Think in Terms of Habits & Systems Rather Than Goals

Effective Goals Can Challenge, Motivate, and Energize

Most folks fail to understand how goals work: goals don’t stipulate behaviors.

Goals relate only to the outcomes and results of specific behaviors—they are not about the actions and behaviors that can bring about those results.

In other words, goals can only provide direction and can even impel you onward in the short-term, but ultimately, a well-designed system—when put into habitual practice—will always prevail.

'The Power of Habit' by Charles Duhigg (ISBN 081298160X) Developing a system is what matters to discipline and self-control. Committing to the process is what makes the difference. As New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg wrote in his bestselling The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2012,) only a systematic approach works:

Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.

An example of a goal: “I want to lose 10 pounds before my sister’s wedding.” A habit/system would be, “What dieting and exercising changes can I make with the aim of looking better at my sister’s wedding?”

Another example of a goal: “How do I amass $1 million before I turn 35?” A habit/system would be, “How do I develop financial disciplines and investment methods to get richer over time and achieve a net worth of $1 million by the time I’m 35?”

Idea for Impact: Only by creating habits and systems to achieve goals can you live more of the life you aspire to. As a creature of habit, when you are doing something that is routine, you don’t need to be deliberately engaged in the task in the same way as if you were doing something that is not habitual.

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

“Opportunity cost is a huge filter in life. If you’ve got two suitors who are really eager to have you and one is way the hell better than the other, you do not have to spend much time with the other. And that’s the way we filter out buying opportunities.”
Charlie Munger, Investor

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

Doing One Thing Makes You Sacrifice the Opportunity to Do Something Else of Value

In economics, opportunity cost is the cost of not choosing the next best alternative for your money, time, or some other resource.

One of the foundational principles in economics is affirmed by the popular American aphorism, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Resources are scarce. When resources (time, money, mindshare, autonomy, and all that) are scarce, selecting one opportunity necessitates forgoing other opportunities.

Life is all about values and priorities. You face trade-offs. Life requires of you to make choices among mutually exclusive alternatives. Every time you select something, you forfeit other alternatives and the concomitant benefits. The cost of something is what you will give up to get it. This is opportunity cost.

You Can Do Anything but Not Everything … What Will You Sacrifice When You Choose One Option Over the Others?

When mulling over multiple choices, the quality of any option cannot be assessed in isolation from its alternatives. The price you pay (or the sacrifice you make, or the benefits you give up) for doing what you’ve chosen to do instead of doing something else is the opportunity cost.

In sum, an opportunity cost is the cost of passing up the opportunities that a different option would have afforded.

Many costs are calculated in terms of money. However, just because you don’t have to spend money to do something does not imply that the options you face are without their costs. For example, you don’t have to spend money to go for a hike or watch a sunset, but there is an opportunity cost there too. You could have used that time to do something else you value—visiting a friend or reading a book, perhaps.

  • If you decide to invest two years and some $100,000 getting an MBA at a brand-name business school, there’s an opportunity cost; it costs you lost wages and all the things you could have pursued during that time and with that money. But you anticipate that getting your MBA will pay off by way of a better job in a better company with a better salary.
  • If you spend your weeklong vacation taking your parents to a beach destination in Florida, there’s the opportunity cost of not going to Paris with your spouse.
  • Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices If you decide to wake up twenty minutes earlier in the mornings to leave home sooner to work and beat the horrendous traffic, there’s the opportunity cost of twenty minutes of extra snoozing.
  • When the refrigerator at home breaks down and needs replacement, you will have to give up buying that latest big-screen TV you’ve been coveting.
  • There’s an opportunity cost to even reading this article at this moment. You could have been watching TV, taking a nap, calling up a friend, or moving on to another article in the time you’re devoting to reading this article.

In a nutshell, even decisions that appear to be no-brainers carry the hidden costs of the options you will decline. Thinking about opportunity costs may not change the decision you make, but it will give you a more rational assessment of the full implications of your decision.

Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices—Big and Small

Opportunity cost is a concept of great magnitude. It is one of those apparently simple concepts in social sciences that are difficult to master and tough to put into consistent practice. Tim Harford, the British author of The Undercover Economist offers a particularly instructive example of appreciating opportunity costs in his Financial Times column:

Consider the following puzzle, a variant of which was set by Paul J Ferraro and Laura O Taylor to economists at a major academic conference back in 2005. Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by a staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga—there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b) £10, (c) £40 or (d) £50.

