Categories
Education Productivity

Analyzing & Improving Systems

“If you are unhappy, your system is broken.”

Brandon Turner (The Book on Rental Property Investing)

In my last post, I talked about Gall’s Law and the different components of systems. In this post, I’m going to discuss ideas surrounding analyzing and improving systems. There are going to be some terms I reference from my last post, so I highly recommend checking that out first.

Josh Kaufman beautifully and simply explains how to do this in his book, The Personal MBA, and I also highly recommend checking that out too. The ideas in this post are mostly from that book as well as my own personal insights.

How to Analyze Systems

When analyzing a system is difficult to know what to look for, especially when dealing with complex systems. It’s also crucial to keep in mind that we all have a bias which could get in the way of analyzing systems. Whenever possible, we need to take steps to mitigate our bias.

Here are some other things to look out for when analyzing systems:

Deconstruction

This is an excellent first move when it comes to analyzing systems. As discussed in Gall’s Law, all complex systems arise from simpler systems, therefore every complex system is capable of being deconstructed into simpler systems. Deconstruction is simply breaking up complex systems into their interdependent parts and understanding how each of those parts works. It’s also helpful to try to identify triggers (what kicks off another system) and endpoints (what makes a system stop). Diagrams and flowcharts are also lifesavers when it comes to deconstructing systems. Recognizing if-then and when-then relationships are also invaluable.

After breaking the complex system up into it’s smaller parts, we can then break down those simple systems even further into their components. Identify inflows and outflows, stocks, interdependencies, and so on. I talk about what those components are in my last post.

Deconstruction makes understanding systems possible. Without deconstruction, we are sure to experience confusion.

Measurement

How does the system collect data? What kind of data is it collecting? Measurement describes the process of data collection in a system. If we can understand the information related to the system, then we get an insight into the system itself.

Paying attention to the measurement is fantastic for dealing with absence blindness — the idea that we have a hard time seeing things that aren’t there.

Let me give an example, measuring someone’s blood glucose levels tells us if someone has too little or too much blood sugar. This number gives us tremendous insight into what is going on inside the body even though we wouldn’t be able to visibly see changes in someone’s blood sugar.

Measuring something is the first step in improvement. I wrote a post, Tracking vs. Loss Aversion, that talks about the importance of measuring ourselves and our progress.

Don’t sleep on measurements. Trust me.

KPI (Key Performance Indicator)

I know I just emphasized how important it is to measure things, but there is such a thing as too much data. If we measure too many things, we end up having a bunch of junk data that weighs us down and doesn’t show us anything. In order to prevent this, we try to keep our measurements to only KPIs or Key Performance Indicators.

KPIs are measurements of the essential parts of a system.

Identifying KPIs can be tricky, but try to limit them to only 3-5 KPIs per system otherwise, we risk measuring too many things.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

This is one of the more straightforward ideas – what we put in is what we get out. The quality of the output is only as good as the quality of the input. You get what you give. There are so many cliche phrases that express this idea.

I found this to be especially true when I started cooking. I used to watch Gordon Ramsey cooking videos to try to learn how to cook (I even watched his Masterclasses), but I could never make my food taste good until I spent the extra money on fantastic ingredients. Now, I try to only cook with fantastic ingredients. It really makes all the difference.

One of the best ways to improve the quality of a system is to pay attention to what we start with.

Tolerance

This can be thought of as the range in which the system is working normally. If the system is performing within that range, then it’s within tolerance.

Tolerance can either be loose or tight. A loose tolerance is when there is a considerable amount of leeway and small mistakes don’t make a huge difference while a tight tolerance is when there’s little room for error or change, this is usually the case for essential components of a system.

Analytical Honesty

In order to properly analyze a system, we must acknowledge our propensity to make things look better than they are. We have to be able to apply objective judgment to our data which means that the best analysis of a system will come from someone who isn’t personally invested in it.

As I mentioned in my post, Our Unconscious Filters, human beings view the world through their bias and it’s hard to shake them, even if we’re aware of them. Having an outsider provide analysis is the only way to completely prevent our bias from contaminating our observations.

Context

Most measurements are meaningless without context. Context is all of the information we use to understand if measurements are favorable or not. Setting goals for arbitrary numbers like a 20% increase or 3 new deals are meaningless if we don’t know the performance of the system in the past and it’s projected performance in the future.

Trying to oversimplify how a system operates by judging it off one measurement will blind us to other important changes as well. Context is crucial for an accurate understanding.

Sampling

Sampling is what we do when we try things. We’re simply taking a small part of the output and using it as an example for the entire system. Sampling is great for catching errors without needing to check the entire system.

Just like all other methods of analysis, we have to consider our bias, and sampling is prone to bias. A way to control for it is to make sure the sample is random.

Margin of Error

Of course, not all samples will be perfect representations of the entire system. The margin of error is how much the sample deviates from the whole. The higher the margin, the more inaccurate the sample. The more samples we have, the smaller our margin of error.

Ratio

Ratios are fractions. Somethings divided by something else. It’s a simple way of measuring multiple variables at once. Ratios are also great for letting us know how a particular measurement changes.

For example, ROI is a percentage ((Returns/Investment)*100%) or comparing MPG (miles/gallons) or unit price of groceries. You know a ratio is involved in you hear the words per.

Typicality

In order to analyze a system properly, we need to know how it would operate normally. Kaufman suggests that we can measure typicality through calculating mean, median, mode, and midrange or various measurements.

Correlation & Causation

Causation comes from the idea of cause and effect. One part of a system is causing another part of a system to act. Correlation, on the other hand, is not always causation. Sometimes variables may seem the act like one causes the other, but that won’t necessarily be the case. For example, 100% of people who drink water die. Does the water cause the death in this case? Probably not. Water and death are simply correlational.

So how can we determine is something is correlational or causational?

By adjusting for known variables. If we control for as many variables as possible, we can see the relationship between each more clearly. As systems grow more complex, this becomes more and more difficult. The more we can isolate a variable, the more confidence we have that the changes are causational.

