Self-improvement is not a temporary thing, but a way of living. It’s not some medicine you take only until the sickness goes away and you can return to your, unchanged, usual ways. Self-improvement is all about your usual ways.
Therefore, once you’ve started, it’s always there. In the background of everything you do.
The way I wash, how I dress, what I eat, and when. The music I listen to, the social apps I ignore, the distractions I constantly eliminate — all these changes in my life are a direct result from my decision to try to maximize my output-per-hour ratio.
And every shower I take, every piece of food I (don’t) consume, is a subtle reminder of that.
That makes me proud.
But, sometimes, I can’t help it. I need to break free.
Making life easy
“Fool!” you say. “You’re relying on willpower, and that’s stupid.”
“The fact that I get the impulse to escape, indicates that these self-improvement behaviors are not yet habits”, you explain. “Your adherence to them behaviors still relies on self-discipline. The behavioral change is incomplete, because you acting like you want to still hinges on you having enough discipline to resist the desire to go AWOL.”
Willpower doesn’t work.
Excellent remarks, Bob. However, I believe some reliance on willpower isinevitable, even after one has reached the maximum degree of automation.
Let’s say I’m fully convinced of the fact that willpower is a muscle that tires with use. I know that, the first week committing to a new diet, or a new workout regimen, or a new morning routine, things go great. But by the second or third week, I’ll probably be back to my old late-night, Ben&Jerry’s-loving ways.
Armed with this knowledge and a burning ambition to be my best self, I start living life optimally. I conclude that, to maximize output-per-hour ratio, life should consist in executing predictable sequences of rituals, which are themselves predictable sequences of individual actions.
In this respect, many areas lend themselves to quick fixes. People who deny that — “It just can’t be that easy!” — are uninformed or afraid to take responsibility for their lives. Some examples: Headspace helps us meditate,Runkeeper motivates us to exercise, QualityTimetracks our screen time and various food-track apps monitor our calorie intake. For productivity, start your day ‘unplugged’ with a cold shower and a glass of water, light breakfast, black coffee, and deep work.
“Routine, in the intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.” — W.H. Auden
It’s not a coincidence that Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs all routinized the way they dressed. Seth Godin, similarly, 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.
So now, as I said, all kinds of mundane decisions are predetermined and I don’t have to make them anymore. And everything that’s left — studying and writing — happens according to standardized structures of place, time and method as well.
If I eliminate all choices, the reliance on willpower disappears.
Or does it?
Why it’s not just about swapping willpower for habits
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.
Indeed, inevitably, someday, you’re going to want to linger in bed and take that hot shower. Do all the wrong things. Eat the forbidden fruit.
You’ll get the need to go off schedule.
Importantly, this is different from the idea that willpower doesn’t work. This is the further point that even if you’ve managed to ingrain the desirable behavior as habits, the execution of which is no longer dependent on willpower, you’ll nevertheless experience the urge for a breakout.
So even when you’ve reached that level, there will still be suppression involved. It’s unavoidable.
And that means we have a problem:
“Self-discipline based on self-denial cannot be sustained in the long-run. It only breeds greater dysfunction, and ultimately results in self-destruction.” — Mark Manson
Upgrading newly acquired behavior into automatic routines might do away with self-discipline on the daily level. Yet, willpower never completely leaves the picture.
Why you should have cheat days
Self-improvement based on repression doesn’t hold. You’ll give in eventually.We all fail to reign our impulses sometimes.
If we don’t accommodate this, you’ll break.
And when you do, when you break, you feel that this means there is something wrong with you. You didn’t persist. You were not strong enough to. You were weak. You failed.
And we don’t want to encourage that dialogue now, do we?
The thing is, livable self-improvement must work with your emotions, rather than against them.
So let’s schedule breaks. Let’s plan productivity cheat days.
The idea of cheat days is familiar from dieting. For instance, on Tim Ferriss’slow-carb diet, you may — no, should — throw the rules out of the window and eat everything your tummy craves one day a week.
90 out of 100 people cheat on a diet. Expectations you won’t, are likely to be unrealistic and are the very thing leads to the negative self-talk when you do break the rules eventually.