Answer: Going to see Lady Gaga would cost £40 but you’re willing to pay £50 any time to see her; therefore the net benefit of seeing Gaga is £10. If you use your free Radiohead ticket instead, you’re giving up that benefit, so the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead is £10.

Learn to Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs—The Stakes Become Clearer

Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs You live in a world of scarcity and must therefore make choices. You cannot avoid regret since there are opportunity costs for every choice you will make.

Everything in life is about opportunity costs. Every time you say “yes” to a choice, you are also saying “no” to everything else you may have accomplished with your time, money, and resources.

Opportunity cost is a commanding tool that you should be wise to apply to all decision-making. If you integrate this concept into your thought process, you will not only make judicious choices, but also better understand the world in which you live.

Idea for Impact: Whether you’re choosing graduate school, mulling over switching careers, starting a business, investing your money, buying a car, or frittering away your evening watching TV, considering the value of forgone alternatives will help you make better choices. Make the lens of opportunity costs the underpinning of your decision-making processes.

Book Summary of ‘The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload’

'The Organized Mind' by Daniel Levitin (ISBN 0147516315) In the best-selling The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin argues that the problem with the proliferation of information isn’t as much about the storage of the information as it is about organizing and retrieving that information. The human brain is incredible at storing data; the challenge is summoning up the right stuff at the right time, while not being distracted by the rest.

To be efficacious, we not only need to limit the information we consume (by simplifying, limiting our sources, quitting social media, taking digital Sabbaths, etc.) but also need to develop systems to take the strain off our befuddled brains. To do this, Levitin says, we must organize our personal environments to better channel our brains’ unique approach to doing things.

According to The Organized Mind, the trick to efficiently organize and manage information is to “shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world.” Levitin uses the latest brain science to propose “organization principles”—methods and disciplines to regain a sense of mastery over the way we can organize our time, home, and office.

Organization Principle #1: Conquer information overload

The information age is drowning us with an exceptional deluge of data. Simultaneously, we’re expected to make more decisions quickly than ever before. To survive information overload, Levitin suggests:

  • Be much more discerning at what you allow in. Not all input is worthy of being let in. Exercise control and discipline regarding your input choices. Don’t keep what you can’t use.
  • Develop and put into practice an organization system that works for you: to-do lists, 3×5 cards, etc. Whatever that system is, it needs to offload, classify, and be easy to retrieve. A mislabeled item or misplaced location is worse than an unlabeled item.
  • Organize in all areas and facets of your life. “Too much stuff” is fatiguing, no matter which part of your life has the “too much stuff” problem.

Organization Principle #2: Quit multi-tasking and become fanatical about focused work

Quit Multi-tasking Levitin’s pet hate is multitasking, which he describes as “the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy.” Our brains are not designed for multitasking; he writes, “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

  • Allow no distractions when you are in “focused work mode.”
  • Limit the interruption caused by email, text messages, visitors, and callers.

Organization Principle #3: Rest more, work less

In our chronically sleep-deprived society, sleep deficit is a performance killer. The general effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance are well-known: scientists have documented that when we are sleep-deprived our immune system suffers, our thinking and judgments are impaired, and our fuse becomes very short.

Studies have found that productivity goes up when the number of hours per week of work goes down, strongly suggesting that adequate leisure and refueling time pays off for employers and for workers. Overwork—and its companion, sleep deprivation—have been shown to lead to mistakes and errors that take longer to fix than the overtime hours worked. A sixty-hour work week, although 50% longer than a forty-hour work week, reduces productivity by 25%, so it takes two hours of overtime to accomplish one hour of work. A ten-minute nap can be equivalent to an extra hour and a half of sleep at night.

  • A calm, well-rested mind is a fruitful mind. Don’t overlook sleep, rest, and vacation as stress busters.

Organization Principle #4: Organize your physical environment into categories so it helps your mind

Organize Your Physical Environment One principle that Levitin emphasizes repeatedly is “offloading the information from your brain and into the environment” so you can “use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.” One appealing example he offers is, “If you’re afraid you’ll forget to buy milk on the way home, put an empty milk carton on the seat next to you in the car or in the backpack you carry to work on the subway (a note would do, of course, but the carton is more unusual and so more apt to grab your attention).”

