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16 things I know are true but haven’t quite learned yet

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There’s a difference between knowing something and living as if it were true. These truths are all lingering on that awkward threshold, for me anyway.

1) The sooner you do something, the more of your life you get to spend with that thing done — even though it takes less effort (or at least no more) than it will later. It’s the ultimate sure-thing investment and I pass it up all the time.

2) I never regret working out. I can’t count the number of times I’ve negotiated with myself to work out the next day instead of today because I’m worried it will be a “bad workout.” I seldom have a bad day on a day that I work out.

3) Whenever I’m playing with my phone I am only shortening my life. A smartphone is useful if you have a specific thing you want to do, but ninety per cent of the time the thing I want to do is avoid doing something harder than surfing Reddit. During those minutes or hours, all I’m doing is dying.

4) Nothing makes me more productive and in-the-moment than a clean house. There is mind-clearing magic in cleanliness. Waking up in a house where everything is put away is a glorious feeling. There seem to be more possibilities in the air, and all my things seem more useful.

5) Minute-for-minute, nothing I do is more rewarding than meditation. Even after just a very short session, it reliably makes me better at everything, especially making decisions. It lets me do my best. Yet I still do it only intermittently.

6) Creative work is something that can be done at any time. It’s no different than any other kind of work. Inspiration is nice but completely optional. I’ve almost completely come around on this one in 2013. But sometimes the Four Horsemen still trick me.

7) Acting the way you want to feel usually works. When I feel crappy just before I have to go do something, if I decide to act as if I am happy for a while (even though I’m not) I usually end up feeling happy after not too long, or at least much less crappy. This is straight out of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and it’s an extremely powerful thing to experiment with. [More on this in an upcoming post.]

8) Ninety-five per cent of my happiness comes from having a home, a functioning body and something to eat. I live in utter luxury, by any sensible standard of what “luxury” is. If I am unhappy it’s because I’ve lost perspective about the other five per cent. 

9) Our minds are geared to manage much less than we typically end up managing. Modern people have so many options they conflict with each other in almost every area. The fewer things I have, the more I enjoy my things. The fewer goals I have, the better I do them. The smaller the portion size, the better food tastes.

10) The quickest and most reliable path to personal improvement is to do the things on my list that I resist most. Internal resistance should be taken as a big red sign guaranteeing rapid growth and new capabilities. Given my experience with the ecstasy that comes with overcoming resistance, logically I should be attracted to it by now.

11) All you need to do to finish things is keep starting them until they’re done. The idea of doing something in its entirety always seems hard. But it’s easy to commit to simply starting on something, and then you’re past most of the resistance. Continuing is just as easy. (Thanks to Leo Babauta for this one.)

12) Whenever I think I’m mad at a person, I’m really just mad at a situation. I’m mad because suddenly life requires something new of me, and it’s easy to implicate a person who contributed to that situation. I want the situation to be responsible for fixing itself, so I attribute it to someone else’s moral failing, and then I don’t have to feel responsible for this new problem of mine.

13) Ultimately, to get something done you have to forget about everything else while you do it. The mind is always telling you that 85 things are on fire and you need to do everything now. However you respond emotionally to it, to move things along you have to pick one to deal with, and let the rest continue burning while you do.

14) The most consistently joyful activities for me are visiting with other people and reading books. Aside from earning a living and a bit of travel there isn’t much else I need in my life. Somehow these two things are still not clear priorities. What are yours?

15) If I find myself in an argument, I’ve made a mistake. It doesn’t matter whose position makes more sense, because by the time it’s an argument any real communication has ended. Marshall Rosenberg’s brilliant method of Nonviolent Communication is a far more useful default response than argument, but I often forget it completely.

16) Few things matter long-term other than relationships, health, personal finance and personal growth. Crises in almost every other area turn over so quickly there’s not much reason to get upset at them. Interestingly, those four are the areas that probably contribute most to happiness in the short term too.

What fits this category for you?


Photo by David Cain

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Gao January 7, 2014 at 12:27 am

By far my favorite post!!! Not that all the other ones do not shine light on your character, but the humility is greatly appreciated!


Paul January 7, 2014 at 2:10 am

I enjoyed your post, #8 was especially relevant . I too feel so blessed in my life, and I sometimes feel guilty for wanting more. I wonder , Do wealthy people ever feel guilty for having so much ? Or is my guilt what holds me back from having it all .

