We are often told that discipline is the answer to our problems. With a little more discipline, we can achieve our goals and avoid temptations. Just try a little bit harder, have a little bit more willpower, have a little more self control. But that’s not how it works.
We grossly overestimate the contribution of willpower. Willpower is not a constant; it may be strong at one moment and then wane when we’re tired or stressed. If we leave our actions up to willpower, we will at some point disappoint ourselves.
I often hear the assumption that disciplined people have more willpower and somehow have the superhuman ability to stick to their values or priorities. I don’t think that’s true and, if anything, it only contributes a tiny bit to what discipline actually is.
In reality, disciplined people know themselves and know when their willpower fails. If they are tired, they will spend a long time on social media, unable to look away. If they go to a fast food restaurant, they will end up ordering fast food. They are aware of their tendencies and don’t leave it up to willpower to make the choice they consider “better” or “right.”
Disciplined people often avoid putting themselves in tempting situations. They know that the only way to resist is to avoid the setting altogether, so they avoid the tempting situation. If they want to spend less time on social media, they use a website blocker. If they want to eat less fast food, they go to restaurants that don’t serve fast food. It’s so much easier to avoid an unwanted action if the immediate environment prevents it.
I’m not saying that you should always avoid tempting situations. It all comes back to the mindful choice: if you consciously and purposefully choose to do something, by all means, go ahead. Just don’t let the situation decide for you.
When you want to avoid an action and you know your willpower may fail, it is so much easier to avoid the tempting situation altogether. This is the secret that disciplined people know.
Not all tempting actions lend themselves to simple solutions. But if you identify such a solution, then make sure you implement it. It will save you lots of frustration over inevitable lapses in willpower.
What kinds of tempting activities do you avoid? What actions would you like to prevent? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
We may think that disciplined people lack or suppress their desires. In fact, they still experience strong cravings, but they make a mindful choice.
When someone offers me cake at work and I decline, I usually get one of two typical reactions:
“Oh, live a little. Nothing bad will happen if you eat a piece of cake!”
I usually respond to this with:
“It’s not about living a little. It’s about what feels better to me and my body, and right now I’d feel better if I don’t eat the cake.”
And the other reaction is:
“Wow, how are you so disciplined? Do you never eat sweets? Do you not like sweets?”
These questions make me smile. In fact, I have a huge sweet tooth. I can eat way more cake, baklava, and chocolate than most people. When most people say, “Ah, this is too sweet for me, it’s making me sick,” that’s my favorite level of sweetness.
We often think that disciplined people don’t feel desires or cravings, or perhaps we think they suppress them. Disciplined people may appear cold inside, as though they’re more like robots who don’t know what it’s like to feel a strong human craving.
But, in fact, disciplined people do have desires and cravings, sometimes even more strongly than other people. Because these people’s cravings are so strong, they need to keep them in check.
For instance, Philip, a friend of mine, comes from a family with a history of alcoholism. Philip doesn’t drink any alcohol. He told me that people often ask him how he’s able to have such self-control. He responds that it’s the opposite: he knows he doesn’t have the self-control to stop once he starts. That’s why he avoids alcohol altogether.
So is the only solution to abstain altogether? Avoid all tempting situations and things we desire?
For some people, abstaining from some substances (such as alcohol in the case of my friend Philip) works well. But that doesn’t have to be the case for all of us. (See the distinction between abstainers and moderators raised by Gretchen Rubin.)
I have a different solution in relation to my desire for sweets. I create specific implementation intentions: When X happens, I will do Y. When I am at work, I do not eat sweets. But on Friday evening, when I’m having dinner with a friend, I will have dessert. Or, on Saturday afternoon, when I go for tea with a friend, I will have a piece of cake.
These are planned exceptions. It means that I have thought about them in advance and decided what I’d like to do in that situation. When I do eat something sweet, I’m not reinforcing a mindless craving but rather I’m making a mindful choice. And I get more enjoyment out of it because it’s a conscious choice instead of an absent-minded reaction to a situation.