  • Levitin also emphasizes the importance of putting things away in their designated places, because there’s a special part of our brain dedicated to remembering the spatial location of things.
  • Neuroscientists have proved that the human brain is good at creating and thinking in categories. “The fact that our brains are inherently good at creating categories is a powerful lever for organizing our lives.” Further, “productivity and efficiency depend on systems that help us organize through categorization.”

Organization Principle #5: Spend only as much time on decisions, tasks, and actions as they are worth.

Significantly, Levitin suggests the practice of satisficing—a decision-making approach that aims for acceptable or “good enough” results, rather than the optimal solutions:

Satisficing [is] a term coined by the Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon, one of the founders of the fields of organization theory and information processing. Simon wanted a word to describe not getting the very best option but one that was good enough. For things that don’t matter critically, we make a choice that satisfies us and is deemed sufficient. You don’t really know if your dry cleaner is the best—you only know that they’re good enough. And that’s what helps you get by. You don’t have time to sample all the dry cleaners within a twenty-four-block radius of your home. … Satisficing is one of the foundations of productive human behavior; it prevails when we don’t waste time on decisions that don’t matter, or more accurately, when we don’t waste time trying to find improvements that are not going to make a significant difference in our happiness or satisfaction. … Recent research in social psychology has shown that happy people are not people who have more; rather, they are people who are happy with what they already have. Happy people engage in satisficing all of the time, even if they don’t know it.

Organization Principle #6: A Zen mind is an organized mind

Conquer Information Overload Beyond the productivity hacks and the tweaks, Levitin suggests a spiritual composure in favor of mental organization. He advocates practicing Zen-like mindfulness not only to relieve the anxiety that comes with worries over undone tasks and unease over future uncertainties, but also to allot more of your limited attention to the present moment.

  • Instead of seeking to cope with information overload and travel at warp speed, focus on the things you can do to put yourself on the right path to better wellbeing—one thought, one bite, one task, one project, and one breath at a time.

Recommendation: Read Daniel Levitin’s ‘The Organized Mind’

In today’s “age of information overload” you may find yourself continuously distracted and swamped with demands for multitasking. Daniel Levitin’s fascinating The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload explains how to organize your mind, systematize your home and office, and gain control over your life.

Even if The Organized Mind is somewhat meandering and ill-organized (which is ironic for a book getting organized,) Levitin discusses noteworthy capabilities and limitations of the human brain and how to effectively deal with them.

Idea for Impact: Develop a comprehensive plan to audit, simplify, and structure how information flows through your life. Develop personal habits and organizational systems to lead your mind effortlessly to good decision-making. As Levitin suggests, “The task of organizational systems is to provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort.”

Hoarding and Learning to Let Go

I recently happened upon A&E channel’s reality TV program Hoarders, now in its ninth season. Hoarders shows appalling footage of homes jammed floor-to-ceiling with bewildering amounts of mess. With help from therapists, professional organizers, and “extreme cleaning specialists,” hoarders featured on the show learn to pare down their stacks and cleanup their homes and offices.

Hoarding usually accompanies varying levels of anxiety. Hoarding both eases anxiety and produces it.

Hoarding: Harmless Collecting v/s Serious Disorder

Hoarding ranges from mild to severe. Compulsive hoarding is the unwarranted and excessive accumulation of things as well as the unwillingness and the inability to dispose of them. Hoarders believe that their collections will be needed or will have value in the future.

Beyond normal collecting behaviors and hobbies, hoarders amass vast quantities of possessions that fill up and disrupt functional areas of their homes and offices. They stack stuff everywhere—attics, basements, desks, countertops, garages, bathtubs, stairways, cupboards, and nearly all other surfaces they can no longer be used for their intended purposes. When there’s no more room indoors, hoarders expand their clutter into yards and vehicles, and even get storage rentals. They frequently shift items from one hoard to another, without shedding anything.

Hoarders often fail to recognize it as a problem, making treating their hoarding a challenge.

Understanding Hoarders: The Psychology of Hoarding

Hoarders usually have an extreme attachment to their possessions, and oppose letting others borrow—even touch—their possessions. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the definitive catalog of mental disorders used by American mental health professionals, calls “the inability to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value” a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD.)

