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Barrett's Rule

8 min

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Hi ,

We’ve got a legitimate (accidental) series on our hands here!

It didn’t start off this way, but we’re nearly done with a short series on effective behavior change.

If you missed any of the earlier emails, here’s a quick rundown:

We started off with Ironic Processes, discussing what happens when we try to “stop” ourselves from thinking “bad thoughts.”

In Dominant Thoughts we explored “priming,” a method for programming our subconscious.

In Sustainably Successful we contrasted maximum achievability and maximum sustainability…and discussed why confusing the two can be so disastrous.

Now that you’re all caught up, let’s get started with this week’s question:

How do I reshape the system?

I’ve long had a fondness for eponymous laws.

“Eponymous Laws” are pronouncements tied to a particular person, usually the person that coined the law in the first place.

The most famous example is “Murphy’s Law”: what can go wrong, will go wrong.

This fondness led me to coin “Barrett’s Law”: the most ironic outcome always happens.

More useful, however, is Barrett’s Rule.

In fact, Barrett’s Rule is the single most significant tool I have for long-term self improvement of any kind.

Internalizing it has led directly to all of the breakthroughs I’ve had in my life, modest though they may be.

It’s important enough that it’s written at the top of all of my Weekly Check Ins (a process detailed in The Difference Engine) as a reminder.

It’s simple. It’s relatively straight forward.

But it’ll change your life, if you let it.


Here it is:

No goals without systems.


This is not an original idea.

In fact, W Edwards Deming, a process improvement specialist and philosopher who lived from 1900 to 1993, put it this way:

“A bad system will beat a good person every time.”

Here’s what that means:

Each and every single one of us is embedded within a complex series of systems we call our “environment.”

There’s our living space, the people around us, our health, our education, our personal experiences, the political system of the country we’re in, our genetic programming, economic policy, our instincts….on and on and on.

These systems all interact, creating an incredibly complex and unpredictable series of outcomes.

Look around you: whatever behaviors, outcomes, and events are frequently occurring? Those are what’s being encouraged by the systems surrounding you. Our default reality is dictated by our systems.

No matter how lofty your ambitions, no matter how strong your will…if you are constantly struggling against a system that seeks to defeat you, eventually you will crumble.

Go with the “flow” of the system, however, and you will go further – and faster – than you could have ever dreamed.

If human kind were simply animal in nature, this email would stop here. Instead, we’ve been given the gift of rational analysis: we can imagine the world being different than it is. We can begin to pry apart the cause and effect relationships that affect our environment.

In short: the system doesn’t just change us…we can change the system.

And since systems can hurt us, delay us, and stunt our growth…

It stands to reason that systems can help us, as well.

Utopia and dystopia alike are defined by their systems.

Your own capability – for growth, love, change, achievement, whatever –

Is the result not just of your efforts…

But of your efforts plus all the systems you put in place.

That ends up being quite the difference.


Truly internalizing Barrett’s Rule means accepting the idea that success in life is far less about willpower than we have been led to believe.

It also means looking outside of your self for the causes of failure when it happens.

This is a more difficult transition than it may seem on the surface.

We are used to beating ourselves up when we fall short. In many ways, we like. If we accept full responsibility for every shortcoming, that means that success was possible – that ultimately, we have total control over what happens to us, that we’re not at the mercy of systems we can’t being to understand. Berating yourself because you cheated on your diet plan or didn’t get that big promotion is one way that we reaffirm our autonomy in the world. “I am all powerful, therefore this is all my fault.”

But of course, we aren’t all powerful. We are, in fact, at the mercy of systems we can neither understand nor control. We are far less independent, and far weaker, than we are comfortable accepting.

Ironically, however, it is exactly this acceptance that allows us to start making progress.

When you accept that the problem is often not internal, but rather an issue of the systems you find yourself embedded within, you approach the problems of success and failure differently.

You start viewing your problems as largely mechanical.

You begin asking, “what systems encouraged this behavior?” rather than “why did *I* do this?”

You start wondering, “what can I change to improve my chances of success?” rather than “what is wrong with me?”

As someone who has a WEALTH of negative self-talk ricocheting around my skull at all times, this change in mindset has been profound.

And, as it turns out, it makes it a LOT easier to get what I want.


“No goals without systems.”

What does systems mean, exactly?

