Category Archives: goal setting

3 Simple Steps to Build Habits that Stick

Following through on new year’s resolutions,  heading in the right direction, meeting goals, or making creative shifts requires the ability to build sustainable, congruent habits. While self-discipline, willpower and a growth mindset all play a role in making your dreams and wishes come true,  it’s habit formation that makes the process easier.

A habit is an automatic tendency, behavior or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.  It is formed through regular repetition and is a natural consequence of how the human brain works. Healthy habits keep you on the path of worthwhile pursuits, despite obstacles and setbacks.

Whether you seek to finish an innovative project, make time for daily exercise, develop an essential skill or just get more sleep,  you will benefit from building habits that trigger positive change and continuous progress.

Follow these 3 simple steps to build habits that stick: 

1. Start small. Having Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) can be highly motivating, but moving toward them often involves taking incremental steps. Likewise, to implement a new behavior that you want to become a habit, start with a small, doable action from which you can build momentum. As Leo Babauta of Zen Habits says, “Make it so easy you can’t say no.”

Need to create a writing habit that will help you complete your sci-fi novel and become a published author? To start, you could commit to writing a page or for 15 minutes each morning. Then, after this becomes ingrained, add another page or an additional 15 minutes. Keep building on the practice until you’re up to a chapter or two-hour writing blocks a day (or whatever maximum you can handle).

Start with super small actions that you can expand upon as they become habitual or routinized. Your forcing yourself to write a chapter or for two hours, right off the bat, won’t work. Instead, you’ll likely find yourself checking emails, updating your social media posts, scrolling through online news feeds or giving in to other distractions to alleviate tension or boredom.

Depending on who you ask, it usually takes 21 days, 28 days or 30 days, to form a new habit. In one 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, a University College London research team found that it takes an average of 66 days until an action becomes automatic.

The researchers recruited  96 participants (a statistically insignificant number) who were interested in forming a new habit such as eating a piece of fruit with lunch or doing a 15-minute run each day. Participants were then asked daily whether their behavior was “hard not to do”or could be done “without thinking.” The study found that on average, the “plateau of automaticity” was reached after 66 days.

Despite the research studies, there is no magic number of days to form a habit. Some behaviors are harder to adopt than others. It’s much easier to write an article than to finish a whole book. Eating a salad for lunch each day is less challenging than completing a daily, one-hour workout at the gym.

For most people – no matter how long it takes to form a habit – starting with a small action is more effective than going for bold changes at the outset. In Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, Jon Acuff suggests you cut your goal in half or double the timeline to avoid the perfectionist, now-or-never mentality that stops follow-through.

To incorporate mindfulness meditation into my evening routine, I started with 15 minutes.  To implement a tai chi practice into my morning rituals, I began with just 10 minutes. Shooting for 30 minutes or 1 hour would have led to failure in making them into daily habits. A regular practice, even for a minimal amount of time, provides significant benefits that I would not otherwise get if I didn’t do it at all.

Lower the bar and reduce your expectations if you’re having trouble making consistent, lasting progress. Set yourself up for success by taking small actions you can readily accomplish and will give increase your sense of control.

2. State your “if-then” plans.  Positive thinking helps you learn from failures and recover from setbacks. But it’s not enough to get you where you want to be, as  Gabriele Oettingen, psychology professor and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking,  Inside the New Science of Motivation, points out.

Oettingen discusses a four-step process called WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan) to  think about potential obstacles, contrast them with your dreams and goals, and design a plan to overcome them to attain preferred outcomes.

In one research article, Oettingen and her colleague, Peter Gollwitzer, explain that making if-then statements is a powerful way to create a desired future behavior or outcome. They state, “While goal intentions (goals) have the structure ‘I intend to reach Z!’ with Z relating to a desired future behavior or outcome, implementation intentions have the structure ‘If situation X is encountered, then I will perform the goal-directed response Y!'”

