A lone mountain stands, looming over the surrounding landscape. A ring of clouds crowns its summit, which consistently provides rain for the people who live below. Over the years, the rain has worn predictable pathways into the rock. One day, the master of the mountain decided to follow the routes to see where they lead. In some areas, there were gentle rivers that nourished the landscape and irrigated fields. In others, they caused uncontrollable flooding to the farms and villages. Upon witnessing the damage, the master decided to take a more hands-on approach to directing the water’s flow.
He went to work building dams across the destructive pathways, rerouting the water so that they’d be put to good use. Over time, the new pathways started to become as pronounced as the original ones, but to his eternal frustration, he found that the dams would never hold for as long as he hoped, and would require continued vigilance. The old routes remained as a reminder of what was, and could still be used if circumstances changed.
This mountain is your brain. It’s fantastic at creating new pathways between ideas, emotional states, and reactions. However, it isn’t very diligent when picking up after itself; energy isn’t spent destroying old pathways. All we can do is begin the process of sculpting preferred pathways through discipline and effort.
Unfortunately, discipline it’s something you have or you don’t, right? Wrong! There are tricks you can use to carve the pathways you want. If you want more self-control, start small. The first secret is through the idea of “spirals”.
We’ve all heard about downward spirals. Like a plane set on fire, it spins toward the ground with increasingly smaller circles until exploding upon impact. First the fuel tank ruptures, then a spark ignites the leak, the wings are set ablaze, and gravity pitches in to increase the momentum. With every passing second, the plane accelerates toward its destruction. Upward spirals work in the same fashion – every step makes the one after it more likely, and less effortful. This is what’s known as a “feedback loop”, or “vicious/virtuous cycles”.
As with the mountain, you are not required to painstakingly chisel out the entire pathway you want. Instead, you simply need to identify the key points to begin a new route which will enable inertia to carry you forward.
Everything builds momentum. There’s a phrase that seems to be attributed to Frank Outlaw (sweet name) which capitalizes on this, starting with the unseen and expanding to our entire lives. It goes something like this:
Watch your thoughts, they become words;
Watch your words, they become actions;
Watch your actions, they become habits;
Watch your habits, they become character;
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
In short: take care of the smaller, easier things and the dominos will fall in your favor.
The Difference between a Feat and a System
A feat is an act that you accomplish through herculean effort, such as the 20-page essay you finish in one sitting; the exam you cram for the night before; the just-in-time deadline barely met. We all know these don’t work in the long term, yet we still find ourselves in a never-ending cycle of telling ourselves “this time, I’ll do what I should have done all those times before”.
Yet… we don’t. Each time we renew this silent contract with ourselves, we blame our lack of willpower for our failure. In reality, there are two likely reasons we fail: the goal isn’t attractive enough, and, more importantly, we try to change too much, too fast.
We tell ourselves that by trying hard enough, we will push through this time, unlike those other times. This time we mean it. But who are we kidding? We mean it every time we renew the promise.
It’s not a lack of will – it’s a lack of a system.
The only way we are able to achieve anything that takes more than an afternoon of effort is through a system. The more complex or ambitious the goal, the longer the system will take to install.
I used to hate systems because they require you to do the same activity every day, grinding life into what can seem like a grey paste. This can be true, but that’s where the power of meaningful goals comes in.
Meaningful Goals and Your “Why”
As Nietzsche put it:
When you know your why you can endure any how.
Finding a meaningful goal will require discovering your core values. What have you always dreamed of? Why do you want that? Now, why do you want that?
Not to sound like an impetuous child, forever asking “Why?”, but it’s important to follow your reasoning down until you find what your core motivation is. The question followed by “just because” is usually an indication of your prime drive. For example, my primary drives are freedom and understanding, particularly in the area of people. Yours will probably be different.
Once you understand your primary drive, start thinking about what will allow you to get closer to a life that revolves around it. With a vision of your perfect life, you will then be able to make tangible, meaningful goals toward making it become a reality.
It’s been said that there are two surefire ways to make someone miserable: stop them from progressing toward their goals, or ensure they achieve all of them.
Not advancing is clearly hell, but why is it so bad to achieve every goal? Won’t that just make you successful?
Once you have achieved the goals you’re aiming for, there’s nothing left to be done. If your goal was to pay off your debt, and now you are debt free, it will feel great at first. But then what? Do you just stop, happy-ever-after?
