A system will always produce the results it was designed to produce. We all have systems – they manifest in our habits: a series of actions that, when repeated, produce consistent and predictable results. The effects of these habits compound, ultimately determining the direction of our lives. Unfortunately, few of us mindfully cultivate these habits, leaving us with a system of destructive behaviours designed to elicit failure. Worse, the poor results produced by such a system become our default, sabotaging any attempt to excel, despite our effort. It is far better, and efficient, then, to internalise a system designed to produce exceptional results. We can create such a system through active reflection and the mindful manipulation of habits.

Active reflection

A life without reflection is directionless, impulsive, and wasted. We’re culturally driven to focus on the future, though fail to reflect on our past actions – the very actions that define our future.
“I will keep constant watch over myself and – most usefully – will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil – that none of us look back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yes our plans for the future depend from the past.” – Seneca, Moral Letters, 83.2
Take a moment to mentally walk through a typical day: from the minute you wake up, to the minute you fall asleep. What actions do you take? What do you do? What thoughts do you have? What do you consume? Consider everything that makes you you. Now think a little deeper. How would your life look if you continued doing these things every day, for the rest of your life? Extrapolate the outcomes – what will the ultimate effect of your actions be if sustained? Do not underestimate the power of compounding returns.

Negative defaults

Identify the defaults you’ve internalised that will sabotage your ambitions. Be ruthless, remember that what may seem trivial in isolation can have a significant impact when compounded over your life. Maybe you snooze the alarm, and lose the time to prepare a healthy breakfast or plan your day. Maybe you indulge in negative self talk, triggering an anxiety that prohibits you from performing at your best. Maybe you take drugs in excess (sugar, alcohol, caffeine, or otherwise), resulting in an inability to maintain consistent focus and high performance. Maybe you fail to follow through, leaving you with a stack of unfinished projects that will never produce a return. Maybe you procrastinate, leaving yourself with a lack of time for what is important to you. Remember, it’s not the impact of the individual occurrence that is important, but rather the result of continuing with your current strategy for the rest of your life.
Destructive habit case study
Whenever Sally is stressed, she buys a sugary, processed bar from a nearby vending machine. This is not a conscious decision, rather an automatic response. Each occurrence feels inconsequential to Sally. After all, it’s only one bar. Yet, as her response has become a habit, the effects of the action cannot be treated in isolation – that is, they compound. An average of two stressful occurrences each weekday leads to the consumption of 10 bars a week, or 520 a year. To extrapolate, if unchanged: Sally will consume 15,300 of these bars over the next 30 years of her working life. That’s a lot of processed garbage her body will be exposed to. This will affect her daily mental performance, slowing her professional progress, and may eventually manifest in the form of disease or organ failure. Further, this habit negatively impacts Sally’s finances. Assuming $3 per bar, she’ll spend $30 a week, or $46,800 on these bars over the next 30 years of her working life. Let’s take this further and consider the opportunity incurred by not investing this money. Depositing $30 each week into an investment fund paying 5% annual interest (compounded monthly) would give Sally with an additional $108,194 when she retires. Isn’t compound interest amazing? It sure beats slowly killing yourself with processed food. Sally has the opportunity to not only eliminate a destructive habit, but also to establish a positive one in its place. She can reprogram herself such that any time she feels stressed, she goes and makes a cup of tea and stands outside in the sun for 5 minutes. Then at the end of each week, she deposits the money she saves by not buying comfort food into her investment account. The net result? A significantly healthier body and bank account, with only a small habitual change – the power of compounding returns.
Positive defaults Now identify the defaults that are helping you progress. Maybe you go for a run each morning, which is helping you improve fitness and relieve stress. Maybe you take useful notes in meetings, which makes you more effective at your job. Maybe you read books that impart important lessons that you act upon. Maybe you eat a big bowl of vegetables for lunch each day, which gives you the energy you need to stay focused all day and hit the gym at night. There are no right answers. Our goals and values and unique – find which actions align with yours.

Habit manipulation

Once you’ve identified your habits, it’s time to get to work. Methodically remove, or replace negative one – those leading you down a destructive path; and solidify the positive ones to amplify their returns. Changing or developing a habit takes willpower until you override your brain’s neural pathways. Eventually, the action will become hardwired and occur automatically. The impact a single positive habit has on your life compounds further when it is stacked with other positive habits, ultimately forming a system guaranteeing high performance. Remember, a system will always produce the results it was designed to produce. With the right system in place, high performance will become the default. This is your goal. We can only expel so much conscious energy and willpower in a day, don’t waste it on what can be habitualised. Save your mental strength for the non-trivial and important decisions – the rest can be automated.

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