Yes. That time of the year again. The time in which you write down the things you want to achieve in 2018, your new year’s resolutions. A Christmas classic. This time around, you have decided it won’t be like any other year. You are finally going to transform your life. You are determined, and so you go on to set the usual ambitious goals.
January 2018. You feel full of willpower. Energy rushes through your veins, like nothing is impossible. You are going to drop 5 kg. You are going to find another job. You are going to learn that exotic new language. You will read a book per week.
And that is how you start going to the gym daily. You buy all the books you want to read that first month. You are finally taking ownership of your professional career, so you start by crafting the perfect LinkedIn profile. Because no matter what, you are finding a better job in 2018. This year — you tell yourself — it is going to work out.
Fast forward, May 2018. You wake up on a Sunday morning and then it hits you. Hard. It’s been 3 months since you last visited the gym. That book you started after Christmas is still there, picking up dust on the shelves; you have read a mere 100 pages in the past 5 months. You decide to stop paying the Rosetta Stone subscription, because after all you have no spare time to learn a new language. Go figure finding a better job. You are so busy as you are right now that those things you wanted to do on top of just surviving feels like wishful thinking in hindsight.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results — Anonymous (yes, “Anonymous”. There is no proof that Albert Einstein said this)
Sounds familiar? I have been there. Time and time again, year after year. So I decided I would understand why I was failing and what I needed to change to get results.
Science has an explanation to what is happening to you
Dr. George Loewenstein, grandson of Sigmund Freud and considered to be co-founder of behavioural economics, has done plenty of work around intertemporal choice, or our ability to select certain choices rather than others over time:
People are disproportionately attracted to immediately available rewards. When two rewards (e.g., the pleasure of cigarette and the pleasure of good health) are both substantially delayed, the individual is able to make a rational trade-off between them. However, when one reward (the cigarette in this example) is imminent, it exerts a disproportionate attraction — Stephen, H and G. Loewenstein
When we set goals we are envisioning the life we want in the future. However, when it comes to making decisions in the present moment, our brains become overwhelmed and turn to instant gratification. And this is most times at odds with the course of actions that are really required to achieve your goals.
This is why we write lists with our big goals every December, to then fall into our old patterns after only a few weeks. This is why you stop going to the gym, why our diet is so difficult to change, and why losing weight is so hard. This is why we may not find time to read as much as we should. Or why working our way towards a better, more rewarding professional career is much harder than it seems. Change requires sacrificing things in the present moment on behalf of a better future, and our brains don’t do well reconciling both needs.
The good news: you can break this vicious circle
There is hope. Research shows that delayed gratification, or being able to sacrifice our immediate desires to invest into our longer term aspirations, is a great predictor of personal and professional success.
But adopting delayed gratification is not easy. Otherwise everyone could do it, and we would not be having this conversation. How can we break the vicious circle? Defining our principles before doing anything else, the identity we want to work towards. This is the strongest driver of behavioural change.
Based on this I suggest to you a 5-steps process backed by research that I have tried on myself successfully, which is solidly anchored by the person you want to become.
1. Defining the person you want to be, your core principles
“You have a great power; power over yourself” — Edgar Morin
As I said in a previous article, it is not about dropping 5 kg. It is about making a decision to become a stronger, healthier individual. See where I am going with this? The result may be the same, but the shift in perspective makes it a much stronger driver of behaviour. You are aligning goals with your identity.
To define your identity, define first the main areas of your life. It may be family, work, your partner, your intellectual and spiritual growth, etc. We all have our own. Then write down your mission statement, the principles informing the person you want to be in 2018, for each of these areas. Be specific and clear. What kind of professional do you want to become? How do you want your partner to feel about you? What do you want your family and friends to see in you? This exercise will allow you to define the most important things in your life, it will help us go into a first things first mentality. Priorities will become a lot clearer.
2. Setting up your aspirations
Aspirations are a better representation of the projection of your future self than goals. They link better with the process of defining your identity, they reflect the person you envision to become. That is why setting goals in isolation is a weak exercise, for they have no anchor. Same for strict timeframes. You will need to allow for some flexibility in the timeframe in which aspirations may be fulfilled, because you cannot really control when some things may happen. You can only control what you do on a daily basis to get there.
Once aspirations are defined, your annual goals are no longer goals. They are means to those longer term aspirations, they become the milestones that will push you through your timeline in the quest of the person that you are willing to become. That is why setting up 15 goals for 2018 will set you up for failure. Narrow the focus to what is really key, and keep your aspirations limited to 1–2 per area of responsibility.
Principles are very strong decision drivers. Goals alone aren’t. In the moment of choice, when you don’t want to do something that you should be doing, you will ask yourself if not doing that is consistent with the person you are aspiring to be. That will center you again. That is why goals need to be the consequence of principles and not the other way round.
