The Power of Zero: Transform Your Life Using Zero-Based Thinking

by Mark on January 19, 2010 · 5 comments

Are you frustrated or dissatisfied with your life? Or do you just want to take your life to a whole new level? The first step in transforming your life is getting clear about exactly what it is that you want. One very effective way to do this is to apply zero-based thinking. The idea behind zero-based thinking is very simple. You start from zero. You work from a blank slate. Just like when you were a child, you get a “do over.”

Starting from scratch, you design your life from the ground up. Begin by questioning everything. And I do mean everything. The idea at this point isn’t to commit yourself to anything. The goal is merely to gain a better understanding of what you really want. This is easier to do when you drop your concerns about your current situation. Zero-based thinking is powerful because it opens up a world of possibilities that we otherwise might not consider. It frees our minds to think without any sense of commitment or concerns resulting from our past actions or decisions.

Don’t Fall for the Sunk Cost Fallacy

A “sunk cost” is a past cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. Sunk costs are completely irrelevant for decision making because our decisions cannot change the past. Rational decision making requires determining the course of action that will have the best results from this point forward. The problem is that it is very common for people to let sunk costs influence their decisions. This greater tendency to continue with a particular course of action once a person has made an investment of money, effort, or time is called the “sunk cost fallacy.” Quite often the best decision requires abandoning our prior course of action even if we have already made a substantial investment. Unfortunately, the human need for consistency often causes us to continue down a path even if the best decision would be to change course. If you are serious about transforming your life, be aware of this tendency and avoid the sunk cost fallacy to the best of your ability.

Here is an example to illustrate. Suppose you go out to a restaurant and buy a very nice but expensive dinner. You are enjoying your delicious meal, but the portions are huge. Pretty soon you are stuffed, but you keep eating. Now your stomach hurts, and you aren’t even really enjoying the meal anymore, but you don’t want to waste the food that you spent so much money on. You are letting the cost that you incurred to irrationally influence your decision about whether or not to continue eating. Since the cost is a sunk cost and cannot be changed, the rational course of action is to maximize your pleasure by no longer eating once you reach the point when it is not pleasurable.

What does the sunk cost fallacy have to do with zero-based thinking? Zero-based thinking eliminates sunk costs from our thinking completely. It allows us to design our lives completely unburdened by our previous decisions.

Let’s look at ways we can apply zero-based thinking to our lives.

Apply Zero-Based Thinking to Your Finances

Apply zero-based budgeting. Start with the assumption that you are not currently spending any money, and consciously and carefully decide how you would really like to spend your money to maximize your enjoyment. In the long run, you will have the opportunity to increase your income, but at this point, you should probably work within your current income since income is pretty much fixed in the short run for most people. Your total available budget would be equal to your net pay less your desired savings. Forget about what you are currently spending. Try to identify the ideal. Get the most bang for your buck. Question everything. The idea isn’t to live like a monk (unless that is what you really want!). The idea is to stop spending money on things that you don’t truly value. By reducing the money you spend on things of little value to you, you will have more money to spend on things that you value highly and at the same time save for the future.

Apply Zero-Based Thinking to Your Possessions

What if everything you owned was completely destroyed? If you had to start with nothing, what would you buy? This would provide you with an amazing opportunity to buy only things that you would really use and love. Possessions take up both physical space and mental space. How would it feel to create space in your life? Would it reduce your stress to have so few items that you actually know where everything is? Do you find minimalist homes aesthetically pleasing? I know that I do. Would you radically reduce your possessions and focus on getting a few high quality items that you will really love? Would you get rid of all your papers and digitize them instead? Would you scan your photos and get rid of the physical copies? There is no one right answer. The answers will be different for everyone. What do you really want?

Apply Zero-Based Thinking to Your Schedule

What if you had no time commitments whatsoever? Start with a completely empty schedule. What if you could create a schedule that allows you to spend far more time in ways that you find enjoyable, exciting, and fulfilling? Would you create a schedule that isn’t so jam packed with things to do? Would you create space to relax, to get into a state of “flow,” or to be more spontaneous? How much time would you dedicate to work? To travel? To spending time with your family or friends? When you are starting with an empty schedule and questioning everything, you don’t have to fill every moment with activity. Don’t get caught up in all of your current time commitments. Just brainstorm possibilities of how you would like to spend your time if you were given the opportunity to completely start over.

Apply Zero-Based Thinking to Your Relationships

The area of relationships can be a very difficult one because emotions often play a bigger role here than in other areas. It can be a real challenge to think objectively. Nevertheless, relationships play a huge role in our lives. Once again, start from zero. Knowing what you now know, ask yourself if you would choose to enter the relationships that you currently have. Are there people in your life that have a toxic effect on your happiness? Are there people who drag you down or are a bad influence on you? Are there people in your life that you love and make you happy and that you would like to spend more time with? Be brutally honest with yourself. Once again, at this point you aren’t committing yourself to anything. You are just trying to get a better understanding of what you want or don’t want.

