On Systems - Living a life of zero willpower

post by Neel Nanda (neel-nanda-1) · 2020-08-16T16:44:13.100Z · LW · GW · 10 comments

This is a link post for https://www.neelnanda.io/blog/mini-blog-post-19-on-systems-living-a-life-of-zero-willpower


  Thinking in Systems
  Personal examples

(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)


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:

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:

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

And a good system should be:

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:

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:

My day:

Other systems:


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?


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Pattern · 2020-08-21T03:28:41.751Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
  • Policies - eg what [?] do when I am too tired to focus while working
comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-08-17T21:44:26.946Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

Replies from: romeostevensit, neel-nanda-1
comment by romeostevensit · 2020-08-18T01:34:58.636Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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

comment by Neel Nanda (neel-nanda-1) · 2020-08-21T06:15:49.350Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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

comment by Richard Horvath · 2020-08-17T20:13:23.971Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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?

Replies from: aram-baghdassarian-1, neel-nanda-1
comment by MarcelloV (aram-baghdassarian-1) · 2020-08-18T21:05:22.447Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.
comment by Neel Nanda (neel-nanda-1) · 2020-08-21T06:36:58.427Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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?

comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) · 2020-08-17T05:31:45.974Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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?

Replies from: neel-nanda-1
comment by Neel Nanda (neel-nanda-1) · 2020-08-21T06:30:54.812Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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"