Proxy

Proxies are measurements of something by measuring another thing. A proxy is useful when we cannot measure something directly. The closer the proxy is to the original, the more accurate the measurement. We have to be mindful about correlation and causation when measuring a proxy.

Segmentation

Segmentation is grouping data into separate subgroups to get a more comprehensive context. I do this with all of my blog posts! That’s why I have titles and headings and subheadings. It gives all the (seemingly) random information I’m spewing a more detailed context.

Segmentation plays a huge part in how we understand complex and large amounts of information.

Humanization

When looking at data is easy to see it as an inanimate object, but when analyzing systems we have to keep in mind that the data tell us information about human beings. They are insights into real people — their behaviors, experiences, and thoughts. It’s easy to disconnect from data about a system because it seems so abstract and inanimate, but it’s quite the opposite. If we pay enough attention, the data lets us understand people on a deeper level.

When I worked at Kohls, they always emphasized selling to “her.” Her being a personified collection of the average data on their customers. They used average household income, gender, family size, and other variables to create their typical customer and found ways to satisfy that person.

Our data tells us what’s up with other people if we look hard enough.

Other Things to Look Out For

“If something in your business is causing you stress, most likely, you either don’t have a system for that issue, or you are not following your system.”

Brandon Turner (The Book on Rental Property Investing)

Pay attention to environmental changes and selection tests. I talk a little bit about these in my last post. These changes give smaller players a chance to outperform larger players. Identifying selection tests gives us a competitive edge.

Some questions to ask while looking out for these things could be: How is the environment changing? Who is unable to adapt to these changes? What can I do differently from those who cannot adapt? Who is taking advantage of these changes? What can I do similar to those who are doing well?

Always keep an eye out for the “black swan.” I first heard about this idea from Chris Voss, an ex-FBI terrorist negotiator. The “black swan” is any information that if discovered would change everything. Back in the day, people would say swans are white and if anyone said otherwise they would be crazy because swans are white. Eventually, someone discovered a black swan and everyone had to change how they saw the situation. Systems are the same way, try to keep an eye out for the information that would change everything. There’s always a piece of information that, if known, would change everything This is excellent for accurately identifying and balancing risk and uncertainty.

It’s also helpful to keep in mind that we process the unknown the same way that we process threats. We literally see and respond to what we don’t know as a threat. Expect to encounter threats, but instead of responding to it, we can respond with curiosity to learn more.

The last thing I want to mention about analyzing systems is to analyze close-calls when they happen to minimize accidents. Sometimes shit happens, but most of the time we can prevent it from happening. If we can notice when things almost go wrong, then we can take the steps to make sure that it doesn’t happen again or prevent the conditions that allowed it to happen in the first place without having to deal with the fallout of the accident.

How to Improve Systems

“Anyone who understands systems will know immediately that optimizing parts is not a good route to system excellence. For example, let’s build the world’s greatest car by assembling the world’s greatest car parts. We connect the engine of a Ferrari, the brakes of a Porsche, the suspension of a BMW, the body of a Volvo. What we get, of course, is nothing close to a great car; we get a pile of very expensive junk.”

Donald Berwick (1946 – )

Now that we’ve discussed analyzing systems and have a base framework for understanding systems, let’s talk about some of the ideas useful for improving systems. Most of these ideas are also included in Kaufman’s The Personal MBA.

Intervention Bias

This is the idea that human beings tend to add changes to a system just to feel like we have more control. So when we set out to improve a system, we have to entertain the thought that we might be implementing a new change just to feel in control. If we don’t, we risk adding unnecessary complexity to the system.

The best way to account for intervention bias is to analyze through a null hypothesiswhat would happen if we did nothing? What if the situation was simply an error?

If the null hypothesis experiment determines that we’re better off doing something than nothing, then we will have minimized our chances for intervention bias to take hold. Examining the null hypothesis isn’t our natural reaction, especially since human beings have a proclivity to doing something rather than nothing, but it’s crucial for actually improving systems.

When improving systems, first think about what would happen if we did nothing.

Optimization

Optimization is what people usually think of when it comes to improving systems. This typically involves maximizing output or minimizing an input. Optimization is usually focused around the KPIs.

Kaufman suggests when optimizing a system to focus on one variable at a time. Optimizing a system across multiple variables will almost always lead to disaster. System interdependencies and second-order effects make it challenging to change more than one thing at any given time.

Refactoring

This refers to changing a system’s process so that it can perform the exact same result but in a more efficient way. This is most obvious in coding. Some programmers will pride themselves on performing the same actions in fewer lines of code.

To the average person, refactoring may seem insignificant, but more efficient systems run faster and require fewer resources which could be redirected elsewhere.

Some questions to ask when refactoring a system could be: What are the essential processes to achieve the desired objective? Do these processes have to be completed in a certain order? What are the constraints of the system?

Critical Few

If you’ve heard of the Pareto Principle (a.k.a. The 80/20 Rule), then you understand the concept of the critical few. Essentially, 19th-century economist and sociologist, Vilfredo Pareto, discovered an interesting pattern when analyzing data regarding land ownership and wealth distribution.

He discovered that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. Pareto didn’t just find this pattern in wealth and land distribution, he also saw it in his garden. 20% of his pea pods produced 80% of the peas.

Today, we can see his 80/20 split in almost everything. In systems is useful to know that 80% of the output is from 20% of the input. In businesses, typically 80% of revenue usually comes from 20% of customers. 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. 80% of our time communicating is with 20% of people we know.

Focus on the 20%. That is where the biggest changes will happen. Identify which parts are critical and give it attention or starve it of attention, whichever is required. The idea is to not try to focus on the whole thing, but the smaller parts that matter.

I do this with my students. 80% of my income comes from 20% of my clients and my attention and efforts are split accordingly. I give the clients who matter more attention and I starve the ones who don’t. After practicing these methods, I’ve eliminated a lot of headache clients and I’ve strengthened my relationships with the ones I do like. 80% of the problems came from 20% of the clients.

Focus on the critical few.

Diminishing Returns

This is the idea that after a certain point, adding more starts to cause more harm than good. This is common when optimizing high performing systems, people tend to try to push the system even more to the point where the system breaks.