Using an if-then format, you specify plans on where, when and how you want to act  in certain situations. Oettingen and Gollwitzer note, “For instance, a person with the goal to reduce alcohol consumption might form the following implementation intention: ‘And whenever a waiter suggests ordering a second drink, then I’ll ask for mineral water!'” This helps to close the gap between having goals and reaching them.

If-then statements establish patterns that prompt healthy behaviors and responses to specific situations. They are based on critical cues (opportunities or obstacles), such as your emotional state, the time, your location/environment, and the preceding action, which are linked to the goal-directed response.

When faced with the critical cue, you have a pre-planned, automatic (habitual) response to deal with it. For example, instead of telling yourself “I will get enough sleep everyday,” you could say, “If it’s 9:30 p.m., I’ll start winding down to go to bed by 10 p.m.” Rather than commit to “I will maintain a clutter-free home,” you could specify, “After dinner, I’ll clear out the junk mail.”

Oettingen has a related WOOP app designed to help you fulfill your wishes and change your habits with if-then plans. The process is based on environmental triggers and current routines you can use to build a new habit or to add to an existing one.

3. Suck at it.  Don’t be in a rush to become an expert or a master; embrace the beginner’s mind, in which there are many possibilities and nothing is all figured out. If you miss a day or two of taking an action that you want to become a daily habit, just get back to it.  No need to count this as a break in your streak.

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg states, “Some habits yield easily to analysis and influence. Others are more complex and obstinate, and require prolonged study. And for others, change is a process that never fully concludes. But that doesn’t mean it can’t occur.”

Even when you fall short of your ideal behavior or preferred outcome, getting things right 5%, 20% or 50% of the time is overall better than 0%. By cutting yourself some slack, you get to continue your efforts rather than abandon them at the first slip-up.

Over time, and with sustained effort, you can make better informed decisions on whether to continue the action or habit. If it’s not truly purposeful or enjoyable, you can not only suck at it, but you can give it up altogether.

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If you have trouble fulfilling resolutions or achieving goals, try these 3 simple steps to build habits that stick and will help you make sustainable progress without beating yourself up.

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Alternatives to 3 Misused, Overused Productivity Hacks

Productivity hacks can help you focus on what really matters, use your time effectively, and make progress on big projects. But here are 3 popular techniques that don’t work for everyone or in every situation, and the alternatives you could try instead:

1. Become an early riser.  Waking up before sunrise is a habit for many successful go-getters. Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Group), Tim Cook (Apple CEO), Oprah, and many top CEOs begin greeting the day before 6 am. The extraordinary Benjamin Franklin coined the adage, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” and was a prolific early riser.

Research suggests there are psychological and physical benefits to waking early. In his 2009 article, Proactive People are Morning People, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, biologist Christopher Randler notes that morning people are more proactive than evening types, i.e. they are more willing and able to take action to change a situation to one’s advantage. In a survey of 367 university students, Randler found that a higher percentage of early risers agreed with statements that indicate proactivity, such as “I spend time identifying long-range goals for myself” and “I feel in charge of making things happen.”

A 2008 study at the University of North Texas in Denton found that early birds tend to have GPAs that are an average of one point higher than their night owl peers’. The author Daniel J. Taylor theorized that early bird students are less likely to engage in activities that negatively affect their academic performance.

From a productivity standpoint, waking early has advantages. “Your most valuable hours are 5 a.m. – 8 a.m. They have the least interruptions,” says Robin Sharma, leadership expert and best-selling author of The Leader Who Had No Title. Productivity speaker Jeff Sanders also recommends you join the 5 a.m. Club to make maximum use of the morning hours, when your willpower, focus and energy are typically at their peak. His 5 AM Miracle podcast is “dedicated to dominating your day before breakfast.”

Early morning – before the rest of the world wakes up –  provides quiet, uninterrupted time for focused work. Being an early riser also fits with the regular, 9 to 5 schedule that applies to most of the workforce. When you tackle your tasks early or to-dos first thing in the morning, you generally feel more productive and less stressed throughout the day.

