Tiny Systems: The Most Important Self-Motivation Skill Nobody Taught You

Why willpower is crap and tiny systems mean everything to your productivity

Tiny systems are the key to self-motivation

It’s 6:30am. I let the dog outside to pee and head to the coffee maker to get my brain fuel brewing for the day. As the coffee brews I practice Qigong shakes (see story below) to wake myself up. I am not a morning person. I come from generations of night owls. Mornings are a dirty necessity. I’m not fun in the morning.

Once the coffee pot has brewed enough to pour a cup (I hate waiting until the whole pot’s done), I listen to the news and podcasts while making my son’s lunch. I’ll practice the Qigong shakes multiple times as I stand in the kitchen.

The kitchen island doubles as my planning desk and note-taking area. As I listen to the news and podcasts I take notes on 3 x 5 cards. This is also my time to plan my day (because you’ve got to tell your day what to do before it happens).

When the lunch-making is done I grab a pair of headphones and my coffee mug and head outside to my front porch. Here, regardless of weather, I sit and meditate for 15–20 minutes, depending on where I’m at with my schedule.

Once the meditation is done I get cleaned-up in the bathroom. This is my moment to take my time, appreciate the small things, and shave my head (see below). Once I’m done with my sink duties I wait for the shower to run, I do 40 push-ups on the bathroom floor. When the deep-clean is done, I’m out the door to take my son to school. The work/writing day begins after this.

I get more done in the morning than most people do in a full day.

By the time my head hits the pillow in the evening, I’ll have written about 3,000 words over various pockets of time. Throughout the day I listen to audiobooks and podcasts (between paper and audiobooks I read at least 100 books per year and listen to thousands of podcasts). When I return home at the end of the day I work-out in my basement gym, read in my chair, and spend the evening with my family. It’s a simple life, but a deeply fulfilling one.

Once I hit the pillow I’ll watch a few lectures on YouTube to give my subconscious creative food while I’m sleeping. I try to do this every day.

Nothing I do has anything to do with willpower. Willpower is fleeting and limited. I create tiny systems, piggybacked on current, permanent habits, and I build them one at a time.

That’s my day. Your may be different or similar. This is what I want from my day, so I developed tiny systems to ensure it happens. It’s easier to run the same system every day versus a different schedule throughout the week.

I want to rely on willpower as little as possible, because willpower is a dirty jerk.

What’s a tiny system?

A tiny system is a pre-set list of behaviors you want your body to follow without having to rely on willpower to make it happen. I’m a multi-passionate person. I’m always tweaking my day and trying to do more with the time I have.

I’m not a machine. I miss pieces of my system almost daily. But I attempt to follow the same list every day. If I follow the same list I’ll get close to hitting everything I want to accomplish.

Nothing I’ve tried has come close to the power of tiny systems.

Tiny systems start the moment you wake up. This is your first trigger of the day. Think of your system(s) as a series of computer programs. If I reach this trigger this behavior happens. As you walk through your day you trigger a series of pre-determined behaviors.

The most-beautiful thing that happens with tiny systems is they don’t take much time. You can get a lot more done without taking time away from your family, or anything else you want to preserve.

Tiny systems take you from your life’s wish list and give you a DO-list.

Why willpower is a dirty jerk

Willpower is a finite resource. We get a certain amount per day and the tank gets depleted as the day goes on. Willpower is necessary to get started with anything, but if you rely on sheer willpower to accomplish your tasks, it’s the perfect recipe for failure.

Think of willpower like the pro-spinner on old propeller planes.

As a pilot you need an assistant to spin the prop and get the engine turning. Nothing moves without the prop-spinner’s (willpower) help. The pilot (you) is a useless doormat without that first spin.

Once the prop-spinner does her job she can walk back to the hanger, sit on a chair and drink her coffee until the next plane needs a spin. Her job is done for the day.

Your daily DOs (not to-DOs) are your tiny systems (the airplane engine). The engine doesn’t need to be reminded to spin and fly. The block of machined metal and oiled parts does need a little guidance (you, the pilot) to adjust course, flap the flaps, and bail out when the engine catches fire (your daily plan goes to shit).

In case I went to deep with the metaphor, willpower sucks. Tiny systems will give you more productivity than you ever imagined.