“The last 10 percent of performance generates one-third of the cost and two-thirds of the problems.”

Norman R. Augustine (Aerospace Executive & Former U.S. Under Secretary of the Army)

A way to control for diminishing returns is to apply Ramit Sethi’s infamous “85% Solution” from his fantastic book I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Simply get 85% of the problem right and move on. Yeah, we can really hone in on getting that extra 15%, but then we risk diminishing returns.

Is it worth doubling the effort just to squeeze out that extra 10-15%?

It might be, but not every time. It’s better to spend our energy getting the big wins, than trying to squeeze out every little bit.

Friction

Friction is something I pay a lot of attention to. I spend a lot of time dedicated to removing friction from my life because it stops me from doing so much. Friction is any force or process that removes energy from a system. Remove the friction, increase efficiency.

Amazon Prime is a perfect example of a company removing friction to make a system more efficient. If you have amazon prime, then you know how easy it is to purchase things. That’s intentional. The ease of use creates more cash flow for the business.

If a system has a lot of friction, it can still perform but it will require much more energy. If we don’t add more energy, then the system will eventually slow and stop.

For me personally, when I encounter friction while doing an activity that I don’t enjoy, then I won’t do it at all. So if I can help it, I try to remove as much friction as possible whenever I’m doing something difficult or something I don’t want to do.

Sometimes introducing friction is what’s needed to improve a system. When I want to prevent myself from performing certain actions, I introduce friction because I know it will stop me. Some business makes it cumbersome for a customer to return their product so they are less likely to return it.

Automation

The gold standard of no friction. Automated systems operate without human intervention. Automation is best for repetitive tasks.

Be mindful that automating a system tends to magnify the efficiencies and inefficiencies. If the system is already efficient, then automation will make it faster. If the system is not efficient, then automation will slow it down.

When it comes to understanding automation, we want to be familiar with the Paradox of Automation: the more efficient an automated system is, the more critical the human inputs are. While automate reduces the need for human intervention, the small amount of human intervention that occurs becomes increasingly significant.

Automation makes our actions count more, not less.

On that note, I also want to mention the Irony of Automation: the more reliable a system is, the less attention humans pay to it. Reliable systems train absentminded operators. This is dangerous because if something goes wrong, we aren’t likely to notice and the automation will propagate that error.

The best way to avoid automation errors is to perform consistent sampling and testing.

Standard Operating Procedure

SOPs are predetermined processes for completing certain tasks or solving common problems. We save cognitive load and cut down the number of decisions we have to make in a day if we have a preselected method that’s known to work.

Using SOP helps us spend our energy on improving a system, rather than solving repetitive problems over and over.

Kaufman recommends reviewing the SOPs every two to three months to keep it running effectively.

SOPs can look many different ways. For example, I have a set price for certain students, and certain times I will tutor. But it can go further than that, I have predetermined phrases that I say when talking to clients to make communication easier when it comes to scheduling or other common tasks. I also have predetermined methods for dealing with certain kinds of students so we have a simple system for us to start with and build upon.

Focus on creating go-to methods for things you encounter often. You’ll find that it can seem like a lot of work upfront, but it will streamline the process in the long run and it’s so worth it.

Checklists

I can’t talk about checklists without referencing Dr. Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto. That book beautifully describes the power of checklists. Checklists have been a vital part of pilots take off routines and are the reason for their high success rate. Checklists have also played their role in minimizing infection rates in hospitals all over the world. The secret to repeatedly completing complex tasks perfectly is writing it down as a checklist.

Checklists are simplified SOPs for specific tasks. They’re fantastic because they create systems for processes that haven’t been articulated and minimize our chances of skipping critical steps.

I always make a checklist for my students who are struggling to “manage the chaos.” Transforming the glob of craziness that is school work into a list that can help us narrow our focus works for every single student I have ever worked with. Seriously, I haven’t come across any academic situation that a checklist could not solve.

Checklists are so critical for entropy management that I use them whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed. Whenever I’m feeling stressed and swamped with work, I ask myself “What’s the 80/20 I need to tackle here?” then I made a checklist to conquer the critical few.

I’ll probably write another post on checklists because they’re so damn powerful, important, and useful.

Checklists are also great because once we have a good one, we can delegate or automate it — which frees us up from doing the work! Checklists tend to be the first step to freedom.

Cessation

This refers to the idea of stopping something intentionally. Sometimes a system may be going haywire and the best thing to do is to stop a process. As I mentioned earlier, humans have a proclivity to do something to improve a system, but sometimes the best choice may be to not do anything or stop altogether.

Cessation is not our natural reaction when we want to improve systems and it’s usually an unpopular choice when dealing with a group, but keep in mind that it’s a valid option.

When analyzing and improving systems, I entertain the idea of cessation after I’ve tried the null hypothesis. If both of those options are determined to be ineffective, then I’ll start doing something to improve the system.

Resilience

The resilience of a system is determined by how much change it can withstand. The ability to weather change and adjust plans means the difference between disaster and survival.

Resilience usually comes at the price of optimal performance. A system can increase its resilience through leverage. For example, if a business needed some money to weather the storm it will be more resilient, but that money can’t be used more efficiently. Resilience comes at a cost.

Another way to boost resilience is to prepare for the unexpected. Having plans for different/unexpected scenarios or extra supplies on hand are great ways to make a system more resilient. Fail-safes and backups are great for that also. A fail-safe is a backup system designed to prevent or recover from the original system failure.

Stress Test

This is the process of identifying the boundaries of a system by changing the environment. Testing different extremes on a system can help determine which variables affect which processes.

When I stress test my systems, I try to break them. This is the part when we want to try and test out our “what-if” scenarios. Scenario planning is at the heart of any effective strategy. Rather than trying to predict the future, we can prepare for a handful of imagined scenarios and be ready for what comes next. A proper stress test can really help with a system’s resilience.

