• Josh Robertson

Instinct Implants: How Principles Help You Choose the Harder Path



"This year let’s take the path of most resistance" - Sarah Silverman

We're continually arriving at the proverbial fork-in-the-road. Whether it's a momentous decision (Should we drop this thing we've been committed to for 26 years or stick with it?) or a simple, daily choice (Will I spend some quality time with my wife now or keep working on the report that's due tomorrow?), we've got options.


Oftentimes, one option is easier than the other(s). The path of least resistance is rarely the better path, though, because hardship can be a source of significance, satisfaction, and strength.


Problem is, something in us wants to take the easier path, and in the moment, it can be exceedingly difficult to choose the harder path. Everything in us screams, "BROAD, FLAT PATH! YES!"



For example, I love to read, and I recognize that, if tempered with humility, a life spent wrestling with good books is the more rewarding life. In the moment though, when I reach the fork and have to choose between picking up a book or watching frivolous internet videos...let's just say I've built quite the personal 'fail compilation'. To make matters worse, I spend a lot of money on new books I never read. When I do read, I trudge through books I don't like, and I fail to finish books that are rewarding (because something more momentarily enticing comes along).


Because of my opting for the easier path in all these ways, my reading life has become icky.


I've got to resist whatever it is in me that loves the smooth road and get better at taking the tough, rewarding path of a well-read life. I've got to resist...myself.


But since I'm so bad at overcoming myself and choosing the harder path once I've reached the fork and am within earshot of the easier path's siren song, I need to be like Odysseus and choose the better path before I ever get close to the decision point.


Odysseus ordered his men to lash him to the ship's mast so he'd be able to resist temptation when it arrived.

There are strategies for doing this:

  • Make it easier for my future self to take the harder path

  • Make the harder path the easier path for my future self

Today, let's focus on the first strategy.



Make it easier for your future self to take the harder path


You can probably relate to my struggle to say no to myself in the moment and instead take the harder path.


It'll be much easier for our future selves to take the harder path if we have the right instincts...if deep down there's an internal push or pull toward the harder, better path. These internal pushes or pulls may be innate, or, where they're weak or lacking, they may be developed over time. We can even actively help their development along. For example, we can meditate on a passage of scripture, repeatedly turning it over in our minds, such that over time our hearts are softened, our desires are re-shaped, and our compasses are sharpened.


Wouldn't it be cool, though, if we could also just download the instincts we don't already have, Matrix-style, and put them to use right away?



We can, by adopting principles!


If they're memorable or inspiring enough, or if you review them periodically, principles are like instinct implants. Adopt the right principles, and the next time you come to a decision point, they'll be a reminder of the route you've already chosen, urging you toward the harder path, even if, in the moment, you're naturally tempted to take the easier path.


Over the years, to help myself fight for a better reading life, I've collected and adopted principles related to reading and book ownership.



My principles as a reader

  1. read at whim

  2. read just-in-time, not just-in-case

  3. read slowly

  4. read with a pen in hand

  5. read one book at a time

  6. finish only the books you like

  7. make your phone hard to reach

  8. take the good, leave the rest


1. Read at whim


“Read what gives you delight — at least most of the time — and do so without shame” - Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Like Alan, I've often been tempted to read from lists of books recommended by The Wise and Learned. Surely you've seen some of the lists I have in mind: 'Great Books of the Western World', '8 New Books We Recommend This Week', 'The All-Time 100 Novels', and so on. These lists seem innocent enough. I mean, who doesn't need a suggestion every now and then, and picking up a book on recommendation has to be smarter than selecting one at random, given the brevity of life and the breadth of stuff out there, right? Plus, I'm sure it feels good to know that others know you've read The Odyssey. The issue is that, over time, your reason for reading shifts a bit. Instead of reading to read, you read to have read, as Jacobs notes. And that's not as fun. So read what you enjoy.


2. Read just-in-time, not just-in-case


“I used to have the habit of reading a book or site to prepare for an event weeks or months in the future, and I would then need to reread the same material when the deadline for action was closer. This is stupid and redundant. Follow your to-do short list and fill in the information gaps as you go. Focus on what digerati Kathy Sierra calls ‘just-in-time’ information instead of ‘just-in-case’ information.” - Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek

3. Read slowly


"Though few people realize it, many books become more boring the faster you read them." - Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

4. Read with a pen in hand


Tony Reinke showed me the value of writing in books. Like him, I used to be a 'marginaliaphobe', afraid to deface the pages of my books with notes and highlights. He gives convincing reasons why writing in books is a silly practice to resist.


"Most of my book scribbles accomplish one of three goals: to highlight what I appreciate, to trace the structure of the book, and to critique what I don't appreciate." - Tony Reinke, Lit!