Hoarding behavior typically has physical, emotional, social, financial, and legal hurtful consequences. Hoarders have trouble making decisions. They often suffer from chronic procrastination, and have considerable difficulties getting things done.

Hoarding usually accompanies varying levels of anxiety. Hoarding both eases anxiety and produces it. Hoarders feel emotionally secure when surrounded by the things they collect. The more they hoard, the more shielded they feel from the outside world and the more they become isolated from their family and friends. But, sure enough, they feel ever more alarmed at the prospect of having to discard or clean out their hoarded stuff.

Alleviating Hoarding: Reducing the Chronic Stress from Clutter

'The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up' by Marie Kondo (ISBN 1607747308) If you’re a hoarder, take small steps to tidy up. If you feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of your possessions and the decluttering task that lies ahead, remember to take small steps (try my “10-Minute Dash” technique to overcome procrastination and get a task going.) Under the supervision of a trusted companion, tackle one small area at a time. But, psychiatrists recommend, don’t let someone else (a friend, domestic help, or organizing professional) clean for you—long-lasting behavioral changes necessitate talking through the process as you make decisions. Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo’s bestselling self-help book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, suggests that you should appraise (“touch”) each of your belongings one at a time to determine whether they “spark joy”—if they don’t, thank the belongings for their service and get rid of them. Sort items to one of a very few categories—“trash,” “donate,” “sell”, and “must keep.” If you haven’t used something in a year, toss it out assuming that you’re unlikely to find it useful in the near future. Idea for Impact: Reducing clutter and getting organized takes time, patience, and courage. If necessary, find a cognitive behavior therapist that specializes in treating hoarding disorders to delve into why you feel compelled to hoard and learn how to discard and organize your possessions.

If you have a hoarder in your life, don’t be embarrassed, sad, or angry with the hoarding habits of a loved one. Don’t force the hoarder to change—your loved one may change for a short time, but unless there is a compelling reason for change, she will go back to her natural state. To be effective in the long run, resist the urge to clean up for her. If the underlying behavioral patterns aren’t remedied, the hoarder will likely replenish the clutter or even intensify the hoarding behavior to make up for the loss. Even if the hoarder doesn’t realize the chaos she’s imposing on her family, friends, pets, and neighbors, try to help her or get help for her. Nevertheless, understand that you can control only your efforts—not the results—despite doing your best. Idea for Impact: Avoid enabling your loved one’s hoarding behavior. Offer to help her if she needs it, but expect change to be a long and slow process. Temper your expectations—changing this problematic behavior is her journey and her battle to fight. If all else fails, seek help from a cognitive behavior therapist that specializes in helping families and friends of hoarders.

Wealth and Status Are False Gods

Wealth and Status Are False GodsWhile it’s certainly one thing to know that money is a way to fulfill your requirements in life, it’s quite another when money becomes your primary motivation and measure of success, or when you come to equate happiness or worthiness with your wealth.

While there nothing characteristically wrong with material wealth or its pursuit, it’s easy to expect too much from money.

The New Testament (1 Timothy 6:10) reminds you to be aware of the difference between need and greed, “love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” Money can push you to take on or keep you in unhealthy relationships and unsatisfying careers. It can lead you to neglect your social life and undervalue the importance of relationships. Besides, money can adulterate your soul, germinate dishonorable conduct, and make you unworthy regardless of the wealth you accumulate.

Status Is the Enemy of Passion

Prestige, cachet, status, wealth, and approval as dominant extrinsic motivators are appropriate and can be life-affirming in the short term, but they eventually confuse and undermine you from the things that do offer deeper rewards for a life well led. The British-American venture capitalist and essayist Paul Graham wrote in his stimulating 2006 article “How to Do What You Love” discussed the hollowness of pursuing “prestige”:

What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world.

….

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

….

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

Materialism is Shallow

Modern society is remarkably driven by statusAs a modern society, we are remarkably driven by status—because we regard ourselves more worthy of others’ respect if we possess a home in a status neighborhood, a vacation property, brand-name or even designer-label clothes, luxury watches, expensive jewelry, and so on. But the pursuit of a materialistic lifestyle comes at a high cost.