Sustainable Growth Cycle

This cycle is a pattern that systems follow when undergoing consistent growth without any major issues and it’s split up into three phases:

The Expansion Phase – this is when the system is focused on growing. This is a creation phase. New components and strategies are implemented and dedicated to growing the system and collecting data.

The Maintenance Phase – this is when the system focuses on executing the strategies and maintaining the functionality of the system. Pressing play on the system, so to speak.

The Consolidation Phase – this is when the system is focused on analysis. All the data that was collected is now put into context. Things that work are given more resources and attention while things that don’t are cut back or reworked.

The Middle Path

This idea comes from the fact that the balance between too much and too little are constantly changing. Balancing what systems need requires constant reevaluation. The best approach usually lies somewhere between too much and too little.

Experimentation

No one has everything figured out and determining the best choice when it comes to improving a system is a difficult task. This is when experimenting comes in handy. Frequent experimentation is the only way to accurately determine what improves and system and what doesn’t.

I like to treat experimenting is play. I love trying to new things, changing stuff up, and seeing what happens. The more we experiment, the more we learn about our systems.

More Methods of Improvement

“A man with a surplus can control circumstances, but a man without a surplus is controlled by them, and often has no opportunity to exercise judgment.”

Harvey S. Firestone (Founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company)

A personal note for improving systems – I like to have stock built up for projects with continuous deadlines like blog posts and beats. Having more stock makes me less anxious about meeting a deadline and I can focus on making good music or writing a good post. To increase stock, simply increase inflows and decrease the outflows. In this case, I increased how many beats I made in a week, but released only 1 (I usually release 2). After a while, I started to build a stock and the beats I made later were of higher quality. My end goal is to make high-quality music while enjoying the process, so I modified my system to make that happen.

In every system, there’s always a limiting reagent. Finding that constraint and removing it will improve a system’s efficiency. Israeli author, Eliyahu Goldratt, suggests using the “Five Focusing Steps” to identify and eliminate constraints:

  • Identification – examining the system to find the limiting factor
  • Exploitation – ensuring that the resources related to the constraint aren’t wasted
  • Subordination – redesigning the entire system to support the constraint
  • Elevation – permanently increasing the capacity of the constraint
  • Reevaluation -after making a change reevaluating the system to see where the constraint is located

When dealing with systems that involved other parties, we introduce counterparty risk. The best way to deal with counterparty risk is to have a plan of action in the event that the other party doesn’t deliver on their end of the deal.


These ideas are foundational for analyzing and improving systems but the methods are endless and I recommend that you go out and find concepts and methods to build upon your knowledge of systems. Remember Gall’s Law, all complex systems evolve from simple systems, and these ideas are the components of creating a simple system to analyze and improve other systems. How meta.

However, the most important concept for analyzing and improving systems is understanding that we can always learn more and education never stops. Systems can be complex and there is always something more to learn about a system or systems in general

Categories
Lifestyle Productivity

The Myth of Motivation

“We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them.”

Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)

Missing Pieces

Motivational books, speakers, quotes, videos, blog posts, you name it, are fantastic for getting us pumped up enough to dominate any obstacle in our way. When we’re motivated we can do anything, but motivation doesn’t stick around for very long and can be difficult to recover when lost. Action beyond motivation is necessary for achieving many of the goals we set for ourselves.

Acting only when we feel motivated and expecting to accomplish all our dreams sets us up for massive disappointment and wasted energy.

Substantial achievement requires acting even when we don’t feel like it. If I only studied when I felt like studying, I would never have even finished high school let alone a chemical engineering degree. If I only blogged and made music when I felt like it, then I wouldn’t have a blog and a YouTube channel. If I was only a good boyfriend when I felt like it, then I wouldn’t be in a happy relationship. I can literally go on forever about this.

Motivation is a fantastic tool, but it isn’t reliable enough to take us to the promise land, so to speak. So that poses the question:

What is motivation missing?

Without discipline and purpose, motivation is only a short term solution. Motivation fueled by purpose and discipline is enough to get us anywhere we need to go. Discipline gets us through when we don’t want do and purpose gets us through when things are hard. They both give us access to action beyond motivation.

I talk about purpose at length in the following posts:

This post is going to mainly focus on discipline. What it is, why it’s necessary, how to develop it within ourselves, and specific methods to create action beyond motivation.

Discipline

“Discipline equals freedom.”

Jocko Willink (Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual)

When most people think of discipline, they think of punishment. That is not what I am talking about here. What I mean by discipline is taking on the challenge of creating a relationship with ourselves to know ourselves as people who do the right things. Knowing ourselves as the kind of people who can focus on the task in front of them as do it as well as they possibly can.

I like to think of discipline as a way to learn how to deliberately narrow our focus to the one thing that our highest selves want to be doing. Without discipline, we are victims to our circumstances, environments, and unconcious desires.

I spent a few weeks trying to wrap my head around discipline and in doing so I had a fantastic conversation with my girlfriend. She was telling me about how her relationship with discipline can be broken up into two sub categories: taking responsibility and making decisions. She told me that when she started taking responsibility for everything in her life, there were endless opportunities for decisions. When we take responsibility, we empower ourselves, which gives us a vitalizing freedom and insight into what we can and cannot change. Once we see our options, it is up to us to do something about it (or not). Taking responsibility gives us options.

Let me root this in a simple example. Let’s say we are trying to study for a test, but can’t get ourselves to crack open the book and start. What we lack is discipline. A disciplined person would just sit down and start working without wasted energy deditated to convincing themselves that studying is a good idea.

In order to navigate our way from not being able to open the book to sitting and starting flawlessly, we first need to take responsibility for our learning. We can take on the perspective that how much we understand and how much we are able to demonstrate that is solely a function of our own effort and dedication. Once we genuinely take that on, we can see the decisions to be made in front of us. We can either study or not. The choice is ours and not up to our professors, our parents, or the economy (common scapegoats people love to use). Now we can make the decision to study or not. That is where we want to be mentally. We can choose to not study, but if we run through this thought process and still decide not to, the pain is so much worse. Nothing sucks more than suffering and knowing that it’s all because of you and your stupid choices. More often than not, we will end up doing what we “should” be because of loss aversion. People will go to greater lengths to not lose $5 then gain $20.

