If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s imagining bad outcomes. We get spun up over this all the time. For every conversation, there are probably twelve sad, scary, or alarming versions that never happened. Every job interview really lasts for eighty hours, seventy-nine of them imaginary. Anxiety and pessimism are survival traits. Worry and dread have gotten us through fire, flood, famine, siege, animal attack, and all the rest. This is probably why avoidance goals work slightly better than approach goals.
An avoidance goal is phrased in a way that anticipates a negative outcome. “Don’t forget your glasses.”
An approach goal is phrased in a way that anticipates a positive outcome. “Remember to wear your glasses.”
It’s possible that certain personality types lean more toward one goal type or the other. An optimist will naturally prefer an approach goal. It’s also possible that certain types of goals are better suited for one format or the other. A personal experiment should make this clear. Are we getting the results we want in the areas that are important to us?
I’m an extreme optimist, an enthusiast by nature. I love working on annual, quarterly, monthly, and sometimes even hourly goals. My plans tend to be both broad and specific. I would have thought I made almost entirely approach-oriented goals. Then I read a blog post by a guy who made two goals and then compared his adherence to them based on whether he focused on approach or avoidance. He did better with avoidance. It made me realize that I follow a lot of avoidance-based goals throughout the day, almost automatically. I think of it as “common sense,” although of course “common sense” is never all that common.
Every single time I use a knife, I think, “Okay, now don’t cut yourself.”
Every single time I go down a flight of stairs, I think, with every single step, “Okay, now don’t slip.”
When I pack a suitcase, I bustle around my apartment, talking to myself. “Don’t forget your tickets. Don’t forget your back-up battery. Don’t forget your” endlessly, all the way up to the jetway.
There’s a distinct, gear-shifting feeling between this constant internal nattering and the aerial view, grand strategic plans that I normally think of as goal-setting.
Maybe one of the reasons that avoidance goals work better is that we can only plan them when we actually believe that the negative outcome is a firm possibility. I think that is very much not the case for a lot of common “goals.” Further, I think it’s common to “choose” a mainstream “goal” as a smokescreen, a pretend Potemkin intention, to protect our tendency to do what we want without criticism. Hey, I tried, what more do you want from me??
Research shows that we’re really poor at thinking of future versions of ourselves. We think of Old Me as a total stranger. Hey, Future Me, have fun paying off all this debt and picking up my socks! Ha, Future Me is such a sucker. We can’t really believe in a universe in which “I” am an elderly person. Surely I have better taste than to age and grow old! I’m much too smart for that! If we can’t believe in a frail, elderly, poor, and ill version of ourselves, then we have no intrinsic motivation to save money, eat healthy foods, and be more active. We do, however, believe in such things as cutting a finger or falling down the stairs. “Don’t cut yourself” is a much more believable imperative than “don’t get osteoporosis.”
My major fitness motivation is “Avoid getting Alzheimer’s.” This is a truly terrifying outcome. Why simply sit around and be afraid of something, though? That would be sacrificing all the good years for what may or may not turn out to be the bad years. It’s a logical fallacy. How can undirected anxiety possibly do me any good? That just means I suffer Alzheimer’s PLUS decades of dread. If I’m right, if my thesis is correct that Alzheimer’s is at least a little bit susceptible to lifestyle inputs, then I must do every last single thing in my power to avoid it. If I’m wrong, and I’ve done all of these actions over the years for no reason, if my efforts have been futile, I still benefit in three ways.
I could use an approach-oriented framework and tell myself “Eat healthy food” and “Get plenty of exercise.” Arguably, I do both of these things. They’re extremely vague, though, so vague as to be almost meaningless. That’s another reason that avoidance goals work a little better, because they’re unfailingly very specific.
It’s easier to “stop drinking soda” or “stop eating bagels” or “don’t eat high-fructose corn syrup.” Those are specific and simple to understand, and any of them could result in an easy ten-pound weight loss over a year.
I’m always going to make wildly positive, outlandishly optimistic goals and resolutions. It’s fun and it works much better than pop culture would lead us to believe. Past Me would have had a lot of trouble believing in my future ability to run a marathon, manage an investment portfolio, cook Thanksgiving dinner for two dozen people, buy train tickets in Spain, or lots of other things I’ve done. How would a negative version of those goals even be phrased? “Don’t screw up”? I will, however, continue to use avoidance goals when they seem helpful.
