On Systems - Living a life of zero willpower

by Neel Nanda19 min read16th Aug 202010 comments

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(This post is about the mindset of thinking in systems and routines. This post is mostly from my perspective, but the technique is super subjective. I’ve written up a lesson plan more aimed more at teaching the tools for how to find systems for your problems)

Introduction

This is a post about systems and willpower. Willpower is a pretty fuzzy concept, for the purposes of this post I will define it as “that which is expended when I get myself to do something that isn’t the default action”. I find thinking in terms of willpower a key lens for examining my life, because I consider myself to be a person with unusually low willpower (at least, relative to my social circle of bullshit high-achievers). And this is really, really bad, because willpower is the obvious tool for taking the actions I want to take to achieve my goals. This post is my attempt to outline my various tools and hacks for getting around this, and taking the actions I care about anyway.

The key underlying idea here is that willpower is a limited resource. Every time I need to do something a bit unpleasant, every time I need to make a decision, I expend a bit of willpower. And when I run out of willpower, I just feel super tired, everything feels like it would take far too much energy, and it’s easy to fall into un-fun spirals of procrastination. This is especially bad, because these spirals of procrastination aren’t fun. There are “unproductive” things I can do that rejuvenate me, like going for a walk, meditating or reading a good book. But when I have zero willpower, I tend to do far less rejuvenating things, like scrolling endlessly through Reddit. It’s not that I’m torn between productivity and relaxation - it’s easy to fall into the trap of getting neither. So figuring out how to solve this is one of my key bottlenecks. And if you relate to the descriptions so far, I hope these tools can be useful to you too!

It’s easy to slip into guilt/self-hate about this kind of thing, and seeing it as a personal weakness. But this is obviously dumb. Guilt is a mental mechanism that prompts me to choose to take actions by spending willpower on them. Guilt is an awful solution to lacking willpower. Guilt lives in my mind, while my goals live in the world - if guilt does not help me achieve my goals, guilt is a dumb emotion. I find the framing of willpower as a finite resource far more fruitful. It would be dumb to feel guilty about lacking time to achieve all of my goals - I need to either be more efficient about how I spend my time, or have fewer goals. And exactly the same logic applies to willpower - it’s a more abstract and less objective resource, but a finite resource nonetheless.

And my main tool here are systems. I define a system as anything I can set up in advance, that lets me take actions in future while spending less willpower. It’s easy to fall into the trap of just pushing the Try Harder button - essentially assuming willpower is limitless and I can just try harder next time. Systems are a way to short-circuit this failure mode, zooming out and ensuring that I am deliberate, and focus on the desired actions rather than the mental state behind them.

Thinking in Systems

People often conflate systems and routines, but for me this is a much broader idea. Some important categories:

  • Routines
    • Time based: morning, evening, etc
    • Location/context based: what to do upon getting into work, a lecture
  • Algorithms
    • Checklists
    • Policies - eg having a clear plan for exactly what to do when I am too tired to focus while working
  • Automation
    • Eg Calendars, reminders, spreadsheets, etc
  • Triage - prioritising things, quitting things, managing commitments well
    • This does seem like a central example of a system, but often quitting something unnecessary can be the best way to free up time and willpower

The underlying point here is that systemisation is a mindset, not an algorithm. It’s the perspective of looking at your life, noticing the parts that are inefficient, or require willpower, or just never get done

Some tips for finding a starting point - a thing that needs systematising:

  • Think about the abstract resources in your life. For me, the biggest and most important resource is willpower, but this is pretty subjective. For you it might be money, energy, time, health, focused time, mental energy, social energy, etc. Look for the biggest bottleneck, look for the places you spend that resource the most, and think about how you could systematise it
  • Look for inefficiency. Spend the next 24 hours going through your life mindfully. Notice the things that feel off, the things that feel like “there must be a better way”, and see if you can make a system that improves this
    • Underlying point - it’s easy to miss the trivial inconveniences in our lives, but these add up substantially. A minute of wasted time a day is 6 hours of wasted time over a year. If there’s a small annoyance that’s easy to fix, fix it!
  • Managing attention - look for things you always forget, or struggle to remember. Keeping something in the back of your mind consumes attention and willpower. And see if you can find ways to still get the important ones done, without consuming as much attention
    • Routines and to-do list systems are valuable for this. Eg, I accumulate a bunch of tiny, boring tasks over time. Non-urgent emails to respond to, things I want to buy, messages I need to respond to, etc. These all consume a bit of my attention. My solution is to keep a to-do list in Trello, and every Saturday afternoon to priority order it and do as much as I can - these tasks stop consuming my attention, but still get done!