If we take responsibility for our lives, we can see how much power we truly have. Usually, it’s much more than we like to think. Opportunities for decisions appear to us and all we have to do is make a choice. Taking responsibility and making decisions are what we need to create a foundation for developing discipline.

Access to a New Life

Most of what we want to accomplish takes tremendous amounts of effort, time, energy, and attention. Our resources are best spent moving closer to those goals, not convincing ourselves we need to.

Here’s a fun little exercise to show us how we have have access to a new life. I stole this from one of Jordan Peterson’s lectures.

Ask yourself – How many hours a day do I waste? Write that number down…..really write it down.

Now, let’s say you value your time at $50/hour, which is probably on the low end.

How much money do you waste per day?

Most people write anywhere from 4-6 hours. Let’s say we waste 4 hours a day valued at $50/hr. That’s a loss of $200/day or $1000/work week. That’s $52,000/year wasted, at least. That is the cost of a lack of discipline. If you value yourself higher, then the cost is even more expensive.

I do this exercise with my students at the beginning of my classes and it’s always so funny to see the look on their faces when they’re present to how much time they really have access to. The best part of this exercise, is that I don’t define waste. The students waste 1/6 of their day by their own standards!

Discipline is more than just preventing waste, it helps develop a powerful relationship with ourselves. While preventing wasted time and developing a powerful relationship with ourselves provide incredible benefits, the real sweetness of discipline comes from accomplishing what we set out to accomplish. This is how we live a life by design.

Since external discipline can be hard to find in some occupations, cultivating self-discipline is key in making all of this possible. We need to learn how much self-discipline we have and how we need to adjust. Some people are too lax with themselves while others are too stern.

How to Develop Discipline within Ourselves

“A paradox of life: The problem with patience and discipline is that developing each of them requires both of them.”

Thomas M. Sterner (The Practicing Mind)

We can increase our discipline by changing our self image. If we think of ourselves as lazy, then we will be lazy. If we think of ourselves as focused, then we will be focused. The trick is actually believing it. Our identity is one of the strongest motivational forces if we learn how to use it correctly. We hate being wrong and being wrong about our identity is something we will go to the ends of the earth to prevent, this is known as identity defense. I go more in depth about changing our self image to create a better life for ourselves in these two posts:

Work on changing our identity to someone who is disciplined and the discipline will follow.

We can also do short term challenges which train the “discipline muscle.” These challenges will give us opportunities to be disciplined if we don’t have something else requiring that of us.

An example is taking cold showers for 30 days. It’s tempting to want to take a hot shower (especially for me), but with the challenge in place we can decide to stick to our word or give into to our animalistic needs. Doing something like cold showers is great because it’s excuse proof. We’re already taking showers daily (I hope) so it’s already integrated into our routines, we just need to make a simple and small adjustment. Remember: anyone can do anything for a month.

Another method for increasing discipline is setting up a system that requires you to show up every day. Yes, I do mean every damn day. This is powerful because it forces us to act even if “we don’t feel like it.” At first, it will be painful, but after each day the part of us which perservies will become stronger and stronger until we have the self-discipline to get through it. Create a nice reward for yourself afterwards, but also create a punishment so you have even more of a reason to do it. Make it short and manageable so you actually will do it every day.

An example of this in my life are my exercising habits. I used to hate working out and I never had the discipline to do it, until I told myself I wasn’t going to eat in the morning until I did a few kettlebell swings. The reward is eating and the punishment is going hungry. Pretty simple if you ask me. It’s also effective if you ask me, because I’ve been working out every day for the past 2 months and I don’t plan on stopping.

Now you could say, “Chris why don’t you just eat anyway if you don’t feel like working out?” and my reply to that would be because it destroys the relationship I have with myself. Letting ourselves slide with things has a detrimental effect on how we relate to ourselves and I’ve worked too damn hard to develop a positive and strong relationship with myself where I know myself to be a person who follows through on his commitments.

Getting Started Anyway

Acting when we aren’t motivated is difficult. It’s expensive in terms of cognitive load, not because the tasks are hard, but because we have to overcome so much within ourselves to get going.

Since I’m a physics nerd, I’m going to put it like this: Action beyond motivation is like overcoming friction. Friction is a force that works against another force, usually slowing or preventing the displacement of an object.

There are two types of friction – static friction and kinetic friction. Static friction is tougher to overcome than kinetic friction. You can try this with a box sitting on the ground. If you apply a pressure on the box, you will notice that it takes more pressure to get the box moving than to keep the moving moving. The same principles apply without work. If we find ways to overcome the static friction, to get started, then we won’t have to push as hard to keep it going.

Procrastination is a huge ally to static friction, usually we procrastinate because we feel like overcoming that static friction is too expensive. Just finding ways to get started is the secret to action beyond motivation.

Methods to Fight Procrastination

There are a ton of methods to get started, but I’m just going to share two of them right now.

One of my favorite methods I use to fight procrastination and overcome static friction is The 5 Second Rule. I first heard of this idea from the renoun and respected author and motivational speaker, Mel Robbins. It’s pretty simple, right before you get yourself to do something just count down from 5 then begin.

5…4…3…2…1… Go!

There is something about counting down that primes our minds for overcoming that static friction. I do this all the time when I’m working out. Right before I do a set (that I really don’t want to do) I count down from 5 and begin. Once I start, I just focus on getting through it. The push I give myself (the willpower I exert) to start is more than enough to keep the workout going as long as I keep pushing.

This idea set me free from believing that it’s going to be hard to get started and it just keeps getting harder. The opposite is actually true, getting started is the hardest part and it gets easier over time.

Something I do want to mention about this technique is how it is easier to get derailed if we are interrupted.

Let me use the example of my workouts again. I can use the 5 second rule to get started and push through to the finish line, but if I’m interrupted while I’m doing my workout the process has to start over again. I will have to overcome the static friction and the same force applied will not be adequate enough to get started. Beware of interruptions when doing high cognitive load activities.