Writing about the shallowness of materialism, the Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias wrote in Recapture the Wonder (2003),

In a culture where the possibility of wealth and the acquisition of things is so defining of success, we end up pursuing things that, even if we are successful, can never deliver what we envisioned they would. The reason riches become such a snare is because we end up evaluating life in mercenary terms and being seen by others in such terms, and life is just not so.

Money can buy lots of things that make us feel good and important. However, people preoccupied with money and status are never satisfied. Often, their desires and debts grow faster than their means. The more they have, the more they think they need. Discouraging gluttony and lavish spending habits, the great Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote (per Dialogues and Essays,)

Shun luxury, shun good fortune that makes men weak and causes their minds to grow sodden, and, unless something happens to remind them of their human lot, they waste away, lulled to sleep, as it were, in a drunkenness that has no end…. Although all things in excess bring harm, the greatest danger comes from excessive good fortune: it stirs the brain, invites the mind to entertain idle fancies, and shrouds in thick fog the distinction between falsehood and truth.

Idea for Impact: You are rich if you think you have enough

Put the value of money and the pursuit of wealth in perspectivePut the value of money and the pursuit of wealth in perspective. Feel rich and have a soft spot for certain indulgences. But, don’t get trapped in the spectacle of riches.

Being rich and seeking status can cost a fortune—the things that you may have to do to flaunt your wealth can cost almost as much as your wealth itself. As the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said, “The money you have can give you freedom, but the money you pursue enslaves you.”

You are Rich If You Think You Have Enough

You are Rich If You Think You Have EnoughMoney isn’t the most important thing in life, except when you truly don’t have enough of it. Nevertheless, virtually everyone at every income level seems to place too much importance on it.

The relationship between money and happiness is well established: money can buy happiness, but it can only buy less than most people think. Beyond a humble middle-class living, study after study shows that people with more money are no happier.

What Money Gets You

Wealth can actually give you three essential things.

Firstly, money can help establish a financial foundation. Money can reduce or eliminate the despair caused by poverty and debt. Once you amass a sufficient amount of wealth, financial troubles will not weigh on you so heavily. Money allows you to not only live a longer and healthier life, but also defend yourself against worry and harm. Further, a sizable wealth can give you independence from the entrapment of having to make money just to make money. Berkshire Hathaway vice-chairman and Warren Buffet’s business partner Charlie Munger once said, “Like Warren, I had a considerable passion to get rich, not because I wanted Ferraris—I wanted the independence. I desperately wanted it.”

Secondly, wealth can allow you to have vacations, gatherings, and spend meaningful time with family and friends. Many studies have shown that the tenor of your social life is one of the most significant influences on your emotional wellbeing. Folks with many deep social connections are less likely to experience loneliness, sadness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating, sleeping, and relaxing.

Thirdly, wealth can allow you to invest your time absorbed in activities that you’re passionate about. Happiness research is clear: people are often happier when they spend their money on life experiences rather than on purchasing material goods. We humans seek meaning. Therefore, life experiences—especially those involving other people—make us happy primarily because events often generate vivid memories that we can later recall with pleasure. In contrast, we quickly adapt to material goods we purchase. Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of the bestselling Stumbling on Happiness (2006,) explained the pleasure from buying experiences as opposed to material goods in a 2011 paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology:

After devoting days to selecting the perfect hardwood floor to install in a new condo, homebuyers find their once beloved Brazilian cherry floors quickly become nothing more than the unnoticed ground beneath their feet. In contrast, their memory of seeing a baby cheetah at dawn on an African safari continues to provide delight. Over time, {people exhibit} slower adaptation to experiential purchases than to material purchases. One reason why this happens is that people adapt most quickly to that which doesn’t change. Whereas cherry floorboards generally have the same size, shape, and color on the last day of the year as they did on the first, each session of a year-long cooking class is different from the one before.

Another reason why people seem to get more happiness from experiences than things is that they anticipate and remember the former more often than the latter. … Things bring us happiness when we use them, but not so much when we merely think about them. Experiences bring happiness in both cases …. We are more likely to mentally revisit our experiences than our things in part because our experiences are more centrally connected to our identities.

A final reason why experiences make us happier than things is that experiences are more likely to be shared with other people, and other people … are our greatest source of happiness.

Experiential Purchases Make People Happier Than Material Purchases.

Idea for Impact: You are Rich If You Think You Have Enough

Put the value of money and the pursuit of wealth in perspective.

