You've probably read too many self-motivation and goal-setting articles already, so I am going to try and keep this short. Let me start by telling you what this is not about:
So now that I have addressed that, here is what this is about. It is common knowledge that a key ingredient in being able to do something meaningful, achieve something great is the step of concrete goal-setting. So far in my short (compared to industry experts) lifespan, I believe that is correct. Setting the right goals and expectations goes a long way in allowing us to recover from failures, and trudge along on the path that leads to where we want to be. But what happens when we get there? Do we stop? If not, where do we go next? The answer is easier if we have a higher order goal.
E.g. let’s say you aren’t much of a runner. In fact, two years ago you didn’t run at all but in summer 2015, you set a goal that you are going to run a marathon by summer 2017. You started training for it and this year you did indeed run a marathon (congratulations!). What do you do now? You have achieved what you set out to do so you could stop. Let’s say you like running now and want to keep doing it but where do you go now? Do you set another goal of running another marathon in summer 2018 and start training for that? And maybe so on for every year? Setting similar goals repeatedly is one way of getting around this problem.
Another way, is to set your initial goal as “make running a habit.” This interesting thing happens when activities become habits, they require no willpower from us. E.g. brushing your teeth. Although your parents might have had to force you when you were a toddler, brushing your teeth requires no thought now (hopefully). You do it every day (ideally twice a day) and at no point do you have really push yourself to get it done. It’s just something you do. What if more activities in your life could become like that?
Let’s take the running example again. What if your initial goal was to run for thirty minutes every day? Doesn’t matter the distance, you just have to do it for 30 minutes but you must do it every day. Here the goal is centered around doing it daily instead of being centered around a one-time event (e.g. running a marathon). Turns out this makes an enormous difference! If you do manage to run every day for 30 minutes, there will come a point within a few months where you won’t have to think about it at all. You will be running every day and not running for a few days in a row will feel downright weird. Once you do form this habit, you can run without a specific goal just like you brush your teeth.
Of course, you can set a specific goal whenever you want. E.g. some days you can set a goal to run 6 miles within those 30 minutes. You aren’t running in anticipation of a one-time event so at no point will you get an incentive to stop. Eliminating that incentive to stop is the most crucial part of this endeavor. If you want to go run a marathon now, that’s an additional something you can train for but once the marathon is done, you fall back on your old habit of running for 30 minutes every day.
There are additional benefits of this approach. I, like many others, think that we have a finite store of daily will-power. We might be able to increase or decrease our amount of willpower with time and training but on any given day, it’s finite. This means that it decreases as we use it throughout that particular day. Now, if we reduce the number of things that require us to tap into our store of will-power, we can save it for other challenges that we might face.
E.g. if running is a habit now, I don’t need to tap into my store of will-power to start running at the end of my work day. Instead, I can save it for the day when I want to stretch myself and run for an extra hour. Or, if after the run, I am deciding between drinking water and drinking coke (take the water)!
If you have followed along this far, then there is a fair chance you are interested (even if you don’t agree) with what I am saying. So, let me tell you how I employed this in my personal life. When I graduated in 2015, I wanted to start reading for pleasure again. I set a goal to read 52 books in 2016. It was a lofty goal, but I imagined it would stretch me outside my comfort zone and I would learn a lot on the way. Now I do like to read. The hard part for me wasn’t the notion of reading but more the fact that I had to read that much within a year.
Halfway through the year, I had only finished around 22 books and it was stressing me out. At that time I was also reading some books on habit forming. It was then that I realized that even if I did manage to read 52 books that year, I was definitely not going to do it again. I was not having fun, it felt too rushed. There was always something else to get started on before I had the time to digest what I had just finished reading. However, if I could make a habit of reading for an hour daily to an extent that it became a part of who I was then I could keep reading for as long as I was alive. When calculated over my remaining lifetime, that would definitely equate to more than the 52 books I could possibly read in one year. It would also leave me with willpower to do other things.
I ended up reading 31 books in 2016. However, by the end, if I didn’t read for few days in a row it felt like I was missing something crucial. In 2017, at the end of September, I am on my 37th book already. Turns out we get better at doing things as we do them repeatedly. So now, I am a faster reader by simply reading daily.
I employed the same approach with exercise. I increased my frequency of exercising from 3-ish days a week to 6-ish days a week. Some days I worked out harder, just like the days where I read more pages, but I made sure to get some exercise in almost every day. Maintaining a daily schedule meant that I didn’t have to think about going to the gym (or whatever form of physical activity I wanted to do). Now it’s just a normal part of every day.
The practice of not setting a one-time goal with an end date made all the difference! In 2017, I have put my willpower to use on other things (and I didn’t have to let go of reading and exercise!). I started taking online courses on machine learning and by the end of this year should be able to finish at least two, and hopefully three. I started going to more tech meet-ups in the area to meet other people in the industry. I still have a long way to go on both, and at least the meetups won’t become a habit because they aren’t scheduled that frequently (not all things need to be habits). However, I am excited to find out how much I can learn if I can create a habit of watching one 20-minute lecture every day!
This post turned out to be way longer than I was expecting to write so I will stop now. Hopefully this helps you with goal-setting and habit forming; feel free to hit me up with questions!