Another fantastic method of fighting procrastination and overcoming static friction is implimenting starting rituals. Starting rituals are fantastic for tricking our brain into doing things we don’t want to do.

In this post, I talk about the habit cycle and how we can design the lives we want if we work on designing our habits. As most of us know, its difficult to get us to do what we tell ourselves but with knowledge of the habit cycle, we can see our patterns and manipulate them to our own advantage. The first stage of the habit cycle is Cue. This means our cravings and responses which come afterward are influenced by cues.

We are extremely susceptible to subconsciously perceiving cues and we can use this potential vulnerability to create powerful starting rituals. Doing the same thing over and over right before you do an activity primes your brain to do that activity.

Let me solidify this with an example. I remember to brush my teeth when I walk into my bathroom and see my toothbrush. As much as I’d like to say I remember to brush my teeth every morning, the truth is that I’m reminded by the cue. Walking into the bathroom is my starting ritual to brushing my teeth. Another example is when I’m blogging. I always grab a drink, place it on my right side, turn on classical music, set my pomodoro timer, and start typing away. All the things I do before I actually start blogging I consider my starting ritual. Doing these things helps me “get ready” to work and it really helps with overcoming the huge amounts of static friction which come with writing.

I’ve tried to blog without the ritual and it ended in disaster. I would try to tell myself all those little routines are BS and I should just start writing, but I end up writing for a short amount of time and I’m easily distracted. This results in worse writing and wasted energy. Starting rituals really help us get in the mode. Don’t sleep on them. The best part is that we can create our own starting rituals, which I think can be a lot of fun.

Like with any habit, it takes a while before our brain starts to understand these cues and cravings so stick with it for at least 5 session. I give six more methods of overcoming static friction and enginerring compliance in my post Understanding Change.

Aim for the Success Spiral

The Matthew Effect (also known as the Matthew Effect of Accumulated Advantage or the Matthew principle) was popularized by American sociologist, Robert K. Merton, and is named after The Parable of Talents from the biblical Gospel of Matthew.

“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

Gospel of Matthew (25:29 Revised Standard Version)

Regardless of religious affiliation, The Matthew Effect is a phenomena we can observe time and time again even in the modern world.

I just recently started seriously investing in the stock market and I see exactly how people who already have money can make more money with their money. People who invest more money have the potential to make more money, people who invest little money have the potential to make little money.

This is also visible in something a small as a bank account, the more money we have in the account, the more money can we get back in interest. People that don’t have a lot of money in their bank account are subject to low interest yeilds and overdraft fees, which prevent them from effortless wealth building.

On an academic level, students who get A’s on the first few exams are going to have an easier time getting an A on the final exam. The students who failed the first few exams are more likely to fail the final, unless they put in even more effort than the A students.

When it comes to exercise, it’s actually easier to work out once you’re in shape and healthy. If you aren’t, exercise can seem like an impossible mountain to climb and are more likely to become even unhealthier.

In my Understanding Habits and The 1% Rule post, I talk about the the Two Life Path from Jeff Olsen’s book The Slight Edge which clearly illustrates The Matthew Effect.

Our choices compound on each other, and while it doesn’t seem like it in the moment, the good choices can easily becomes great and the bad choices can easily become terrible. We just need to add time.

This knowledge is powerful because we can use it to our advantage. All we have to do is aim for the success spiral. Once we reach a critical point of good decisions, the benefits compound on each other and create even more benefit as long as we don’t destroy the structure.

Focus on making the small wins and watch them evolve into big ones. It’s much easier to win once you’ve been winning. On the flip side, take the small loses and they can spiral out of control. At that point, it becomes too easy to lose and seemingly impossible to win. Don’t let it get to that point, take your wins everywhere you can! There’s no win that is too small.

You did half a push up? Fantastic, next time you’ll done 1. The time after that you’ll do 2. Keep that up for a year and you’ll be surprised how far that can take you.

A big part of aiming for the success spiral is tracking your habits. Tracking is important because we can see how we’ve been performing over time and determine if we are on a success spiral or if we need to make changes.

For the past few months I’ve been using the Streaks app on iOS and I highly recommend it. Best $5.99 I’ve spent this year for sure. Creating streaks builds momentum and that momentum gives us an extra push. Remember, kinetic friction is easier to overcome than static friction. It’s easier to maintain a streak than to start one. I also reward myself whenever I finish my streaks, so I have incentive to start again the next day. I got more in depth about building and breaking habits in my post Types of Habits and Designing Our Lives.

Good Feelings Come After Action

“Chase after money and security, And your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval, And you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.”

Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching)

Waiting until we feel good about doing something is similar to waiting until we feel motivated to do something. It’s futile and we will never get enough done to obtain significant achievement. Action beyond motivation is the muscle we need to develop within ourselves and the same principles can apply to action beyond feeling good.

What makes people happy is not obtaining goals, but observing themselves move towards a goal. Knowing that our actions are “correct” gives us bursts of dopamine, which makes us feel really good. The truth is that the good feelings come after the actions. We will feel like doing it, once we are doing it. I come up against this every time I start reading or writing a blog post. Every time it’s a struggle to start, but once I’m started I tend to lose myself in my work and I feel genuine pleasure while I’m doing. I feel the feelings I was waiting to feel to start while I was doing the work.

Good feelings comes after accomplishment, not before. Do good, feel good.

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Education Lifestyle Productivity

Types of Habits and Designing Our Lives

“Most habits take on one of four common forms: things you want to start doing, things you want to stop doing, things you want to do more, and things you want to do less.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)
My habits in their natural habitat

Before I dive into this post, I have to make a few honorable necessary mentions. Most of this information is from James Clear’s amazing book Atomic Habits, which I highly recommend. He explains the importance of developing systems and focusing our attention at the level of the habit in a seemingly effortless and powerful way. I also have to mention Josh Kaufman’s The Personal MBA, a must read book for entrepreneurs looking for well packaged high quality information. I think my must read book list needs some updating. Kaufman goes over more than just business, he also lays out a wealth of knowledge regarding habit formation and lifestyle design.

