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How do you build resilient personal systems?

by Raj Thimmiah1 min read25th Jan 202110 comments

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From new years onwards I've been on a wonderful productivity streak. I'm using the most hours of the day I ever have and it's great. 

While it's still going well though, I want to figure out how to make my systems more resilient. I started reading Unsong this past Saturday and I lost a night and a day and for the first time thus far this year I failed my daily habits. I don't think it's a terrible thing but I'm nervous about failures happening again leading to downard spirals of further failures. 

Does anyone have suggestions?

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3 Answers

Great question!

A few thoughts on this:

  1. In general, I like to use the stages of change model when trying to make a change. The research basically says that if people try to change when they're ready to change, they'll do it the first time, but if they try to change before they're ready, it will take multiple attempts.

For this reason, I try not to set action-based new years resolution (it'd be really suspicious if all the changes I wanted to make suddenly moved into the "Action" stage on the 1st). Instead, I'll do something like a "Theme" for the year (this year it's "Full contact with reality" and then take stage appropriate actions for that theme (thinking and reading during contemplation, planning during preparation, creating habits during action, etc.)

  1. MurphyJitsu is a great tool to use here. There's a bunch of good exanations on LW, but the basic tool is to imagine you failed, ask yourself why, then patch your approach until it's very surprising that you failed.

  2. Learning to forgive yourself is HUGE here. Research says that people who forgive themselves for procrastinating are less likely to procrastinate in the future, and I'm pretty sure this generalizes. Expect adjustments and forgive yourself for needing to make them.

  3. If you're continually finding yourself with systems that don't stick, IME it's likely that you're fundamentally motivating yourself in a coercive way. You may want to read this post and sequence to begin to reorient your motivation system to a more sustainable strategy: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/ga8g4RbKc6DmqEBwD/why-productivity-systems-don-t-stick

In general, I like to use the stages of change model when trying to make a change. The research basically says that if people try to change when they're ready to change, they'll do it the first time, but if they try to change before they're ready, it will take multiple attempts.

Oh MAN this makes too much sense. The stuff that's working now, I've tried for like a year plus with incomplete success but now it's just working, without having to apply extra effort. Could you give a source for this?

Learning to forgive yourself is HUGE here. Research says that peo

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2Matt Goldenberg4moThe original book on the Transtheoretical model is still my go to resource for this, It's called "Changing for Good" by James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente. However it's quite a commonly used model especially in the treatment of addiction, and there's plenty of info online including wikipedia, probably webmd, etc. Forgiveness and procrastination: This study from Wohl et al: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886910000474 [https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886910000474] That plan bot is cool but the week time frame seems like an odd choice. For many habits like new years resolution I find it takes them longer to fail then a week, So I'd recommend mentally replacing that with something like 6 months.

Didn't realize you were the author of that post, read it a few days ago!

So what do all 5 of these oscillation patterns have in common? A lack of congruency. The tendency to ignore some needs in order to focus on others. A sense of inner conflict, instead of alignment.

In each and every case, the solution involves welcoming and acknowledging all parts of yourself, before plotting a way forward. Transitioning from forcing yourself to choosing what you want to do.

Honestly, I could do another 100 tweets on what this looks like in each case. The delicate dance o

... (read more)

I've found it important to define habits as "daily-ish" unless there's an extremely good reason to Never Miss a Single Day *. That way you don't fall into the trap of the broken chain model where a single missed day dooms the whole project. You haven't failed if you start again. "Daily-ish" doesn't give license to just ignore the habit or make excuses, of course, but when you (inevitably) miss a day, it gives you just enough slack that you don't get fully derailed.

  • Hint: there almost never is. Exceptions being, like, life saving maintenance medications or something. Unless somebody's gonna die, a miss is basically inconsequential in the long run as long as you get back on the habit as soon as you notice you've fallen off.

I agree that generally a single miss is alright as long as I get back on track. I'm mainly just worried though about exactly that: how do I make sure I actually start again? Or at least reflect and iterate on whatever system failed?