When we’re thinking about behavior change (and all goal achievement starts, at some level, with behavior change), there are a few basic types of interventions that will do most of the work. I’m sure there are many more, but these are the ones that consistently work for me:


You’ve heard people talking about “burning the boats,” right?

“In 1519, Captain Hernán Cortés landed in Veracruz to begin his great conquest. Upon arriving, he reportedly gave an order to his men to burn the ships in which they arrived in. In essence, he gave them no other option but to succeed at the goal of conquering.”

While that’s certainly a dramatic example, the core concept is fairly simple:

Go all in and make it hard to back out.

Want to quit smoking? Throw all your cigarettes out first thing.

Want to go on a diet? Get all the junk food out of the house.

Want to limit social media? Downgrade to a flip phone.

These are all commitment devices – getting your skin in the game early, while your motivation level is high.

With any significant behavior change, it’s safe to assume that you’ll feel differently about it halfway through than you do at the beginning. Commitment devices harness that early enthusiasm by reducing your options later on.


If you want to encourage change, raise the stakes.

We hate losing. In fact, winning feels less good to us than losing feels bad. We’re wired to avoid losses whenever possible.

If you want to change, you can use that tendency by making failure extra painful.

My personal favorite way to do this is to put money on the line. Beeminder and Stickk allow you to track goals and pledge real money if you fall short. If you want an extra nudge, you can even nominate that money to go to someone you hate – Biden, for example, if you’re a Trump fan, or vice versa.

We don’t need to bet large sums to benefit from these effects. I tend to pledge just enough money that losing it would be painful.

In fact, I’m currently using Stickk to help me rebuild my faltering exercise habit. You can check out my current status here.

I consistently underestimate the effect that wagering money will have on my success rate. It’s almost irritating at this point.


If you have a behavior you want less of, increase friction.

If you have a behavior you want more of, reduce friction.

If you’re looking at your phone too much, put it in the other room, or on the top of the fridge, or lock it in a jar with a timer on it.

(Yes, that thing is real and it is amazing).

If you want to stop ordering takeout, delete all the apps from your phone, give all your debit cards to your partner, or move to the middle of the woods.

If you want to read more, have books in every room of the house, get rid of your TV, and block off time every day.

If you want to be more loving towards your partner, set a reminder for every morning, put Post-It Notes everywhere to remind you, and subscribe to a flower delivery service.

Your brain is lazy. It’s always looking for the easy way out. Make a behavior even slightly more irritating and that behavior will become much less likely.


Your mileage may vary, but I benefit alot from real-time feedback.

For example: I weigh myself every single morning. It’s useful to me to know whether my weight is up or down each day. It provides feedback I can use to assess my own behavior.

Similarly, if you’re working on saving money, having a big old scoreboard posted somewhere prominent showing your current savings balance will let you know how you’re doing.

The more immediate the feedback, and the more in your face it is, the more effective that feedback will be in driving your behavior going forward.

However, data can be dangerous. A point is not a trend. A single data point tells you very little; the average over time tells you far more.

Focus on your trend over time – variability is everywhere in nature and if you obsess over randomness you’ll make yourself sick.

Social Pressure

We love to imagine ourselves as captains of our destiny, making decisions and seeing them through all by our lonesome.

But, for me?

Nothing’s more effective at changing my behavior than worrying about letting someone down.

We’re social creatures. We’re highly attuned to how other people see us, and we don’t want to appear weak or foolish if we can help it.

Use that tendency to your advantage. Hire a coach to check in on your progress. Get a workout buddy that expects you to be at the gym at 9. Post your progress and encourage people to follow up (notice how I linked to my workout page up there?)

Sometimes there’s nothing more powerful than simply having someone you have to report to. Even if they never give you a hard time about slipping up, just knowing you have to face the music can be enough to keep you on track.


Whenever you’re seeking to change a behavior or achieve a goal, remember:

No goals without systems.

Even better, ask yourself: “How many of these systems can I utilize?”

For my own current fitness goals, I have several systems in place at once:

While having all these systems in place is no guarantee of success (nothing is, especially with deeply-ingrained habits), they make it far harder for me to go off course.

And that’s really what this is all about:

Stacking the deck in your favor…over time.

That last bit is important, but we’ll get to it next week when we finish up this series by talking about….


See you then.


Cool Stuff To Read:

Authenticity is a Sham. For a concept that is literally everywhere (at least, everywhere for a kid that probably read The Catcher In The Rye far too young), I hadn’t really read anybody tussle with it in a serious way. Really interesting read.

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