Money is an opportunity for happiness. Money allows you to do what you please. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that more money and more material goods will unavoidably make you more happy. A certain amount of money will surely make life easier and satisfied, but more money and more material goods bring more problems.

Feel rich, have a soft spot for certain indulgences, and invest in memorable experiences rather than in material objects.

Don’t get trapped in the spectacle of riches.

Don’t let money own you.

How to Boost Your Willpower / Book Summary of “Willpower” by Baumeister & Tierney

'Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength' by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (ISBN 0143122231) In previous articles, I have discussed a key differentiating trait I’ve observed in successful people: they get things done not by pursuing motivation but through discipline, self-control, determination, and willpower. They actively seek a way to work at whatever must be done even when they do not really feel like doing it.

In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011,) New York Times science writer John Tierney and Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister discuss the virtues of self-control, and the concepts of ego depletion and decision fatigue. This informative tome is grounded in thirty years of academic research into willfulness and self-discipline.

Willpower starts with the assertion that intelligence and willpower are your two best predictors of achieving success in life. You may not be able to meaningfully increase your intelligence, but you can surely enhance your capacity for self-control. Parenthetically, when people were inquired about their failings in life, a lack of self-control was consistently at the top of the list.

The book’s central theorem is the much-debated “strength model of self-control.” This “muscle metaphor” states that willpower is like a muscle that tires out—or runs out of energy—as you use it, but can be fortified through practice.

How to Boost Your Willpower

Here are some prominent insights and tips from Willpower:

  • You have a limited amount of willpower, which, in the short term, depletes as you use it and must be replenished. Each instance of applying willpower (e.g. repressing your thoughts and actions, working intensely, stressing at work, making decisions, and dealing with difficult people) drains the same psychological reservoir of self-control. Expending willpower in one sphere of life leaves you less able to exercise self-control in another.
  • Just as muscles can get overworked and become tired and feeble until they can recuperate, the exercise of self-control causes fatigue.
  • Willpower is fuelled by blood glucose. Therefore, acts of self-control drain the glucose. When glucose is low, self-control failures are more likely. Restoring glucose to a sufficient level usually improves self-control. Willpower can be restored by boosting blood sugar. Foods like white bread, potatoes, white rice, and sugared snacks cause boom-and-bust cycles of willpower since these foods are quickly converted into glucose. Vegetables, nuts, raw fruits, and cheese are converted more slowly, and therefore provide ‘fuel’ more progressively.
  • Being in a tidy room seems to increase self-control and being in a messy room seems to curb self-control.
  • Your daily supply of willpower is limited. If you exhaust most of your willpower during the day at work, you will have less self-control, tolerance, and imperturbability when you come home to family. Many marriages go bad when stress at work is at its worst: people use up all their willpower on the job; their home lives suffer because they gave much to their work.
  • When your willpower is low, you’ll find it more arduous to make tougher decisions. Moreover, during decision-making, you’ll be more reluctant to eliminate some of the options you could choose from.
  • In the long term, practicing willpower strengthens it, just as a muscle develops stamina and power when consistently exercised. Even small, inconsequential acts of self-control—avoiding slouching, for example—can strengthen your capacity for self-discipline in the long term.
  • Ego Depletion and Decision Fatigue When you resist one temptation but cannot resist another, your egos have been fatigued by the exercise of willpower. Conversely, you can resist temptations across the board when your ego has been strengthened by exercise.
  • Stress instigates many negative emotions because stress depletes willpower, which consequently diminishes your ability to control and overcome those negative emotions.
  • The best use of willpower is in setting priorities and getting things done. Given you have a limited amount of willpower on a given day, you’re best served by budgeting your willpower and spending it where and when you need it the most.
  • Clear, attainable goals combined with rewards strengthen willpower. Monitoring goals and committing yourself publicly to your goals can help you counteract weakness of will.
  • Live as much of your life as possible on an autopilot. Eliminate distractions, temptations, and unnecessary choices. Simplify. Develop routines and cultivate habits that you can eventually do robotically.
  • Organize your life to decrease the need for willpower. Conserve willpower for demanding circumstances.

Recommendation: Read Willpower. This New York Times best seller is filled with guidance about how best to deploy willpower to overcome temptation and how to build up your willpower ‘strength’ with small—but regular and methodical—exercises. Even if somewhat academic for a self-help book, this worthwhile volume is filled with resourceful research, practical advice, and enthralling stories of people who’ve achieved personal transformation owing to the strength of their will.