Intentionally creating our own lives starts with understanding our every day actions and how they develop into habits. I like to think of habits as belonging to the four categories mentioned above – Things We Should Start Doing, Things We Should Stop Doing, Things We Should Do Less, and Things We Should Do More. Meditating on these categories and articulating which habits fall into each category is a fantastic exercise in identifying key habits. Identifying which habits we want to start, stop, or change is the first step in creating our lives by design. Another way I like to identify habits is to categorize them as Old Habits – things I want to do less or stop all together – or as New Habits – things I want to do more or start doing.

The Habit Cycle

Understanding the Habit Cycle is like learning the anatomy and physiology of habits. The Habit Cycle explains how habits come to be and what we can do to make that process easier or harder.

According to Clear, habits have 4 stages that they follow. Cue. Craving. Response. Reward. Understanding each stage will help us intentionally create habits that we want in our lives and destroy the habits we don’t.

The Cue is the external stimuli that triggers the brain to start the behavior. When we see a cue, we get a Craving, which is the motivational force behind the habit. The Response is action or set of actions we take to potentially satisfy the craving. The Reward is what makes it all worth it and the last stage, the satisfaction of the craving.

The Habit Cycle – James Clear

Let me give an example to ground this in real life.

Let’s say I’m working on a blog post and I reach an issue in articulating what I want to say. Cue – I encounter a difficult situation. I start feeling stuck and my motivations change. I just want to be relieved of my frustration. Craving – yearning for relief. Despite my best intentions, I reason with myself that I am going to die sooner than I’d like and my experience of life is all that truly matters so I should stop blogging and play video games. I save my blog post, turn on my PS4 and have a good ol’ time. Reponse – leaving the challenging situation to play games. I feel delighted that I get to play my video games and my relief has come. Reward – obtained relief from tension caused from blogging. In this case, I layed out my provility to play video games when I’m confronted with difficult situations. Identifying the steps in this habit cycle helps me take the steps I need to ramp this up or turn it down depending on what I want for my life. For me, I love developing myself to overcome challenges in anyway possible so I’m going to try to break that habit and replace it with a new and more positive one.

If we pay enough attention to what causes our cravings, then we can take premeditated steps to intentionally create our ideal lives. We do not have to let the habit cycle run over and over, we can stop it at any point. We just need to know how.

Breaking Old Habits

Breaking old habits is a skill worth practicing. On our journey, we pick up ways of being or thinking that may have been useful in the past, but no longer serve a purpose to us in the present. I know I have more than a few habits holding me back from bringing about my Jungian Self.

The first thing we need to do when we’re breaking habits, is identifying the things we do that are not bringing us closer to where we want to go. Once those habits are identified, we can practice a few things to make those habits more difficult for us to live out.

Harness Friction

One of my favorite ways to break bad habits is to add friction to the mix. Friction can be thought of as obstacles preventing us from completing an action.

I’ll give an example to bring this down to Earth.

Let’s say we have a habit of spending too much time on our phone in the morning. The first thing we do when we wake up is check out phone and we end up losing track of time and it throws off our whole day.

Analyzing this situation in terms of friction, we can see that we are only partaking in the “bad” habit because there’s nothing stopping us from doing it! If we were to set our phone on the other side of the room before we go to bed, then there will be a lot of friction between us and checking our phone in the morning.

Those small, yet big, steps of getting out of bed and walking over to your phone gives you enough time to develop the willpower necessary to not act out the habit. Friction is what makes or breaks my habit formation 90% of the time. I’m so sensitive to friction, but I choose to use my susceptibility to measure the effectiveness of my environment.

I love using friction to my advantage. I can increase the friction to prevent actions that I don’t want, or I can decrease it and it’ll be easier for me to build the habits I desire.

Invert the Habit Cycle

Another effective way to break old habits is to invert each step of the habit cycle.

The first step is Cue. If we can cut out the cue completely, or at least make it invisible, then we have a fighting chance to break that specific habit loop. Let me give an example, if I see my PlayStation controller in my room I’ll get an urge to play and I’ll have to use willpower to fight off the craving. Instead of using willpower to break the habit cycle, I put my PlayStation controller in a place that makes it difficult for me to see it and the craving never exists in the first place.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Now, I still may get cravings to play video games, but this way I can control for at least 1 variable. To break the habit cycle at the cue stage, we can make our cues invisible.

The second step is Craving. To stop a craving we can use willpower to resist it (but that takes too much energy), we can make the cue invisible, or we can make the craving seem unattractive.

Let me put it this way, let’s say I have a craving to eat a snack at midnight. I can think about how good it will feel to satisfy my midnight craving and how happy I will be enjoying my little snack – thinking like this will just make me want to eat more.

Or I can think about how I’m developing a habit that could lead to an unhealthy lifestyle which consequently leads to a shorter and lesser quality functional lifespan. I can imagine my body failing me in ways that I take for granted now and the frustration I will feel confronting my true powerlessness.

Once the snack is framed like that, it’s much easier to say “How about a hell no.” Making things unattractive can stop a craving dead in its tracks.

The third step is Response. To stop the habit in the response stage, Clear recommends to make the response difficult. This goes hand-in-hand with my “add-friction” tip from earlier. If we add friction between us and our response, then we are much less likely to act out the response. This makes sense when we think about what the purpose of habits are.

We have habits to save cognitive load, and overcoming friction would add cognitive load, which works counter to habits. We have habits to make things easier, so making a response more difficult will cut off the habit before we get our highly sought after reward.

The fourth and final step is Reward. We love the reward because of one simple reason. It is satisfying. If we make the reward unsatisfying, there goes all the power!

Imagine, sacrificing what mean most to you only to receive a lackluster reward. The visceral and lingering feelings of disappointment will power through any urge to perform those sets of actions again. If we feel like what we doing isn’t worth it, then we aren’t going to do it again. Simple as that. Find what makes the reward sweet and ruin it.

