As the New Year rolls around thoughts turn to making resolutions. Lose weight, stop smoking, write that novel… The trouble though is that these goals often have no concrete plan behind them in order to make that change happen.
Now I’m not against goal setting. I set SMART goals regularly and use the New Year and my June birthday to review the progress made. Too often though I find myself falling short. Even if progress was made towards a goal; if I didn’t fully accomplish it then it still felt like a loss.
I’ve done a lot of reading on the science of Habits over the past year and am going to take a different approach to my plan for 2016. This year I will focus on the process rather than the end result.
Your Best Life
Imagine your best you. This is the you that has acheived everything you hope to, or is making good progress towards it. What does a typical day look like for this person? Do they wake up and jump straight into running shoes and hit the gym? Sit down and crank out 1,000 words before breakfast? Make ten sales calls every day no matter what?
Think about the things you want to achieve and then overlay this onto your best you’s typical day. What actions do they take; what habits do they have? Next, compare your actual typical day against that one. The idea is to identify the gap between the two and work to make up the difference.
Now that you have an idea of what your perfect day looks like it will help to write down some specifics, starting with the goals you are currently working towards or would like to start making progress on. Feel free to write down everything that you have ever wanted to do, but be prepared to cut that list down to an actionable amount of items. If you want to be good at something you need to focus on that thing; it is no good to divide your attention across a large number of unrelated projects. In the words of Olympic Gold Medalist Dan Gable (heard by me via Dan John)…
[blockquote]If it’s important, do it every day[/blockquote]
Apply this filter to your list and you will need to trim the excess until reaching an amount that can reasonably be completed in a day. So you may need to leave out learning Latin for now until you can apply the proper focus to that project.
With a list of goals in hand it is time to break them down, not into steps but into daily actions that will create progress towards the end goal. It is important to make these actions easily doable, especially at first. Make these steps so easy to complete that it is impossible for you to fail.
So if your goal is to write a book, but you don’t have an established writing habit, don’t start out by requiring 10,000 words a day from yourself. Or even 2,000 for that matter. Start with a requirement of a paragraph a day, or even a single sentence. Make it too small to fail. The idea is to just start. Chances are you will build steam as you go and accomplish far more than that single sentence. But if you don’t at least you have met your daily requirement.
Positives / Negatives
Take a sheet of paper and divide it into two columns. Write YES on the top of one side and NO on the top of the other.
Reaching your goals takes a combination of actions; things that you do, and things that you DON’T do. Looking at your list of daily actions it should be apparent which action falls into which category. Do eat yummy vegetables, Don’t eat donuts – that sort of thing.
Remember, you are making a list of minimum actions that you will complete every day, so this is another opportunity to trim the excess.
Tracking Tools for Monitoring
An important part of this is physically tracking completion of each action. Examples of high performers that follow some method of tracking habits are plenty. Jerry Seinfeld for example would mark a big red ‘X’ on a calendar every day that he wrote jokes. Once you have a string of red X’s marked down it provides a powerful incentive to keep moving ahead and not break the chain.
Although I heard of Seinfeld’s Chain system first, it was Stephen Pressfield’s explanation that got me started on it. The difference is that he measures a number of items including working out, writing, etc. This led to the creation of my notebook based system.
Some people will use Evernote or some other form of digital tracking for a system like this. I use a small black calendar; the type with the full month layed out, followed by a page for each individual day. I’ve developed a type of shorthand for marking in on the full calendar days, then will write in more detail on the daily page if required. If you have four actions that you must complete daily to fulfil your perfect day, then use the four corners of the calendar day box and put a check in each corner when those task are done.
It is a simple system, which I find works in its favor. I travel a lot and don’t always have access to the internet, so cloud based solutions don’t appeal to me. Plus I’ve always enjoyed a good pen.
Benjamin Franklin famously used a similar system where he would track the 13 virtues he felt were important to living a good life. Seems to have worked for him.
Live Your Best Day
You’ve taken a hard look at your life, what you want to accomplish, and what it’s going to take to do that. Now it’s time to live it.
When making big changes some people like to do a little at a time. I prefer hitting it all at once. You are going to pick a day and ensure you hit every item on your list. In this way you will prove to yourself that it can be done. All that remains is to do it again. And again. So how do you make sure that you hit all points on your list?
[blockquote]By applying overwhelming force[/blockquote]
Lay out your gym clothes the night before. Get a good sleep. Hit the ground running. As the day progresses I’m sure it tends to get away from you, like it does to everyone. Combat this by getting as many items done as you can when you first wake up. It will probably help to wake up a little earlier to accomplish this. Maybe an earlier wake up time should be one of your items? It is shown that high performers tend to be early risers, and if it is a list item then you will be able to cross off one item just by waking up! Easy wins.
The hardest part here won’t be completing all of your to-do items; it will be checking off your to-don’t items. Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t buy that second latte… The trouble with these is that they aren’t something to be completed then put away for the day; they are something that needs to not be done all day long. This can be difficult but remember, it is only for one day. Make it through your best day just once and you’ll have the knowledge that it can be done again. And again.
Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Face
What do you do when your plans get derailed? Life happens. You miss your flight. Get into a car accident. Run into a college buddy. There are two techniques that can help keep you on track:
1. Planned slips – AKA Cheat Days. Just because you are off sugar doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat cake on your birthday. Plan these out in your calendar ahead of time. A good example is that I eat a veggie omlette for breakfast pretty much every day, even if I want pancakes. But if it is Saturday and I’m home then I make, and enjoy, pancakes with my family. But there is a specific condition that needs to be met first.
Just make sure if you are having a cheat day that it is not for all of your actions at once. Eat the cake, but still get to the gym. Steven King is famous for writing 365 days a year – including Christmas. No wonder he is a best seller.
2. Pick yourself up and get on with it. Slip happens. Deal with it. Just don’t let it happen twice in a row.
Stop Thinking About It and Live It
Everything above is just a planning tool to help get you on the path. But the thing about it is that you already know everything you should, or should not, be doing already. You know your best self, you know your perfect day, and you know when you slip up. What this is about is accountability. To yourself. You have a responsibility to make the most of your life, to get to the end and say that you gave it your best shot.
So what are you waiting for?