The Notch System


“Fake it till you make it” is valuable advice, but difficult to accomplish.

The idea is that by demonstrating useful behaviours (such as pretending to be a confident person), you slowly build a lifestyle that is congruent with that behaviour. This alters your personality and makes it easier for you to exhibit those behaviours naturally, having internalised the persona you once had to act out. It works partially because other people look to you to determine how they should live their life. If you portray yourself as an authority on a matter (e.g. exuding complete confidence like you deserve it), people will often buy into it and give you feedback affirming that persona.

Most people scorn this advice, advising you to “just be yourself” instead. There are two common explanations for this. 1) They do not believe personalities are malleable, and see it as a choice between authenticity and acting. In reality, the choice is between authenticity and temporary acting, which will later become genuine expression. 2) They recognise you could improve yourself, and want to discourage you. Such people tend to be needy, and are scared of losing value they derive from your current persona. (For example, they might not want you to become more attractive, because then you wouldn’t feel the need to buy them drinks constantly.)

Ignore them.

The fastest way to grow is to bite off more than you can chew, and chew like hell. It’s also the fastest way to fail, which makes it a difficult and uncomfortable process. You should be able to prevent crippling failure with a little common sense (e.g. don’t fake being able to bench 500lb then get crushed by it), but it will likely always stress you a little. This stress is a valuable learning experience, and you should not avoid it.

Another source of difficulty is not knowing how to fake it. More specifically, we tend to assume we are given a binary option; either we maintain our current personality, or we adopt a completely different one. When we are not prepared for the latter, it backfires and can crush us, possibly without us even understanding what went wrong and being able to learn from it.

At 13, I was my school’s token skinny, unpopular nerd. If you had asked me to fake being one of the popular jocks of the grade, I probably would emulated some obvious behaviours (flexing muscles, making crude jokes, etc.) without any of the fundamentals (proactiveness, an easy-going attitude, etc.). At best, I would have entrenched my “weird” reputation even further. Most likely, I would have been mocked and given up on the proposition.

The gap between myself and a popular kid was simply too large to bridge with my acting chops. It would be like pretending to be a movie star; I could probably rock a tux with the same confidence, but I can’t fake the Lamborghini or the public recognition or the paparazzi. A YouTube prank show could pull it off, but for most practical purposes, there are just some personas  you can’t reasonably fake until you make it.

What you can do is fake just a little more success than you currently have.

I call this the “notch system”. You take some aspect of your life (confidence, discipline, positivity… any aspect will do) and quantify it as a ranking between 1 and 10.

(This scale can be linear, exponential, logarithmic, or whatever sort of function you choose; most attempts to quantify personal development – or worse, express it in a formula – are completely arbitrary anyway, so use whatever system you deem appropriate.)

Let’s go back to the celebrity example. A hermit in the Sahara desert might score a 1 on the public recognition scale, while Barack Obama would score a 10. I might arbitrarily rate myself at 3 – I’m reasonably well known around my university and some related extracurriculars, but most people on the street will have no idea who I am.

The next step is simply to fake being one notch higher on the scale.

If I’m a 3 on the public recognition scale, I start acting like a 4, and show up to a party assuming people have already heard of me and will probably like me. If I’m a 7 on the discipline scale, I start acting like an 8 and get an extra five minutes of programming done before heading home. If I’m a 1 on the happiness scale, I start acting like a 2 and put the goddamn knife down and go outside.

You don’t have to fake being perfect.

Just fake being a little better than you currently are.

This usually makes the process substantially easier. You probably have much more experience with people one notch higher on the scale (as opposed to personally knowing a celebrity), making it easier to emulate them. It’s a lot less daunting, and since it’s a smaller departure from your usual personality, there’s a lot less risk of it backfiring on you.

(There are exceptions – some people find it easier to “go the full mile” and step several notches up, since it allows them to channel another personality completely, rather than think of themselves as a struggling person making small improvements. Try a couple of different notch disparities and see what works for you.)

It gets even easier – and your metacognition gets stronger – when you pair this strategy with a timeframe. If you evaluate yourself as a 3 at 8:00am, decide that you’ll act like a 4 until 9:00am. Once the timeframe is up, you can quit (knowing you’ve made more progress than you otherwise would have) or iterate the process by starting again. Usually, the hour of productivity will naturally increase your self-evaluation (e.g. you might now feel like a 4), making subsequent applications even more productive.

You can also make this process more concrete by setting out criteria for each specific ranking. A basic example might look like this (using a 1-8 scale; again, it’s arbitrary):



I might evaluate the past hour and decide I wasted 30 mins, which would put me at Notch 4. From there, I decide to pursue Notch 5 and work solidly for the next 40 minutes and then reward myself with a 20 minutes break. (Or follow a 20-10-20-10 structure.) It’s a simple way to make incremental progress.

I would also probably enjoy the breaks more, since there’s less guilt about wasting time. You might still feel guilty (after all, you’re still wasting 20 minutes) and feel like you should be switching to Notch 8 instead. If you can jump that many notches, great. Most people, though, will find it tough to stick to Notch 8 and quickly revert back to Notch 4 or even less. Honestly decide how many notches you can reasonably handle, and be happy pursuing them. Eventually that notch will be completely natural to you, and you can step up even further.

The notch system is designed to help you make sustainable progress and encourage you to identify small tweaks you could make to your life to improve it. It translates something intangible (“I’m going to be more confident now”) into a slightly more tangible goal (“I’m going to be a 7 for the next hour, which means introducing myself to this girl instead of standing in the corner”).

You’re currently reading a blog, which means your confidence is probably fairly neutral. You could start using the notch system by evaluating your proactivity instead.

If 1 is wasting your day completely, and 10 is living the most interesting and eventful life possibly, where do you stand right now? Could you start living just one notch above that?