The characteristic that makes people disciplined is that they make a conscious, purposeful choice. It doesn’t actually matter which action they choose; whether they eat the cake or don’t eat the cake is not important. The crucial point is to make the choice with clarity and to be aware of the reasons that lead you to that choice.
Is there an area in your life where you purposefully choose what to do? Is there an area where you’d like to make more mindful choices? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you must have come across some blog posts telling you that the way to keep your New Year’s resolutions is to create habits (including my own). Let’s say you heed the message: what do you do?
Monitoring leads to awareness and thus improvement
Let’s start with the basics: If you don’t know how much (or how little) you’re engaging in an activity, you don’t know what you need to change. If you want to read more but you don’t know how much you’re currently reading, then it’s very difficult to influence the behavior effectively.
When you start tracking a behavior, you are often surprised in the beginning. I had the goal of reading more academic articles. When I started tracking this, I realized that in the month of November I only read one full article! A single one–and I am a scientist!
Excuses abound: I took vacation in November, then I had to catch up on work and on homework for my course, I was ill… But excuses are not the point. The question is: did it happen or not.
It is normal that some months the desired behavior will happen more than others. The goal is not to perfectly complete all your habits all the time. The point is to monitor how you’re doing and adjust as soon as you notice things aren’t going as you’d like them to.
Tracking allows you to flexibly adjust your actions
You might say, “What’s the point of tracking my habits then? I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, and I’ll probably turn out alright.” Yes, you probably will, but “alright” may not be what you wished for. If I hadn’t noticed that I only read one article in November, I wouldn’t have changed my behavior in December. Because I knew I was neglecting this area, I was able to compensate for it soon enough, reading three articles in December (even with Christmas, etc.).
If we neglect an area in our life for long enough, it will begin to suffer. For example, an employee’s work performance may begin to drop, a student may fall behind in class, or a relationship may deteriorate.
Fortunately, by simply bringing awareness to the different areas of our life, we can notice when something isn’t going well and adjust our actions in time.
Identify your main areas of life and the core habits
Start by identifying the main areas of your life. Tip: those are reflected in your priorities.
My main areas of life include: Well-being, Health, Partner, Family, Friends, Science, Writing, Learning, Finances, Home, Relaxing, and Purpose.
Then, identify the core habits that support each of those priorities or areas of life. These are the activities that really move you forward in a certain area of life. For example, my core habits for Health are the following:
And my core habits for Learning are the following:
Track your core habits
Once you’ve identified your core habits, you can begin to track them. You can do so on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. I personally have one google sheet for daily habits, one for weekly habits, and one for monthly habits. It takes me about two minutes per day (in the evening) to look them over and note the habits I’ve completed.
I’ve actually printed out these google sheets and put them on my coffee table in the living room. These days, I’m experiencing a powerful pull to doing things on paper, so I’m doing this on paper as well. It feels nicer to me, and it’s softer on my eyes than looking at a monitor yet again.
If you prefer to do this on your phone or tablet, there is a myriad of apps available. I used to use HabitHub, and it was great. You can use these tools to geek out on monthly averages and graphs. I thought I’d love that, but in fact I didn’t care about it too much.
Now with my google sheets (on paper!), I calculate the weekly average (once a week) and the monthly average (once a month). At my Monthly Review, I enter the score for each area into a digital spreadsheet, just so it can be saved and easily accessible throughout the rest of the year and beyond. And I’m done.
Each week, I become aware of where I did well and where I didn’t do so well. I no longer have to vaguely answer the question, “Did I take care of my health this week?” but instead I can look at the specific habits I have identified as important for my health and see how I did.
This allows me to rapidly adjust my behavior in the desired direction. Thus, I can avoid more serious issues that I could have seen coming.
Resources about habit tracking and identifying main areas of life
I’ve written more about habits in several blog posts that you can find here.
I adopted this type of habit tracking divided into areas of life from Chris Guillebeau and his google sheet. I have adapted it to suit my needs, but the main inspiration came from there.