There are some underlying points to always bear in mind with systems:

  • Minimise decision points - the main thing that consumes willpower isn’t the process of doing a task, it’s deciding to do the task in the first place. My goal is to get shit done, not to decide to get shit done, so there’s room to optimise!
    • Minimise switching costs
    • Batch up similar tasks
    • Automation does this extremely well
  • Shape the default - the ideal situation is for doing the right action to feel like the default, so it takes no willpower
  • Beware trivial inconveniences - I find it useful to think of decisions in terms of activation energy, the amount of perceived effort required to do it. This is what I spend willpower on.
    • Thus tiny inconveniences are a big deal, because they feel big, and thus is takes willpower to overcome them. My goal is to minimise willpower required, not actual effort required
    • Eg, My room is 20 seconds walk from a tap. This means I’m frequently dehydrated, because getting more water is a trivial inconvenience. This was completely solved by getting myself a large water jug
    • This can also be powerful by creating trivial inconveniences. It’s a minor pain to circumvent blocking software, but it’s a trivial inconvenience, so I often don’t do it.

And a good system should be:

  • Robust and reliable - something that will work when I want it to, with a minimal amount of active maintenance
    • Minimising decision points is key! Eg, don’t “go to the gym once a week”, “go to the gym at 10am every Sunday morning”
    • Note: Some systems can’t be perfectly reliable. Very rough rule of thumb: A robust system > a weak system > no system at all
  • Efficient - something that actually reduces the effort required to achieve an action

A good slogan to bear in mind: “my goal is to live a life with zero willpower”. This is pretty idealised, impossible in practice, and not obviously desirable in practice. But I find thinking of this as my goal tends to motivate me in the right direction when building systems. If a system requires me to put in a lot of effort by design, I should reconsider. Eg, if every assignment I get requires me to force an all-nighter, I am being an idiot and squandering willpower (and sleep!).

Then, implement your systems! This is the step that I (and everybody else) always forgets - it’s not enough to have a clever idea for solving a problem in your life, it will take some effort to ensure it feels like the default. This doesn’t feel as rewarding, but is key.

And finally, review and iterate your systems. Building a good system is hard, and takes time and effort. It’s unlikely to work perfectly the first time, no matter how hard you try. Once you’ve had the system for a week or two, take some time to review it, notice weak points, and either fix it or discard it.

Conveniently, these can both be systematised! I maintain a list of “to-implement” and “to-review” system ideas, and empty out that list every Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons (respectively).

I have a rough algorithm to ensure I go through this all:

  1. Find a problem
  2. Explore the problem - think through examples and hypotheticals, do a mindful walkthrough a hypothetical solution
  3. Make a plan! Strive to be effortless and reliable.
  4. Reality Check: go through the plan and make it robust. My main technique: Imagine a world where it has broken and try to explain what happened
    1. It’s good to separate making a rough plan and making a robust plan, otherwise it’s easy to agonise over details and get nothing done
  5. Implement! It’s so easy to forget this step. I recommend setting a 5 minute timer, and getting started on the implementation immediately.
  6. Actually use the system in practice for a while
  7. Review!

In practice, the algorithm is a high-effort guideline. It’s useful to do it to build the right skills and intuitions, but in practice I’ll often skip some steps (but never skip the implementation step!). If this mindset doesn’t come naturally to you, I highly recommend following it!

In practice, the mental habits this algorithm has helped me to build are:

  • Notice when I have a resource bottleneck, and do something about it
  • Notice when something is inefficient in my life, and try to fix it - in practice this has become a pretty visceral “ew” reaction
  • Notice the drains on my attention and willpower, and ask myself “is this really necessary?”
  • Notice when I’m pressing the Try Harder button, and ask myself “is there a clever hack around this?” (spoilers: the answer is usually yes) - eg when I feel guilty for forgetting something
  • Notice when I have a clever idea for a solution to a problem, but am not doing anything about it, and pivot into actually implementing things!

Personal examples

One of the unexpected benefits of COVID + social distancing, is that I’ve had a lot more control over my life and my routine than normal the last 3 months. So I’ve been experimenting with systematising as much of my life as is humanly possible. This has gone slightly too far, but I think I’ve learned a lot of useful habits that I intend to keep! Systematisation is a pretty applied mindset, and it’s extremely useful to see examples, so I’m now going to outline all of the important systems I’ve currently built up, and hope this provides some useful inspiration!