If you know you’re going to succumb, you can limit the psychological damage by scheduling in advance. This will keep your self-image healthy, because it’s now less likely that you’ll fail your diet or productivity scheme and then beat yourself up (which would only backfire, anyway).
At the same time, this improves your chances of sticking to the behavioral change — whether it’s about eating or productivity doesn’t matter — on the long term. Knowing that you can let loose on Sunday, you’re more likely to adhere to the strict schedule on the other six days.
Don’t cheat days ruin your progress? No. The good program you stick to is better than the perfect program you don’t. There’s no need to make the effective life into a prison sentence.
Let me summarize our road to the conclusion that we need cheat days: willpower is limited and, alas, never becomes completely redundant. Since no one has endless self-discipline, the only way to stick with behavioral change, in the long run, is to give yourself breaks. Because a commitment to efficiency is a lifestyle, not a band-aid fix, such pauses are inevitable for the lifestyle to be durable. Without them, you’ll get fed up with these restrictions on your behavior and, out of frustration, disembark on the self-improvement journey altogether.
That would be a shame.
So your cheat day rolls around and now you’re wondering what letting go of efficiency means.
This is a question you’ll have to answer for yourself, but here are some ideas, drawn from my own cheat days. Recall: it’s not just — or, indeed, necessarily — a day off, the purpose is allowing yourself to do all the things you don’t want yourself to do on the other days.
I was inspired by Ricardo Semler’s (CEO of Semco) practice of scheduling “terminal days”:
“On Mondays and Thursdays I only do what I would do if I had just learned that I have a terminal disease. This forces you to answer for yourself what you really want to do and what really moves you. I find that I’m not left with goals (something measurable to achieve), but with processes that I love and want to do again and again.” — Ricardo Semler on the Tim Ferriss podcast
To begin, I linger in bed. Usually for no longer than 5 minutes because it bores me anyway. I don’t need to get up, though, and can do whatever I want. On normal days I don’t open social apps before the daily hours of deep work are over, but now I’m allowed to begin my day WhatsApping, Facebooking or whatever.
After that, when I’m feeling particularly bold, I’ll even take a nice hot shower instead of a cold one, although I tend to miss the kick I get when the icy water touches my body. The instant wakefulness is great.
Throughout the day, instead of listening to ‘14 Hz Binaural Beats Beta Waves’, I allow my ears to enjoy Dutch radio or my favorite tracks.
I’m completely free as to how I spend my time. I do what I feel like doing.From watching cat movies to extensive cooking to long walks to hanging out with someone ridiculously early: everything is permitted.
What about food? I don’t have desire to eat more than usual, but there are some focus-destroying meal choices, such as a high-carb lunch, that will give me a huge sugar crash later, leaving me unable to concentrate and get in the flow. On productivity cheat days, when I decide to do eat carbs before dinner, I’ll make a point to enjoy the ‘slowness’ it gives me later on. Typically that means I’ll find myself lying on the sofa watching ASMR.
The most important thing is to not hold back. If you’re going to half-ass cheat days, you’ll cheat later in the weak. Why? Because you didn’t scratch that itch.
See cheat days as a reward for six days of hard (mental) labor. You had an effective week, and now you deserve the accolade. Cheat days are necessarypositive reinforcement of the correct behavior — an indispensable ingredient in any behavior change.
Why we need breaks from self-improvement to do it best
The road of self-improvement is long and bumpy, and you’re not obliged to travel it at top speed.
And while eliminating willpower-dependency is great, because its reservoir isn’t endless, a fully automated system threatens to make your journey an all-or-nothing fight against your desires. When you fight your emotions and identify with your output-per-hour ratio, you forget you are not our productivity.
“If we neglect this fact, we lose our sense of distance between who we are and the tools we use to project that self onto the world. Without this distance, life is one big blur, and then we die. Ask any struggling artist, any aspiring entrepreneur, any coping single mom and any ambitious manager. To get past, disengage.” — Niklas Göke, Why We Need Breaks From Tech To Use It Best
Self-improvement shouldn’t be a fight with yourself, but something you do for yourself. Its voice should be that of a caring friend, not that of a commanding tyrant you feel like have to endure shouting down at you for the rest of your existence.
To foster this positive relationship, it’s wise to loosen up one day a week.
It’s the only sustainable way of self-improvement.
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