The well-ordered life may be defined as that set of sound beliefs and good practices which are most conducive to productivity and therefore happiness, at least insofar as as happiness depends on productivity.

The well-ordered life has several types of component: goals; projects, which naturally flow from goals, and which are essentially long-term plans; habits, or actions aimed at the goals and which one aims to do regularly; plans for the day or week; assessments, or evaluating the whole, or stock-taking; and, different from all of these, a set of beliefs and states of attention that support the whole.

Let me explain the general theory behind the claim that the beliefs and practices I have in mind do, in fact, conduce to productivity and thus happiness. There is a way to live, which many of us have practiced at least from time to time and which some people practice quite a lot, which has been variously described as “peak performance,” “getting things done,” “self-discipline,” or as I will put it, a “well-ordered life.”

This generally involves really accepting, really believing in, certain of what might be called life goals. If you do not believe in these goals, the whole thing breaks down. Next, flowing from these goals, you must embrace certain projects; the projects must be broad and long-term, meaning they incorporate many different activities but have a definite end point. These must be tractable and perfectly realistic, and again, you must be fully “on board” with the wisdom of these projects. Projects can include things like writing a paper, working through a tutorial, writing a large computer program, and much more, depending on your career.

This background—your global goals and your significant, big projects—is the backdrop for your daily life. If this backdrop is not well-ordered, then your daily life will fall apart. If you lose faith in your goals, little everyday activities will be hard to do. Similarly, if you decide that a certain project does not serve your goals, you will not be able to motivate yourself to take actions. So you must guard your commitment to your goals and projects jealously, and if it starts to get shaky, you need to reassess as soon as possible.

Your daily life is structured by three main things: habits, plans, and assessments. Your habits are like the structure of your day. They can and probably should include a schedule and are regular activities that move you toward the completion of a project. Plans are like the content of your day. The habits and schedule might give you an outline, but you still need to think through how to flesh out the outline. Finally, there are assessments, which can be done at the same time as plans are done, but which involve evaluating your past performance, introspecting about how you feel about everything, and frankly squashing irrational thoughts that are getting in the way.

Such a life is well-ordered because projects flow from goals, while habits, plans, and assessments are all in service of the projects and, through them, the goals. It is a system with different parts; but the parts all take place in your life, meaning they at bottom take the form of beliefs and actions that you strongly identify with and that actually make up who you are.

This then leads to the last element of the well-ordered life: beliefs that support the whole. As we move through life, we are not in direct control of our beliefs or even most of our actions. We find ourselves believing things or with attitudes that we do not wish or that even surprise or dismay us. These beliefs can greatly support a well-ordered life, but they can also undermine it entirely. If you believe a goal is entirely unattainable, or a project undoable, you will probably lack the motivation needed to pursue it.

This is why assessment, or stock-taking, is so important if you are to maintain a well-ordered life, especially if you tend to be depressed or nervous or your self-confidence is low. You need to explore and, as it were, tidy up your mind.

You should expel any notion that self-discipline is a matter of luck, as if some people have it and others don’t. It is also an error to think self-discipline is a matter of remembering some brilliant insight you or someone else had, or staying in the right frame of mind. Indeed, self-discipline is not any one thing at all. It is, as I said, a system, with various working parts.

It is true that some people just rather naturally fall into the good habits and beliefs that constitute the well-ordered life. But the vast majority of us do not. The better you understand these parts, bear them in mind, and work on them until the whole thing is a finely-tuned machine, the more control you’ll have over your life. This is not easy and, like any complex system, a lot can go wrong. That’s why it’s so necessary to take stock and plan.