General warning notes:

  • This is pretty experimental, and something I’m constantly tweaking
  • There’s a bit of a trade-off between minimising willpower and spontaneity. I’ve found that spontaneity isn’t that useful to me, and I’m a lot happier trading off towards minimising willpower, but your mileage may vary
    • Though note: this trade-off is much less stark than most people think it is. Often a good system is done by my outer optimiser, while seeking spontaneity is done by my inner optimiser
      • Eg, I’m working at specific times, but the details of how I get work done are totally free
      • Eg, I set out times for having breaks, and do whatever I think is most rejuvenating in these times
      • Or, even, have an explicit system to ensure I seek out spontaneity, rather than perpetually getting caught up in short-term busywork!
  • My systems vary with regards to “try to be as robust as possible” and “I can change this if I think it’s a good idea, but it should feel like the default”

My day:

  • Morning routine
    • Have an alarm for the same time every day - this seems to notably improve my sleep
    • Take medication first thing - I keep this next to the window, so it’s the first thing I see when I open the curtains
    • I have 10 minutes for doing other things I want to do first thing
      • Check my calendar for what I’m doing, and message every person I’m having a call with to confirm
      • Complice for planning my day (this reduces decision load for what to do at each point, and practices the skill of “estimate what I can feasibly do in a day”)
      • Track the previous day in my habits spreadsheet - this is a useful way to remind myself of habits I’m forgetting about, and to track which ones aren’t working
        • This serves as a good scaffold system, that makes it easier to add new habits
      • To help this stick, I use Freedom to block distracting websites for the 10 minutes
    • Then my laptop automatically locks with Cold Turkey - this removes the willpower required to get up and go to the bathroom
    • Then I spend 15 minutes doing Anki while brushing my teeth etc - Lock Me Out sets my phone to only be able to do Anki
  • Morning work
    • I work in 50 minute pomodoros - this is a good “unit of work” to think in terms of, and a time period I can mostly focus for
      • I fill out a quick form at the start and end predicting what I’ll do, and calibrating what I did - this improves my standards for what I can realistically do in 50 minutes. By default my standards are way too high, and this increases my net satisfaction
        • Google forms are an awesome way to set up a system - it’s like a more modular checklist, that stores all of my answers to review later, and makes “do things the right way” take minimal decision making
    • I use Focusmate to arrange several 50 minute co-working calls with strangers (both people working on their work independently, while muted)
      • This makes “work at the right time” feel like the default, and minimises willpower required - if I don’t show up, I know they’ll struggle to focus, so it feels like the default action
      • This is a strongly “your mileage may vary” system, but I estimate it’s made me >20% more productive over the last few months - it significantly reduces my amount of wasted time
    • I set my phone to lock for 10 minutes in each pomodoro break, and a watch alarm to remind me to go outside and eg read, meditate or lie down - I am bad at taking rejuvenating breaks by default
    • I try to keep the first half for my highest priority project, and the second half for a side project (currently blogging, because this takes too damn long…) - I find it much more fun to have several projects on the go at once, and this achieves that without needing to directly prioritise
  • I try to have a call over lunch - Calendly makes it easy to schedule things during that hour, and I’m pretty extroverted so I find this energising
  • I set my phone and laptop to lock for half an hour after that, to get me to take a “no screen time” break, eg reading, going for a walk, doing some chores
  • Afternoon work - similar to the morning
    • I try to keep 2 hours of this for various meta habits
  • Evening
    • Try to mostly fill this with calls - it’s by far my favourite + most energising way to spend leisure time, and uses a pretty different energy pool from “focus on work”
      • Calendly makes scheduling this effortless!
  • Night
    • Take some melatonin (this is not medical advice, and if you take medical advice from me, you’re an idiot. But I think it’s worth looking into!)
    • I have my phone + laptop lock an hour before my bedtime, I try to go for an evening walk for the first half hour, and read a physical book for the second half hour
      • Strong recommend for using this time to read something! (Kindles with no backlight are also good). I’ve found it super satisfying to start working through my “To be read” list, and this makes keeping to good sleep hygiene much more motivating
    • My lightbulb automatically gets redder and dimmer for this half hour, goes very dim for 2 minutes, then turns off. This gets me in a good sleep mindset, and makes “go to bed at the right time” feel like the default - turning it back on is a trivial inconvenience!

