Stop Wasting Your Time

A Simple Framework for Making Better Decisions – 13 min read

have an unfinished essay in my drafts folder called “Quitting is Underrated.” It’s been there since 2017. You can bet your ass I’m never completing it. Hold up a second while I delete it … because this is that essay’s ultimate form.

Today, we’re going to talk about giving up. Every day, we’re inundated with tales of people in films or on the news who gave it their all, never gave in, kept showing up, and persevered in the face of unimaginable rejection. I’m here to tell you that they’re exceptions rather than the rule, and if you strive to be one of those people, you’ll probably be wasting your time.

I hate to be the one to spill apple juice in your single-malt, but they’re not making a biopic about you, you don’t have a cheering section, and the news crew ain’t knocking on your door.

Your current crush won’t be your soulmate. You’re not repeatedly betting the house on green and coming away with fat stacks of cheddar. Your life will likely reside in the fat part of the great bell curve of human potential. I’m not saying that’s what you aim for. I’m managing your expectations.

However, you might be capable of rising to the top quintile in most of the key areas of life that matter: health, love, impact, wisdom, wealth, joy, and your vocation. You take care of that, and you’ll probably be just fine. I know a lot of folks who are earning solid B-plusses in everything.

The B-plusses are my brand of human. They’re content, witty, kind, and making a difference. Most of the folks I know who are at the very pinnacle in a select few areas, or pushing maniacally for perfect scores, are secretly miserable, sociopathic, or severely lacking in other key areas.


Well, let’s set aside the elephant-in-the-room answers of privilege or trauma for now (because that explains 95% of them).

Folks who aim for the stars tend to make life harder than it needs to be, stack their decks against them, and hold themselves to militant standards no mortal can reach. You kittens don’t need to do that. Your life’s not a GaryVee video. It’s C-SPAN IRL. Go easy on yourself.

Easier Is Often Better

“John, aren’t you supposed to do hard things?

Aren’t they the things that are worth it?”

No, comrades; they’re not.

Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean the reward for doing it is automatically better.

If you’ve already won — or even already finished — the race, the extra mile is meaningless. If you’re already showing 19 at the table, you don’t need to hit.

There’s a fine line between taking on a worthwhile challenge, and taking on unnecessary stress.

“But John, how do I know if the stress is unnecessary?”

Good question: The body can’t tell the difference between types of stress, or even the difference between excitement and fear. Their physical manifestations are identical, but if you train your mind, you can suss out the particulars. Per The Atlantic:

… anxiety and excitement are both aroused emotions. In both, the heart beats faster, cortisol surges, and the body prepares for action. In other words, they’re “arousal congruent.” The only difference is that excitement is a positive emotion‚ focused on all the ways something could go well.

We’ve all done stressful things. We’ve all done exciting things. Sometimes we avoid stressful and exciting things to avoid the sensation of losing control. We assess our risk tolerance, and we boldly forge ahead or wilt in the face of pressure, or binge-watch Superstore while stuffing our faces full of pizza — which I highly recommend doing, because that sitcom is highly underrated and pizza is a divine manifestation and very properly rated.

So, how do we decide what to do?

How do we decide what risks are worth taking?

How do we decide if we’re taking too big a swing, or playing too small?

How do we know if we’re setting ourselves up for failure, or sticking with Sisyphean tasks long after their expiry date?

Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to present to you, The Gorman Decision Matrix.

Partially because I want to help; partially because I’m a narcissist who names things after myself.

Hot Take: We Calculate Risk Wrong

All courses of action fall upon two continuums: what we expect the outcome to be (outcome), and how much that outcome matters (stakes). These combine to form the risk of the decision.

“Isn’t decision-making about balancing risk v. reward?”


Risk is uncertainty, which means it’s a derivative variable.

For clarity, I’m nixing the word “reward” to instead be “most likely outcome,” because a reward is something we calculate post hoc. We’re strictly talking about ante hanc calculations here. As you’ll soon see, high risk isn’t necessarily the same as high stakes.

Every day, we do things with low stakes: share dank memes, brush our teeth, make our bed, and eat lunch.

Every day, we do things where we expect a poor outcome: check our emails, answer calls from unknown numbers or cheer for the Atlanta Falcons. None of those are high risk.

The takeaway here: most likely outcome and stakes are the important variables.

To illustrate, let me go ahead and post a blank version of the Matrix.

Blank Matrix // John Gorman

In the chart above, I’ve broken out in yellow the three buckets of “most likely outcome.” They’re quite creatively named: “success,” “unknown”, and “failure.”

Success means a near-guaranteed chance of success.

Unknown means something in the nebulous middle.

Failure means a near-guaranteed chance of failure.

In green, I’ve categorized “stakes” by how much the given course of action matters to you. I’ve named these, creatively again: “high,” “medium” and “low.”

High means it matters a great deal to you.

Medium means it matters enough.

Low means it barely matters at all.

Every course of action you take falls into one of those nine blank buckets. Let me drill into these nine areas a little further, to give you some extra clarity.

We’ll start in the upper left and work our way down, and then over.

Box №1: “North Stars.” Likely success, high stakes.

