New Life Hack: Stop Trying to life hack and just do the work.
Updated: Oct 14, 2019
I recently had an interesting conversation with a former professor. He’s been teaching for a long time, and he’s noticed a small shift in his students’ vocabulary. He explained:
“10 years ago, I would ask my students a question and they would respond, ‘I think the answer is X…’ or ‘I think it’s Y.’ Now, my students are saying, “I feel like the answer is X…’ or ‘I feel like it’s Y. I don’t know when people started ‘feeling’ their thoughts.”
What an incredible distinction to make. It seems small, I know, but there are big ramifications for firing your logic-driven mentality and throwing the keys to feelings. Why? Because feelings are terrible, terrible guides for reaching your goals.
The danger of relying on feelings Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not out on some macho inquisition to take down and destroy feelings. Feelings are awesome. They help us connect with other people, express sympathy or empathy, and sometimes even give us a much needed motivational kick-in-the-ass. But they’re also fickle and short-sighted which is why it’s dangerous to conflate or confuse feelings with thought.
And when it comes to reaching your goals, whatever they may be, feelings will get you next to nowhere. You want to get in better shape? Your feelings won't want to diet or exercise 6 days a week. You want to get better at your job? Your feelings won't want to work on Friday nights when all your friends are out at the bar. You want to keep your house cleaner? Your feelings won't want to do the laundry when the kids are finally in bed.
But that's what it takes to get yourself where you want to be. It's that little 1% of doing things you don't feel like because you know in your head that they'll ultimately get you where you need to be.
See, the mentality of “I feel like doing X…” comes from motivation; the “I think I should be doing Y…” mentality is prone to working from discipline. And here’s the bottom line:
Discipline will destroy motivation 100% of the time.
It never fails. I can’t. It’s always ready. Motivation will hit the snooze button on you because it didn’t feel like showing up. Discipline will get your ass out of bed at 5:00 am to make sure you’re studying for finals or getting in a workout before your family rolls out of bed. Discipline may not be the life the party on Saturday nights, but it's always a more dependable friend. Life hacking yourself all the way to the top of nothing
It's this idea of working from feelings and motivation that is really troublesome, especially for the younger generation (again, myself included here). And nothing more exemplifies the vicious cycle of trying to feel your way to the top than "life hacks." As you likely know, life hacks are little strategies or techniques to manage your tasks (and your time) more efficiently. These can be in the form of apps, productivity journals, daily reminders, the Pomodoro method... anything that helps you plan out your schedule to get the most of your workday.
But here's the problem: Most of these life hacks—not all, but most—tend to motivate you, not discipline you and that's why they rarely stick. We love these little tips and tricks for productivity because they make us feel like we're progressing when, in reality, we're just writing lists, scheduling reminders, or even meditating as a way to put off doing the actual work (*for the record, I have nothing against meditating so long as it's end goal is personal health, not more productivity*). Don't get me wrong, I am a huge lover of lists but when I'm being honest with myself, I know what I need to do. And I know that the most important task is likely the one I want to do the least. So there I go making my bullet-proof coffee, getting in some light meditation, filling up my daily "to-do" lists, filling out my calendar for the month, and de-cluttering my desk. And there go 45 minutes I could have spent just completing the task at hand. All that time spent preparing to work is just as productive as not working at all (because, in reality, you aren't). But what's the secret? What's the ultimate life hack? How can we break out of the pre-productivity uselessness? As with everything in life, Woody Harrelson has the answer:
And you already knew this. It isn’t revolutionary. So why is it so damn hard to build discipline and how can we get better at building it?
Demystifying discipline Discipline is tough to obtain because it fights directly against what we’ve been talking about this whole time: feelings. Discipline means doing things that sometimes you just don’t want to and are, often, very unpleasant.
Plus, doing something based on discipline usually doesn’t get more fun with time, though it can get easier. In other words, the act of saying no to dessert because you want to lose weight doesn’t miraculously bring you joy after a month. However, transforming that decision into a habit can make the process easier to go through with.
And that’s the real secret to productivity: building good routines based on discipline that become second nature. There is no hidden formula to success that's waiting to be discovered. It’s just a matter of doing the work over and over again whether you feel like it or not. Walt Disney has a great quote that says, “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” That's it. That’s the secret. Just start and don’t quit.
Building discipline, like any other skill, comes through constant trial and error. You'll try to be more disciplined, then fail; then try again, then fail; then try again, then fail; then you'll repeat that cycle about 10,000 times until you find that you’re consistently doing things that you think will lead you to an expected goal. The only way to fail at building discipline is to quit altogether—or try to hack it.