Failure after failure is a symptom of broken process

Its the beginning of the new year and a perfect time to start executing some steps towards the new year resolutions you gave. The deadline is quite far away, and I know, what you're thinking: there's plenty of time so I can start doing something from next Monday. Or maybe next month. And this distant deadline will make you procrastinate right up until its too late. Or you will hit the ground running and torture yourself with hard work for a couple of weeks before you burn out because of lack of tangible results. And on the next New Year's Eve, you'll feel a small unsatisfaction with yourself. In one of the previous posts, we've discussed why new year resolutions never work and what causes us to give up when we try to establish new routines. Now we're going to discuss how to adopt new habits in a way, that will not force us to quit, and by doing so we will start moving towards the goals we set for ourselves without even noticing it. 

What has to change

When I want to get some result in a quite distant future, my mental approach will be something like this.

  • First, I will try to unfold and decompose the vague goal into a set of sub-goals and continue this process further until I get to the tasks — the smallest steps I need to perform to make that imaginary future come to reality.
  • Second, I will start executing those tasks.

Rather simple, right? There's a problem though — as I get to smaller and smaller tasks, they tend to become extremely boring and repetitive and not yielding significant improvements once completed. By practising the C Major scale just once or twice I won't instantaneously become proficient with my instrument. I know I need a ton of practice in a form of boring repetitive tasks of playing scales to be any good at playing with my instrument. And then there is another thought — if I skip this particular practice session, nothing bad will happen because these sessions don't give immediate results anyway. And it's quite possible that I will start skipping more and more sessions and eventually get back to the status quo of doing nothing. I have a trick though. If I really want this behaviour to stick, I will try to make it habitual. 

Creating a habit that sticks

First of all, I will ensure the task is simple enough. "Simple" can mean various things depending on the task, but the idea is that I don't have to question my ability to execute it in any circumstances.

For the first time, I will set a recurring reminder to execute the task. I will pick the appropriate time and make sure this new schedule does not clash with schedules I already have. Ideally, the schedule should be rather uniform. This means that if I want the task to be executed three times during the week, I'll pick Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday or similar pattern. Same goes for time of day — ideally, I'd want to perform the task at the same time of day each day. I will also make sure I give myself enough time for deep uninterrupted work if the task calls for it. If the schedule does not work for some reason I'll adjust it until I no longer face any issues with task execution on any given day.

While I'm in this "reminder" mode, I will make an effort to not skip even a single event. To make the skipping even less desirable I may keep track of the number of tasks I performed in a row. If I skip, I need to start from zero once again.

I will try to not measure my global progress after each execution when there is no point in doing so — some goals just require a lot of effort to be put over extended periods of time. I will just accept the fact that it will take a while.

A stress-free future for better versions of us

After this initial stage when I somewhat forced myself to stay on track for a couple of weeks or a month, one day I will start having this feeling, that I no longer need a reminder to perform the task. I will feel the need to perform it without any external trigger. From this point onwards I will continue doing these tasks in the same fashion as before. And one day, looking back, I will be amazed and pleasantly surprised realizing how much ground has been covered. Because I created a perfect environment for it to happen: I created a routine to follow without any external triggering and forgot about it. I protected myself from burnout and analysis paralysis. I launched the process and then let my mind focus on other things instead of trying to measure the progress and rely on rewards it gives to keep going.

Let me leave you with this quote from the excellent book "The Naked Warrior" by Pavel Tsatsouline:

Once I came across a question posted on a popular powerlifting website by a young Marine: how should he train to be able to do more chin-ups? I was amused when I read the arcane and non-specific advice the trooper had received: straight-arm pull-downs, reverse curls, avoiding the negative part of the chin-up every third workout… I had a radical thought: if you want to get good at chin-ups, why not try to do… a lot of chin-ups? Just a couple of months earlier I had put my father-in-law Roger Antonson, incidentally an ex-Marine, on a program which required him to do an easy five chins every time he went down to his basement. Each day he would total between twenty-five and a hundred chin-ups hardly breaking a sweat. Every month or so Roger would take a few days off and then test himself. Before you knew it, the old leatherneck could knock off twenty consecutive chins, more than he could do forty years ago during his service with the few good men!

Pavel Tsatsouline