And just like that, it was gone!
It had such promise. It had been on your mind forever and you were determined that this time you had its measure. But it eluded you…again…as it always does. As the excuses pile up; “Life got in the way”, “I ran out of time”, “It just wasn’t meant to be”, you reflect and are downtrodden.
Why does this happen every time?
Why can I not achieve this?
If this sounds like you, you are not alone.
The path to mastery is long and winding. It is a blank canvas filled with hopes and dreams and no matter what your goals are, you begin with zest and determination and work hard for the first few days and/or weeks. Then the motivation wanes, the determination disappears and the temptation takes over. Sound familiar? What if you are going about the process of reaching your goal the wrong way? What if you are setting yourself up to fail? According to Art Markman, a cognitive scientist, the author of Smart Change and co-host of the “Two guys on your head” podcast, the process that most people use to try to achieve their goals is the perfect recipe for failure. Gyms, personal trainers, companies who sell weight loss products rely on this formula. So how do you set yourself up for success? The key to success according to Markman is to understand how your brain works, especially the motivational system.
How motivation works
Our brains are primed to allow us to succeed but are also on the flipside of that are primed for energy preservation and efficiency. This is achieved by automating behaviours in the form of habits. Ever arrived home after a familiar drive remembering nothing about it? It felt like you were on autopilot. You may take the same way home every day on your drive and as a result, you don’t need to make conscious decisions about this. It is a habit. It is our brain’s autopilot. An incredibly efficient system designed to reduce the workload of our brains to preserve energy. Now, what happens if there are roadworks blocking your normal route home? All of a sudden, your brain needs to engage and make decisions on the fly and this requires energy to do this. The autopilot is disengaged and you take back the wheel. Habits allow us to use mental energy in the right spaces.
Positive habits to achieve your goals
Markman says we have two circuits that assist with motivation and sustainable behaviours. He calls them the “Go system” and the “Stop system”. Understanding the key components of our motivational system and how to utilise them to use our energy in the right spaces is essential to achieving personal goals. The Go system has two parts – one which outputs effort to allow us to develop new behaviours and the other which automates the behaviours we do often in a more energy efficient way by way of habit development.
The Go system associates certain times and places with certain behaviours. Do you go pull your phone out while riding on the train or put your bag in a certain place when you walk in the door? These frequent patterns of behaviour are on autopilot and help us with decision fatigue. The Stop system is our ‘brakes’ system. This system requires mental energy and mental energy is a finite source. This is why all of our hard work comes apart in the afternoon. Our brains are tired and so the mental energy required to make the right choice is not there. Trying to change a pattern of behaviour by constantly riding the brakes is not sustainable. We run out of energy this way. The key, is to find ways to make the behaviour we wish to develop, a habit. Create a trigger that prompts that behaviour. Build an environment which promotes this behaviour.
Move from aspiring to practicing
The Go system is all about habits. The Stop system is all about goals. In this great Farnam Street blog post from Shane Parish, he highlights the power of habits over goal setting in the pursuit of excellence. Goals have “endpoints and require willpower and self-discipline”. Habits once formed are automatic. They are easy to complete. This is so on the money. Writing for me has always been a passion. I was, like Joshua Fields Milburn from the Minimalists, an aspiring writer. Always aspiring to write but never actually getting it done. I set myself goals of one blog post a week which seemed like a pretty reasonable target but I rarely achieved it. The #youredustory challenge helped me do it for one year but I dropped the ball after that. The writing was hard. I would sit down and nothing would come out. I struggled for content. Since I started writing 750 words daily, I have written over 50,000 words in two months. That’s a book worth right there. Through the habit, I have written two and sometimes three blog posts a week. My work writing is easier. The words just flow. Now, not all of this writing is brilliant but there are speckles of gold in there and it feels natural every day. To start writing is easy. To finish is easy. I sit down and it just happens. This was not the case when I set goals to write. My dream has changed from aspiring to write a book to writing a book. I have applied the same changes to exercise, meditation and reading. I do them daily at the same time (most days) and it feels unnatural not to do them. I have harnessed my Go system and made the process easier. It is the power of incrementalism. One step, every day and you get to where you want to get to.