Other systems:

  • Social
    • I have a spreadsheet keeping track of when I last spoke to friends, and reminding me when to next check in/schedule a call
      • This was such a good idea - it’s really easy to forget people exist when I’m not seeing them in real life, and this rectifies that without consuming mental energy
      • With a robust system, this also ensures I keep in touch with less close friends, who I eg want to check in on once every few months
    • To schedule something, I just send a pre-written message + a Calendly link - this makes keeping in touch incredibly low effort
      • Calendly is wonderful, because it ensures scheduling functions with 0 input from me, and people can reschedule, cancel, choose their favourite time etc. I find scheduling is a major drain of willpower, because it involves a lot of back-and-forth, people being slow at responding, being busy etc.
    • Some people find this overly cold - my personal view is that this means I see my friends much more, without being a drain on me, and this obviously outweighs every other factor.
    • I find this is a good solution to the problem of social initiative - empirically most people will not easily remember “I haven’t spoken to Neel in a while, I should reach out”, so having robust systems to do this myself ensures I stay in close touch with all of my friends
  • Calendar
    • Having a digital calendar was an amazing decision - this means I’m organised and remember all of my commitments, so long as I can stick to the habit of “put all events into my calendar” and “check my calendar several times a day”. These took a bit of effort to build, but have majorly paid dividends
    • This integrates nicely with Calendly!
  • To-do list
    • I am a big fan of Trello - it’s a to-do list which lets me add things very easily (eg CTRL+ALT+SPACE -> type the note -> enter will create a new item, no matter what window I’m currently in)
      • I find it valuable to have a queue of “things to do” rather than reminders - I have busy weeks and quiet weeks. This ensures that if a system breaks during a busy week, I can pick it back up again in a quiet week
  • Meta
    • I do a weekly review once a week - I review how the week went, productivity + social, and plan the next week
      • Nice habits I’ve added:
        • Noting down everyone I feel grateful to, and messaging them why
        • Noticing unpleasant interactions, and brainstorming what was bad and how I can improve this next time
        • Writing down my current biggest bottleneck
        • Writing down an awesome success this week
      • The form I use for this, if you're curious
    • Afternoons of Whimsy: I have a free afternoon each week to forget all external obligations and goals and do “whatever I find most intrinsically exciting” - I think following intrinsic curiosity is a valuable skill that I suck at, and explicit practice is helpful with this
    • I have 2 afternoons a week for debugging - thinking through problems in my life, designing and implementing solutions, and reviewing solutions
      • I track all of this in a Trello board, this ensures I remember to implement + review things, and keep track of old thoughts
    • Experimental: I have an afternoon a week for thinking through my high-level goals (I doubt I’ll keep this long-term, but it’s been interesting for the past three weeks)
  • Life admin
    • I keep an afternoon a week for doing all the tiny, boring administrative tasks that accumulate - this gets stuff done, and is minimal energy, because most of the cost of these is switching costs. I have a reflex to add them to Trello, and then can forget about them

Conclusion

I’ve found thinking in systems one of the most valuable life skills I’ve ever developed for getting shit done, and compensating for my general lack of willpower. Hopefully at least one of those systems resonated with you! (And you don’t think I’m too weird). If anything seemed interesting, or any of the ideas in this post have inspired you, remember - the default state of the world is that you will forget to implement things. Are you surprised if you never act on the ideas in this post? And can you do anything right now to change the default so that you do?

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  • Policies - eg what [?] do when I am too tired to focus while working

The main issue with these kind of routines, in my experience, is that they are very rigid and breaking them is hard.

A lot of things (hard and difficult things that make life worth living) involve breaking routines, be it starting a company/ngo, having kids, doing ground-breaking research or even just traveling (including e.g. difficult hikes to remote places or visiting weird cities, towns and villages half a world away).

So to some extent these kind of routines work if you want to get to an "ok" place and have an overall stable life outside of e.g. health issues, but seem to put you in a bad spot if you want to do anything else.

Of course, not everything here is routine-focused advice, but a lot of it seems to be, so I just wanted to give this perspective on that particular topic.

descriptions of systems that have evolved over time can sound very complicated when imagined as tracked explicit systems.

Hmm, that doesn't feel like a significant concern to me. I see the point of a routine as making the small, everyday things go well. Eg, in the moment I want to stay up late reading and mess up my sleep, and a routine ensures I don't. While all of the concerns you've raised feel about big, life-altering things. And it seems like it's both completely fine and easy to break routines to do something big and important, and that it's also entirely possible to do big and important things with a consistent daily routine? Eg, if your routine has 8 hours of "do work" in it, you can still freely choose what work means while sticking to the routine.

I'd expect the actual bottleneck on your ability to do big, spontaneous things to be more various life commitments, like job, family, friendships, housing, finances etc.