Identify Your #1 Priority and Finish It First

Identify Your #1 Priority and Finish It First

“He who every morning plans the transactions of the day and follows out that plan carries a thread that will guide him through the labyrinth of the most busy life. The orderly arrangement of his time is a like a ray of life which darts itself through all his occupations. But where no plan is laid, where the disposal of time is surrendered merely to the chance of incident, chaos will soon reign.”
Victor Hugo

“A Guaranteed Formula for Success”

Ivy Lee's A popular legend recalls a time management trick that efficiency expert Ivy Lee showed to Charles Michael Schwab (1862—1939,) the American steel magnate and President of Bethlehem Steel, then the second largest steel manufacturer in the United States.

Lee famously advised Charles Schwab and his managers to list and rank their top priorities every day, and work on tasks in the order of their importance as time allows, not proceeding until a task was completed. After implementing the suggestion, Charles Schwab famously said that Lee’s method for managing priorities had been the most profitable advice he had ever received and paid him $25,000.

When Charles Schwab was president of Bethlehem Steel, he confronted Ivy Lee, a management consultant, with an unusual challenge. “Show me a way to get more things done,” he demanded. “If it works, I will pay you anything within reason.”

Lee handed Schwab a piece of paper. “Write down the things you have to do tomorrow.”

When Schwab had completed the list, Lee said, “Now number these items in the order of their real importance.”

Schwab did, and Lee said, “The first thing tomorrow morning, start working on number one and stay with it until it’s completed. Then take number two, and don’t go any further until it’s finished or until you’ve done as much with it as you can. Then proceed to number three and so on. If you can’t complete everything on schedule, don’t worry. At least you will have taken care of the most important things before getting distracted by items of less importance.

“The secret is to do this daily. Evaluate the relative importance of the things you have to get done, establish priorities, record your plan of action, and stick to it. Do this every working day. After you have convinced yourself that this system has value, have your people try it. Test it as long as you like, and then send me a check for whatever you think the idea is worth.”

Mary Kay Ash Helped Her Beauty Consultants Juggle Spouse, Children, and Career

'You Can Have It All' by Mary Kay Ash (ISBN 0761501622) Mary Kay Ash, American beauty products entrepreneur and founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, had a variation to this technique. In You Can Have It All, she writes:

Each night, I put together my list for the following day. If I don’t get something on my list accomplished, it goes on the next day’s list. I put the hardest or most unappealing task at the top of the list. This way, I tackle the most difficult item first, and once it’s out of the way, I feel my day is off to a good start.

Mary Kay Ash taught her cosmetics sales consultants this technique of prioritizing their work and thus avoid being stretched too thin. Most of Mary Kay’s cosmetics sales consultants were women filling multiple roles as mother, wife, and businesswoman.

We try very hard to get our consultants to organize themselves. The best way I have found is a little pad of paper we issue called “The Six Most Important Things.” I teach consultants to write down the six most important things they have to do the next day every night before they go to bed. I suggest that people organize things by priority. First, put the thing they most don’t want to do at the top. Then write down the six most important things—not sixteen, because this is frustrating, but six.

Idea for Impact: Squeeze the Most out of Your Day

The best way to start your day is by accomplishing something instead of fiddling around with email or contemplating the day’s priorities. So, every evening, before you leave the office, write down the most important tasks you’ve got to get done the next day. Leave it on your desk along with any support material you need to work on it. This will help you get rolling first thing in the morning.

The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy / Book Summary of “The Millionaire Next Door”

'The Millionaire Next Door' by Thomas Stanley, William Danko (ISBN 1567315682) The Millionaire Next Door summarizes anthropological research from the ’90s on the attributes of unassuming wealthy Americans. The authors, marketing professors Thomas Stanley and William Danko, offer unique insights into millionaires’ lifestyles and their buying habits. They explain that, in contrast to today’s earn-and-consume culture, the many ordinary folks who accumulate wealth live modestly and prize frugality.

When first published in 1996, The Millionaire Next Door generated widespread enthusiasm for its core message: that anybody could become rich by living below their means, efficiently allocating funds in ways that build wealth, and ignoring conspicuous consumption. Consequently, the book sold millions of copies and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for three years.

