We rise and fall to our systems, not habits

I might have spent the better part of the last decade researching and developing methodologies on personal, team, and workplace productivity. And what I’ve observed time and again is that productivity, at any level, has two aspects to it: intention and extension.

Our intentions set a robust foundation for what we want to achieve in our careers and lifetime across days, weeks, months, and years. A lack of definitions will have you drift from one situation to another. You will feel helpless and depressed because you don’t have any control over where circumstances or life will take you.

When I started my career, I didn’t have any intention. I was a pizza delivery boy who wanted to prove his parents wrong. That wasn’t good enough because I wasn’t getting satisfaction from what I was doing, nor did I know where I was headed to. And I remained in that confused state until I mapped out a six-month plan to get out of my “situation” and do something better. If I hadn’t, I would be in the hospitality industry, and you wouldn’t be reading this post.

That’s the power of intentions. They help you move forward just enough to get you over the rut but then, you need something extra. And that’s where extensions come into play. These will be the systems you put in place to ensure that your intentions are carried out.

Let’s say one of your intentions is to wake up at 4:30 am every single day. You want to do it because you know waking up early will allow you to write, exercise, read, study, and spend time with your family before the workday sucks you in. But you know it’s hard to wake up that early. So, you put a system in place, such as:

  1. Choosing to sleep at 10:30 pm instead of 11:30 pm or 12 am
  2. Setting up an alarm clock for 4:30 am
  3. Make coffee for yourself or pop in a caffeine pill (I do the latter because coffee can get acidic for me on an empty stomach)
  4. Write/read/study/exercise/spend time with family — in the order that works for you

Making it work is up to you; it won’t be easy because you intend to do something complicated, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Like the one above, a solid system will ensure that you get up early and carry out the plans.

If, however, you don’t have a system, you will wake up but don’t have a clue what you’re going to do so early in the morning. The result — you will either go back to sleep or play a video game or watch YouTube videos instead of doing something useful in those precious morning hours. I know all this because my friends have experienced this; they don’t know what the hell would they do waking up so early.

The solution is to have a plan or a system in place. Without extensions, your intentions are a pipe dream. And one can dream all day long with no progress.

I’m sure you must wonder where habits fit in the scheme of things, right? Let me tell you — our habits are extensions that have been carried out for far too long, so much so that it’s become automatic. You don’t have to think about it anymore. The system that I shared above for the morning hours is something I have been following for years. It works all the time, except on the days when I’m dead tired (primarily because of jiu-jitsu training the previous evening) and can’t wake up at 4:30 am. But then, I’ve got a different system for those days.

And the best part is that I don’t have to think about it! I wake up and know exactly what happens next. People say it’s a habit, but it’s an extension of my intentions underneath it all. It’s the foundation of all habits.

If you’ve been meaning to nurture a habit, think in the line of all the extensions or systems that you can put in place to support your intention. See what happens. If the systems aren’t working, tweak them until they start to work, and then after some time, tweak it again until it’s perfect.

I love this quote by James Clear, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” The big question is — what systems do you have in place to support your intentions?

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