Adopt the eBook principle, below, and watch any lingering marginaliaphobia evaporate! And eBooks from the library can be annotated, whereas it's still bad practice to mark up physical books the library has lent to you.


5. Read one book at a time



6. Finish only the books you like (h/t Austin Kleon)


Nancy Pearl utilizes what she calls the Rule of 50: if, at the fifty-page mark, you don't like a book, drop it. You’d think it’d be easy for us to know whether we like a book, but we often fool ourselves into thinking we do. Here are some indicators that you're just not that into the book:

  • You constantly check how many pages are left in the chapter

  • You’ve been stuck in one place for days, weeks, or months

  • You’re already flirting with another book

  • And, of course, the very fact that you’re wondering whether you like it!


7. Make your phone hard to reach


Fill the center of your life together - the literal center, the heart of your home, the place where you spend the most time together - with the things that reward creativity, relationship, and engagement. Push technology and cheap thrills to the edges; move deeper and more lasting things to the core. - Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family

This is also a good example of the other strategy for choosing the harder path before arriving at the fork in the road I mentioned above: make the harder path the easier path for your future self. More on this strategy in a future post.


8. Take the good, leave the rest


Many of the most worthwhile books are likely to espouse some things you agree with, and some things you disagree with. This is okay. If the author gets some things wrong, or even most things wrong, it doesn't make him/her or the book all bad.


"Closed systems die," as Shane Parrish of Farnam Street has said. He values 'thoughtful opinions held loosely' instead.



My principles as an owner of books

  1. local library > book ownership

  2. eBooks > physical books


1. local library > book ownership (h/t Mr. Money Mustache)


Space-saving, community-building, exercise-promoting (if you walk or ride your bike)...your neighborhood library is a boon! And it's FREE!


Exceptions to this principle:

  • EXTREMELY sentimental copies, e.g., the first book your wife gifted you

  • books you’ll use ALL THE TIME, e.g., a holy text or a field guide to birds


2. eBooks > physical books


eBooks are awesome. We rent a small apartment, and books take up space and are a pain to move. eBooks, though, are weightless and take up no space. Add an eReader device to the mix (which I recommend), and you're still only dealing with the weight- and space-equivalent of a single book, and a tiny, light book at that. I can mark up eBooks with reckless abandon and never lose access to my highlights and notes, even if the book's a loaner from the library. And there's no risk of a late fee, because the book is automatically removed from my device and 'returned' to the library when the checkout period is over.


Exception to this principle: books for which the experience with the physical form is VASTLY superior to the experience with the digital form, e.g., a pop-up book or a coffee table art book


Based on these two principles, you should therefore purge and donate 99% of the physical books you own, and use the library for 99% of your future reading needs.



These reading and book principles give me more clarity and make worthwhile behaviors explicit so that, when I'm faced with a decision, I haven't left everything up to how I feel right then.



Best books I've read in the last five years

  • Essentialism (Gregory McKeown)

  • I Contain Multitudes (Ed Yong)

  • Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Richard Bauckham)

  • The Magic of Thinking Big (David J. Schwartz)

  • Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl)


Download a couple gigs of the right instincts now and make it easier for your future self to take the harder path


Reader and Book Owner are just two of the many roles one might play in life. Is there a role you play in which you consistently take the easier, less rewarding path?

  • Formulate a principle or two to steer yourself toward the better path next time

  • The simpler, more memorable the principle(s), the better


If you're struggling to get started, here are some ideas:


In your roles as a neighbor and commuter, do you tend to take the path of avoiding or judging people asking for money on the street?


I do, to my shame. Next time (and every time thereafter), do this:

  1. Stop

  2. Make eye contact

  3. Ask their name

  4. Give what they're asking for, if you can

  5. Say, "Sorry, I can't", if you can't

  6. Tell them to take care

  7. Stay safe

These principles were inspired by this wonderfully-challenging tweet thread.


In your role as an eater, do you tend to take the easier path of unhealthy food choices?


Remember these simple principles, developed by Michael Pollan.

  1. Eat food (vs food-like substances)

  2. Mostly plants

  3. Not too much



Resources I like


  • The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

  • Kindle Paperwhite by Amazon


Like what you read? Feel free to feature this in your own piece - just be sure to cite me bruh

#selfstruggle #reading #books #homer #principles #alanjacobs #timferriss #tonyreinke #austinkleon #andycrouch #nancypearl #mrmoneymustache #gregorymckeown #edyong #richardbauckham #davidschwartz #viktorfrankl #michaelpollan #farnamstreet

Copyright 2020 Josh Robertson. All rights reserved.