A bulk of The Millionaire Next Door focuses on rejecting the stereotypical view of the wealthy; the authors write, “Most people have it all wrong about wealth in America. Wealth is not the same as income. If you make a good income each year and spend it all, you are not getting wealthier. You are just living high. Wealth is what you accumulate, not what you spend.”

The authors discuss the fancy trappings of wealth and the high cost of maintaining social status. They explain that wealthy individuals prioritize financial independence over a high social status. Further, they did not receive sizable financial support from parents, and raise their own children to be economically self-sufficient adults.

The Millionaire Next Door is a definitive example of books that present simple concepts by reiterating them ad nauseam with an overabundance of statistics, tables, charts, and anecdotes to attain a respectable book length. For instance, a tedious 31-page chapter discusses how the wealthy purchase cars and includes statistics for average price-per-pound of popular cars.

Recommendation: Skim. The Millionaire Next Door defends the timeless values of thrift, disciplined spending, and prudent accumulation of wealth. However, the book overemphasizes penny-pinching and the merits of hoarding money. The book feels dated (it was first published in 1996) and engages the reader in crude generalizations and oversimplifications.

Is Day Trading and Speculation for You?

A few weeks ago, even as stock markets around the world suffered a turmoil triggered by downbeat economic news from China, a prolific 36-year-old Japanese day trader claimed to have made $34 million by betting big against the market trends and timing the bottom precisely.

Notwithstanding frequent mention of such success stories and blaring ads in the media tempting you to stake money on your wits and your instinct to profit from market swings, it can be very hard to make money consistently in day trading and short-term speculation.

As a fundamentals-based long-term investor, I don’t think there is anything wrong with day trading or short-term speculation. With skill, strategy, and the right temperament, it’s possible to be just as profitable in speculating as in investing with any other time horizon.

Over the years, many sophisticated stock-analysis services have emerged to facilitate trading and speculation by amateurs such as these pictured day-traders from Bangalore. Vast online social networks such as StockTwits engage in the exchange of information, opinion, gossip, rumors, and stories of successes and losses.

Day Trading and Speculating by Amateurs in Bangalore, India

For a few successful trades, luck may be the main factor. However, in the fullness of time, the most important factors for consistent stock market gains are discipline, temperament, and risk management.

Most day traders fail because it’s too darn hard to time the market. They lack a coherent technique that works consistently. Instead of following a definite strategy rooted in fundamentals or a structured thought-process, they follow the news-tickers, minute-by-minute stock prices, volume- and price-trends, and poorly understood media-fed euphoria. Moreover, most day traders engage in short selling, a complex skill that goes against the grain of the conventional buy-and-hold mindset. Worst of all, most speculators don’t understand how their emotions come into play—both when they lose and when they win.

Like anything that requires focus, drive, discipline, persistence and a stroke of luck, day trading and speculation are hard to do successfully. It may take years of painful education and experimentation before creditable success. The U.S. market regulator Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) offers the following cautions on day trading:

  • Be prepared to suffer severe financial losses
  • Day traders do not “invest”
  • Day trading is an extremely stressful and expensive full-time job
  • Day traders depend heavily on borrowing money or buying stocks on margin
  • Don’t believe claims of easy profits
  • Watch out for “hot tips” and “expert advice” from newsletters and websites catering to day traders
  • Remember that “educational” seminars, classes, and books about day trading may not be objective

'Reminiscences of a Stock Operator' by Edwin Lefevre (ISBN 1500541052) Idea for Impact: Most studies on day trading and speculation reckon that over three-fourths of amateur traders lose money, some of which may have been borrowed. The high risk that comes with high-yield investments and the self-inflicted stress of loss and debt may not be for you.

A Low-risk Alternative: There is no fail-safe way to invest without any risk. If you don’t have the time, energy, determination, or a strong understanding of investing, consider low-cost index funds. Do your own research. Read my previous article about John Bogle, founder of Vanguard and his tireless advocacy of low-cost index funds.

Recommended Reading: Edwin Lefevre’s 1923 classic, “Reminiscences of a Stock Operator”, is a fictionalized biography of Jesse Livermore (1877–1940), one of the greatest stock market speculators of all time. This “font of investing wisdom” (per Alan Greenspan) is filled with insightful trading advice and shrewd market/price movement analyses.