Hooray, you put on pants

On systems thinking & how it can help you do other productive things

Have you ever considered installing a pants detector at your front door to make sure you don’t forget to put some on before leaving home?

Me neither.

Thank goodness for habits. We’d get a lot less done without them — having to stop every other second to decide or remember what to do next. Sure, there’s the downside of bad habits, but I’d prefer to have to train myself out of leaving that donut on my nightstand to inhale the moment I open my eyes*, than to have to reason my way through every single task in a day.

(*I don’t do this, but let’s not act like we haven’t both been tempted.)

Okay, so — good habits good, bad habits bad. Break out the Pulitzer Prize for this guy, right? Not so fast...

Last week, we talked about the fact that a good life strategy is to try to channel your energy into “productive things that you can enjoy in the moment”. Presumably — if you can swing it — doing those productive things out of habit takes less effort and is more sustainable than having to brute-force your way there, so...

Three things:

  1. How do you develop more good habits?

  2. How do you get rid of bad ones?

  3. What about productive behaviours that aren’t yet habit? Anything you can do to make your life easier there?

A good answer to all of those is to think in terms of systems.

Systems are to conscious action what habits are to unconscious action: both are guard rails that help you make good decisions with less/no effort, but systems are ones that you install in your environment, whereas habits are installed in your brain.

There are a bunch of great books out there on habit-hacking (like this one and this one), which talk about the value of devising systems: ways to set up your environment that make you likely to do productive things, which — after enough reps — get coded into your autopilot mode.

The key insight is this: many people make the mistake of thinking they’re supposed to will themselves into good habits, but that’s actually the hard way to go about it. The easier way is to point your bullshit detector at the mirror, accept that on a scale of 1 to 10 your will power is about a gas-station coffee, and try to dummy-proof the whole thing instead.

Examples might be: hire a personal trainer, or automate the transfer of a few bucks from each paycheck into savings, or have a friend reset your facebook password before you start drinking. Systems can be rigorous or simple, solo or shared with a buddy, and so on. You get the picture. Basically, trust no one — least of all yourself.

I came into 2021 thinking about the following punchline from James Clear’s killer book, ‘Atomic Habits’:

You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

I’m planning to explore that idea in the coming months — playing with systems to help me do productive things. Part of that is trying to figure out what’s ‘productive’, part of it is finding the sweet spot of rigor — helpful without being cumbersome (y’know, baby <> bathwater and all that). Less about nailing down concrete or final objectives, and more about having ‘systems thinking’ be a theme in my approach to things.

Speaking of which — writing more is the first “productive thing” I want to do more of, and committing to doing it weekly is the system for making it happen. (Meta.) Deliberately at first, then — with any luck — more effortlessly as I get into the groove.

It’s funny to think that when I was younger and fighting with the universe for autonomy, I probably would have rejected the notion that I need help to accomplish things. Now I’ll take all the help I can get. Sign me up for whatever bumpers are available to guide me down the bowling lane of life.