Self-Hacking: The One Habit Separates The Successful From The Rest

My flatmates say I live like a robot.

After waking up at my usual time, I take a cold shower and put on my one set of clothes (of which I own multiple copies, of course). What I eat and when I socialize, exercise, do my laundry and my groceries is similarly predetermined. And everything that’s left — studying and writing — happens according to standardized structures of place, time and method as well.

My life consists in executing predictable sequences of rituals, which are themselves predictable sequences of individual actions.

Sounds dreadful?

On the contrary. Routines not only make you more effective but also increase your quality of life.

Willpower

It’s a bummer, but our mental capacities are not unlimited. What’s more, there is only one source of it. That means that every decision we make detracts from the same finite storage of precious thinking power.

Consequently, when we spend more of it on humdrum puzzles, less of it will be available for the important stuff. As willpower research shows: stripping your life of inessential choices increases your performance on matters of significance.

The lesson: eliminate choices as much as possible.

It’s not a coincidence that Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs all decided to routinize the way they dress. Writer Seth Godin, in similar fashion, describes his eating pattern as “another decision I don’t make”.

When multiple highly successful people share an uncommon behavior, we should start paying attention.

This time, it reveals that all the talk of cognitive resources is not just talk. It’s real.

You should direct your energy to the areas in which you make the most difference — to the stuff that really matters as opposed to futilities like what you put in your mouth or on your body.

Living according to routines is a way to accomplish this and to stop wasting your capabilities.

As the writer W.H. Auden (1907–1973) concurred:

“Routine, in the intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.”

Planning your behavior

Schematic existence is easy and hard at the same time.

The effortless part is that it saves your future self from making insignificant decisions.

The difficult part is that your future self might unwisely be tempted to question the guidelines your past self has established.

For example, Sunday-night Maarten might want Monday-morning Maarten to get up at 8:00 AM to be awesome again, whereas Monday-morning Maarten might fail to see the attraction of being awesome because that bed looks so damn comfortable.

In such cases, you need to employ tricks which nowadays go by the name of ‘lifehacks’: consciously designing your environment to ensure that your future self behaves like your present self wants him or her to.

In this scenario, Sunday-night Maarten could decide to ‘hack’ his future behavior by placing his telephone on his drawer and not next to his bed, so that Monday-morning Maarten has to get up to turn off the alarm. As a consequence, staying in bed is no longer an option.

Decision: eliminated

Self: hacked.

Forcing yourself?

“Your only path to success is through a continuum of mundane, unsexy, unexciting, and sometimes difficult daily disciplines compounded over time.” — Darren Hardy

The other day, my Japanese flatmate told me he’d heard of this strategy and confessed to harboring resistance against it because, according to him, it feels like “forcing yourself”. What he meant to say was that removing behavioral possibilities (such as snoozing) from the life of your future self is an undesirable constraint on his or her freedom. One should not coerce his future self into doing something (such getting out of bed) he doesn’t “really” want to.

In reply, let’s look at what actually happens when you implement routines.

First, when living according to pre-designed rituals, one part of you governs another part of you— the part that is capable of being derailed by difficulty or dullness. It is a mistake to conceive of such governance as a hostile power “forcing” you to do something, simply because the ‘commanding authority’ here is you.

Second, it’s simply not true that Monday-morning Maarten “really” wants to continue sleeping. He might think he does, but he doesn’t.

How to live the life you want

Living according to routines means taking long-term decisions that will shape your life like you want it to unfold, instead of succumbing to short-term gratification. By consciously arranging your own behavior, you’ll act like you want yourself to act.

This, in turn, means that your life will be like you designed it to be — like you want it to be.

Monday-morning Maarten also wants to get going, he just forgot about that. He is not being forced to do something against his will, he is being reminded of his true wishes.

Living according to routines means that you cannot do what you might (mistakenly) think you want to do every single second of the day. However, it virtually guarantees that your life will be as you have chosen it to be because your behavior will be aligned with your (true) intentions.

Habits, then, do not imprison you. Rather, the opposite is true. As former United States Navy Seal Jocko Willink reminds us:

Discipline equals freedom.”

How to have a meaningless life

If I would allow myself to be derailed by impulses that draw me away from the goal I’m pursuing and the means I have accordingly instructed myself to take, the distinction between my will and my momentary longings does not exist. If I am my urges, how valuable is my existence on this planet going to be?

When you really want to achieve something, it feels good to “force” yourself. You will start getting a kick out of resisting the seduction of attractive-looking distraction.

On the other hand, not taking your long-term wishes seriously amounts to breaking your commitments to yourself. Every time you make this choice, your feeling of self-mastery will diminish. Choosing temptations over passions is like promising your lover you’ll be faithful until someone else catches your eye.

Instead of living on your own terms, you will be lived.

Take responsibility for your life

Not having to deliberate about when, where and how you’re going to do whatever it is that you need to do, makes you more effective at it. In many areas of life, it pays off to be a person who acts automatically.

In the words of the famous psychologist William James (1842–1910):

“The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.”

By contrast, spending your limited thinking capacity on what to put in your mouth and on your body and on when and where to work, play and exercise is going to minimize the mental resources available for the important stuff and hence will diminish your performance in the relevant areas of life.

By designing your behavior, you can avoid this trap.

Designing your life means being fully accountable for achieving your dreams.

Yes, that’s possible. It is also scary. Often, I suspect that the intuitive resistance people harbor against robot-like behavior comes down to a refusal to take full responsibility for one’s own happiness.

It’s time to stop selling yourself short.


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