I was first introduced to this idea by Brendon Burchard and his book High Performance Habits (the audiobook is available to listen to for free as episodes in his podcast).
For more ideas on habit change, I can recommend two great books:
“Before you go into a difficult situation, set an intention. How would you like to behave in that situation? How would you like to come across? Just put the intention out there, and it will happen.”
I’ve heard this type of advice many times, but the skeptic in me retaliates. “What do you mean that putting the intention out there will make it happen?” I agree that if I think about how I’d like to act, I’m more likely to behave that way. But that doesn’t seem particularly powerful. Surely it’s not such a big deal whether you take 10 seconds to think about how you’d like to approach a situation.
To set intentions or not to set intentions
Paradoxically, over the last few months, I felt like I was lacking intent in my actions. I would go from one activity to the next because I knew it had to be done, but I didn’t connect to why I was doing it.
This led me to think that I should try this intention setting thing. I tried it a couple of times but quickly forgot about it. After all, who has time to set intentions when there are things to do?!
The wake up call came when my husband tried setting intentions. I didn’t think he’d really do it, but apparently my love for structure is rubbing off on him, so he stuck with it! After a week of setting intentions, he said, “This intention thing really works!”
He usually does this three times a day: at the beginning of the work day, after lunch, and before dinner. First, he notes his current attitude. Then, he thinks about the thing he’s going to do next and sets an intention for how he’d like it to go. He says he’s able to focus much better and, as he works with people, that he’s able to serve people better.
I started setting intentions
Well, once I heard this, I had to catch up! If my husband was setting intentions, I had to be able to do it too!!
I decided to combine it with my hourly breaks: once I sit down at my desk after my break, I take a few deep breaths and notice how my body feels. Am I anxious or excited? Tired? Thinking?
Then, I think about what I’ll be working on for the next hour. What would I like the outcome to be? How would I like the work process to go? This whole check-in takes about a minute, and then I start working.
I mostly do this at work but not only. I also aim to do it at the start of each meal and also at the beginning of my workout. It really changes how I feel during the activity because instead of just going through the motions, I connect to my priorities, i.e., the “why” behind my actions.
The pros and cons of setting intentions
I really enjoy it when I set an intention for a block of time. When I sat down to write this blog post, I thought, “I’d like to write on a topic I’m passionate about, and I’d like to convey information well. Also, I’d like to have a calm, thoughtful writing process.” With such a clear intention in mind, getting to work is easy and pleasant.
The trouble is that I often forget to set an intention. Especially if my schedule is a bit irregular or I have limited time, intentions go out the window. There’s suddenly no space in my mind to take a step back and think about why I’m doing something. Instead, I need to do, do, do.
In essence, that’s the problem itself. I’d like to set intentions to avoid being mindless. It doesn’t work if I’m already mindless (because I’m stressed, for instance), so I don’t remember to set an intention, which means I don’t get clarity and don’t connect to my “why.” It’s a vicious cycle, and I don’t see how to break it besides to remember to set an intention.
This is my main question with relation to setting intentions: is it actually helpful, or is it just wishful thinking? Is it possible to also remember to set intentions when things are not going smoothly? And in those cases, does it help?
I will try it out for a month and then report back. I will track how consistently I set intentions on different days and see how that influences my mood and my work output. I’ll let you know in about a month, so stay tuned! 🙂
More info about setting intentions
I got the idea of setting intentions in this way from Brendon Burchard and his book High Performance Habits (the audiobook is available to listen to for free as episodes in his podcast). He discusses setting intentions as a way to improve Habit #1, Clarity.
If you also try setting intentions, let me know how it goes! Or are you doing something similar already?Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
One of my favorite events of the year just took place: Are you thinking of New Year’s Eve? Well, you almost got it…
My eternal love goes to the Annual Review. This is the wonderful time of year when I look back on the year that just passed and then look forward to the year that is to come. It’s a time for reflection on the recent past and crafting of the future.
The structure of the Annual Review
The Annual Review consists of three main parts:
What went well this year?