Maybe there's a psychological barrier to breaking a routine that matters here? Eg keeping to consistent bedtimes makes me warier of spontaneously staying up till 4am because me and my friends want to do something crazy, and that does seem like a cost? My intuition says that kind of thing is fairly minor though, and can be mostly addressed by being willing to deviate from the routine where appropriate

Thanks for these great ideas.

I am quite confused by the concept of willpower, which is, as you put it, "fuzzy". On one side, I encounter a lot of advice like yours, where we are urged to preserve it, like a limited resource. On the other hand, there are other advice out there that supposedly help us increase our willpower, using the same concepts that we increase our physical fitness with. These usually involve doing uncomfortable tasks, like having cold showers or focusing on specific objects.

If I assume willpower works the same way as muscles, creating a very systematic life where one barely needs to use it would weaken it in the long term. Though, it is possible that we are actually overusing so much that using systems actually gives the same kind of rest our body needs after a workout before it could get stronger.

Is there a good reconciliation of the preserve vs. develop willpower debate?

I recently read this Psyche article related to your question. While not an academic paper, they do cite them throughout the article. Here's the text most relevant to the preserve vs. develop willpower debate:

According to a 2017 meta-analysis of many relevant studies, self-control training seems to be effective at improving ‘self-control stamina’ – the ability to exert inhibitory self-control for longer periods.
So, is that the solution to greater self-discipline? Exercise your self-control muscle and get better at inhibitory self-control?
Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. You might have noticed how I switched back and forth between ‘inhibitory self-control’ and the broader concept of ‘self-control’, but the two are not synonymous. Though boosting your inhibitory self-control or ‘willpower’ might sound appealing – perhaps you imagined yourself using inhibitory self-control to force yourself not to eat the cookies, just like you would if you forced yourself to brush with the opposite hand – it’s not clear that inhibitory self-control actually works this way in everyday life.
Take the findings from a 2017 study that involved volunteers recording their daily experiences of temptation for a week. The individuals who experienced more temptation were less likely to achieve their long-term goals, even if they also reported using more inhibitory self-control. This suggests that using inhibitory self-control to resist those cookies might help you in the moment, but not in the long run. So even if you use inhibitory training (eg, the teeth-brushing challenge) to build a brawny self-control muscle, your heroic efforts are likely to leave you looking more like Sisyphus than Hercules.

Hmm, my intuition leans strongly towards preserving willpower over practicing, but that's mostly an intuition formed from personal experience, rather than based in anything robust.

One of the reasons I find thinking in systems super useful is that my willpower is highly variable with time (as a function of mental health, general stress levels, sleep, health, etc). So if I don't have systems then at those times a lot of things in my life break, and I lack the willpower to fix them. So systems don't matter too much during high-willpower times when I could mostly do the right thing anyway, but are basically a way to smooth out that curve, and make low-willpower times much better. And I would be very surprised if practicing using willpower removed those low-willpower periods.

I imagine the case is less obvious if you don't have periods of relatively low willpower?

This post was super helpful to me on a number of points, including:

  • Separating "rejuvenative breaks" from "procrastination spirals"
  • Encouraging me to track "time since last 1:1 with friend"
  • Getting social permission to try sending Calendly links to friends

I do somewhat vacillate between the ideas of "willpower is finite, optimize accordingly" presented here, and "screw it, just follow your obsessions" (see two SSC, two PG essays). It's possible these aren't actually opposed and that setting up systems frees you to dive deeply into your fascinations... but basically, I wonder how much structure the people we idolize enforce in their day. You do have a ton of blog posts which I'm now enjoying, so that is some positive proof!

One point of confusion: Is the "digital calendar" you mentioned like, Google Calendar? Or a physical, dedicated screen that exists just to surface your calendar?

Awesome, really glad you enjoyed it! It sounds like you might find my post on social initiative interesting, where I elaborate a bit on how I think about social systems.

With regards to "optimize willpower" vs "seek obsessions", I think that's a super important question I'm somewhat confused about. I find that for me personally, often things I find genuinely fun, valuable and rewarding still take willpower to start doing, and the mindset I've outlined in this post is really helpful to ensure I actually do those. But I think there's also a skill of noticing in the moment when an obsession comes to mind, and running with it, even if it involves violating some systems. I've tried outlining my thoughts on how to find obsessions, and generally manage intrinsic motivation here.

You might enjoy Lynette Bye's series with various highly-productive EAs on how they manage their productivity systems (IIRC, Owen Cotton-Barratt's stood out as obsession focused, most of them felt systems focused, though there's probably a selection bias towards people with systems being more interested in that kind of interview).

Digital calendar = Google Calendar, and surrounding systems to eg check it every morning and generally having it feel like the default to "always do the thing in my calendar"