Of course not. Still, we often point to our situation to explain why we’re not happy. “If only I had A, accomplished B, or married C, then I’d be happy!” But what happens when we find ourselves sinking into depression after accumulating everything we ever wanted? We turn from ambition to self-destruction. At this point there are three productive solutions: evolving past achievements and material possessions, making new goals, or both.
Transcending past the desire for material possessions is beyond both the scope of this article and my expertise, so let’s focus on goals. You may already have them, but perhaps you’re unhappy with your rate of progress. In my opinion, making progress towards a meaningful goal is a major component of happiness and life satisfaction. It’s the feeling of controlling your own life, and progressing toward becoming the person you want to be.
Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.
I’ve often asked others the cliché question of how they would spend their time if they had more money than they could ever spend. Most tell me they’d travel the world indefinitely. Ironically, this could lead to another happiness trap.
To be a perpetual consumer is to live pointlessly. At some point, you’ll have to figure out what it is you want your life to be about, and that’s when you’ll finally be able to move toward a fulfilling, meaningful life. The only other choice is to float in a sea of existential angst, fluctuating between hedonism and depression. Hedonpression.
As George Bernard Shaw aptly put it:
A perpetual holiday is a good working definition of hell.
The lesson, of course, is that you need to find your personal reason for moving forward in life, your why, and make that your top priority. It can be easy to be swept up in the rush of modern life, trying to get ahead. Perhaps we’re doing it because our friends, significant other, or family other think that it’s the best thing for us. Figure out a feasible way to break out of that, find your own reason for living. You may take a temporary pay cut, but you’ll tap into a near-unlimited source of energy that will take you further in the end.
With the why covered, it’s time to turn toward the how.
21 days. That’s how long they say it takes to form a new habit. Once installed, habits act like pre-programmed routines for your brain: automatic and effortless (Baumeister, 2011). However, when trying to begin a habit, it’s like having to reinstall a program every time you want to use it. At first, your computer keeps flagging it as a virus and removing it, but eventually, it’ll stay installed. You just need to teach it that this will be something that isn’t going away and will be used on a regular basis.
Ever listen to a playlist on repeat? Whenever you hear one of the songs, you begin to expect the next song. Later, when one of the songs comes on the radio, you find yourself wanting to hear the next song in the list.
This is the power of habit. If you always go from work to the gym, you might find yourself pulling into the gym parking lot even though you only stopped at work to drop something off. The often-repeated phrase in neuropsychology is “Neurons that fire together will wire together”. This means that events in the brain (like behaviors, emotions, ideas) can become one solid unit that will make it easier for each section to do its part. Instead of one neuron having to call their neighbor every time they need something done, they move in together and discuss things in the same room.
In 95ºF/35ºC summertime heat, I found myself fantasizing about eating ice cream as I approached my apartment. A natural desire in such heat and I had given in to the indulgence more frequently than usual. One won’t hurt, right?
Before I knew it, it had become a daily event. I was training myself, building a behavioral addiction, to connect arriving home with eating ice cream. These slip-ups can seep in through the cracks, even when you’re vigilant. It was only while thinking about this article that I identified the problem, and have subsequently stopped by purposely taking a route that avoided the corner store. Once I no longer felt the craving, I resumed my old route – minus the ice cream. It’s easy to accidentally program yourselves to do things that are against your long-term interests.
Anchor your new, desired habits to events that you know will take place most days. Don’t fret if your schedule is all over the place; it’s the first action that triggers the second. We want our habits to be like a fat man tumbling down a narrow stairwell: No matter how much each person below him wants to resist, they’ll soon find themselves following him down.
Productivity Tools from a Former U.S. President
Dwight D. Eisenhower was president during a difficult time in American history and came out with a generally positive reputation. He managed to keep America at peace despite multiple cold war threats, he ended the Korean war, balanced the budget three times, and passed several important bills, like the Civil Rights Bill (1957) and the Federal Aid Highway Act (1956). Clearly, he knew something about getting shit done.
He broke everything down into a 2×2 chart based on two factors: Urgency and Importance. An urgent thing is something that needs to be dealt with immediately, while important things are those that should get done before others. Let’s take a look:
The problem is that many of the things that will advance us in our goals, life, and career will fall into the Important, Non-Urgent category, thus easily being swept aside for the less important, but more urgent. When this happens, it’s important to keep in mind that taking care of the important, non-urgent will usually set up systems and preventative measures for the urgent things that may spring up.
Why bother with any of this?
There was an internet post where someone asked how they could lose 30kg within a week. The top suggestion was for them to amputate their legs. While I found this darkly humorous, it is a realistic metaphor for instant progress.
