Self Awareness = Success
When I want to be, I can be incredibly driven and determined.
The problem is, like most people, I lose focus quickly. I get side-tracked with the next big idea or scheme before I really get started.
When it comes down to it, execution is all that matters. The greatest plan in the world or the best intentions mean jack all when the delivery is half-baked.
The ability to form positive habits and persevere on those days where you just don’t feel like it can be the difference between success and failure. Whatever the arena, learning how to stick to a plan or goal is an invaluable life-skill.
The first thing to address about habit forming is that there seems to be no magic formula. No one routine or strategy that enables laser-focused motivation.
I actually want to explore precisely the opposite. How sticking to a goal requires an acute self-awareness about what motivates you.
Dissecting the positive routines I have managed to maintain in the past, I want to identify the actions and behaviours that seem to work for me.
Reverse-engineering my habits in this way, I hope to create a kind of blueprint that I can execute in the future with actionable tips that might help others too.
5 Actionable Tips For Habit Forming
#1 Set A Realistic And Specific Plan Or Goal
If you told me 18 weeks ago that I would still be blogging every Monday throughout 2018, I would have been pleasantly surprised. For many bloggers, once a week doesn’t seem like much. For others, anything more than once a month is daunting.
The key is finding your comfort zone.
As with many habits, my publishing frequency has an impact on quality.
Rather than write three 500 word articles every week, I have made the decision to focus on one post and topic, usually (but not intentionally) writing around 1,200-1,500 words. There are certainly pros and cons to each approach. The former would probably better serve me growing an audience on a platform like Medium, whereas the latter is stronger from an SEO perspective.
You could argue the different merits of contrasting plans all day long, but the important thing is coming up with a target you can see yourself realistically, consistently hitting.
At the end of the day, 52 blog posts are 52 more than I wrote last year.
It’s important to add that you don’t have to keep the same goal throughout. You should gradually push yourself and get more ambitious.
When I first joined the gym two weeks ago, I set myself the goal to simply familiarise myself with three machines in that first session. On every return trip since, I have tried to achieve a little bit more, trying new exercises and gradually increasing my weights or reps. This will have a compounding effect.
The other crucial aspect of this tip is specificity.
My last blog was a stop-start project. It never got off the ground with bursts of sporadic posts and long dry spells. In hindsight, the problem was I didn’t have a publishing or writing schedule. Without giving myself regular deadlines, I had no underlining motivation to write unless I was hit by inspiration.
When setting a plan or goal, be as specific as possible:
- When are you going to work on it? What day, what time?
- In what capacity and where? At home? The gym?
- How long for? Will you take breaks?
- Who with? Will they stick to this schedule?
Deadlines suck but they drive us to perform under creative pressure.
#2 Have A Clear Motivation In Mind (Know Your Why)
The previous tip discusses how to go about doing something. But this one is about the even more important question of why.
Without knowing why you want to form a certain habit, you have little chance of sticking to it. Again, self-awareness is key.
Before pursuing any goal, ask yourself why it is desirable. Don’t accept your first answer. Dig deeper and get to the root cause of your goal.
You might think that you want to go to the gym to ‘get big’ in time for summer. For some people, this would be cause enough. But a lot of people need a deeper source of motivation to draw from.
Getting big for its own sake is a nice-to-have. Ask yourself why is it you really want to improve your body? Is it because you are single and desperately want a girlfriend? Why is summer your goal? Is it because you have always been self-conscious at the beach and want to overcome that?
Your truth can be uncovered with some soul-searching.
A strong enough why is motivation on tap.
In some instances, identifying your underlying motivation can actually take the pressure off. With blogging throughout 2018, my goal is not to write amazing content or grow an audience. To be completely honest, the target is to simply create a body of work and stick to a writing schedule for its own sake.
By acknowledging this, I alleviate some of the pressure of content creation. I do not have to write 52 masterpieces, simply pressing submit 52 times will be the achievement I celebrate. If 1 in 10 posts are worth reading that will be a bonus.
#3 Turn Your Values Into Incentives
This tip is related to the above but less about over-arching motivations and more about your psychological wiring and day-to-day drives. This self-realisation concerns your personal values, distinct from your ambitions.
Whatever your plan or goal, everyone can benefit from listing their values out and finding which might relate to the routine or habit they want to adopt.
Let’s say your ultimate goal is to become a championship winning athlete, which requires training 5 times a week. Your competitive nature and love for the sport might be enough to carry you through, with a shot at success, but you might look for additional sources of motivation (they certainly won’t hurt).
Really analysing yourself, you might realise that actually winning doesn’t matter as much to you as your network of family and friends.
