Written by Russell Johnson
In my last article, A More Powerful Alternative to New Year Resolutions, I wrote about the reasons for the overwhelming failure of new year resolutions. If you haven’t read it, I would suggest doing so before reading this one.
This article will address the other part of the picture – how we can change our lives through effective goal-setting and achievement behaviors.
The Discipline of Focused Goal-Setting
We need to reflect and act on each of our goals frequently – ideally, every day. A major key is to set a minimal number of goals, considering and balancing each area of your core values rather than narrowly focusing only on your career.
Unsurprisingly, the most successful people have learned the discipline of saying ‘No’ to activities that are either not related to their key goals or have the potential to thwart those goals.
It’s crucial to block such activities. Otherwise, as ‘shiny objects’, they will destroy your ability to give your limited available focus to the things that will make the real difference in living the life you want.
‘Sharpening the Saw’
An example of influential values is goals related to our bodies and minds – the machinery that makes our achievements possible.
In his excellent book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, Stephen Covey included the habit of ‘sharpening the saw’ – i.e. expanding our own productive capacity. It’s the kind of book that deserves to be read by us all, and even re-read if it’s been some years since we last did so.
We can’t reasonably expect to achieve anything of significance in life if we fail to take good care of our minds and bodies, so we should particularly consider setting goals related to these areas.
Furthermore, consider whether any of your other goals conflict with those priorities needed to ‘sharpen the saw’. At work, there can be lots of pressure to ignore these priorities. Sometimes, this may be necessary as a short term measure. On any other basis, it’s invariably a bad option.
Using Triggers, Routines and Rewards
Goal setting needs to be a part of a sequence because we need to meet other conditions before we can set them. Likewise, there’s a sequence that will enable us to embed our goals in our lives, along with the actions required to achieve them.
Understanding the importance of Triggers, Routines and Rewards is integral to success. We must establish our individual triggers, our routines and the rewards that we will receive for implementing them.
Establishing these, and then implementing them, will be demanding work. Again, to quote Peter Drucker,
Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.
In the context of goals, a trigger is a condition, or a set of conditions, that will reliably impel us to launch our goal-achieving behaviors, day in and day out. As far as possible, set your triggers to apply early in the morning. This is especially vital for activities that you may find it particularly hard to get started on or to fit in to your busy days, e.g. physical exercise.
Whatever you select as your trigger becomes the automatic basis for your next routine. Select something you already do routinely, soon after arising from bed, e.g. drinking your first glass of water in the morning. If you choose this as your trigger, your goal-achieving behavior must follow automatically, except perhaps under certain pre-defined exceptions like illness or very early morning travel.
While difficult at first, such activities have outsize power. If you refuse to let yourself off the hook for them, they will greatly strengthen your willpower and your results.
Your routine for acting on any trigger should be as consistent as it can be. If you have a routine of a set of physical exercises each morning, for example, then you have established a level of consistency for whatever goal you may set related to your physical condition.
This doesn’t mean your routine needs to be the same each day – or even that it must always be at the same time. You might, for example, have a weekly routine, with the actual exercises varying between days. And if your work involves a lot of travel, then you may sometimes find it necessary to exercise in the evening instead of the morning. That requirement for flexibility is one reason why those whose work involves a lot of travel are usually more highly paid.
You must be the judge of what’s worthwhile for you. Just be sure you’re not making sacrifices that you’ll regret in the future. You don’t have to do that – and it’s not consistent with real success.
Our rewards can be simple. For example, your first coffee of the day could be the reward for completing your morning routine. With a little thought and self-discipline, rewards can be quite modest, and a single one can reward us for completing several routines.
After all, the greatest reward is automatic – it’s the ongoing fulfilment that we gain from living the life we have chosen to live.
Be Sure to Support Your Goals Through Your Tasks
Our cues, routines and rewards should apply only to tasks. But we must clearly align our tasks with specific goals.
Keep a list of tasks related to each of your goals, unless they’re so straightforward, or so well established, that you can keep them in your head. Keep this all as simple as possible. You may find it best to use an online To-Do App.
And examine your goals, and your progress toward them, regularly – at least weekly.
Remember, New Year resolutions are a weak form of goals. There’s no good reason to set them, and New Year’s Day is no more important than any other. Every day holds the opportunity to refine our goals and our tasks.
If you have made some New Year resolutions that have already faded, don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s better to drop them and to recalibrate and set real and deeply motivating goals and tasks that directly relate to them. No time of year is necessarily better than another for this activity.
If implementing any of this is initially uncomfortable for you, just remind yourself of the power of our habits. At the outset, they’re as frail as cobwebs. But over time, they will bind us as powerfully as cables. The great reward for establishing the right ones is the reinforcement they provide for living the truly good life.
If we take the trouble to clarify what such a life is for us, and then to implement the disciplines it requires, we will soon find ourselves living in a way that genuinely feels effortless. It will reward us with abundant energy for worthwhile activity – a sense of flow and of gratitude for the experiences that a truly successful life provides.
I don’t know who wrote the following piece. However, it sums up the essentials of success in setting our goals and using the power of habit to achieve them. If you aren’t already familiar with it, I hope you’ll find it useful:
Who Am I?
I am your constant companion.
I am your greatest helper or heaviest burden.
I will push you onward or drag you down to failure.
I am completely at your command.
Half the things you do you might just as well turn over to me, and I will be able to do them quickly, correctly.
I am easily managed – you must merely be firm with me. Show me exactly how you want something done, and after a few lessons I will do it automatically.
I am the servant of all great people; and alas, of all failures as well. Those who are failures, I have made failures.
I am not a machine, though I work with all the precision of a machine plus the intelligence of a human being.
You may run me for a profit or turn me for ruin – it makes no difference to me.
Take me, train me, be firm with me, and I will place the world at your feet.
Be easy with me and I will destroy you.
Who am I?
I AM HABIT.