Zara January 7, 2014 at 2:24 am

I don’t like the spirit of this. Meditation is not done for the rewards after you finish. Happiness transcends having a home and a functioning body (though, yes, being hungry makes me grumpy). 6, 10, 12, and 15 are all wrong. “I never regret working out” is the mark of someone who has not been experimenting with exercise; it’s the easiest thing in the world to overdo. The only thing I really agree with is 7. This person seems to me like he is fighting within himself, and so no wonder he has this feeling of knowing something but not having learned it (i.e., not knowing it–the two are mutually exclusive!). If the Buddha in the picture could read this, he’d laugh.

J January 7, 2014 at 4:12 pm

the title should be “16 things I FEEL are true but haven’t quite learned yet”

David Cain January 10, 2014 at 10:11 am


Akhil Kumar January 8, 2014 at 7:56 am

Great post, David. I am going a different direction this year and except for some very specific projects, am not going to make lists. The lists were white rabbits and kept reproducing and taking over my life. I am trying to simplify my life and this is my first step and i’m working on http://www.21entrepreneurs.com/ which provides valuable resources for young entrepreneurs to start up.

MIchael Saychu January 10, 2014 at 9:37 am

greGreat post, David. I am going a different direction this year and except for some very specific projects, am not going to make lists. The lists were white rabbits and kept reproducing and taking over my life. I am trying to simplify my life and this is my first step and i’m working on

Kevin January 11, 2014 at 1:46 pm

The workout thing is so true. For me, the key to days I don’t want to workout is to just get myself in the door. I often trick myself into doing this by telling myself I just have to do one easy thing and then I can go home. It should be something worth doing but short and not that difficult, like run a mile or do three sets of bench press (the key is that it seems easy to you but not a total waste of time). I generally find that, once I’m there and working out, I almost always do more than whatever I told myself was all I had to do. And even if I only do the minimum, I still avoid the psychological blow that comes from skipping a day and feel far less guilty. In a week or so I won’t even remember that one of my workouts was really short. I’ll just remember that I went every day I said I was going to. Maintaining a streak can be a huge motivator. When you skip one day, yes, it’s only one day, but it kills the streak and can destroy your motivation.

Lydia January 12, 2014 at 7:22 pm

Great list! Given that I am in the process of studying for my PhD comps numbers 1, 3, and 15 especially resonate with me. Thank you for the post!

Kayla Garnet Rose January 13, 2014 at 9:22 am

I view my personal inertia as a part of the law of physics – a body at rest tends to stay at rest, a body in motion tends to stay in motion. The trick is to overcome that initial resistance, or else i can be quite happy just sitting on the couch rather than doing something productive and enjoyable like gardening. Great list!

Faith Watson January 13, 2014 at 10:13 am

Loved this, David–personal, yet gets a universal conversation going. Thank you from your new fan. On #4: I surely know that feeling… then again, though I was raised by a long line of Polish cleaning women, I believe perspective is everything and I learned cleaning (or any domestic project) is relative to whatever time/activity you’re trading it for. I heart this poem:

Dust if you must, but wouldn’t it be better
To paint a picture or write a letter,
Bake a cake or plant a seed,
Ponder the difference between want and need?

Dust if you must, but there’s not much time,
With rivers to swim and mountains to climb,
Music to hear, and books to read,
Friends to cherish and life to lead.

Dust if you must, but the world’s out there,
With the sun in your eyes, the wind in your hair,
A flutter of snow, a shower of rain.
This day will not come round again.

Dust if you must, but bear in mind,
Old age will come and it’s not kind.
And when you go – and go you must –
You, yourself, will make more dust.

~ Rose Milligan

Dwayne Kerr January 14, 2014 at 6:18 pm

Haha, yea there true… I know them, but it’s sometimes good to be reminded about them. Right now number 2 “working out” is standing out for me.

Tom Southern January 15, 2014 at 6:51 am

All so true – well, except maybe when I’m mad, it’s seldom, but is usually because of a person not a situation. The rest is pretty much there. The fact for me is that it’s the effort to get out of doing those things that create these after effects that takes up most of my energies. If I ever do do something, it’s because I want the end result more than anything else.

I just don’t want very much in the first place.

Jordan Phoenix January 21, 2014 at 1:57 am

“If I find myself in an argument, I’ve made a mistake.”

Love this! Excellent points, but everyone can learn from that one in particular.

