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A mindset to stay on course when things go wrong

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I’m a firm believer in momentum. When you knock those first dominoes over early in the day and get small wins, your results compound and that success leads to more success. This is why James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, preaches so much about establishing good habits and systems; the micro-decisions we make throughout our days have a large impact on the trajectory of our lives. For this reason, I’m always trying to execute on my habits and systems to ensure I’m acting in line with the person I want to be. This involves things like performing my morning routine, time-blocking, getting enough sleep, limiting distractions etc. When I’m executing on these, I build momentum like crazy…

But sometimes everything doesn’t go perfectly. I couldn’t fall asleep the night before so I wake up a half-hour later and my schedule is all messed up. Or I wake up and instead of getting started with my routine, I check my email. The tough realization for me is that this powerful momentum works both ways. When I get off track for whatever reason, I’ve started to notice that I almost give up. The voice in my head tries to declare the day as unproductive. When my mind starts telling me this story, it’s easy to support that narrative and my checking email turns into checking Snapchat and I fall further behind on my schedule and more misaligned with my priorities.

The mindset I’m experimenting with now is aimed at minimizing the spiraling caused by bad habits and is based on a principle from one of my favorite books, Designing Your Life. That principle is the following:

While there are certainly things I could do in the future to prevent bad habits, after I’ve grabbed my phone and opened Gmail, the action has been performed. There’s nothing I can do to change it. What’s important now is that I accept that I’m off track right now and from here determine what my next best action is. It sounds simple and obvious but these compounding habits work automatically so this conscious effort is critical.

I also started thinking about this dilemma in terms of the Pilot, Plane, and Engineer mental model, which states that at any point in our day, we are assuming one of these three roles and regularly switch between them. The Pilot is the role that decides your direction, meaning what you should spend your time on/work on. The Plane is the role that actually executes, so you when you are doing your workout or finishing that assignment. And the Engineer is the systems designer that is you when you are optimizing from a high-level so doing things like deciding what type of job you want or how to design your mornings.

When I get off-track in the morning, that means that my Plane for whatever reason is not headed in the right path. If I continue to operate as the Plane, that momentum will continue leading me in the wrong direction (using social media, skipping a workout, etc). My next natural instinct is to quickly move to operating as the Engineer: “Why did I get off track in the first place?” “What could I do differently to ensure I’m promoting good habits?”

But, while these reflections are critical for improving the design of your life, this moment actually calls for the Pilot. Assess where the Plane is currently (how much time has been lost, what has gotten done vs. not), and set it back on the right path (adjust your schedule to account for lost time and resume operating in order of priority).

In a couple of sentences: Engineer great habits and ride the momentum when things are going well. When you get off course, assess the damage as soon as possible, accept the sunk costs (killing the momentum), adjust your direction, and get back to executing.

If you liked this and would like to check out any of my other content, I would strongly encourage you to do so:

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