What didn’t go so well this year?
What would I like for next year?
Reflect on the past year
I make a list for each point. Often we forget many of the things we did over the course of a year, so I remind myself of what has happened over the past 12 months. I look through my calendar and at the outputs of my Monthly Reviews. I also look at my list of goals for 2018 which resulted from my previous Annual Review.
For instance, some things that went well for me this year were:
There are also things that didn’t go so well for me, for example:
Didn’t meditate consistently every day (went off track sometimes)
Got stressed and didn’t see things in perspective at times
I should note that I add to both lists as I think of stuff. It’s helpful to first think about things that went well and then about things that didn’t go so well, but it’s also fine to add things to either list as they come up in your mind. After all, it’s an organic process.
Plan the upcoming year
Then, I move on to planning the upcoming year. Again, I look at the calendar and think about what I will do when, approximately, and how the year would unfold. Most importantly, I think about what I’d like to focus on at different times throughout the year (e.g., different work projects, quality time with family, skill development, or travel).
I make a list of the things I’d like to accomplish during the upcoming year. My list for 2019 contains, among others:
Write a paper for my second project (now completed)
Begin third project (new)
Give bootcamp on Personal Organization
Play the piano at least 3 times per week
Meditate every day, even if only for 1 minute
Review your list once a month
Once you make your list, make sure you review it often, around once per month. I do this as a part of my Monthly Review, but you could also do it if you put your list above your desk or on your fridge door. In this way, you will come back to the goals you set for yourself, and they will actually be useful.
The first time I did an Annual Review (in 2014), I made a to do list for 2015, and guess when I looked at it? At my 2015 Annual Review. Needless to say, that wasn’t super useful. While I had accomplished many of the items on it, I had completely forgotten about others. That’s why I recommend checking the list more often.
Reflect and plan based on priorities
As a part of my Annual Review, I consider my priorities. I reflect on the extent to which I’ve acted according to my priorities during the past year. In thinking about the upcoming year, I consider what actions I can introduce or adapt to in order to better fit my priorities.
By breaking things down like this, you get much more concrete insights because the priorities are the different categories, or themes, of your life. If you wonder, “What would I like to improve next year?” this question may be too vague to prompt any meaningful insight. But if you ask, “How would I like to connect with my family more next year?” you may get much more specific, and thus useful, answers.
Reflect together with a friend
As an extra bonus, ask a close friend or significant other to join you in your Annual Review quest. While I’ve done this by myself in the past, this year I did it together with my fiancee. This turned out to be a lot of fun! We asked each other questions and in many ways enriched each other’s reflection and idea generation. It was very pleasant and eye-opening to reflect on the past year together with someone else.
I’m very grateful for information on the Annual Review by James Clear and Chris Guillebeau. Check out how they do their annual reviews for some slightly different implementations. James also includes a section called “What have I learned [from the past year]?” and Chris shares a cool spreadsheet where he tracks his progress towards his goals as the year progresses.
Until next year, my dear Annual Review…
And this is it for the annual review. While I wish I could do it more often because I enjoy this time of reflection so much, the annual review takes place once per year by definition. In the meantime, I’ll have to satisfy myself with mediocre Weekly Reviews and slightly special Monthly Reviews… *sigh*
If you have no idea what I’m talking about or would like to know more, you can check out my description of my Review System.
So, did you try to Annual Review? What insights did you reach? What are you planning for next year? And, most importantly, did you enjoy it? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
Have you set some New Year’s resolutions but are unsure of how to follow through? Make them into habits by following the practical steps below.
Champagne glasses, fireworks, smiling faces everywhere. The evening of December 31st can be a magical time when anything seems possible. Perhaps we even set some resolutions for the new year. At this celebratory time, they seem perfectly realistic and within reach.
In the celebratory spirit of New Year’s Eve, everything seems possible.
But in order to keep our New Year’s resolutions, we need to make them into habits.
How do you follow through with your New Year’s resolutions? Habit formation, a big topic in behavior science, comes to the rescue. The best way to ensure an activity is done consistently is to create a habit.