Be weary that there aren’t just clever mind tricks that play into our breaking and forming of habits, but our emotional states as well. We tend to break the “good” habits and start the “bad” habits when we’re feeling H.A.L.T. – hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. When we identify with one of these 4 emotional states, we are way more susceptible to aiming down and following through with it. We are pretty tough people, but we only have so much willpower. Save your willpower for when we’re feeling one of the four detrimental emotional states. We should invert the habit cycle whenever we can so we can have the energy to fight when we need to.

Creating New Habits

Once we set ourselves free from our old bad habits, we can finally create new habits! But that poses the question:

How do we create new habits that last?

We can approach this a few different ways. If you’ve read my other blog posts, specifically about studying, then you know I’m all about finding a bunch of ways to do things and modifying them to create my own personalized system.

Optimize to Win

In his fantastic success manual, Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss talks about the importance of meditating every day. While I do recommended practicing meditation, that isn’t what I want to focus on. People tend to have a difficult time creating a habit from meditation, after all most of the benefits only occur when meditation is being practiced as a habit.

Tim says when you start a new habit, you want to rig the game to win. It takes 5 sessions to make something a habit, and it doesn’t matter how long the sessions are. Keep it simple and make the first 5 sessions short. The first few times stepping up to the figurative plate will take significant willpower, but once we developed a little habit it gets easier over time. Optimize to win. Eventually our actions will eventually become what we are, I talk a little bit about this in my post Hypnotic Rhythm.

We don’t have to stop at making it short, we can make it easy too! When I first started working out consistently, I made my first 5 sessions short and easy and now it feels a little weird if I don’t get at least a little exercise.

Another thing we want to keep in mind when we are trying to create new habits is knowing that we only want to do things when we believe it will pay off for us. If we believe it won’t pay off or it’ll actually harm us, then we won’t do it. To take advantage of this bit of knowledge, we should presence ourselves to why starting this new habit is worthwhile. Be advised, this is different for everyone and requires rigorous self reflection.

Encourage the Habit Cycle

Another effective way to create new habits is to encourage each step of the habit cycle.

The first step is Cue. The cue usually kicks off the habit, but if we’re making new habits we might need a little extra help with this step. Make the cue obvious. I lay out my yoga mat and have my kettlebell out in the open so I don’t have to spend any time setting up. Working out consistently has always been difficult for me, but when I set out my equipment in a place that’s easy to see it’s much easier to just start working out. Making cues obvious can also be thought of as a method of removing friction.

The second step is Craving. This comes after the cue and gives us that feeling that we should be doing something. Craving a good habit is an interesting feeling, but one that we should try to encourage. Encourage the craving by making it attractive. Imagine, actually craving to workout or study. It’s not that hard when you think about how good you will feel once you finish or how much longer you’ll live if you’re healthy. Find reasons to pick the good choice.

The third step is Response. Once we have the craving to do something, our next move is to act. If we want the habit, to stick then we need to make it easy. I’ll use the example of my yoga mat and kettlebell again. Since the mat and kettlebell are already set up in the center of my room, it’s easy to just start working out. It’s actually easier to workout than it is to ignore the equipment! That’s why I put it in the middle of my room. I’m making it harder to ignore working out (stopping the old habit) and easier to start working out (creating the new habit).

The fourth and final step is Reward. This is what makes it all worthwhile. If we want to keep a habit going, we have to make the reward satisfying. Since I absolutely adore my video games, that’s usually the go-to treat for me after doing something difficult. Creating new habits is not easy and responding to those changes takes a lot out of us. I also love watching carefully written television like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones(Seasons 1-4), and Westworld. When I have the time I also love to cook. Sometimes I’ll make a really nice meal to reward myself for creating new habits. Find what makes you happy and indulge once everything is said and done.

Developing New Traits

The best part about knowing all is this is discovering that traits and skills can be developed through simple habit formation. This means we can create habits of traits that we admire in our role models within ourselves!

There was a study at Harvard which suggested that the most productive people don’t wait to be told what to do. Successful people take initiative and we can use the knowledge of breaking and creating habits to create the habit of taking initiative within ourselves!

The best best part – this doesn’t have to stop at initiative!

We can create a habit of being honest, courageous, hard working, dedicated, reliable, or any other trait that we would like. It’s not an easy task by any means, but it is possible with serious attention, dedication, and time.

The Issue of Willpower

Creating habits takes willpower. Sometimes it requires a lot and sometimes it requires a little. If we are trying to create new habits, we. need to find ways to minimize how much willpower we’ll need or designing our lives will be too difficult. We can minimize will power through optimizing our environment. I talk a little bit about that in Strategies for Better Studying Part 4.

If we set up our space to encourage the new habits and add friction to discourage the old habits, then willpower won’t be necessary!

James Clear talks about different ways to minimize required willpower by adjusting our actions to the habit cycle. At first, the changes will requires a huge amount of willpower, but every time we run through the loop we strengthen the neural pathways and the required willpower becomes less and less.

Josh Kaufman also talks about habit cues in his fantastic book, The Personal MBA.

“Habits are easier to install if you look for triggers that signal when it’s time to act. For example, if you want to take vitamins, it’s easier to remember to take them if you use another habitual action as a trigger for the action. Instead of relying on your mind to remember to take your vitamins in the middle of the day, you can use brushing your teeth in the morning or evening as a reminder.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)

In addition to building a guiding environment, we can reduce willpower by focusing our attention on one habit at a time. Kaufman also mentions this in The Personal MBA.

“For best results, focus on installing one Habit at a time. Remember, you only have so much Willpower to use each day, and overriding your default mode of action depletes it quickly. If you try to install too many Habits at the same time, you probably won’t succeed at adopting any of them for long. Focus on installing one Habit until taking action feels automatic, then move on to the next.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)

Creating and destroying habits takes a bit of practice, patience, and discipline. If these methods don’t work, try longer. We are surprisingly malleable creatures despite our proclivity towards habits and routine. Getting better: at first it’s uncomfortable, but later will be worth it. Perhaps the real lesson is to learn how to internalize discomfort and push forward, for once we do this we can do anything. Feel free to pick and choose which parts of this post you like and go forth to design your dream life!

Start by winning the moment right in front of you.