“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything” ―John C. Maxwell.
Welcome to the “Planning Block”
Allow me to tell you a little story to set the context.
Some time ago I decided that I would go back to weight-lifting, a practice that was a key element of my physical training while competing in professional motor racing but that I had dropped since retiring years back.
Of course, I was going to do this right, so I started by researching the ultimate workout routine. Main movements, accessory exercises, cardio combinations, protein intake ratios. I bought the books, bookmarked the sites. I systematised all the advice I could find and crafted the perfect workout plan. Yes, for a Strength Training PhD.
So many different resources and the overload of often contradicting information had made it impossible for me to actually act on anything. Everyday I would find a new piece of info and I would modify the masterplan. There was always something I could improve, something I could tweak.
So while I kept making 0.1% improvements on the plan, I also kept doing nothing about the actual “I need to work out” part of it. I kept digging a deeper “Planning Block” hole.
The difficulty is to set a clear target and then design a simple, effective routine triggered by simple actions that can take you to your objectives. In my case, I eventually stumbled upon this great site by training coach Andy Morgan. Andy recommends a minimalist but very effective training programme: just 5 sets of 3 exercises per day (bench press, squat, deadlift), 3 days a week, plus a measured diet. Period.
Me: “but Andy, can I (insert your favourite exercise tweak)?” No. “But then, could I maybe do (insert your preferred additional movement)?” NO. It was hard, but I learned that I had to trust the simple routine, do the work as prescribed and stop adding complexity where it does not belong.
The secret of Andy’s programme success? Just focusing on the HIAs (High-Impact Activities) — those producing the highest returns per unit of effort — and creating a simple routine around them that would be easy to stick to.
The beauty of sticking to one simple practice that works
So, while reflecting on that experience, I started designing a simple routine that could help me gain self-awareness and focus. A practice that could become my platform for sustained personal growth.
Such practice would have to check some basic conditions:
- Easy to do. The practice has to have a low threshold for action. It needs to be easy to start, so that it becomes easy to build the new habit over time.
- It needs to be sustainable over time. It cannot rely on willpower, but on a simple process that can become automatic on the long run.
It has to yield high returns for the relative effort involved and generate a positive feedback loop. You need to enjoy the rewards.
The practice has to be catalytic, capable of triggering additional change if sustained on a longer term basis.
My take: trigger your growth journey adopting this one simple daily routine
“Compare yourself to someone who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today” — Jordan B. Peterson
We are frequently asked to project ourselves into the future. “Where would you like to be in 5 years?”. You have been asked the question at some point in your life, right?
But how about thinking how far we have come in the past 2 years, instead? Because taking perspective on our progress can generate motivational momentum, keeping us on the right track. We are all on our own race, and not on someone else’s, and it is important to appreciate progress.
Based on this idea, I came up with this simple yet transformational practice which forced me into a bit of more regular writing every day:
1. Every morning, while having my coffee, I would write down how I could end that day being better than the day before.
2. At the end of my day, after brushing my teeth, I would write down how I actually did on my morning intention and I would show gratefulness for the things that otherwise went well that day.
3. I did this for 30 days straight, avoiding reading any of the notes from previous days.
- On day 30, I started reviewing the journal from day one.
Fast-forward a few months later, this simple journaling technique had dramatically increased my self-awareness and fuelled my desire to grow more broadly. It has become the platform that sustains my other habits and routines that help me work towards my ambitions.
We all have things we can choose to do better. This is not necessarily work related. It may be a random act of kindness, or getting home a bit earlier to put your kids to bed. Or making sure you will clean your email inbox, or your desk. Or taking 20 minutes for a refreshing walk. Reading 10 pages of non fiction. Maybe mentoring someone with problems at work. Or even doing 20 push ups, avoiding alcohol or skipping coffee that day.
This is why it worked for me…
1. It was easy to action, as it took just a few minutes in the morning and in the evening to complete.
2. It became sustainable. One established habit, like having coffee or brushing your teeth, is an easy cue triggering the new habit of writing a couple of lines in the morning and the evening, creating stickiness.
3. It is a high-impact practice. It raised my awareness, prompting cumulative positive action over time and generating rewards on a daily basis. It felt good, so I came back to it.
4. It has triggered additional change. This simple practice became a cornerstone habit. It created motivational momentum and pushed me to build additional positive routines on top of it.
… And this is the science behind its effectiveness
1. Writing in the morning will fix your intention in your head. Research shows that the act of writing stimulates the Reticular Activating System in your brain, which makes you more conscious and alert. You will be more prompted to act upon your plans by writing about them in the morning.
2. Writing in the evening about something that went well that day is a powerful winding down practice. Positive psychology has proven this to be an effective way to battle depression and improve general well-being. It shifts your focus from things that go wrong in life to the things that went well and that you may take for granted. Focusing on positive thoughts will help you become a more resilient individual over time, which is at the base of a happy and successful life.
3. Habit stacking, supporting the creation of a habit by combining it with a more established one (like having your morning coffee or brushing your teeth) will ensure consistency and will create stickiness. On top of this, writing about it daily will create a record, a streak. You will not want to break the chain. This will allow you to forget about willpower. It will all become a fun “game”.
- Reviewing your past notes on day 30 will allow you to take perspective on the journey. You will see how small daily incremental change has a longer term transformative effect on your everyday life.
The importance of cutting through noise, avoiding the “Planning Block” and acting on what really matters
Simplicity is beauty. Getting started is key. Action is what matters. Success is not completing the practice but coming back to it. It is not easy to really focus on the critical stuff. To stick to simple practices that work. To get started. I know that well, I sometimes find myself in that battle too.
We tend to add complexity to simple things because us, humans, are complex. Looking for absolute perfection is pointless. The “improvement loop”, or how to find yourself systematically trying to improve your plan by 0.1% can easily lead to frustration and inaction.
But would you agree that acting regularly on a simple practice that is 80% effective is much better than not acting at all on the “perfect” practice? It is important to catch ourselves when dragged into the abundance of resources and the overload of often contradicting information. Awareness, again, is key.
Stop planning, start acting. Aim for progress, not perfection.
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