Create a simple chart where you record how often you complete your habit:
Make the habit very specific in order to remove any doubt about when you should do it. Every time you complete the activity, put a check mark. If you don’t do it, put a cross.
A chart filled out over two weeks could look like this:
In order to determine your performance, add the number of check marks (in this case, 11) and divide them by the number of days in two weeks (14).
In this case, the performance over the two weeks is 11/14 = 79%. Since that is above 75%, this person is ready to add another habit. If it were below 75%, this person would need to continue working on this habit for another two weeks.
Review your New Year’s resolutions (or habits)
Once you’ve established a habit (i.e., passed the 75% threshold), move on to your next New Year’s resolution and make a habit out of that. If you notice that you’re struggling with a habit you had established earlier, feel free to spend another two weeks on it.
Make sure you revisit your New Year’s resolutions once a month or so. You can have a simple list of resolutions/habits you’d like to keep and post it on your fridge door or save it on your phone. Alternatively, you can use an app such as Habit Hub to help keep track of your habits and monitor your progress.
Good luck! I hope these tips help you steer your New Year in the desired direction, so you can confidently keep any New Year’s resolution you choose. Let me know how it goes by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
When you make specific plans about when you’ll complete a desired activity, you’re much more likely to do it. But it’s one thing to plan it and another thing to actually complete it. How do you make sure you follow through with your plans?
Implementation intentions are examples of simple, explicit planning: “If situation X arises, then I will do Y.” I explained this in more detail here (point 1).
Specific plans are great, but how do you make sure you actually do them?
Put them on your calendar: Make an event on your calendar. When the time comes, do the activity. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, but it only works if you check your calendar and follow what it says.
Set reminders: You can add a reminder to your calendar event. Or you can add a separate reminder. Or you can create a note (e.g., in Google Keep) with a reminder. Alternatively, you can put post-it notes around the house or on your computer monitor. The problem with reminders is that they’re easy to ignore.
Set an alarm: An alarm is something you actually have to turn off. It requires an action from your side, or otherwise it will continue making noise. Alarms are more effective than reminders because even if you choose to ignore its message, you still have to physically do something such as press the ‘off’ button.
Name your intent clearly: When the alarm goes off to tell you to go to bed, for instance, you need to say out loud what you are going to do now:
“I am getting ready to go to bed. I will read for 15 minutes in bed.”
Or, alternatively, if you choose not to follow the intent of the alarm:
“I am staying here and continuing to look at social media.”
If you change your mind sometimes, that’s okay, but then state that clearly:
“I am staying here for 5 more minutes in order to finish my conversation with my brother. In five minutes, I will get up and get ready for bed.”
This may seem silly, but clearly naming what you are doing and what you are going to do incites action.
Track the time you spend on certain tasks: Monitor how long different activities take you. Once you have a realistic idea of how much time you spend on what, you can make purposeful, informed choices about what you do more of and what you do less of.
Set practical obstacles that prevent you from doing other (unwanted) things: For example,if you’re trying to limit your time on social media, install an app that limits the amount of time you can spend on those sites/apps.
Make it easy to follow through with your intentions: If you’d like to go to the gym, lay out your gym clothes from the day before. If you’re trying to have a healthy meal, make your food beforehand.
You can use one of these tips or combine several to make sure you follow through with your implementation intentions. For instance, now I’m reading before bed every night. I’m using several of these strategies: it’s on my calendar; I have an alarm on my phone to tell me to get into bed; I state my intent clearly; and I’ve put my kindle on my night stand, so it’s easy for me to read. Also, before I started this, I tracked the time I spent reading books for pleasure and was disappointed to see that I wasn’t making a lot of time for that. Now, I’m making some changes, and I’m quickly seeing the amount of time spent reading increase.
How do you make sure you complete the things you’d like to do? Or are there any activities you particularly struggle with? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
An easy way to feel less stiff and more energetic during your workday.
