Micro-rules of productivity

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Power of micro-rules

Micro-rules are a set of rules of behavior that foster self-discipline without demanding grit. A micro-rule might say: "As of today, I will spend no less than 4 minutes learning English", or "As of today, I will cut down my smoking from 20 to 19 cigarettes per day".

The power of micro-rules comes from the fact that they can be introduced painlessly, and that they gradually condition the mind to love the object of conditioning. Micro-rules might be the most effective pathway towards high productivity. This is how a free individual can transition from productivity based on self-discipline to productivity based on the fun of being productive.

When a well-schooled mind takes on perfectionist goals, minor obstacles and cumulative failures can lead to significant sense of displeasure (see: 100 bad habits learned at school). Once displeasure enters the feedback loop with its impact on productivity, the best crafted plan may collapse. The failure of New Year's resolutions is a prime example. My texts at SuperMemo Guru paint an idealistic picture of happy free learning, creativity, and good sleep. However, if all the ideals were to be implemented for a deadline, they might result in the opposite: stress, bad sleep, and chaos. Rome was not built in a day.

Micro-rules may produce a positive feedback loop between the pleasure of productivity and the productivity itself. For example, a little bit of learning increases the pleasure of learning, which in turn may call for more learning. That feedback loop will ultimately get closed by fatigue or competing interests or obligations. In a healthy individual, in the long run, free learning initiated with micro-rules will fill up all the allocated time with theoretically maximum productivity.

In youth, I tried many approaches to "personal reform" and productivity. In the end, micro-rules served a personal transformation as explained in my story below:

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
Long years of schooling did not destroy my self-discipline and the ability to self-motivate. I attribute that to a slow incremental recovery with the help of productivity micro-rules. In my own case, micro-rules of productivity might be "never peek at e-mail while working", "never work beyond your optimum sleep time", "exercise daily", etc. I can actually date the development of my micro-rules set to Aug 31, 1983. I was at the advanced age of 21 then, which is pretty late for personal reforms. I claim that my brain was just slow to mature. It is better to reform at middle age than never! Aug 31, 1983 was the day I decided my progress would be relentless, and I never stopped improving the rule set. I started small with rules like "10 min. of English every day" or "2 pages of a biochemistry book per day". As soon as my micro-rule set was demonstrated to be sustainable and pleasurable, I would add a bit of extra effort (e.g. improving from 10 min to 15 min per day). After a mere 100 days, I could already see powerful effects. This started me onto a path of relentless progress until I could say, a few years later, that my whole days were spent productively. That gradual self-improvement lead to (1) Tools : Plan in SuperMemo and (2) incremental reading. Plan determines what I do, incremental learning determines how I do it. These days, I enhance those two with SleepChart, which also helps me optimize the time of sleep, the time for work, and the time for exercise. My wild guess is that it took some 6-8 years to get from simple baby steps to reaching 80-90% of my productivity potential. That maximum productivity potential is reached when adding more self-discipline could be bad for health. This means that it took me some 26-30 years of brain development to become a fully productive individual. Today, productivity is instinctive and comes with pleasure. There is no struggle. I prove elsewhere in this book that I had been damaged by schooling too. I am sure I could have reached my development and productivity benchmarks earlier if I employed free learning throughout my youth

Why micro-rules work?

The power of micro-rules can be explained by the mathematics of reward. New Year's resolutions are often too tough. They cause more pain of execution than they bring in rewards of accomplishment. The first day of a tough diet feels great: the pain is still bearable, and the big reward comes from feeling like a new powerful man. However, as the days go by, the pain stays the same, or gets worse, while the reward of greatness wanes. It then appears that minor rewards of the effects are usually insufficient to sustain the effort. This is why New Year's resolution fail in a vast majority of cases.

When setting up a micro-rule, it makes sense to ask if the pain of the rule is little enough to sustain the rule for life. Is reading a page of a book per day sustainable. It seems achievable for anyone. Introducing the rule may feel as no less of an achievement than any big New Year's resolution. Sustaining it keeps accumulating the benefits. Each new page that has been read, brings back to memory and highlights the potential value of those read previously. Within a year, a valuable book will have been read. For a micro rule beginner, it may turn out to be the first book of value read "properly" with full focus.

As life is full of ups and downs, full of surprises, for most people, even the simplest rule may be hard to sustain. Reading a book in times of disease might be hard or not even recommended. The rules that involve exercise or diet may call for even more exceptions. Each time a rule is broken, it provides a penalty of dissatisfaction with oneself. Each time it is broken, its magic is undermined. This makes it easy to break it again. A good rule must provide the balance of reward and penalty that will keep it alive indefinitely. A painless way of giving up on a rule that is becoming too painful or not rewarding enough is to replace it with a better rule, e.g. a page of another book, or perhaps 5 minutes of incremental reading.

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru