Don't Hack Your Life to Death

Instead, use these three questions to create sustainable learning systems.

Thomas Austin arrived Australia’s Western District of Victoria in 1831. He was an Englishman, a sheep farmer. He quickly put down roots, building a retreat of nearly 30-thousand acres called Barwon Park and becoming a distinguished member of the Acclimatization Society of Victoria, which introduced new plants and animals to the colony.

Austin, who was wealthy and socially connected, enjoyed hunting and hosting lavish shooting parties. But there wasn’t anything in significant enough numbers to shoot in Australia.

In England, Austin had enjoyed hunting rabbits. So he did what any good English nobleman craving a touch of home would do: he hacked the system.

“The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home,” he said.

In 1859, the clipper ship /Lightning/ arrived. Among the cargo were 24 wild rabbits that Austin had ordered on consignment for the purpose of breeding.

Austin released them into the wild and the rabbits did what rabbits will do, especially when there are no known predators and nearly perfect environmental conditions: they bred.

By 1864 complaints were pouring in from farmers — their crops were being decimated by the rabbits. Government officials offered a reward for “any method of success not previously known in the Colony for the effectual extermination of rabbits.”

By 1898 it was reported there were over 300-million rabbits in Australia.

Austin’s hack worked.

The effects were far reaching. The rabbits were prodigious breeders, and they reproduced in far greater numbers than could be hunted. And as there were no natural predators to the rabbit in Australia, they did this unchecked.

Everybody’s Hacking

Everywhere you turn these days, somebody’s hacking something. Software, the brain, life. The internet is replete with hacks to master productivity, live the life you always dreamed of, and achieve success.

I’m not above hacking myself, but the primary problem I’ve found is that the hack itself is often just a shitty workaround, a short-term solution designed to drive a singular outcome. Like Austin’s introduction of rabbits to Australia, a hack doesn’t take a holistic account of the environment.

Don’t get me wrong, some hacks can be elegant in their simplicity and at times functional, but on the whole, the reason we’re putting a hack in place is because something in the environment wasn’t working the way we’d hoped.

The solution?

Develop Systems, not Hacks

I like to think of environments like ecosystems. In an ecosystem, every element is dependent on the other. Mother Nature uses these dependencies to achieve an elegant, ever-shifting balance, and we should look at her approach to work when we consider our own designs.

Let’s take a simple example.

Say you want to achieve a goal: write a novel, participate in a triathlon, launch a business, etc. The hack would find the shortest path to the goal instead of thinking about a system that will support that goal and much more.

The system is the structure that will support the achievement of that goal, but the goal becomes secondary. When systems are at their best, they’ll not only help to achieve a singular goal, but will also change habits and allow for even greater success than we originally dreamed possible.

Designing Successful Systems

Any system we create must be sustainable. A system is sustainable if it can be continually reused and maintain its viability. I would add that it is in accord with nature, not against it.

When I’m designing my own personal systems, here are a few key questions I start with:

  1. What do I want to learn?
    Everything I do in life has a learning outcome. This is how I continue to grow. When designing a system, it’s best to consider this even in the vaguest of terms. I want to learn to start a small business, to make perfect landings in an airplane, or to be a writer. A good system will allow me to learn and grow with little effort and accomplish the tasks as an outgrowth of the work.
  2. What are my natural rhythms?
    Think about the ebb and flow of energy throughout the day. When do you do your best work? Whatever system you create has to align with your natural rhythms.
    For example, when it comes to writing, I’ve discovered that I do my best work at the beginning and the end of the day. To ensure that I’m taking advantage of my natural rhythms, I schedule the first couple hours of my day to write.
    This segues nicely to number three.
  3. What are you willing to give up?
    If this system is supportive of a worthy pursuit, then, if you’re like most people, you’ll have to consider what to give up to make it work.
    Our lives are often brimming over with things to do. Asking this third question separates the wheat from the chaff, testing your willingness to commit to the system. If you’re not willing to commit, then you won’t see results, and it will eventually collapse and fail.

Putting it All Together

It doesn’t have to be more exhaustive than this. Now you can use your answers to create a block of time on your calendar. This block of time is for the express purpose of running your system. Whether it’s one day a week or several, it’s imperative to stick to the schedule.

If you’re willing to invest in the system, it will provide you rewards, meting them out a little more each day.

The Beauty of Incremental Gains

The incremental gains that you see in the beginning may not amount to much, but over time, these small gains aggregate into big gains. This process of aggregating gains is essentially continuous improvement.

Each day you practice the system makes you a little bit better. Those goals that once were the focus of your hacks will become milestones on a long road of achievements. Over time, these gains can lead to outsize opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible with the achievement of a single goal.

On his Dilbert blog, Scott Adams sums it up this way.

“But you also miss out on opportunities that might have been far better than your goal. Systems, however, simply move you from a game with low odds to a game with better odds. With a system you are less likely to miss one opportunity because you were too focused on another. With a system, you are always scanning for any opportunity.”

-– If we’re thoughtful in how we approach the creation of our personal systems, we can achieve great success. By aligning them to our personal rhythms, we ensure that the systems fit neatly into our personal ecosystem and are sustainable over the long run. This type of systems thinking promotes incremental gains that often yield greater opportunities and results.

Bottom line: don’t be a hack. Build thoughtful systems that will continually improve you day over day so that you can create opportunities for yourself.