If there’s one thing that obsesses self-improvement junkies, it’s actually sticking with their regimens. Life hacks abound: Tell your friends about your plan so you’ll be embarrassed if you fail! Make sure you keep an unbroken streak! Charge yourself money if you don’t stick to it! Donate the money to your least favorite charity1 Forget donations, how about electric shocks?
The escalating absurdity should tell you that this problem is unsolved. But in my opinion, that’s because everyone tries to do it wrong. Personally, I’ve found my productivity habits to be extremely long-lived when I make sure they’re literally zero maintenance. That is, when it’s habit time, it requires more willpower to break the habit than to keep going.
The delta between literally-zero-maintenance and not zero is staggeringly large, basically because nobody reliably has willpower.2 Sometimes you’ll need to execute your habit when you’re sleep-deprived, or in the middle of a really good book, or your significant other just broke up with you, or for whatever reason you just can’t be bothered to try. The only thing that can save your habit here, is if the habit is what happens when you can’t be bothered.
Zero maintenance is hard to achieve, but awesome when it works. For instance:
I always wanted to track how I spent my time, but I could never make myself record it diligently enough in any of the time tracking apps or spreadsheets. But then I discovered RescueTime, which I actually found useful (helping me increase my output by 50% at least once) because it’s 100% automatic: fire it up and it tracks every app and website you use with no fiddling. The data RescueTime captures doesn’t perfectly track what I care about, but it’s fully there (and unbiased) every day, which is way more important.
I tried to use various things to block distracting websites, but I always ended up turning them off “for a little bit” to look at something they were blocking and, uh, “forgetting” to turn them back on. Then I switched to Focus. Focus solves this problem by activating and deactivating automatically, on a schedule of your choice (so you don’t need to remember to turn it on), and allowing you a limited number of timed “breaks” during active periods where you can use blocked websites. I’ve been using it for 3+ years and it still effectively saves me from a lot of distractions, forces me to be intentional when I do want to take breaks, and has never made me want to disable it.
I used to have trouble waking up at a consistent time, so I bought lights that would automatically turn on and a coffee machine that could be set to start brewing coffee at a pre-programmed time. This meant that at 8:30am every morning the default action was to wake up instead of keep sleeping. (This is technically not zero maintenance since I still have to prepare the coffee machine at night, but it allows me to offload the maintenance to whenever I’m feeling high-willpower rather than when I have to actually execute the habit.)
I used to have trouble going to bed at a consistent time, so I started dating someone who would pester me if I stayed up too late.3
Each of these systems has lasted 2+ years, because at the moment of execution they require zero action from me to sustain—the default is for me to keep having the habit.
If you can’t achieve literal zero maintenance, it still makes a big difference if the maintenance effort can be batched to high-energy periods. For instance, my wake-up habit required me to prepare my coffee machine the day before, but I could do it any time that day. So instead of needing to have enough willpower when I was waking up, I just needed to have enough willpower at some point in the last 24 hours. If that had been too hard, I could have used a capsule machine and disposable cups, and batched the willpower even more, to just ordering new cups periodically.
Thanks to Alexey Guzey for the email prompting this and Eve Bigaj for reading a draft.
Stickk played up the “anti-charity” angle at the beginning but seems to have dropped it on their current website; instead they default to a bunch of generic uncontroversial ones. (Plus the highly controversial2 Charity Navigator.) ↩︎
Citation needed. ↩︎
Eve tells me she doesn’t consider our bedtime consistent, and also that the pestering is gentle. ↩︎