I’ve been trying something new recently. When I’m at work, I set a timer for 45 minutes and begin working. Once the time is up, I get up and move for 5 minutes. I walk down the hallway, climb some stairs, do some bodyweight moves, and stretch. I’m sure I look silly, but it definitely lifts my energy levels.
Usually, when I sit for a long period of time, my back gets stiff, and I get restless or, alternatively, sleepy. I came up with the idea to do some movement in order to help my back not get stiff, but I didn’t expect it would also influence my energy levels so much. Now when I begin my next 45-minute work period, I am energized and more motivated to sit down and work.
So what do I actually do?
I often go up and down the stairs. I descend all the way to the basement, climb up the stairs all the way to the third floor (that’s 4 floors worth of stairs!), and then go back down to my office. Therefore, if you see me at the staircase at work, don’t be surprised: chances are pretty high you can find me there.
If I’m too lazy to climb stairs, I just walk down the hallway. That’s very easy, but the hallway is not that long, so I often end up doing a couple of rounds. It ends up feeling a bit repetitive, unfortunately.
Sometimes I do bodyweight exercises that are easy to perform with no equipment. I usually do two of the following: squats, push ups, lunges, lat “push downs”, good mornings, or a couple of other exercises. I’ve even been doing hand stands against the wall, which is a serious feat at work! The other day I also realized I could do crow pose, so I held that for a bit. Also fun to do at work 🙂 I also do some stretches – nothing fancy, just whatever I feel like.
I imagine I look weird doing exercises in my office, so I go to a small hallway that isn’t used much. I’ll probably give someone a fright one day when they walk by!
Moving a little bit every hour has several benefits:
It interrupts the stiff sitting posture many of us maintain for hours on end, alleviating any back, neck, or shoulder problems we may be having or developing.
It gets the blood flowing frequently, thus improving circulation.
It raises energy levels simply because movement gets us to be active.
It ensures that we take breaks once every 45 minutes or so, and regular breaks can help us stay concentrated and able to do focused work throughout the day.
Perhaps moving every hour seems like too much or a bit “out there.” But in fact, it’s unnatural to sit for 8 hours a day. Movement is natural to us, and we may feel better if we incorporate little bits of light movement throughout our day.
Let me know if you try moving every hour or just a couple of times during your work day! Do you notice a difference? Comment below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
The main strategies for habit formation are implementation intentions, habit stacking, and environment design.
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear discusses the basics of habit formation as well some more advanced techniques. There are three main habit formation strategies he outlines.
1. Implementation intentions
Having an implementation intention refers to making a plan for when you will do a certain action.
“When situation X arises, I will perform action Y.”
For instance, “On Tuesdays at 15:00, I will go swimming for 1 hour.”
Or, “When I wake up, “I will meditate for 10 minutes.”
This is one of the most researched types of habit formation. Numerous studies show that people who have specific plans for when to do an action are much more likely to carry out that action than people who only have a vague intention to do so (thus, implementation intentions).
This also refers to the simple recommendation of putting the activity on your calendar. This is why fitness instructors, music teachers, and other types of coaches often say, “Make a date with yourself for when you will do the activity. And then keep the appointment.”
2. Habit stacking
Habit stacking is a similar but slightly different idea. The idea is to pair an activity you’d like to do with an activity you already do. For instance:
“When I get home from work, I will play the piano for 5 minutes.” You get home from work every workday, so it’s an easy trigger to get you to play the piano.
“While I brush my teeth, I will think about 3 things I’m grateful for today.” You brush your teeth anyway, so you might as well pair it with an activity you’d like to do, in this case incorporating gratitude into your life.
The key is that the trigger activity needs to be something that is already set in your routine, meaning that you do it on most days. And then the activity you pair with it (the one you’d like to add) needs to be something small and manageable. Playing the piano for 5 minutes is easy to fit into your routine; playing it for 1 hour is not.
3. Environment design
Very often we carry out certain actions because the environment triggers us and not because we choose to. This is often discussed in relation to healthy eating. If there is junk food in your house or in your office, you are more likely to eat it. If water is being sold in a cafeteria, people are more likely to buy it. If you put your guitar in an easy-to-see place, you are more likely to play it.