Put What You Have Learned into Action

Once you have gone through the process of zero-based thinking, the next step is to begin putting what you have learned into action. If you have possessions that you no longer use and love, begin to get rid of them. Sell them or give them away. Feel good that someone will benefit from them. If it just sits in your home collecting dust, it is such a tremendous waste. If you are concerned about sentimental value, could you take a photograph of it? If it is just the memories that you don’t want to lose, a photograph may serve your purpose. Is there something that you already know you love to use but think an upgrade would be even better? Upgrading might be worthwhile. Do you have a gym membership that you don’t use? Magazine subscriptions that you don’t read? A cable or satellite TV package that you feel costs too much compared to the enjoyment it brings you? Begin to cancel them. If there are people that make you feel bad and are constantly bringing you down, stop interacting with them or at least try to minimize their impact. Constantly ask yourself what you can do to align your life more precisely with what you want, and begin to act on it.

I have recently been spending a lot of time going through this zero-based thinking process myself, and I have found it to be very illuminating and exciting. I have a much clearer vision of what I want for my life. The process of zero-based thinking will be something that I will continue to revisit regularly as I make new distinctions and as my life evolves.

This blog is part of this process of putting zero-based thinking into action. I have also begun to eliminate many of my possessions. I have numerous ideas about things that I want to do or consider more carefully. I understand that the transformation won’t happen instantly, although I will really be focusing on making substantial progress in 2010. Execution is the critical factor. It’s not enough to have a dream. Without consistent action in the direction of my dream, it will be impossible to achieve. I will be sharing some of the things I’m doing in future posts. Stay tuned.

What are some other ways that you can apply zero-based thinking to your life?

{ 5 comments }

1 progmtl January 19, 2010 at 10:45 am

Concerning possessions, I have been getting rid of some things and decluttering because I plan to move later this year. Things like books, magazines, old electronics, clothing that doesn’t fit or that I don’t wear, etc. We will have to get rid of some baby toys too, although that is tricky b/c we plan to have another child at some point and re-buying everything would be too expensive. It’s a fine line.

What kinds of things have you been getting rid of in order to simplify?

cheers,
-progmtl.

2 Mark January 19, 2010 at 11:08 am

progmtl,

I am still early on in the process. First of all, I had stacks of things that I had printed out from the web, all of it that I had already read (some of it multiple times). It was interesting stuff, but I could easily find almost all of it again on the web if I really want to read it again, so out it went. I broke down a lot of boxes and got rid of them. I went through stacks of papers and got rid of most of them (some went to my shred box to be shredded).

I probably will write a post on my minimalist plans and provide occasional updates. I plan on trying to digitize all my paper files and photographs. Getting rid of the vast majority of my books. Purging a huge bunch of stuff that I just don’t use. I have plenty of work ahead of me. I plan on working on it slowly but surely. With working overtime at my job and trying to write for this blog, the time that I have available to allocate to this is limited.

I took a bunch of photographs of my starting point, so it should be a stark contrast.

3 Karen January 19, 2010 at 9:05 pm

Interesting and ambitious project. I followed over here from TMF “Get Organized!” discussion group. Things I’ve found helped:
. have goals, but be satisfied with daily “baby steps”
. recognize there are two types of activities that lead to your goals – 1) do it once and get it over – very satisfying when done. 2) periodic do it now and then do it again (laundry, dishes, etc.) have routines to deal with these.
. remember to destress as much as you can. Whatever works for you. Exercising, taking planned time off, having a mental attitude of not letting every little thing get to you, etc.

Good luck with your blog. I look forward to it.

4 Mark January 19, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Karen,

I agree. Routines are very important to taking care of repetitive actions. I also think that achieving ambitious goals requires changing your habits so that they are consistent with the goal that you are trying to achieve. For example, to achieve my blogging goals, posting consistently will be critical, so I’m trying to develop consistent writing as a habit.

Thanks for your input.

5 Helene November 21, 2010 at 3:28 pm

I know I have found this blog a little late but it’s exactly what I have to do . I have been frustrated and disappointed from myself almost all my life and the last 2 years things started to happen that were telling me something is not right and needs to be changed.I have a really big issue with being indecisive , always procrastinating and waiting for the others to decide for me. I ruined my life so far. I feel I’m in a gutter. I have two wonderful kids that I gave birth without thinking first if this is what I really want , instead I did it because my husband wanted it and my family advised me to do so. I know this sounds silly and sad but I love my daughters more than anything in the world . I am not happy. I constantly have this feeling of a big change I have to make but don’t know how to do it . I don’t even know what is best for me . I know what is best for my kids , but not for me.I can advise others but I can’t advise myself .
I just read this blog , I think it gave me an idea how to start putting the chaos in order. Thank you .

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: