Of course, Batman ultimately does defeat Bane, but not because of his renewed physical strength, better gadgets, or smarter ideas. He wins because he fights for something bigger, something he believes in so much that he makes all the above happen in the first place. Belief is a self-reinforcing loop.


If you want something, you need to tell yourself a story that leads to it. In that story, you must be the hero. Then, you keep telling it to yourself and everyone you come across.

“I’ll write the most popular young adult novel ever.”

“I’ll be the first person on Mars.”

“I’ll make green beans the most desirable food in the world.”

It matters not how asinine or unrealistic the story is. What matters is that it offers the power of belief — to others, but especially to you. You don’t need the facts on your side because if you persist with your story, the data will change over time.

When it comes to understanding what happens in the world as well as making your dreams a reality, the story isn’t everything, but it’s probably more than half. In today’s world of global awareness and instant story-spreading, don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t do. Decide what the story will be, then insist on it with your words and actions. One day, it is bound to happen.

Just like, one day, someone decided America should be the greatest country in the world — and today, that’s a story billions of people believe.

Unwind Your Mind Cover

Unwind Your Mind

Your mind has many layers. All day, you keep jumping from one to another.

There’s the work layer, which contains your to-do list, your career goals, and a million process workflows.

There’s the organization layer, which reminds you to do grocery shopping and keep your adult life together.

There’s the social layer, which sends a friend’s joke into your ear mid-lunch and prompts you to call your mom.

Each of these layers breaks down into a million smaller sheets, and you’re Tarzan, trampolining from level to level inside the bouncy castle of your mind. That can be exhausting. When it is, it’s simply time to take a break.

Sit. Rest. Take a nap. Disconnect. Reset your mental engagements to zero.

When I have a headache, I can feel my forehead pulsating. When I lie down, it slows. The waves break less frequently.

Something similar happens when I meditate. It feels as if, all day, I was building a complex origami swan. Then, I put it down and it unravels itself. It is a marvelous thing to observe.

All you need to unwind your mind is space. No devices. No screens. Probably not even music. Just time and a little boredom. Your brain will love it. It’ll stretch right into it.

Life is about creation. Action is awesome, and your mind is the engine that drives your activity. It’s also a wonderful maze. Wandering inside it does not mean you’re lost, but all those who wander also need rest.

Every day, build the most beautiful origami you can — just don’t forget to decompress.