In the upper-left, we have our “North Stars.” These are our Big Wins. These are our must-haves. Our “Born to Run.” These are the courses of action we take that capitalize on our own greatness. These are your tentpole productions — your Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is marrying your best friend. Sure, there’s a lot on the line … but you’re more than capable of rising to the challenge.

Box №2: “Moonshots.” Unknown outcome, high stakes.

In the middle left, we have our “moonshots.” These are our COVID-19 vaccines. These are our Apollo Program. This is Taylor Swift’s “Folklore,” or Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” These are the game-changers, the paradigm-shifters. Everything’s riding on it, but it’s anyone’s guess whether or not it’ll work. When it does, though … oh my lord.

Box №3: “Waterloos.” Likely failure, high stakes.

In the lower left, we have our “Waterloos.” What’s the №1 rule in warfare? Never invade Russia. Didn’t work for Napoleon (I know, I know, “Waterloo” wasn’t the Russia campaign). Didn’t work for Hitler. Waterloos are massive strategic blunders that leave you licking your wounds for a long, long time. These are sunk costs and time sinks. These are unhappy marriages and Jean Van de Velde taking driver on the 72nd hole of the Open Championship, needing just to card a double-bogey to win the Claret Jug. He didn’t.

Box №4: “Confidence Boosters.” Likely success, medium stakes.

The top-middle is your strike zone. This is your wheelhouse. This is me writing copy for apparel companies, or (by my standards) straightforward Medium columns. This is Season 2 of Chappelle’s Show. This is almost every Tom Petty record between Damn the Torpedoes and Wildflowers. This is your swim lane. These are your get-right games against the New York Jets in almost any calendar year.

Box №5: “Growth Opportunities.” Unknown outcome, medium stakes.

These are the most pivotal decisions on the board. That’s why they’re in the dead center. They’re more common than moonshots, and less guaranteed than confidence boosters. When you’re trying to make a change in your life, you’re likely in the center square. If you succeed, you might raise the stakes. With enough repetition, these might become confidence boosters. If you don’t, it might dissuade you from continuing down that road. These are fitness programs, new side hustles, dietary changes, new relationships, or anti-depressants.

Box №6: “Demoralizers.” Likely failure, medium stakes.

In the lower center, these are the things that leave you crestfallen. When someone tells you things like “you’ve set yourself up for failure,” it’s because you’ve entered this box: these are often used as measuring sticks. Applying for jobs you want, but aren’t qualified for. Getting rejected by someone you’ve been crushing on. Burning the turkey on Thanksgiving. Or, as I once did: offering to help someone swap out their garbage disposal and leaving them with a kitchen floor full of water. This box is when you’re in over your skis, and it can feel like the end of the world … but it usually isn’t.

Box №7: “Layups.” Likely success, low stakes.

In the upper right, we have “layups.” Here’s a prime example: I used to host an open mic night in Downtown Austin and one time, Gary Clark Jr. showed up to just rip through a few songs he was workshopping. Gary Clark Jr. plays arenas and theatres and has no business showing up at my open mic. But he did, and he crushed it, and I felt sorry for the poor sap who went next. (Me.) These are your classic “big fish, small pond” moments. This is setting the game to “beginner” mode when you should be playing on “All-Madden.” This is me mailing in a self-published Medium piece just to have some “fresh content.” (Maybe like this one!)

Box №8: “Heat Checks.” Unknown outcome, low stakes.

If you’re not familiar with the “heat check,” I’ll let fellow all-star Texan, basketball enthusiast and Internet GAWD Shea Serrano take it from here:

A heat check is (mostly) a basketball term. It’s used to reference a shot attempt, specifically a difficult one attempted after a handful of easier, wiser shots have been made. Think of this: you make a layup, then you make a wide-open midrange jumper, then you make a wide-open 3-pointer. That’s great. Those are smart shots. You’re feeling very good about yourself and all the decisions you’ve made in life that have led you to that point, so the next time down court you receive the ball and then chuck up a 29-foot fadeaway. That’s the heat check. You are literally checking to see if you are figuratively hot.

This is when you take Joe Rogan’s advice — which I would not ordinarily agree with — and “try elk.” This is a casual micro-dose on a weekend. This is your first time trying anything that can’t kill or embarrass you.

Box №9: “Fool’s Errands.” Likely failure, low stakes.

And, finally, in the lower-right, this is repeatedly subjecting yourselves to energy vampires. A second date with a dude who yells at the waitress and sleeps on a mattress in the kitchen. This is calling your mom because she asks “why you don’t call me anymore” when you know damn well why you don’t call her anymore. Doing these things won’t ruin your life or career, they’ll just put you in a bad mood. I almost called these “Einsteins” because of his definition of insanity, but I realized that some “Einsteins” can have much higher stakes. This is mostly telling your kid “No more iPad for the evening” when you know damn well an hour later you’ll be handing it over to shut that demon-spawn up for the night.

Common Time Management Errors

Time management and procrastination gangsta Nir Eyal gave a tight presentation at a Quartz membership masterclass called “How To Be Indistractable,” based on his book of the same name.

