It’s a wonderful idea to try to find a set of systems and principles that “work better” for big swaths of your life. Better habits, better mental tendencies, better methods of inquiry, and so on. We’re strong advocates of this approach, believing that good thinking and good decision making can be learned the same as a good golf swing can: Through practice and instruction.
So, read the below with this caveat in mind: Constant learning and self-improvement can and must be done for great life results.
Now, with that out of the way.
Progress Requires Effort
The problem with the search for self-improvement methods, including the kind of multidisciplinary thinking we espouse, is that many, perhaps most of them, are a snare and a delusion for most people. And there’s a simple reason why: They won’t actually do it.
Think about it. Isn’t that the most common result? That you don’t do it? For example, we heard from many people after we wrote a piece late last year on Reading 25 Pages a Day, a little practice that we think would benefit almost anyone in creating a very desirable reading habit.
What we suspect, though, is that even of the subset of people who felt so strongly about the idea that they contacted us, only a minority of them followed through and maintained to the habit to this day, ten months later.
The Failure to Implement Habits
Why is that? A huge part of it is Homeostasis: The basic self-regulating feedback loops that keep us repeating the same habits over and over. Predictable forces that keep us from changing ourselves, just as some forces keep us from changing organizations. (Or any self-regulating system.)
The failure to follow new systems and habits (mental or physical) follows this basic formula:
- A system is proposed which makes the adherent think that they can live life a healthy life “without eating any broccoli.” (Whether intended by the author or not.) You see this over and over: Money-making schemes, exercise-habit formation routines, 4-hour workweek promises, new cultural principles for businesses, and so on. Promises that lead people to think “healthy eating with no broccoli,” so to speak. An easy fix.
- Potential adherent to the “broccoli-free” system buys into the paradigm, and starts giving it a try.
- Potential adherent realizes very quickly that either (A) The broccoli must, indeed, be eaten, or (B) The system does not work.
Do the Work
Now, with regards to the 25-pages a day “system” we outlined, we were careful not to make a “no broccoli” promise: All we said was that reading 25 pages per day was a habit that almost anyone could form and that it would lead them far. But you still have to do all the reading. You have to actually do the thing. That’s the part where everyone falls away.
We suspect that some people thought it would be easy to read 25 pages per day. That the pages would essentially “read themselves,” or that the time to do so would spontaneously free up, just because they starting wanting it. This is never, ever the case. At some point, to be healthy, you do need to suck it up and eat some broccoli! And for many days in a row. Or, more to the point: The “failure point” with any new system; any method of improvement; any proposed solution to a life problem or an organization problem, is when the homeostatic regulation kicks in, when we realize some part of it will be hard, new, or unnatural.
Even a really well-designed system can only cut up the broccoli into little pieces and sneak it into your mac-and-cheese. A popular example would be a fitness system whereby you do one pushup a day, then two pushups on the second day, then three the third day, and so on. It makes the habit digestible at first, as you get used to it. This is plenty smart.
But eventually, if you’re going to hang on to that habit, you’ll have to do a whole lot of pushups every day! You can’t just go back to plain mac-and-cheese, no broccoli. When the newness of the “one day at a time” system wears off, you’ll be left with a heaping portion of broccoli. Will you continue eating it?
There is no free lunch. When you’re evaluating a proposed improvement to your life or to your organization, you must figure out when and where the broccoli will get eaten, and understand that you will have to sacrifice something (even if it’s just comfort) to get what you want. And if anyone ever promises you “no broccoli,” it’s a sham.
The willingness to pay the price is what separates people into two groups. On one hand, you have the people who want to want something and won’t do anything hard to get it. These people are passive — life is always happening to them … stuff is never perfect … there is always something getting in the way. Soon enough they’ll trade today’s want for a new one, momentarily distracting themselves from their lack of progress. But nothing will ever change for these people. They’ll never put in the work needed to make progress because they’re not willing to pay the price or they’re scared of failing. On the other hand, the second group is willing to do the work. They don’t make excuses. They don’t wait for perfection. They put their head down and get better every day. While they sometimes come up short, they get up and try again.
Which group do you think is more likely to succeed? Which group do you think is happier? Which group do you want to be a part of?
Remember that anything really worth doing is probably hard work, and will absolutely require you to do things you don’t currently do, which will feel uncomfortable for a while. This is a “hard truth” we must all face. If it was easy, everyone would already be doing it.
Let’s take the example of learning how to give better feedback. What could be a more useful skill? But actually doing so, actually following through with the idea, is not at all easy. You have to overcome your natural impulse to criticize. You have to get over your natural ego. You have to be very careful to watch your words, trying to decipher what will be heard when you deliver feedback. All of these are hard things to do, all of them unnatural. All will require some re-doubling to accomplish.
Thus, most people won’t actually do it. This an Iron Rule of life: Biological systems tend towards what is comfortable. (Yes, human beings are “biological systems”.)
But this Iron Rule is a problem and an opportunity wrapped together. As the saying goes, “If you do what everyone else does, you’ll get what everyone else gets.” If you can recognize that all things worth doing are hard at first, and that there is always some broccoli to be eaten, you are part of the way toward true advantageous differentiation. The rest is self-discipline.
We “go back” on our habits when they aren’t truly formed yet. We think we’re there, but we’re really not — we’ve just been fooled by our sensory apparatus.
And the real and comforting truth is that you might really start liking, and even get used to eating, broccoli. Eating potato chips and candy will eventually feel like the uncomfortable and unnatural thing.
And that’s when you know you’ve really got a great new discipline: Going back would feel like cutting off your hands.