But membership in the 5 a.m. Club is not ideal for all and can be painful to maintain. When I shifted from a 7:30 to a 5 a.m. wake-up time for a few months, I loved the new schedule. I made the change gradually in 30-minute increments each week. The shift involved moving to 7 a.m. in week 1 and all the way to 5 a.m. in week 5. My desire to do focused work before my preschooler woke up was the driving factor.

Waking up before sunrise was not the problem, but going to bed earlier was. Whenever I got less than 7 to 8 hours of sleep, I would naturally feel groggy in the mornings and tired by afternoon. So I had to be asleep by 10 p.m. each night to be a full-fledged member of the 5 a.m. Club.  This meant preparing or having dinner earlier (and making changes in family/social time), compromising on evening rituals, and losing out on the creative insights and deep reflection that accompany being awake after 10 p.m. As a result, I now wake up between 6 and 7 a.m., which gives me an hour or two of quiet time in the mornings without needing to keep a super early bedtime.

Alternative:  You don’t have to wake up at 5 a.m. every day to be super productive. Instead, keep a consistent sleep schedule that fits with your personal chronotype (biological clock  or circadian rhythm), the earth’s 24-hour cycle, and your individual circumstances.

When you wake up is not as important as how you feel and what you do during your waking hours. You first have to figure out the ideal amount of sleep you need to feel refreshed and alert during the day. (Most adults need at least 8 hours of sleep, although many get by with less by consuming artificial stimulants.) Set yourself up for high-quality, sufficient slumber by going to bed — preferably at an hour before 12 AM when you have the opportunity to get all the non-REM and REM sleep you need — and waking up after you have had enough shuteye.

Develop a morning ritual to prime yourself for the rest of your day.  No matter what time you wake up, create a solid plan for prioritizing your day and stick to it.

If you’re not an early riser but want to become one, you need to clarify the why behind this desire. You can’t expect to rewire your brain and sustain change by blindly following productivity advice. Make the shift incrementally (through habit formation) instead of overnight (through sheer willpower).

 2. Schedule your priorities.  Many productivity experts say you should schedule time on your calendar to work on your to-dos. Some believe that to ensure the thing gets done, it needs to be scheduled.

Kevin Kruse, author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, recommends you nix the to-do list altogether and schedule everything. Michael Hyatt, author of Living Forward: A Proven Plan to Stop Drifting and Get the Life You’ve Always Wanted, maps out his Ideal Week on a calendar. He schedules time for his most important tasks, weekly appointments, special projects and quarterly reviews. Both Kruse and Hyatt advocate scheduling non-negotiable me-time or buffer time for yourself.

While carving out time on your calendar can boost productivity, it’s not foolproof. Interruptions and distractions get in the way. Energy levels dip and attention spans dwindle. Over-scheduling can suck the joy and spontaneity out of life. Although a calendaring system helps you stay on task, it can sometimes create too much rigidity for when to accomplish your to-dos. If you didn’t perform the task as scheduled, you’ll use up time reworking your calendar and feeling dissatisfied over unfinished business.

Alternative:  Using both a to-do list and a calendaring system is an effective, combined approach to making progress on your important projects and fulfilling your commitments. The to-do list is for tasks that do not have to be done at a specific time. The calendar is for activities that must occur at an allotted time.

For example, I schedule only meetings and appointments on my calendar, and plug away at my one to three Most Important Tasks (MITs) (usually related to research, writing, and problem solving) during set time blocks (e.g. 8 to 10 am, 2 to 3 p.m. and 5 to 6 p.m.)  I don’t give in to interruptions and distractions when I am engaged in focused work. The other hours are for ad-hoc activities and shallow work, like responding to emails and making telephone calls. This combined to-do/calendaring system provides structure without needing to schedule every single task on your calendar.

Adhering to a fixed schedule is less critical than doing your most difficult work when your mental clarity and focus level are at their highest. Consider the output you contribute, not the hours you put in. Pace yourself by taking necessary breaks. Work around your energy instead of force  your to-dos into a rigid schedule. Even with this more flexible approach, you can still keep a shutdown time – when you stop doing work and start winding down – to avoid burnout and impaired productivity.

