Your Body is a System

This stuff seems so easy. So why is it sometimes so hard?

We understand food and sleep. We know how it affects us. We know about input and output, and the impact of grains and fructose on the body. If you’ve been on this site a while, you know it well. If you’re just starting, trust me, the science gets easier. (I just finished reading Stephen Guyenet— every post– and man, I learned a ton.)

Still, many of us have trouble hitting the sweet spot– a place of balance where everything just kind of flows. We eat the right food, we sleep enough every day, we exercise regularly. All that stuff, we understand it very clearly– but making it actually happen is something else entirely.

I’ve been trying to get a better grasp on this recently. I’ve been reading books that help, like Work the System, which explains how to have a better, more profitable business by understanding its underlying mechanisms. The trick is never about willpower– it’s about setting up things that happen automatically, making the decisions easy and helping mistakes gradually go away.

Willpower is also a system; there are ways to improve it and tests for it, too. One of them, Martin Berkhan calls The Marshmallow Test, and it will show you how likely you are to succeed at stuff like quitting smoking and doing 30 day diet attempts (like Robb’s challenge in the Paleo Solution). But it also proves that maybe it isn’t about willpower at all, but instead about moving around temptation. Instead of saying you failed, or you can’t do it, maybe you should just learn to look away or try cue exposure therapy instead. Understand what’s going on behind your decision process to help mould it.

As the Heath brothers would say in their bestseller Switch, you need to direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path.

In other words, optimize the mechanism. Don’t worry about forcing your way through it. Use technique instead.

We all do this when we say we want to “purge our fridge.” We know we’re going to cheat if we have Froot Loops in the cupboard, so we flush them. We look outside of ourselves to get an idea of what we’re like, and make decisions from there. It’s hard to do that in the moment (while eating Froot Loops), so we have to do it beforehand. All of life is like this.

So before you say you can’t do it, or you’re “close enough,” or you can’t really keep a regular exercise schedule, look at where your system is guiding you. Your preferences (pasta, Froot Loops, whatever) are often just patterns, and they can be broken if you put something else there. Like Plinko— the ball goes where they designed it to go.

Look, this corridor you’re walking down– you built it. But you can build another one. And if you do, that’s the direction you’ll go, instead. Try it.

This is a post by Julien Smith, who Robb met while doing MovNat in July with Erwan Le Corre. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Trust Agents, and usually blogs over here. Thanks for reading. :)

(Photo by seier+seier)

Categories: General, Sleep


Robb Wolf’s 30 Day Paleo Transformation

Have you heard about the Paleo diet and were curious about how to get started? Or maybe you’ve been trying Paleo for a while but have questions or aren’t sure what the right exercise program is for you? Or maybe you just want a 30-day meal plan and shopping list to make things easier? Then Robb Wolf’s 30 Day Paleo Transformation is for you.


  1. Jules Marsh says

    Great post! The important thing to remember is that there are people out there whose only job in life is to get you to eat fruit loops. There’s a guy out there right now wondering how he’s going to pay his mortgage if Robb Wolf convinces you not to eat Fruit Loops. You’d better believe he is being systematic in his thinking about how to do that. He is studying the psychology. He is planning and testing and reassessing. The deck is very much stacked against you when you walk in the door of Safeway. A lot of people have spent a lot of time and invested a lot of money into trying to make sure you don’t walk out without a box of Fruit Loops, a bag of M&M’s, and a case of Diet Rite. So yeah, if you want to be successful you’d better be just as systematic and have a well thought out plan for defense.

    • Sarah says

      Yeah!!! No wonder I feel stressed when I go to any shop. Faced with those thousands of choices I freeze up, and now I always take a list and stick to it.

  2. Bob Carson says

    There’s always SOMETHING to create doubt and concern.

    For example, I feel absolutely great… almost better than anyone has a right to! ….. yet my total cholesterol is around 220 and my LDL is around 165. No one can say to my full satisfaction whether I’m in any danger of atherowhateveryoucall it or not.

    In fact, whatever my other numbers are either matter or don’t depending upon which expert you listen to.

    The moral is that there is always something to cause doubt and low-level anxiety to creep in.

    This stuff is all great and such, until I drop over at 55 of a heart attack!

  3. says

    This is a fantastic article and I love the references. I actually talk about systems and how they are implemented in the business world but I try (not always successfully) implement them in my personal life. Do you have any examples of “systems” people have setup that seem to work for them beyond what you have described? For instance what are some good routine for cooking/grocery shopping or anything else that might help.

    Thanks Julien and Robb.


  4. says

    Hi Ankit,

    I’m self-employed. So I’m constantly working to set myself up according to a system that will be optimally productive. Without it, I’ll die.

    In Work the System, Sam Carpenter talks about structuring your life up according to a kind of corridor, like what I describe above, but he doesn’t do it with his personal life. I do.

    So I set up as much as possible ahead of time. My ‘get out of bed’ routine led me to find a way to be productive until pretty much noon every day, and only when I deviate do I slack off.

    But I’ve built what I have around a lot of trial and error, during which I’ve gotten to know myself. I guess the main thing is to understand why we’re “failing” at certain things– not basing it on willpower, but instead on an improperly set up structure.

  5. says

    Boom. Couldn’t have come at a better time for me (not diet related, but more so exercise and purpose/passion/contribution related). Love the “direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path” link. I’m definitely reading Switched. Thank you, Robb.

  6. Scott says

    I’m always glad when I stop by. My diet and training have been going pretty well but I’m lacking organization and productivity in a lot of other areas. I was just thinking about it today! Thanks for the great post and references. I’m going to check out some of those books for sure.

    Robb, I owe you a great deal of thanks for really selling me on the paleo deal. Here’s a blog post from by gym that shows my results in just 4 months (and many more to come!)

    Thanks again for all the great work you folks do!

  7. Caveman formally known as Daniel says


    I hope you get this as its posted after the fact. I find all the work by Dr. Robert Anthony useful. Going to check out this other stuff.



  8. Justin S. says

    Great post. I bought Julien’s book resulting in the kick in the ass I needed to get my blog idea rolling (should be up soon). Thanks Robb. Hope to catch a seminar in Portland soon.

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