You must WANT the behaviors you wish to build

I’ve tried to build multiple tiny systems, but the only ones I found successful are the ones I wanted deeply— not just behaviors I thought were trendy or interesting. This is IMPORTANT.

You see people waking up at 4:00 am. You feel like you need to wake up early too, else you won’t be successful. You don’t really want to do it, but you feel like you should. You’ll never develop this system.

You’ve got to want it BAD.

The latest thing may not be your latest thing. It’s important to recognize your limitations and only follow what you really want to achieve with your life.

You should only build one tiny system at a time.

We’ll get to the how-to piece in a second, just understand that your tiny system is very fragile when you start. Your brain will fight you every step of the way. Early tiny system development requires more willpower than permanent tiny systems. This is the way your brain is wired. It’s not your fault.

Your brain takes the easy way, every time.

Your mind is an energy powerhouse. The grey matter spends most of its day looking for the easiest way out of a situation. This means you’re more-likely to follow your old habits than act on a new one. The thick myelin sheaths in our brains protect these simple superhighways, which is why it feels impossible to change habits.

Your brain doesn’t want you to change. Change requires much more energy and your brain is designed to be lazy to conserve said energy.

We’re going to trick your brain. With tiny systems we’ll plug in new behaviors on top of current ones, so your brain won’t think it’s got to work much to do a little extra.

If you don’t want REALLY want the new behavior, no amount of brain trickery will help.

  • If you don’t want to lose weight you won’t
  • If you don’t want to get up early you won’t
  • If you don’t want to write every day you won’t
  • If you don’t want to invest 40% of your income you won’t

When you choose you first tiny system take a minute and spend time with the idea. Do you really want this in your life? Can you see yourself living with this behavior every day, even if you’re on vacation? Does this behavior enhance your life, or is it for vanity or trendiness?

Want it. Love it. Hug it. Name it George (you’re awesome if you got that last part… you’re still awesome if you didn’t).

How to build your tiny system in seven easy steps:

  1. Pick a behavior you want to make permanent — remember, this must be something you really want. If you don’t want it, deep in your soul, you won’t follow-through.
  2. Tack the behavior to a habitual behavior you already do automatically, every day — Showering, making coffee, going to the bathroom, walking the dog, or turning on the lights. We all have dozens of these automatic, pre-programmed habits we follow daily. We’ll add your new behavior to one of these.
  3. Find a trigger that happens just before the permanent habit. Maybe you pour water in the coffee pot, or flip on the kitchen light. This first trigger is your cue to start the tiny system. We have to teach our brains to follow both the old habit and the new one. At first this will be a little clunky, but it gets better over time.
  4. Follow-through and perform the new behavior. Try to be as mindful as you can while performing the new task. See yourself performing the habit. Be proud of yourself. Take a minute to pat yourself on the back. You did it. You overcame a little resistance today. You’re awesome. You’ll do it again tomorrow because you’re so awesome.
  5. Reward yourself (like a dog with a cookie or a clicker). We’ll do almost anything for a treat. Rewards help reinforce our behaviors, so we’ll do them again next time. No one really want to do 40 push-ups before getting in the shower, but rewards are always nice. A reward should be tiny. I use my daily tracking app as a reward. I get to see uninterrupted strings of progress.
  6. Track your progress (what gets measure can be improved). If you miss a day, so what. Life happens. I miss things all the time. Just don’t miss two days in a row. Then your brain will think its unimportant to you.
  7. Repeat the process for 21 days, then 60 days, then forever until you forgot it was a new tiny system. Once the tiny system is permanent, add another one. I’ve found you can start adding new behaviors around the 30 day mark after building the first one.

Here are a couple stories I wrote to help with your perseverance:

Self-motivation is a skill that grows over time

Some of us are born with it more than others, but for most tasks this is a skill that can be taught and practiced.

We’ve got an abundance of opportunity — more than any other time in history, but the level playing field also means there’s an abundance of competition. This is competition not just to challenge your success, but also for your time.

As you develop new tiny systems there will be sacrifices to make. You’ll have to make bargains with your time. This level of sacrifice is up to you and what you want to achieve with your life. I prefer time to relax. I don’t want to work all the time. But the hours I do work I try to use every moment wisely. Your day will be your own. Make with it what you wish.

Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got to go find my prop-spinner.

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