3. Building small changes into daily routines and habits consistent with your identity-based aspirations
Systems are essential to creative output and decision making — Ray Dalio
The link connecting the person you want to be and the person you are right now are systems, habits and routines. They will drive you to your goals, they will make you productive. Once you have set your identity, and the aspirations that are consistent with becoming that person, you need to look into the measures that week after week will take you closer to your goal.
Simple processes are key to success because they cement us in the present time. They stop us from living in the past (frustration around non-achieved goals and being your old self) and in the future (how do I get there?). Once a successful routine is put in place, the end results can be surprising.
So how do we do this?
a) Focus on really small changes that will easily transform into habits
Don’t go from sitting on your couch to hitting the gym every day of the week. Willpower and motivation may get you started, but they will invariably fail you on the longer run. You need to focus on introducing small changes, and making the threshold for action so low that you cannot say no to getting started. How about doing 10 push ups per day, and increasing by 1 push up every day? How easy is that? Introducing a small change in your life can result in very large changes over time. 10 push ups a day amount to 3,600 push ups in a year. Would you agree that you will be somewhat stronger and leaner in a year’s time by introducing this simple change into your life? Something that took you 30 seconds to do daily eventually compounded without noticing.
Apply this to any other aspiration. Lets pick learning a new skill. Reading about that skill from credible authors is a great way to start. How about starting at 10 pages of reading per day? Want to learn how to cook? can you spare 10 minutes per day to watch some Youtube videos?
Break the process into small actions, and build routines that you can easily add to your schedule every week. Increment the intensity of the routines over time and see where these small changes take you in a year’s time. You will see how powerful this is.
b) Use your calendar
If you fulfil your obligations everyday you don’t need to worry about the future.” — Jordan B. Peterson
You need a weekly plan. Make sure you take time on Sundays to set it up. Weekly execution is the ideal timeframe, long enough to give you perspective and sense of progress but short enough to keep you in the present moment. Protect time in advance for your routines and your priorities in the calendar. You will notice that something interesting will happen: after fitting in everything that is required to push your goals agenda, you will still see a lot of time available through the week. It will give you an anticipated sense of order and you will be pushed to comply with the plan.
c) Trust the system. Shift your focus from your goals to your systems
We cannot be creative or productive when we are constantly questioning ourselves, or trying to define the perfect workflow. Just find something that gets you going, that works with your schedule and represents progress, and stick to it. The best habits are those that you can keep, success is not completing one round, but coming back to the practice. Remember, consistency is a very good predictor of success.
If you keep up with these small changes, you focus less on the longer term aspiration. Your daily routines will take you there over time. If it is proven that your brain would rather surrender to instant gratification when deciding the immediate path of action, then this process may be a way to take advantage of your own nature: take small, daily action (just 10 push ups per day, or reading 10 pages per day), and you will feel like you are doing something about it,releasing dopamine into your system. You will allow your brain to feel rewarded for completing actions in the present time, and you will start feeling less pressured by the longer term goal. You will focus on your schedule, on executing weekly. You will trust the system, and sooner than you think you will see progress.
Chose daily lifestyle options over life-changing transformations. The former will take you to the latter.
4. Track progress, and adjust where necessary
I keep a journal, I write every morning to review my goals, to check in and to energyse myself. I also keep a productivity journal where I track how I am doing with my daily routines. The key is always knowing if I am winning or losing. You cannot track what you cannot measure. Writing daily will allow you to measure and review your systems, recalibrating those things that may not be working well, tweaking your processes to adapt them to your life. It will also create motivational momentum. It will keep you in action.
5. Be gentle with yourself. Accept that you are not perfect
You will fail at some point, nobody can be 100% consistent over time. You will succumb to life’s whirlwind now and then. And that not only is ok but is actually to be expected. You cannot operate at peak all the time. Acceptance of this reality is key, as this will give you the strength to correct course and come back to your systems, to acknowledge and reset. Don’t be obsessed about perfect compliance with the plan. Remember, when working towards the person you want to be, progress is all there is. We are not perfect, and seeking perfection will eventually block you. Perfection is the enemy of good.
Conclusion: it all comes down to you putting in the necessary action
It is more important to start than to be excellent. You’ll learn more from the process of pursuing excellence than from the products of achieving it. — James Clear
The key common element to all steps of the process is action. You need to do the thinking, set the aspirations, implement the routines, track progress, adapt as necessary and accept that you will miss the post here and then. You need to do stuff to get stuff done. The most thoughtful framework is worth nothing if you don’t get up and decide to do something about your own progress. Because nobody else can do that for you.