One of his mantras was “People tend to over-emphasize personality and under-emphasize context.”

This is what psychologists refer to as the Fundamental Attribution Error.

As this applies to human decision-making and time management, this causes us to do one of two things:

  1. Procrastinate — because we doubt our capabilities and yearn to distract ourselves with lower-stakes actions where we expect a more certain outcome (usually success, but also failure, as we’ll see in a minute)
  2. Overextend — because we ascribe too much of our previous successes to ourselves, and therefore see ourselves as infallible (see: “approach life with all the confidence of a mediocre white man”), we constantly measure ourselves

His top-line solution is to “adopt a growth mindset, and think about challenges and obstacles as context and problems to solve instead of as flaws.”

The opposite of distraction, he correctly points out, is not “focus,” it’s “traction.” Traction pulls us toward what we want to do and who we want to become.

Let’s look into procrastination and overextension and see how they apply to our Decision Matrix.


Classic procrastination pushes our decision-making to the right of our decision matrix. This is a self-doubt issue. You’re going to see a lot more Layups. We substitute low-stakes activities because they’re less emotionally daunting. We play Tetris or order takeout instead of coding and cooking.

Yet, the hallmark of procrastination doesn’t just mean playing smaller or doing things that matter less. It also means seeking the reassurance of a certain outcome, which means we’ll move towards the top and bottom of the matrix, and be much more likely to engage in lower-risk activities that have a guaranteed sense of failure.

We’ll fill up our time with things like “demoralizers” and “fool’s errands” because they jive with our emotional state at the time: we’re doubting ourselves, and these decisions and activities align with how we see ourselves.


Overextension is slightly different than procrastination because it’s not a self-doubt problem, it’s a self-worth issue.

That might sound like hair-splitting, but it isn’t.

Here, we take on too much because we feel compelled to — either due to our hubris (see: Donald Trump, the President) or due to our insecurities (see: Donald Trump, the businessman).

Overextension pushes our decision-making to the left of the box because we’re trying to prove ourselves. It also encourages banking on higher risk and therefore more toward the center. Since we loathe failure, we avoid it, but guaranteed success will always feel like small potatoes.

Better Decisions, Visualized

If your goal in life is to “level up,” and maximize your likelihood of success in ways that leave a lasting impact, then your goal is to constantly strive in the direction of upper-left. There’s a prioritized order to it. Here it is:

Optimal Decisions, Charted

You want to eventually spend the bulk of your time doing high-stakes work with a high likelihood of success. That’s why it’s №1 in the matrix.

But the way you get there is important. You start in the lower right and move up the column before venturing into the next column to the left.

You do this in as many domains of life — career, relationships, health, happiness, altruism, etc. — as possible.

Mastery is moving up the column. (Improving your odds of success.)

Leveling up is moving over a column. (Raising the stakes.)

Spend too much time moving over, and you’ll flame out. Spend too much time slumming it on the right and you’ll waste your time.

True excellence and optimal time management, though, means embracing uncertainty. The middle row is where you take your risks. You cannot reach the top row without first slogging it in the middle.

If you’re experiencing self-doubt, keep going. It means you want it, and that discomfort and fear means you’re growing.

If you’re experiencing annoyance, meaninglessness, misery, or frustration, just walk away (if you can, and you can’t always). It’s futile, or you’re playing small, or the juice ain’t worth the squeeze.

Knowing what to quit and what areas of life to immediately leave (if you can) are the keys to managing your time in a way that delivers good things for you and yours.

Final Thoughts

Most of what you do in life won’t be in the upper left.

Most of life is uncertain, and very little of what we get to spend our time on matters a great deal in the grand scheme.

But we can get there, sometimes, and maximize the care we take in doing so.

We can embrace that uncertainty, and know when to walk away from things that are too hard for us, or don’t mean enough. Give up. Really. It’s so much better.

All of you are capable of rising to the top quintile in most of the key areas of life that matter — health, love, impact, wisdom, wealth, joy, and your vocation. I know plenty of folks who are earning solid B-plusses in everything.

And you have full permission to grade yourself on a curve. What looks like success to you may not look like success to someone else, and there’s no need to compete or compare.

For example: I run half-marathons in a shade under three hours. That’s not fast, but I’m doing it with lungs that work about as well as a $20 printer. That’s good enough for me because I enjoy it and it reminds me that I’m capable of more than I once was.

I’m not going to write the Great American Novel, I’m not going to crack the Billboard 200, and I’m not on my way to a sprawling estate in Marin County. That’s fine — all those things are not necessary for a meaningful life.

Good enough is good enough, and arbitrary markers of success are just video game numbers deemed important by a warped society that’s profoundly sicker than either you or I.

In sum: Life is short. We should all be finding ways to make our lives easier, less stressful, and most importantly make sure we are happy. Especially now, when there’s so much out there making life hard, stressful and miserable.

You embrace uncertainty, mitigate failure, master new skills and habits, and funnel your life in the direction you want it to go. That’s how you get to the top quintile — that cozy little straight B-plus zone. And if you find you get to where you think you want to be and decide it’s not what you had in mind, or it’s too hard, you can always just quit. I recommend it.

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