When I first stumbled upon the systems and habits approach to improvement I started to slowly put in place new tactics to improve. I started small and looked to consistently change certain behaviors.
My focus shifted from effort and quality to consistency and quantity. I made sure to do X every day, even though X wasn’t anything major.
Quickly I started to see benefits. As I continued I was building my self-control. I was growing my ability to stick with something.
I didn’t fully realize it then, but the inability to stick with the necessary actions were the number one reason I kept failing at everything I tried until that point. I would try to do too much and ultimately quit.
Prior to using the systems and habits approach, I would build up the motivation in my mind and push through the workouts. But my old habits inevitably wore me down. After a short stint of work, I fell back to where I was prior to my feeble attempts to get better.
But once I set daily goals that forced me to keep going, I realized that the consistency was building something powerful. Soon it became easier to do the steps than to skip a day.
I was noticing that I felt more self-control in every aspect of life, not just the areas I was working to improve.
In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, the authors reference studies conducted on willpower and self-control. They conclude from these studies that participants improved beyond their initial area of focus. They say, “Exercising self-control in one area seemed to improve all areas of life.”
I experienced this same phenomenon. Suddenly I felt the ability to resist temptation that previously had control over me. It wasn’t some major shift but enough that I noticed.
Then, as I kept going with the systems and habits approach to improvement, I started to realize that the amount that I did kept increasing. After a while (in some cases after years) I would build up the initial actions enough that they were drastically more than my early attempts at trying to maximize everything.
For example, I remember trying to exercise for 30 minutes every day. I couldn’t do it. I would keep up with it for a few days, maybe a couple weeks, and then quit.
But then I changed it. I found an easier exercise and just wanted to do 10 minutes. I didn’t even break a sweat. But I kept up with the 10 minutes per day. After a couple years I would increase that to 15 minutes. Now I regularly do 60-90 minutes every day without even thinking about it. It is so “normal” for me to do that not doing it feels strange.
Building self-control is tricky but can be done. We can keep improving our lives and growing our ability to control our thoughts and behaviors.
Baumeister and Tierney then quote David Blaine in a conversation they had with him about self-control. Blaine says, “That makes sense. You’re building discipline. Now that I think about it, when I’m training for a stunt and I have a goal, I change everything. I have self-control in every aspect of my life. I read all the time. I eat perfectly. I do good things – I visit kids in hospitals and do as much of that as I can. I have a whole different energy. Complete self-control. I eat food based on nutrition. I don’t overindulge. I don’t drink. I don’t waste time, basically.”
This is how you start to grow your self-control and improve in multiple areas at once. By focusing on the systems and habits approach to improvement you can continue to improve one are while seeing that spill over into other areas that will benefit.