When it comes to instantaneous change, it usually comes in two forms: coming at a cost that outweighs the benefits, or fleetingly temporary; easy come, easy go.
Consider lottery winners. Why is it that so many of them tend to go broke within five years of winning? It’s the same reason that crash dieters eventually regain the weight they lost: their foundation never changed. We need to systematically change what we do, how we think, and how we feel if we want to instill lasting change.
Bottom line: Focus on doing it right. As much as you want to improve and change now, it won’t happen in the way you want. You’ll do as I, and many other people, have done: change too much, too fast, and have it all crumble. As Tim Ferriss says: a good plan you can stick to is better than a perfect that plan you don’t.
Relationships between Food and Fitness
Joe is a builder and a wanderer. He ventures around the countryside and builds himself a mud house every time he moves. He knows it’s not great and dreams of building a wooden house. Occasionally, he’ll promise to start making only wooden houses. How hard can it be? After all, he can already put up mud houses within a couple hours. On his next move, he attempts a wooden house but has no training, no hammer or nails, and only a few planks of wood. It goes terribly. Joe disparages himself, quickly building a mud hut before nightfall. Is Joe’s failure a lack of self-control?
Of course not. Joe simply did not have what he needed to properly build the house. It wasn’t for lack of effort or willpower, but a lack of materials and knowledge. If he had training, tools, and materials, he would certainly be able to accomplish his goal of having a fine, cedar microhouse.
This is the same problem people make when trying to make any big changes in their life. A large shift in one area of life will ripple disruptions throughout the rest. All will require effort and energy to change.
A friend told me that people don’t have good habits because they’re too hard to form. I disagree. Good habits are often approached with bad methods. We all bite off bear-sized bites for our pathetically small mouths and somehow expect to swallow without choking. If you’re one of these people (most of us are) then you deserve some credit for having the ambition and drive to improve.
The logical question we should ask is why we tend to make such large changes all at once.
Diet and exercise are the easiest ones to single out, as they are the most commonly attempted. As Baumeister (2011) said in Willpower, a restrictive diet takes huge amounts of sustained willpower to follow, but it takes even more willpower to not diet when you don’t like what you see in the mirror. We want it to change now, but we didn’t get into this situation quickly, and it will take time to get out and stay out.
Rephrased: it’s easy to be motivated to make extreme changes, but we deplete our willpower stores and fall back on old habits. We want it now, and delaying progress takes the self-restraint to draw out our current displeasure.
Feed Your Brain
In order to will ourselves to do anything, our brain needs the proper resources. This is why jumpstarting yourself toward better choices needs to start through your diet and body, in that order. I’ll do my best to put a new spin on the common advice.
To those of you who have your health and diet perfectly under control: I’m laying out a framework that can be applied to any endeavor or personal change. I’m writing this in a way that anyone can take something away – It’s the method, not the specific content.
Unhealthy food may taste good, but it makes us sedentary and is often devoid of the nutrients our brain needs to exert effort. This leads to giving in to temptation for more bad food, and an ever-withering will.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying to overhaul your diet. The bad methods I mentioned above happen when we attempt to change a group of things, mistakenly thinking that they are only one thing. Doing this is like starting a race in third gear – you’d get nowhere and will burn out your engine in the process.
Let’s start with first gear: easy wins.
With any endeavor, it’s important to get the momentum going, and starting with something small but essential. In the case of diet, adding something healthy to your diet is easier than removing something unhealthy. Prioritize vegetables and salads in your diet. You can still eat McDonald’s or whatever else is normally on the menu, but start with a serving of vegetables or a salad. Food tastes better when you’re hungry, and it will curb your appetite slightly before hitting the heavy stuff.
Eventually, you’ll develop a taste for veggies while unhealthy foods might begin to appear less appealing. At this time, you can move into phasing out unhealthy foods.
Second gear: remove the less healthy foods from your cupboards, and replace them with easy to prepare, healthier options. Begin avoiding places that tempt you, like that damn corner store with all it’s candy-coated convenience. Tell yourself “I don’t eat that” – not “I can’t eat that” – framing it as a matter of choice – not a restriction – has been shown to increase rates of success.
Once you’ve gotten into the habit of eating more healthy foods, your brain will be equipped for you to exert control over it. This is the beginning of making it your bitch.
Third gear: use this new leverage to start going to the gym.
Reread that last sentence.
Notice that I didn’t say “working out”. No, that requires research, energy, and motivation. Instead, just get to the gym, and change into gym clothes. Once you’re there, ready to go, you can choose to immediately change back into street clothes and go home. That’s it.
