Question from a reader -
I discovered your blog recently and have been enjoying reading your posts, including the older ones. I was wondering if you had come across this problem before:
I feel I know intellectually what I need to do to be more productive and effective. I am a fan of getting things done (GTG) and have a written a good set of goals at 50k and 40k foot levels down to smaller projects and next tasks. For the past 3 months or so though I have not even wanted to look at these goals or my projects and next tasks. My mind knows what it needs to do but getting my body to do it has been next to impossible. At the point of critical decision like get up and go to the gym in the morning I give into the easier option of staying in bed.
I feel like I need a better strategy for execution. Any thoughts?
You're suffering from an insidious problem. I know, because I've been there.
Here's the score - most of our day-to-day actions are a result of custom, habit, and environment. There's very little thinking/reflective decisionmaking on a moment to moment basis.
This was kind of a head-trip for me when I first realized it. We've got... a lot less moment-by-moment and day-to-day control over our lives than it appears.
Now, we have a hell of a lot of control over the broad patterns of our life. This is true. But if you've got an established pattern of doing things a certain way, you'll probably default to it.
An example: Let's say a guy starts his day, every day, by surfing the internet and checking the news and checking sports scores. He decides one day that he'd rather start the day with 10-20 minutes of planning the day and working for an hour on his most important thing to do instead of goofing off.
Then he wakes up the next day and - you guessed it - surfs the net and checks the news... and around the time he's checking sports scores, he's cursing because what the hell? This shouldn't be so hard.
Well, things are how they are. That's being human. The lion's share of actions we take are a result of a mix of habit, custom, and environment. To take better actions, you need to gradually establish better habits, new customs, and an environment more conducive to doing what you want to do.
And honestly, it is pretty straightforward, but it's kind of a bitch of a thing to do sometimes. It sucks and it's demoralizing, because this shouldn't be so damn hard... and yet, it is...
There's 10,000 little hacks and tricks you can use to make a bit of progress, but the fact of the matter is - habit/custom change takes some time and practice. I call the process of getting it down "scratching and clawing forwards" - which I'm aware isn't the most inspiring or glorious way to describe it, but I think it's pretty accurate.
You scratch and claw forward ground on your habits and customs. It takes a while. There'll be lots of little backslides and screw-ups and things like that, and they'll suck and they're not enjoyable. I'm aware of this whole process and I still don't like it, so it's not just you.
You can get big pushes from refining your environment. Do you use Google Chrome? I do. I've found that deleting or moving around my "Most Visited" sites goes a long ways towards changing my internet usage. Crazy as it sounds, just by adding that tiny bit more friction to hopping on an entertainment site, you spend less time on them.
Likewise, back when I wanted to start spending my mornings planning my day instead of just signing online, I'd turn off my laptop, unplug it, and turn it upside down. I did that as a reminder so I couldn't just turn it on and mindlessly surf. I'd see my laptop upside-down in the morning when I was tired, I'd think, "That's weird, why is --- oh, right." And then I'd spend the morning in my planner.
I screwed up the planner thing a lot before I got it down. But now I'm starting my day planning it out probably 19 out of 20 days (the other 1 out of 20 I have a very early call or meeting or something, I almost never surf the internet before planning my day now - score).
I found setting my running clothes in my bathroom, right by the shower, helped a lot with going running. I'd get out of the shower, dry off, and then just put my running clothes on. Then I'm in my running clothes and shoes, so I'd go running. Cool.
You will fall off track from time to time though. I've been constantly traveling for the last 15 months, so I get into and out of routines. Actually, because of that I have to be even more disciplined with my environment - I have a set of things I set up everywhere I go quickly, as I described in "Thoughts On Not Going Crazy While Long Term Traveling." Actually, I'm writing this in my "cafe conducive to thinking" in Beijing - Leonard Cohen is playing, the coffee is strong, the chicken is good, and I'm working and thinking well.
Environment matters. A lot. You can get pretty big pushes from moving your environment around to suit your goals and life.
Ramit Sethi wrote a great post about this - "Barriers are your enemy" - worth reading for more examples on eating healthier and managing finances.
The fastest gains are probably from moving your environment around to make it easier to do your tasks. But then you do have to put the time in towards making progress. Scratch and claw forwards to change your habits.
I recommend aiming to get a very small, consistent amount of progress. I aim for 70% success rate on my goals and that works pretty well for me. That means succeeding a little more than 2 out of 3 times you're trying to do something. If you're in a space where you can't succeed at 70%, take the difficulty down until you're over 70%. Adjust difficulty upwards after getting some wins.
For going to the gym, you might consider only aiming to have a quick 10 minute session, which seems much more doable and much less of a barrier. Once you get there, you might want to do more. But only mandate doing 10 minutes - if you're sick or tired or it's late, go put in 5 minutes on the cardio, hit the free weights for two sets, and go home. That's cool. You went, that's worth a lot.
And then, yeah, failure is part of the game. Habits and customs are difficult to change. They basically rule your life and dictate how you take action. Slow, gradual, incremental progress - scratching and clawing forwards - seems to be the way to make your life into what you want. The upside is that once the habits and customs are built, then you're doing things right automatically and the struggle abates.
1. Most of our day-to-day actions are ruled by habit, custom, and environment.
2. Reflective thinking/planning goes a long way towards finding new things to do, but it's still very easy to default to habits, custom, and environment.
3. The process of changing habits and customs takes a while. I call it "scratching and clawing forwards" - that's what it feels like sometimes.
4. Set small, achievable goals on habit/custom change. I recommend aiming for 70% success rates, and making consistent incremental progress.
5. The biggest bang for your buck in the short term is moving your environment around. This can be big stuff like finding a new place to hang out after work, or little stuff like setting your gym clothes by your shower the night before. It works.
Godspeed R. I've been where you're at. It sucks and it's frustrating, but then you break through and it's awesome. Habit, custom, environment. You can do it - scratch and claw forwards until you grab some ground and the new habits start taking over, and then you'll be cruising.
Great article Sebastian. I totally agree about the value of changing your environment to change behaviors, as well as using anchors to spur new behaviors and end old unwanted ones.
BTW great header picture. Is that Kiyomizudera in front of you?
One of the things I've gotten tremendous amounts of mileage out of it is tracking my time, habits, and life each day.
To put it simply - I now realize it's impossible to understand how your life is going without some careful observation. There's a lot of time each day, and knowing where that time goes, what you ate, what you did and didn't do... it's almost impossible to get a good picture of your life without some kind of measuring.
I'm going to you my newest tracking template, and then I'll give some analysis. Before I start though, I'd like to share a quote -
“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.” -John Gall
Thus, if you want to track your time, please do not attempt to track 20 things at once, because it's unlikely to work. I started very simply, as I described in "The Evolution of My Time/Habit/Life Tracking" - I'd recommend you read that post if you want to do something like this.
Life boils down to habits. We have good habits and we have bad habits.
I’ve learned that the process comes in three stages with three different levels. First is starting a habit. I rank beginning a new habit on the medium scale. It’s usually something you haven’t been doing before so there’s some initial difficulty in getting things going. Take for an example someone just starting out at the gym. There’s friction because she’s never done it before. But once she gets past the initial hurdle she can find a little groove.
The next stage is breaking a habit. This part is very easy to do. One little slip-up and you could be back to square one. Miss a gym day, eat a bowl of icecream and sleep 12 hours one night that’s it. Over and done with. I’m reminded of the Warren Buffet quote: