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How I created a system for building habits to improve my productivity

By setting up systems and making incremental changes, you can give your willpower a break

By Micah Bennett · June 29, 2020
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You try to improve yourself. It doesn't work. Why does this keep happening?

In my experience, the problem is biting off more than I can chew. I'll have grand ideas for a better me but no clear plan of how to get there. Then, when I try to follow through, I'm using more willpower than necessary to create the change. The result? When I hit obstacles, my willpower is depleted, making me more likely to backslide.

I've thought about this a lot. What worked for me was to design a system for accountability, then ramp up to big changes slowly within that system. This allows me to create habits.

Set up systems that keep you accountable

We all have things we wish we were better about—responding to emails in a timely manner, for example, or maintaining things around the house. You can tell yourself you want to be better about these things, in the abstract. You might even follow through. But if you don't change anything but your intention, the most likely outcome is that nothing changes permanently.

Personally, I don't want to use up mental energy and willpower remembering all the things I should be doing, since those will fall apart when inevitable bumps in the road happen.

How you set up your system for accountability is personal—you need to find a system that works for you. For me, it involved adding things to Todoist, my to-do list app. I was already in the habit of checking that app daily, so I added tasks with due dates for the things I intended to do. That way, what I "should" be doing becomes very real when I check the app.

A great example of this in action was in doing a better job with home maintenance. There were a bunch of things I knew I should be doing regularly, if only to avoid bigger problems later. Relying on myself to remember what they were, when they should happen, and how often they should happen was too much. To solve for this, I took a few minutes to add a handful of those tasks into Todoist for the time of year they need to be done. I also made sure to space the tasks out, so I didn't get an overwhelming rush of tasks to be done that I'd be less likely to follow through with.

The result: every few weeks or so, Todoist tells me that it's time to replace the furnace filter or test the gas shutoff valve. Taken one at a time in a way I don't have to remember, the process becomes easier.

A screenshot from Micah

Again: you should design a system that works for you. If you don't use a to-do list, set this up in your calendar app or paper day planner. The specific system doesn't matter—just design a system. You don't want this floating around in your head, stressing you out.

Small changes add up, so start there

Small changes lower the barrier to getting started, and if you make them small enough, you're more likely to be ashamed of not taking that minimal effort to do them. This means you're more likely to actually change—and you'll tax your willpower less in the process.

A great example of this is physical fitness. It's so tempting to want to give your body a makeover and dive headlong into workout programs that have you working out 10-15 hours per week. That inevitably leads to friction, particularly if your body and schedule are used to a workout schedule in the zero-hours-per-week range.

Personally, I started by adding a 20-minute treadmill session in the morning. It was a short enough time commitment that I could do it consistently before work, and since we already had the treadmill, there were fewer potential obstacles than running outside (weather) or joining a gym (money, travel time, self-consciousness.)

Again, this is just one example. But try to think of small improvements you can make every day, instead of trying to change everything all at once.

Incremental changes over time

Once you have a system for accountability and have gotten started with small changes, you can scale them up to improve results over time. Conventional wisdom suggests that it takes around three weeks for a daily habit to stick, but give yourself more time than that—it's ok to be conservative if you want to make sure these habits will stick. Then, when you're ready, scale those habits up. These changes should take you in the direction of your goals but not be so significant that you have to fight yourself to stay on course.

For example, I took this approach with my diet. I had previously set up an accountability system around counting calories, which gave me the structure of improving my eating without excess restrictions that make sticking with the program more difficult. With that habit established, I started reworking my meals to be incrementally healthier. Going from eating cheeseburgers to salads is a shock to the system, but making slightly healthier choices over time made it easy to stick with and keep the momentum of my habit going. You can apply this kind of thinking to any change you want to make.

Protect your willpower

Life isn't lived out in a to-do list or a calendar agenda—there are going to be times where we hit snags. When that happens, our goal should be to take action to protect our willpower and cognitive energy for being able to make good choices now and in the future, even if that action isn't what you first expect.

For example, if I wake up tired or have a particularly busy day in front of me, it can be tempting to skip my treadmill time in the morning. There's a logic to cutting down my obligations so I can make it through the day under less-than-perfect circumstances. The catch here is that the treadmill time isn't only an item on my to-do list—by working out, I'm getting all the physical and mental benefits of exercise. Skipping my run means I'm actually making it harder to get through a busy day. So I try to keep this in mind and arrange my time so that these choices aren't necessary. That might mean making changes to lower the busyness of the day, or adding a reminder to get to bed at a reasonable hour so I don't wake up tired.

Ultimately, making a change and developing a habit is a very personal exercise. Some folks love to live out of their email inbox or calendar, while others use beautifully written bullet journals to know what's going on in their world and what needs to be done. The framework here can be adapted to any tool or method of keeping up with tasks, and as long as you start with small changes and protect your willpower as they increase over time, you have better odds of creating a lasting change.

Photo by Tom Vanderheyden on Unsplash.

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