I'm a software engineer living in Vancouver, BC.

When I'm not working, I can usually be found buried under a giant backlog of reading, or in the gym. My interests range over the set of business, technology, ethics, economics, psychology, politics, science, and education, in no particular order.

Ezra Savard
(Self) Control Systems
24 Feb 2019

In my life, I’ve mostly approached achieving my goals via rigid self-discipline. I’ve viewed any mis-steps as a sign of weaknesses to be overcome through willpower. This approach emphasizes confronting obstacles head-on and feeling morally superior for overcoming them.

A present-day evangelist of this attitude would be Jordan B. Peterson. I think his message of self-reliance and confronting our own weakness appeals strongly to young men who want to prove themselves in the world, as it did to me. I’m not exactly sure how I was introduced to it, but heroically rising up against obstacles and triumphing by sheer force of will is not exactly a rare message in fiction consumed by young boys.

Using this model, I felt like a total badass each time I chose not to eat some free cake. It follows the same narrative as my childhood heroes. I felt empowered and in-charge of my own destiny, and that is why it was so seductive. I now I see this approach as a way to feel like I am making progress, but not a good way to actually achieve my goals.

As I’ve grown less arrogant with age, I’ve come around to the idea that I can’t fully control myself, and moreover that it is a waste effort to try. I now prefer to think in terms of strategies that help me succeed most of the time, without constant effort. Usually this comes down to avoiding real-time decision making.

A good system results in achieving my goals by either doing nothing or doing whatever is easiest in the moment. The challenge is to create an environment so that I, through normal day-to-day activities, will progress toward my goals at an acceptable pace.

Retirement Savings and Coffee

I moved out of my family home and started working full-time around age 20 and reached a point of financial self-sufficiency near the end of my degree, ten years later. In the time between, I spent many years living paycheck-to-paycheck, with a bit of help from my family, as many young people do. I wanted to try and save money where I could, and one place I spent money luxuriously was on buying coffee at work. Avocado toast was not yet in vogue.

A lot of (bad) savings advice follows this general pattern:

If you go to Starbucks for a coffee every day, you are wasting $3 every single day. That adds up to $1095 per year! Stop buying coffee and you'll build up your savings in no-time!

This is a terrible system! A much better one is to put aside money every payday, before having any opportunity to spend it, but that isn’t what I did. What I did was to view drinking coffee as a kind of weakness that needed to be overcome. Feeling like the way forward is to overcome weakness means that I was incentivized to confront my weakness, so that I could overcome it.

As a result, this scene was often played out: I stood in the line at Starbucks waiting to buy a coffee during my break while agonizing over whether or not I should go to the water fountain instead. The result would either be (1) coffee and feeling like a fatally flawed human being, or (2) feelings of moral superiority and a headache due to my unsatisfied caffeine addiction.

In this environment, buying a coffee is a really easy decision to make: I knew that I could continue to save money the next day, the coffee is delicious, I was usually tired and probably had a headache, etc. The immediate benefit calculus pit the goodness of the coffee against the hit of moral superiority from overcoming my own weakness. The actual financial savings barely figured.

At the end of the month, I’d throw whatever balance-above-a-threshold I had into my savings, which was normally zero dollars. This system took a lot of effort, and was not effective at actually putting money aside because that was never measured. I did however spend a lot of time agonizing over whether or not to buy coffees, and then feeling crappy either way.

So with the goal of saving $1095 per year, I could instead have set up an automatic transfer of $46 to my savings account to occur every payday. This is a good system because I only have to make the decision once (in a good state of mind) and it results in saving the required amount of money annually with no additional action. Better still, it takes effort to screw it up (dismantling the system).

Another way to view it is that we trust our day-to-day selves to effectively manage finances over a short period of time, but not over several years. Building a system like this puts access to resources in order of priorities, so the main impact of daily coffee buying would be a reduction in buying something else that day, e.g. dinner out. I would still manage to balance my monthly finances, but long-term goals would go as planned.

Funnily enough, my motivation for writing this post was that I actually forgot that my savings system existed recently, and was feeling bad about not saving more. That in-turn got me thinking about how the self-control narratives I enjoy are actually counterproductive to achieving my goals. At present, I have a chunk of my salary invested through various automatic channels, but I don’t see the process.

It is common advice to create automatic savings systems, and despite knowing that, I still didn’t create one myself. Thankfully, my employer did it for me, and got me to participate through stock discounts and a savings matching program.

I feel that I have undervalued the power of a well designed benefits package to both incentivize good behaviors and also enable them. Given that I worked for a decade without such things, I’m surprised I didn’t notice it sooner. While I don’t think I could have saved a large percentage of my salary when I worked for minimum wage, I think I could have managed $1095 per year this way, and that would have been a lot more than I saved by agonizing in the line at Starbucks.

Learnings

After a lot of thinking on this topic, the most important take-away for me was to consider the process of achieving a goal to be more a matter of designing the correct environment and less about overcoming personal weakness.

  1. Minimize opportunities to deviate from the goal
  2. Create or find an environment that makes achieving the goal the easiest choice
  3. Measure the actual desired outcome variable

I’m trying to apply similar thinking now to improving my cardio fitness (which is very boring) and losing weight with lower effort. This mostly seems to be working.