Build Systems, and Habits

If I like an article, I look into its author. Most good writers write well and often. This helps me find independent websites, like Ben Kuhn’s blog. In his 2018 piece, Stop Trying, Ben talks about steps he took to better his life: tracking time with RescueTime, and waking up with automatic lights. His productivity went up, and he gets out of bed on time now — because these changes required “literally zero maintenance”. He tried to make productivity and wakefulness a habit, but did not succeed until he built systems around those two goals. From Stop Trying:

“Personally, I’ve found my productivity habits to be extremely long-lived when I make sure they’re literally zero maintenance. That is, when it’s habit time, it requires more willpower to break the habit than to keep going. ... Sometimes you’ll need to execute your habit when you’re sleep-deprived, or in the middle of a really good book, or your significant other just broke up with you, or for whatever reason you just can’t be bothered to try. The only thing that can save your habit here, is if the habit is what happens when you can’t be bothered.”

I spent years at the other end of the spectrum. Merlin Mann once said that no habit would stick until it went from something you do to something you are, and I took his words to heart. I poured a ton of effort into my habits, to force them to become my identity. I did not go to the gym, I was the guy who went every single day; I did not eat fast food, I was the guy who did not eat fast food. This nuanced difference had a profound effect. To my credit, it worked: I became a monster in the gym, because I tied these habits to my identity. It also created some problems, though: when I spent two months training in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and Fort Irwin, California, I had to give up two of the things that defined me.

I will not lie by saying that I take a more measured approach these days, but I do take a less lopsided one. I still define myself as the guy who works out every single day and does not eat fast food. Greatness requires sacrifice, and real sacrifice will not happen for goals loosely held. I use systems as forcing functions, though, to stay on track. For one, I meal prep: I make breakfast and lunch for a whole week on Sunday, and keep easy dinners in the freezer. I spend more time washing dishes during the week than I do cooking. This guarantees that I always have healthy meals, and frees up my evenings. I also go to bed before 9:00 P.M. Sleeping almost eight hours before my alarm goes off at 4:30 A.M. gives me plenty of rest, and keeps me from feeling tempted to sleep late. Together, they ensure I get to the gym before it opens, have time to stay for an entire workout, recover after the gym, and fuel the next day’s workout — every single day.

These systems make it easier to pursue my goals, and so I give them partial credit for my continued progress. Success, though, still requires discipline. There is no shortcut: “the un-sexy answer [I give whenever someone asks how I got here,] is months of long, hard, back-breaking, and grueling work after 5 A.M. wake-ups and ten hour work days.” “Effort, and nothing else, decides success.” Systems might make it easier, but nothing will allow you to skate by with minimal effort. Get out there and grind.