When someone says “I lack the discipline,” what they really mean is that they lack a system and a structure.
Too often we walk around with the dogma that everything depends on our willpower.
Truth is, willpower is a limited well. Our reserves are easily depleted. (Listen to this compelling podcast episode from Freakonomics Radio)
What can really help? Instead of chastising ourselves with brute force to buckle up our willpower, we should find the discipline of using a system and a structure (S&S).
A system provides us a roadmap. Start with A, then B, and then C. Don’t start with B, and try to later on fill in A and B. A system that is individualised accounts for your quirks and habits. For example, I have a system of booking my schedule using the following rule ( “x” event multiple by 1.5)1. If I have a 1-hour appointment, I make sure I have about 30mins after that, before I schedule the next event. This has been an important step for me, as I must confess, I often fall into a planning fallacy. I delude myself thinking I can squeeze in more that I can manage. The side-benefit of this “x 1.5” rule of thumb? I run late less often, and if I finish on time, I get time to breathe.
Another simple system: Write things down. Don’t over-tax your cognitive capacity. Put it in the calendar, to-do list apps (tons of this around), or simply, write it down on a sticky note. Let your mind get involved in more deep and valuable work.
Most people get obsessed with goals instead of building a system. The thing is, goals perpetuate unhappiness while we try to achieve that goal. And after getting that goal, we are left with the feeling that there’s other goals to pursue. It’s insatiable. Famed cartoonist for Dilbert, Scott Adams notes, “My proposition is that if you study people who succeed, you will see that most of them follow systems, not goals.” He has more to say about Goals vs System:
“Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.”2
While a system is a roadmap, a structure is a scaffold. We rely on it, develop it and not leave it to the moment to decide. For example, every morning at 9am, I do my best to write for 30mins to an hour. No more than that. A structure is like leaving your office each day, and expecting your chair to stay in the same place. You rely upon it being there every morning you arrive at your desk. You don’t expect to go hunting for something to sit on every time you hit the office. Likewise, a structure helps to contain what most modern man/woman are plagued with these days: Too much work; too little time. You don’t want to be thinking about “Where’s my chair?” when you can be getting things done.
The combination of a system and a structure (S&S) “off-loads” our cognitive demands, and allows us to “automate” and rely on a pre-decided plan we’re committed to. The S&S approach is like a rhythm that you keep at. Constant and engaging. Of course, you wanna build in time to slow things down.
And why we fall off the rhythm, don’t bash yourself. We fail all the time. The more we think we try to push for self-control, the worse we become at it (Here’s the evidence). But if you are doing and working on things that are truly important to you, you want to make sure you have a roadmap and a scaffold to rely on.
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- I first learned about this from Cal Newport’s blog, Study Hacks. I also highly recommend his book Deep Work. It’s a must-read
- Check out Scott Adams book . How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. Also listen to an interview he had with Tim Ferriss where he addresses the issue of System vs Goals.