Try to design your environment as much as possible to fit the behaviors you’d like to engage in. If you’d like to eat more healthy foods, keep those types of foods in your house and throw away junk food. Or at least put healthy foods in visible and accessible places and place junk food in an out-of-reach drawer.
If you’d like to drink more water, place a glass or bottle of water in front of you. If you’d like to play the guitar more, put it in a prominent location in your living room. If you’d like to read more, place a book on your living room table or next to your bed.
Similarly, at work, if you’d like to avoid being distracted by your phone, put in a hard-to-reach drawer or on top of a high shelf. If you’d like to avoid being distracted by people walking by, turn your desk to face the window or the wall. If you’d like to drink more tea than coffee, place some nice teas on your desk.
Have you used one of these techniques to transform your habits? What works best for you: implementation intentions, habit stacking, or environment design? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
To achieve long-lasting behavioral change, emphasize habits instead of goals.
I am currently reading the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, and I am greatly enjoying it. It covers habit formation and behavior change from the basics to more advanced techniques.
James begins by discussing focusing on goals vs. habits. After all, most of the time we focus on achieving goals because the goal is the important, motivating factor. For instance, if you’re trying to get a job as a computer programmer, what ultimately matters is whether you get the job or not.
Focusing on goals postpones our happiness
But with goals we have an either-or mentality: either we achieve the goal, or we don’t. We either succeed or fail. We don’t pay much attention to the progress we’ve made or to what smaller things we’ve achieved in the process. If you don’t get the computer programmer job, you may feel disappointed and not take into account how much you’ve learned about programming in the process.
Also, with a goal-focused mentality, happiness is postponed to the future. We think that when I get that job, then I will be happy. I am not and don’t need to try to be happy in the present moment. This is a huge problem because if we always put off our happiness until later, that moment of happiness will never come. Even when we get the job, there will be something else to do, e.g., renovate the house, before we can be happy.
This really struck me. As a goal-oriented, driven person, I have experienced this multiple times. While working hard on a goal, for instance on getting into university, I told myself that it didn’t matter how I felt at that time. As long as I got into university, everything would be okay and I would be happy. But then when I did get into university, that didn’t magically bring me happiness. I was quite confused because I had achieved my goal but still hadn’t gotten happiness.
With this in mind, James Clear proposes focusing on habits instead of goals. Emphasizing habits forces you to bring your attention to what you are doing today, tomorrow, or this week. Your focus is not on some faraway point in the future but rather it is very close to the present. Completing a habit can give you an immediate sense of satisfaction, so your happiness is not postponed until some vague point in time.
Habit change is identity change
What’s more, habit change is identity change. When you adopt a new habit, you become a person who does this new thing. If you choose to go swimming twice a week, you become somebody who swims. If you were focusing on a goal, e.g., swim freestyle for 1 km, you’re a wanna-be, somebody who hasn’t achieved anything yet. And the moment you achieve that goal, you set the next one, so you become another wanna-be, somebody who now wants to swim freestyle for 2 km.
Instead, if you focus on your new habit, your identity shifts immediately. Once you become “someone who swims,” your identity begins to drive your actions and choices. You go swimming because that’s what a swimmer does. Motivation begins to come from within and not from the outside (the external goal). Then it is much, much easier to sustain a habit because there is much less resistance, and the desire to maintain the activity comes from within yourself, from your sense of identity.
It’s important to remember that identity is not static. Generally, you want to change your behavior and achieve goals in order to become a better person. But focusing solely on goals is like trying to achieve something new and big while being the same, old person.
While when you adopt a new habit, you change your identity. Little by little, you become that “improved” person who swims or is a good computer programmer. And you don’t do so by achieving mind-blowing goals but by doing an activity repeatedly and consistently and getting better at it gradually over time.
Are you usually goal-oriented or habit-oriented? How do those two work for you? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.