The point here is to craft a habit of going to the gym. If you walk there, then you’re already getting more exercise each day. You want to make overcoming the barriers to success as easy as possible.
I’m also not saying that you can’t work out. Of course, you can and you should. The only difference is that you don’t have to. It might feel like a waste of a trip to immediately change and leave. Good. Give in to that feeling and do an exercise or two. Something is always better than nothing.
We’re simply looking to administer the “minimum viable dose”, which is medical terminology for the smallest amount to get the desired result or effect. So ask yourself: what’s the barest amount you can do to prepare for whatever habit you want? Once you identify it, work the act of preparation into your daily routine and you’ll already be carving the pathway for that new habit.
Take it easy, don’t overdo it. Another barrier to working out is that people overextend and/or hurt themselves. The next day, they feel so sore that it feels like they’re being punished. Again, too much, too quickly.
Work these habits into your daily routine. By skipping days, you invest in the laziness pathway in your brain that says “Don’t worry, B. Just sit on the couch and marathon Netflix!” Just like the wolves of Good and Evil fighting within you, it’s the one you feed that will grow and dominate.
Consider yourself successful so long as you take these steps, every additional thing is icing. Unabashed appeal to authority: Aristotle agreed that it’s all about better habits when he said:
We are what we do repeatedly. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.
Can this help to become a better person?
Morality and ethics operate on the same basis as any other habit: we are what we do repeatedly.
We need to stop and consider who it is we wish to be, then start performing small acts whenever the opportunity presents itself.
If you refuse to help when there are no stakes, what makes you think you’ll do what’s right when someone’s life is on the line and it could have steep costs for you? Every choice we make takes us one step down a path that becomes increasingly easy to continue on. Consider where your ideal self resides and start walking.
Archilochus said “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training,” which includes our daily habits, thoughts, and interactions.
Are Strong-Willed People Set Apart From the Rest of Us?
Fun Fact: people who “have” willpower actually don’t have any more will than those who deem themselves to “have none.” The most significant difference is that people with “high” willpower frequently choose to avoid situations where their will is tested and drained.
Think of willpower as a daily allowance: every decision you make, no matter how large or small, takes some of your money. What do you want for breakfast? Which café will you get your cup of joe? Will you punch this mime who is unrepentantly building an invisible wall right in the narrow doorway you need to pass through? Nickel and dimed to death. The way we get around this is by making things automatic. Again, habits save the day by saving us the energy of making decisions and allow us to do what will move us towards our goals through following the programs we’ve previously installed.
It extends further, though. Dieters who had candy sitting within view on their desk were far more likely to cave and eat the candy. To contrast, people with candy in the drawer – still within reach – ate far less. The problem here is that every minute that passes, the candy is brought to mind by the constant visual reminder. It sits there, sneering at them. The catch is that they don’t get their willpower back when they cave. Your purse has been snatched and you’ll have to wait to get it back.
This has been contested, however, in more recent years. There have been studies that say that people who believe that a task isn’t draining will maintain their willpower. This means that how we view a task can greatly affect how we feel after we exert the energy to do it. When I worked at a fast food restaurant, I played a game with myself to see how quickly and efficiently I could assemble and deliver the orders. While the job was still not easy, I found it much more enjoyable and less tiring. Adding elements of games into our lives can make mundane tasks into challenges.
Carve Your Masterpiece
The beginning of a habit is like an invisible thread, but every time we repeat the act we strengthen the strand, add to it another filament, until it becomes a great cable and binds us irrevocably, thought and act.
–Orison Swett Marden
If you do even the bare minimum of what I suggested, it will begin to affect your entire life. You can use this strategy when approaching any new skill, hobby, or habit. Once you teach yourself this approach, you can continue to build habit after habit, and it won’t feel like you’re doing much additional work.
Figure out what works best for you to kickstart your upward spiral. Once you begin, you’ll find yourself addicted to getting more out of life and jumping out of the spectator’s role, passively living through witnessing the achievements. Stick with discomfort when it arises and you’ll build the mental fortitude to overcome any obstacle. When you learn to embrace your strength, it will begin to embrace you back.
Eventually, you’ll become like water, finding a path to whatever and wherever you need to be, no matter the obstacle. Ensure that the pathways you carve into your mind are the ones you want, and you’ll find your life taking shape.
It’s your mountain, carve it into the masterpiece you deserve.
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength – Roy Baumeister and John Tierney
Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely
Stumbling Upon Happiness – Daniel Gilbert