Wan January 21, 2014 at 9:23 am

For me, meditation is the hardest thing to do.

When I meditate, that’s the time when the world hits you with memories of the past and promises of the future.

David Cain January 22, 2014 at 8:51 am

Yes, when you sit down to look at your thoughts it’s unsettling how ferocious they can be. You might appreciate my account of my experience at a meditation retreat, where I suffered that feeling in the extreme. It does break after a while.


Mitch Russo January 29, 2014 at 8:29 pm

Lets add one more:
17: Next time I find myself in conflict with another, I will look for a 3rd party. There’s always someone in the background whispering in the ear of one of the two who are conflicted. It’s usually the case, just take a look, you’ll find the 3rd party.

Tanya February 5, 2014 at 12:31 pm

That’s a great list! Although it was created for 2013 I’m going to show up fashionably late and apply to 2014!

Thanks for creating this.

ziad k abdelnour February 12, 2014 at 6:35 am

that is right,

“Trust is earned, respect is given, and loyalty is demonstrated. Betrayal of any one of those is to lose all three.”

Thank you

Pam February 12, 2014 at 11:42 pm

I love your blog and how your English accent (I’m assuming comes through)! #9 and 10 resonated with me the most at this moment in time. #9 — I just recently said to a friend that I realized in order to live a more peaceful life I need to put my focus on fewer things. I don’t know if it’s age or expanded awareness, but I know that it keeps me sane. #10 — Spock once said “resistance is futile”, and oh how this is true. Once we surrender and shut off the incessant talk in our head, things tend to work out much better! Easier said than done, right? :-) Looking forward to reading more of your posts! Love and peace…

David Cain February 13, 2014 at 9:05 am

I wish I had an English accent. I’m Canadian :)

I am self. February 17, 2014 at 12:05 pm

Thankyou for this post and u r right, in-fact when i was in a world of empathy, my whole life became “insane”, no matter how much care we take, still worries always reflected me back, seems no one can enter other minds, and one can enter in their self minds only, otherwise anybody can rule anyone. But i always thanked my-self 1st who finally came out of empathy and bounded my-self to my truth. Now i am much much better than before. Thoughts really matter. Even Buddha made time to understand self and everybody must start giving time for self 1st, if possible must be inspiration of self and they are only became the truth. One can message to world, through self within, simply by understanding selves and be influence of selves. Life is gift for me, so i never think about future, even though if it passes cause everybody must go from past to future and if time concept is false then we are actually lived only in presence. It is a real place of peace and i deserved it.

Free to Pursue February 18, 2014 at 8:27 pm

Just had to come back and read this post again. It hits the mark and then some!


All the points you make are related to being present and aware of what works for us, including choosing to do the hard things because they pay greater personal dividends in the long run.

Our increased focus as a society one the short term, on convenience, on interruptions “squirrel!”, on others’ demands on our time (The Man), on consumption meant to address something we have been told we lack, makes it difficult for us to get back to what is essential. That is, seeking and experiencing:

1. Human connection
2. Intrinsic not extrinsic rewards
3. Simplicity
4. Focus (thought, passion, flow)
5. Understanding
6. Personal Growth

All these aspects of a fulfilling life are abstract, but yet we can each relate to them in some way because we know they “feel” good when we experience them. Why, then, do we have to regularly remind ourselves of that fact?

My guess is that I will be coming back to this list monthly throughout 2014!

Thanks for posting.

Vickie Fowler March 17, 2014 at 3:34 pm

A clean house works wonders! While I’m blogging, I’m looking around at the distractions. I’ve learned that taking short breaks and picking up/cleaning up from one end of the house to the other = having a nice, clean environment to work in! Thanks, nice article.

derrek wester March 17, 2014 at 9:33 pm

very astute truths

games for my mobile March 25, 2014 at 7:51 am

Wow! This blog looks exactly like my old one! It’s on
a entirely different subject but it has pretty much the same page layout and design.
Great choice of colors!

Gaye @CalmHealthySexy June 14, 2014 at 2:27 pm

Thank you. This is very helpful to me. Especially – “The quickest and most reliable path to personal improvement is to do the things on my list that I resist most.” I am struggling mightily with internal resistance to something I need to do. I know it, but I haven’t been able to move forward. I think it is fear of failing, but a friend suggested this week that it is fear of succeeding. Thanks for the encouragement to push ahead.

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