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How to Engineer Your Day

How to Engineer Your Day

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    A single day is one of the core cycles in life. In your lifetime you are probably going to experience about 29,000 of them, so you might as well make them count. A habit, run once, may seem unimportant. But a single change can add up when you consider you will be doing it thousands of times.

    Engineering your day also requires you to take a different outlook on big decisions. Instead of asking how that big promotion, changed relationship or move to a new city will make you feel, you ask how it will affect your daily life.

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    I’ve done this process with myself. From adopting healthier eating and exercise habits to changing how I browse the web and answer e-mails, these changes may sound minor but they really add up over time.



    Quantifying Your Routines

    You can’t tackle ghosts. You need to make your habits tangible before you can alter them. In order to do that you need to get a broader look at your routines. When you are fighting your way through the jungle of everyday life, you lack the view from the treetops.

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    Not all of your routines can be broken down cleanly into numbers, but you still need a representative look at how your habits influence you over time. To do that, you need to start taking measurements. I want to look at three different types of measurements I find useful:

    1. Timelogs – Where are you actually spending your time? Carry a notepad with you for a few days and record every time you start or stop an activity. After that you can break up this raw data into different activity groups and look for trends in where you spend your time.
    2. Finance Logs – Where are you spending your money? This one needs a longer focus of at least a month or two to handle non-daily expenses. But keep track of where your money is going. You may be surprised how that daily coffee or pack of cigarettes adds up over time.
    3. Productivity Logs – Unlike the last two, these are field specific. That means you might want to do one for any broad area of your life you deem important. You could have a productive log for health, work, business or school. The idea here is to chart down what you accomplish and after what investment of time and money. Contrasting a productive log with time/finance logs should give you idea of what were wise and unwise usages of resources.


    Upgrading Your Habits

    With a broad viewpoint of how daily actions create effects over time, you are now in a position to upgrade your habits. Changing habits normally sounds like a painful, prolonged process of willpower. In reality, I’ve found the process can actually be interesting as it gives you a chance to modify the core of what makes up your day.

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    Changing habits isn’t really that difficult. My suggestion is to start with the Thirty Day Trial method proposed by Steve Pavlina. I’ve been using this for a couple years and it works incredibly well. I’ve researched many other methods for changing habits, but none of them match the simplicity and efficacy of this technique.

    Here are some other things to consider:

    1. Go Slow – I never do more than one, possibly two, trials at a time. Trying to do too much too fast is probably the biggest reason people fail. Engineering your day has to be a trial of patience, not motivation.
    2. Be Consistent – Your trial needs to be something you execute daily and consistently. Going to the Gym on Tuesday, skipping Wednesday, running on Thursday and doing Yoga on Friday may be a fun exercise routine. However, this scattered approach rarely results in well-formed habits. Consistency first, variety afterwards.
    3. Replace Lost Needs – Some people fail to change habits because they don’t consider the full impact an upgrade will have. I like the metaphor of engineering habits, because optimizations must align with all the forces that caused you to function previously. If you are feeling deprived, you need a new strategy, not more willpower.

    Taking a New Look at Big Decisions

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    The final impact of daily engineering is taking a new look at those big decisions. Here are some examples of big decisions you may be facing:

    • What do I want to do with my life?
    • Should I switch jobs? Careers?
    • Should I emphasize family, work or learning?
    • Should I get married and start a family or build my business?

    No approach will give easy answers to these questions. In many cases, I believe the answer can’t be satisfactorily reached without making mistakes and looking for opportunities. But a daily outlook can give you an approach you might not have considered.

    The idea behind a daily outlook is that every big decision is only going to create an impact on your days. Looking at this core unit of human experience, ask yourself, what will the difference be on your daily life. Ignore the abstractions of prestige, money and accomplishments if they don’t have a big impact on what you do between getting up and going to sleep.

    The answer that might surprise you is that generally, no one decision is going to have an overwhelming impact. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert discovered that most people overestimate the difference two situations will have on happiness. I would also add that most people underestimate the impact your day has on your life.

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    Scott H Young

    Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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