Acknowledging this, you can use it to your advantage and turn your values into your incentive. Reframe winning that championship as a way to make your parents and friends proud, and justify the commitment they have made supporting all your training. Doing something for someone else often trumps doing it for yourself.
Flip your values and utilise negative incentives.
We like to think of ourselves as positively motivated creatures. But actually, most of our drives are negative, often spanning from an absence of something ie. food or sex.
For a lot of people, their first love is what they’ll always remember. For me it’s always been the first hate, and I think that hatred, though it provides often rather junky energy, is a terrific way of getting you out of bed in the morning and keeping you going. – Christoper Hitchens
I’m not saying that you should solely channel junky hate energy. But think about what makes you uncomfortable. What makes you do things you might not want to. This might be a fear of failing.
One of the negative incentives I accidentally deployed recently is probably the thing that will, hopefully, keep me going to the gym. When it comes to money, I’m a saver through and through. Financial shrewdness was hard-wired in me, partly being the son of an accountant.
Being forced to sign up for a 12-month gym contract, when I had assumed I could pay on a rolling monthly basis, has made me really uneasy. Within 30 seconds, I had worked out how much my annual membership would cost. How many sessions I would need to go to a week to feel like I had got my money’s worth.
Doing this exercise has provided me with a stronger incentive than I might have had otherwise. Suddenly not going has a consequence that hurts.
#4 Measure Your Progress In Minute Detail
Habits aren’t achieved overnight and goals are often made up of sub-goals. The only way to orientate yourself towards success is to keep track of the direction you are taking. How else will you even know when you get there?
Let’s say your aim is to become more adventurous in the kitchen, cooking new dishes for yourself and others. Without recording what you have cooked, you might easily forget the nuances of different recipes.
Or you might find yourself trying similar foods over and over again, out of convenience, when really the whole point was to broaden your culinary horizon.
Measuring progress can help evaluate what’s going well and what isn’t. Reorientating to take this into account will improve performance, in turn boosting motivation. In short, the more you measure, the better chance you have.
The power of the mini win.
Be sure to go into minute detail on this. Doing so opens up a world of ‘mini wins’ that might otherwise go unrecognised and therefore wasted as stimuli.
Let’s say you bake a cake for the first time and mess up the sponge. Taking the time to note to yourself that the icing was something of a consolation makes a big difference. This attitude lets you take positives away from negatives.
From personal experience, I have found measuring progress incredibly effective. Using the My Fitness Pal app to track nutrition has had a huge psychological effect on my eating habits. I am painfully aware that I have something of an obsessive personality. If you can relate to this, then this tip might be the most powerful one for you. Direct your OCD towards a positive end goal.
#5 If all else fails, get someone else to hold you accountable
A team is as strong as its weakest player. If your team consists of one and you’re a pushover, this does not bode well for goal attainment.
Perhaps the easiest way how to stick to a plan or goal is to simply get someone else to hold you accountable. This means introducing a consequence or punishment for falling below your defined standard.
When choosing a consequence, the main thing to consider is it has to hurt. If buying your friend a coffee every time you are late to a social event is something you can just shrug off, the stakes aren’t high enough.
It does help for your punishment to be in the other person’s interest. This incentivises them to support you, even beyond their duty as a good friend.
For most of us, money provides an effective incentive. Did you not reach your 10km running goal this week or finish two books this month? Maybe you have to give your friend £25 or a voucher. With this kind of arrangement, you will have others biting your hand off to get involved. It’s a kind of support…
Tim Ferriss has an interesting take on this concept. Rather than giving money to a friend, he suggests getting a friend to give the money to a cause you would despise. A devote Labour Party Member might have to donate to the Tory Party.
This pain works on two levels – the financial loss is the same but it comes with additional grief.
Go public and embrace peer pressure.
A lot of the goals we set ourselves are highly personal. Yet by keeping them to ourselves, we miss out on a highly effective source of motivation: the pressure, expectation and opinion of peers.
When starting out on a new venture, whether it’s pursuing a business idea or trying to lose weight, be sure to tell other people. Pick your 5 closest friends and send a group text or, better still, post to Facebook. Doing the latter in particular works wonders because the opinions of semi-strangers, which is ultimately who many of our Facebook friends are, tend to matter a lot more to us.
It’s easy to fail on your own when no one is looking.
Public failures are much harder to accept as they bring the burden of perceived shame, showing a sign of weakness.
How To Stick To A Plan Or Goal
The takeaway I want to leave you with is to reiterate that sticking to a target requires self-awareness about what motivates and incentives you.
Some people are value-driven, others seek rewards, or are spurred on by a fear of failure. We all have a mixture of stimuli available to us.
Hopefully following some of these actionable tips you will be able to better understand your own wiring and reach your goals.