3. Use a timer to focus on a task. The “Pomodoro Technique” is a time-management method that was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980’s. “Pomodoro” is the Italian word for tomato. Cirillo adopted the name from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer he used to manage his time as a college student.

The Pomodoro Technique involves several steps. First, you identify the task to do. Second, you set a timer (traditionally 25 minutes).  Third, you work on the task only until the timer goes off.  After the timer rings, you check off your task. And if you give in to interruptions and distractions (e.g. checking emails, getting a snack), you reset the timer.  If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (5 minutes), then go to step 2. If you have at least four checkmarks, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, and do the steps all over again.

The technique helps you to set aside time and space to work on a single task and avoid procrastination. Having a timer adds a sense of urgency and importance to getting the task done. The breaks between tasks also allows you to preserve your energy and sustain your focus over long periods.

The technique, however, can also cut into your workflow and make it harder to develop the skill of doing real, deep work. The ability to concentrate on hard things for extensive periods takes practice to develop. If you’re constantly taking breaks (e.g. every 25 minutes), you don’t learn to sit with and push through temporary moments of discomfort or boredom.

Relying on a timer can also reduce your awareness of when it’s really time to call it quits. The technique can force you to work for sustained periods, when your mind is wandering off or your body is fatigued.

Working under time pressure can work for some people and for some situations. But when you get pulled into watching the timer instead of focusing on the task at hand, the Pomodoro Technique backfires.

Alternative: Single tasking and taking regular breaks — while nixing the timer or the 25-minute rule – provides the benefits of the Pomodoro Technique without the drawbacks.  If you find it difficult to focus on one task at a time, you can use Pomodoro to get you on track. You’re better off though when you eventually tailor the method to your personal preferences.

Experiment with the duration of your  work sessions. For certain low-value, administrative activities, like processing emails, you might want to stick with 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break. And for high-value, deep concentration activities, you could work in a 90- to 120-minute cycle, which is the brain-body’s natural ultradian rhythm, before taking a 20-minute break.  Standing up and stretching for just a minute every 45 minutes can also help you avoid long periods of being desk bound or holding bad posture, which is detrimental to your health.

When you’re in the zone, you don’t have to break your workflow with a mandatory break. Pay attention to your energy level. Take breaks based on the state of your mind and body, rather than depend on a timer.  During your break, engage in activities that clear your mind (e.g. take a walk or meditate) and avoid activities that clutter it (e.g. surf the Internet or check social media).

Test out productivity hacks and use what works for you

There are many productivity hacks from which to choose, but only a few are ultimately right for you. Try the method or technique for at least 30 days before you give up on it because you are bound to experience resistance and setbacks initially.

Experiment, make use of the ones that fit, and drop the ones that create more stress. Develop a customized, personal productivity system that helps you focus on and accomplish what really matters. Sometimes a simple tweaking of existing systems is all you need to do.

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Photo by: Jussi Linkola

How to create success without setting goals

Making resolutions and setting big goals are expected when the year comes to a close and a new one is set to begin. Nearly half of Americans usually make New Year’s resolutions. But less than 10 percent actually achieve them. And goal-setting, at any time of the year, often involves lofty aspirations and ambitious to-dos that don’t necessarily serve you well.

While goal-setting is meant to move you in the desired direction, it can do the opposite. It frequently fuels anxiety and heightens stress in a way that interferes with real progress. An outcome-based goal is a milestone, benchmark or metric that is not always met and, even when met, doesn’t always provide a deep sense of meaning.

If you hate setting goals or don’t find them particularly helpful, try a different approach that focuses on what you control and what drives you in the present.

This internally-oriented approach involves three main components:

1. Clarify your purpose 

Start by determining your top priorities, core values, and BIG WHY behind what you do and want to do.

Ask yourself what positive feelings you want to derive from the life you lead and create. Pick one to three defining words or themes to shape your year (or a shorter time period, such as 3 months or 6 months, if you prefer).

