William James Told People to Automate Their Lives in 1892

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william james headshot

Inside the book that taught me the parallels of grit and financial freedom was a brief mention of another book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. While reading about the daily routines of notable individuals, I came across this quote from philosopher and psychologist William James (emphasis mine):

The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague.

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.

The quote is great, but I was surprised by the date – James wrote this in 1892!

Creating good habits means that it takes little effort to doing the right thing. If you’re forcing it, like going on a crash diet, every time you do so you’ll expend energy. Willpower is like a muscle. If your house is full of junk food, you’ll constantly spend energy trying to not eat it. If you spend hours online shopping, you’ll spend energy trying not to buy things you don’t need. Your willpower muscle will weaken, and eventually you’ll won’t have the energy to say no. If you have to consciously make the decision to save money every month, you’re likely to forget.

Make life easier for yourself. Automate everything you can. Remove all the junk food in the house. Unsubscribe from that daily “sale” newsletter from Groupon or Macy’s. Sign up for automatic paycheck withdrawals into your retirement account. Make the default choice – the one that happens with the least energy – the one that is best for you.

Of course, the book also pointed out that James in real life kept no regular schedule, was chronically indecisive, and a constant procrastinator. Reminds me of this XKCD comic:


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  1. I love it! I honestly wouldn’t have been able to save 50% of my income without automation. Pretty much everything is on autopilot: paychecks, savings contributions, retirement contributions, debt payments, etc.

    And I have zero self-control, so I don’t keep soda in the house, keep sweets in hard-to-reach places, and carry around only healthy snacks. I set up barriers to convenience, like credit card info for online shopping, to save money. It’s trained me to realize what is and isn’t a necessity, so over time the barriers are no longer needed. Your mind automatically defaults to “frugal.”

  2. Being able to automate is so important to being able to save money and have a healthy financial life. I too automate basically everything in my life. The great thing with automating savings is that you’ll get used to the size of your paycheck since you don’t see the rest. Saving is a lot like eating. You sort of just go with whatever you see on your plate. Even if you tell yourself to save, it’s so easy to spend if you aren’t automating your savings and keeping it out of your hands.

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