Want to actually have breakthrough success? Develop a daily habit!

Want to actually have breakthrough success? Develop a daily habit!

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.

Struggling with focus? Strategies to help you sharpen your concentration

Struggling with focus? Strategies to help you sharpen your concentration

Do you struggle to maintain concentration for an extended period of time? Do you find that the length of time that you can focus your attention has severely deteriorated over the past few years? Twelve months ago, I would have answered yes to both questions. There was a melting pot of reasons for this. Environmental, personal and structural tended to be the category headings for most. An open plan office, an inability to say ‘no’ and a daily structure that responded to the needs of others at the sacrifice of my own. I often left work scattered and unfulfilled. The day would start with the best of intentions but would derail and leave me feeling unproductive and to be perfectly honest, really unhappy. I felt like a passenger in my own existence, unable to produce the quality of work that I so desired. In his classic book, Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says

“the mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life.”

In essence, your capacity to concentrate intensely, to focus your attention to achieve a goal is a major factor in determining happiness. I needed to make changes.

Twelve months ago I made some big changes.

It started with owning my morning. Running and exercise have always been great outlets for me. As I said to my wife, I am a better person when I run regularly (she agrees!). The challenge was that I loved to run after work and this is not easy when you have two kids under six. The routine takes over. So I had to run early in the morning. I started getting up at 5am (otherwise known as stupid ‘o clock) and running in the darkness. You learn to sharpen your focus quick smart when you run in pitch black. I also didn’t let inclement weather deter me. I ran when it was raining. I ran when it was freezing. The benefits for me far outweighed the costs. I also found the weather really helped keep you in the moment.

The next battle was with my attention. In Smarter, Faster, Better, Charles Duhigg states that “to be genuinely productive, we must take control of our attention”. For me, the challenge was that I divided my attention amongst too many things. I needed to be able to prioritise better and to let things slide by. The change happened when I was introduced to meditation. The first introduction was via the Headspace app and is a great space for anyone new to meditation. I used to think that meditation was all ‘oms’ and ‘chakras’ but it is actually just about stopping and being present. Ten minutes a day doesn’t seem like a lot of time but it does when you are meditating. I found my mind wondering and constantly having to bring it back to focus. This is normal! Meditation came and went for a little while but I started a daily habit at the start of this year and I’ve meditated 99.9% of this year. I use Insight Timer as my app of choice. It has a great variety of meditations (short, long, morning, binaural beats, etc…) and is free. You can also earn accomplishments by keeping your streak of meditating going. I meditate every morning and it is a great way to start the day. My mind still wonders but I’m much more conscious of it.

Adam Grant, the author of Originals and Give and Take, is renowned for his quality of work and for his volume of work. He is the youngest tenured professor at Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). His formula for success is easy.

High Quality Work Produced = Time Spent x Intensity of focus

Having a large block of time with a clear goal is key. You then need to make sure that you work with intensity. In a previous life, I worked as a gym instructor and I would often marvel at the people who would come to the gym for hours and barely raise a sweat. Intensity is what helps you achieve your goals. I guard my schedule now. Morning meetings are really limited. This is the best time for high-quality work. I also try to keep meetings and emails to a minimum. I wrote a post last week on my personal inquiry into where my time goes. I am employed to do great work, not to warm chairs and play email ping pong. Yes, these are essential but a day that only consists of these is, in my opinion, a waste.

To help me focus in an open plan office, I use bucket headphones and Brain.fm. Brain.fm is music designed by an AI engine for the brain to enhance focus. I had read lots of binaural beats and power of the repetitive tones on focus. I tried YouTube clips of binaural beats, focus soundtracks on Spotify but eventually locked down on Brain.fm. I used multiple email addresses to sign up for the free ten sessions and I have committed to a yearly subscription. It is the best $47 I have spent this year. I find it really helps block out the background noise and focus my attention on the task at hand. I think of it as blinkers for the open plan office. When I am at home, I use a technique called box breathing (or four square breathing) before I start my writing/work. It is brilliant for slowing the breath and helping to start my focus period off in style. I use the BoxBreathing app for this. In combination with Brain.fm, I have seen huge improvements in my ability to focus.

The challenge with work that is digitally based is the click bait. Clifford Nass, a Professor from Stanford who studies behaviour in the digital age, has found that constant attention switching online has lasting negative effects on your brain. In his words, constant switching is making us dumber. A little sensationalist for my liking but still something to be really wary of. Are you constantly starting a task and finding ten minutes later that you are nowhere near that task or struggling to remember what that task was?  If so, take some steps. These steps worked for me. The first step is recognising that it is having an impact.