In 2006, my word was Adventure. It led me to jump out of an airplane and tandem skydive, say yes to more social events, and go rock climbing on a cliff.

In 2016, my word was Fluidity. I honed a work-life mix that involved doing extended work in the morning; playing/chatting with my toddler, responding to phone calls and emails, running errands, and working in short bursts during the day; enjoying family time over dinner; doing focused work after my kid went to bed; and then reflecting, planning and winding down.

When you define how you want to act in life and relate to others, you can make conscious choices and take deliberate action that align with your heartfelt wishes. You keep what’s vital to you and your environment and clear out the non-essentials.

“Success is a feeling; it’s not necessarily an accumulation.” – Simon Senek, author of Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.

“Stay anchored to the desired feeling, and open to the form in which it manifests.” – Danielle La Porte in The Desire Map: A Guide to Creating Goals with Soul.

2. Focus on the process

Develop systems that do not rely on willpower to get the right things done. Be curious about what works and what doesn’t, build healthy habits, and develop routines and schedules that keep you on track no matter what. Concentrate on daily progress, instead of accomplishing the big goal.

Let go of limiting beliefs about what you should do and not do. I would not have started my own law firm, at the time that I did, if I held on to the belief that being successful meant having a brick-and-mortar office, hiring a full-time staff, and having more clients than I could personally handle. By building a remotely-run law practice from the ground up, I have a profitable business that gives me the freedom and flexibility to set my agenda, carefully choose clients and turn down cases, and work only on issues that interest me.

If you own a business, you cannot control how many products you sell or how many new clients you get in a month. But you can control how you engage with your community, treat existing customers, deliver and design a work product, respond to inquiries, and market your business.

Realize there are many paths to get to an ideal state. There’s no shame in choosing the easiest and quickest path (although taking a tough and long one is okay, too.)

If you’re a chronic multitasker who wants to develop mindfulness, you may start with mindful eating, instead of a formal meditation practice. Chew your food 30 times before you swallow. Pay attention to the taste, smell, look and texture. Notice when you get hungry and how full you feel before, during and after you eat. Think about the origins of what you ingest and digest.

It’s rare to achieve life-changing goals in the time frame and in the way that you plan. Commit to an effective process and take deliberate actions that naturally lead to positive, long-term results. Drop your fixation on specific outcomes and stay open to exploring new opportunities and shifting gears.

“Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do.” – Scott Adams, creator of the syndicated Dilbert cartoons and author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life.

3. Be kind to yourself

Above all, practice self-compassion. An internally-oriented approach to creating success doesn’t mean you will experience magical bliss and no anxiety or stress.

You will face shifting priorities, conflicting values and competing commitments that generate a sense of incompleteness and even guilt. You come back to the present, stop punishing yourself for things left undone, and acknowledge the actions you did take.

When your intentions fall through, don’t just throw up your hands and call yourself a failure. Decide whether you really want to do or create this thing. And if you do, roll up your sleeves. And. GET. TO. WORK.

Know that whether the important step is taken or the end goal is achieved, you are enough. Completing the marathon, building a sustainable business, launching your podcast, and raising a self-reliant child are all spectacular objectives. But failure to achieve them does not take away from your personal worth and individual contributions.

Radical self-acceptance is more effective than grand self-loathing. Acceptance is not the same as tolerating and putting up with crap. It is being aware of what is within your control and what is not. Acceptance doesn’t mean you will never change or change things for the better, but rather that the change comes from a healthier, stronger, and more grounded place.

“As you learn self-acceptance, realize that it is always available to you, and you can have it no matter what you do. You can learn, create interesting things, make connections with others, with self-acceptance at the center of that.” – Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits. 

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Goal-setting can be a very useful planning tool for achieving what you seek. But an outcome-based mindset is not necessary to creating success. When you can be with yourself unconditionally and fully appreciate where you’re at, you’re more likely to make choices and act in accordance with what you truly want. Only then do you have genuine success.

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Photo by: Andrew Stawarz