Right now, I'm generally okay, I'm alright with a miss or two (did nothing over weekend because of Unsong but have been fine today) but I'm thinking more about long-term future me

1kithpendragon4moHmm... There's a lot to consider here. Let me take a bit of a scatter-shot approach and we can drill down on anything that sticks. Perhaps the wide-angle view of your organizational ecosystem may be at issue? What systems are you using, and how do they support your habits? What tools are you using and how do they support your systems? How do you remember what you need to do in the first place? ETA("Refining the thesis after some more thought") { Adding a habit to your routine works better when there are clear systems and goals to hang the new task(s) on, and when there are established tools and methods to trigger the habit. You'll never do something if you don't have a clear idea why you're doing it, or if you haven't made a niche for that thing in your existing systems. } Some other questions you might ask yourself: * When do I need/want to be productive and why? * Don't forget to schedule in some time to slack! This gives you a chance to relax, and can act as a bit of a buffer if you bite off too much work for a time period. * How will I decide what is the next thing to do? * Are you going to do the hardest thing first? The longest? Do you need to do a few easy things to sort of build up momentum? * What will I do when I fail or miss? * Missing isn't something to be worried about, it's something to plan for. How you deal with failure determines how you go forward! It's important to look at what tool or system was involved and see if you can make a change that prevents that miss from happening again. * What will I do when I succeed, and how will I know that happened? * Lacking a concrete definition of success can kill any project. Drill down on any ambiguous thoughts/statements until you can say "This here is when I will know I've won!" Is anything in there looking in the right direction? Maybe I'm way off base?

I am not very productive person, so take the following with a grain of salt:

If you fail, get up and keep going. Saying "I must do this 100% correctly, otherwise it is meaningless" is just setting yourself to fail... because sooner or later some random event will interrupt your progress... but it doesn't matter if you just lose one day and then continue with the original plan; assuming you actually continue (instead of "just one day" becoming your every day). In long term, perseverance wins.

Perhaps the proper way to think about this is that if you keep following your plans for ten days, and then fail on one day, those ten days still did something useful, and they also helped to establish a habit... not perfectly, but better than when you started from zero. That is, instead of feeling disappointed, you should focus on the fact that the second start will probably be easier than the first one (unless you needlessly make it difficult for yourself by overly focusing on the failure).

If you want to have multiple good habits, it is probably easier to introduce them separately, not all at the same time. (Exception: unless they are connected. For example, if one habit is "cooking at home, instead of eating at restaurants", and another habit is "eating healthy meals instead of junk food", getting both with one change is easier than making two separate changes.)

Sometimes, maybe your original decision was imbalanced and needs revision. Do you want to give up reading forever? If not, did you leave enough space for reading in your schedule? Reading at night is a bad habit, but having an "unproductive" day once in a while is necessary to recharge your batteries.

The "downward spirals of further failures" are a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you fear them so much that you never allow yourself a break, and then you burn out. You need to find a sustainable pace. And that pace may increase in the future... gradually. For now, focus on the fact that your average day in 2021 is quite productive, and that whatever you did once, you can do again.

Perhaps the proper way to think about this is that if you keep following your plans for ten days, and then fail on one day, those ten days still did something useful, and they also helped to establish a habit... not perfectly, but better than when you started from zero. That is, instead of feeling disappointed, you should focus on the fact that the second start will probably be easier than the first one (unless you needlessly make it difficult for yourself by overly focusing on the failure).

Huh. I forgot this. Over time, I internalized the opposite: if I k... (read more)

3Viliam3moAh, is that because when you start the habit for the first time, it's like "there is a chance that this is the One Weird Trick what will completely change my life forever", and when you start it again, you already know it doesn't work reliably... which discourages you from trying? Well, yeah, it's true. But also, if the first attempt resulted in e.g. 30 productive days, followed by a failure, then when you make the second attempt, you should not only expect another failure, but also another sequence of 30 (probably more, as you noticed) productive days. Which makes it worth trying!