Here are some avoidance goals that I use, by category:
Don’t be in debt
Don’t carry a credit card balance
Don’t pay finance charges
Don’t buy on impulse
Don’t buy anything unless you know where you’ll put it and how you’ll clean it
Don’t outgrow your clothes, they’re expensive
Avoid getting a migraine - (body weight, dehydration, poor sleep quality)
Don’t get Alzheimer’s
Don’t trigger your night terrors - (eating after 8 PM)
Don’t run out of clean underwear
Don’t make extra work for yourself
Don’t leave crusty dishes
That needs to get eaten up before it gets wasted
Don’t criticize unless you’re open to being criticized
Don’t be a caricature
No double standards
Don’t be like his ex
Don’t do his pet peeves
Don’t be a pushover or a victim
Don’t be a flake
Don’t be a freeloader
Don’t associate with gossips
Don’t stand by and let other people be bullied
“Don’t do anything illegal, immoral, or just plain stupid.” - My Dad
“Never go viral for the wrong reasons.” - Anonymous
“Do things that are a good idea, and don’t do things that are a bad idea.” - Me
Cutting off options is one of the worst feelings. This is why so many people hate making decisions; ‘decision’ means “to cut off.” It’s also a major reason why we procrastinate (or feel like we do), and it’s one of the major root causes of clutter. We like to feel surrounded by possibilities and potential. We like it even when maintaining that illusion of options is precisely what’s holding us back.
This is why I recommend choosing and focusing on a primary project.
It came to me just now, while I was brushing my teeth, in fact. I’m writing this at what is technically past my bedtime, because I know otherwise I’ll toss and turn writing it in my head. This is how we like to think of inspiration, as this external, spiritual force that strikes us like a lightning bolt from an ethereal weather system. We like it, even though when it actually happens it’s terribly inconvenient! We like it, even when it tends to result in years stacked upon many years of unproductive dallying and lack of any measurable result.
This is the year I’m dedicating to tying off old cords, closing open loops, and deciding once and for all whether to finish certain projects, schedule them, or jettison them entirely. Supposedly that is my primary project. It’s the middle of the year and I haven’t actually finished anything.
These are the projects that, if asked, I would have to define as “current”:
A novel; a non-fiction book; yet a different novel; the new podcast; a cross stitch that is maybe half done; an attempt to learn to juggle/ride a unicycle/solve a Rubik’s cube/do the splits/this is getting embarrassing, but the gear is everywhere; clearing the data off my old phone so I can sell it; getting an orange belt in Muay Thai; finishing my Advanced Communicator Silver in Toastmasters; putting together a workshop; this blog of course
Of COURSE there are more. It’s so much worse than it looks.
The trouble with being a multi-potentialite is this tendency to have eighty things going at once, making 1% progress on all of them. It means we never finish anything, we never build a reputation (or at least not one we’d want), we have no legacy, we blow people off and we flake out.
All the time I seem to want to prioritize on learning circus tricks is time taken away from a bunch of finite projects, many of which are at the 80-90% mark.
Why wouldn’t I want to finish them? It’s not like I’m in any danger of running out of ideas, foolish, impractical, brilliant, fun, interesting, or silly as they might be.
I’m better than I used to be. That’s the whole and entire point of a growth mindset, right? To be better than we used to be, and to strive for more? I do pride myself on publishing a blog post every business day. I’m also making steady, measurable progress in both public speaking and martial arts. That’s three things! If I continue to do those three things, then eventually I’ll be a sixth-degree black belt, a Distinguished Toastmaster, and author of a blog that just keeps going and going.
This is what we always have to ask ourselves about our projects. Why are we doing them?
Is it just to have something to keep our hands busy? In that case, we’re ever and always going to have some knitting or crochet or embroidery or hand-stitching or beading or sanding or what-have-you. If the goal is to fill the days and evenings, then we might as well finish our projects one after another. We might as well start trying to make a dent in our accumulated supplies and materials (even though, honestly, we have enough for three lifetimes divided between four people). We could even, dare I say it? We could even finish ALL OF IT. We could wake up one fine morning with zero supplies, zero materials, zero patterns, zero plans, and we could simply wander around the craft store and come home with something new.
There’s no risk in finishing anything!
Are we doing projects as proof of concept? Demonstrating that we have a clear intention of mastering a particular art? Writing, painting, dancing, sculpting, carving? In that case, it’s perfectly fine to have more false starts and bits and pieces of something than we do actual finished work. We simply have to accept that we’ll never impress ourselves, we’ll never reach a point of satisfaction with our own work, because true artists pretty much never feel that way. Never being quite as good as your interior vision is the mark, after all. That’s exactly what sets us apart. We have to ask whether anyone is ever going to see our work, which is really asking if we care about making something that matters. To anyone.
What I’ve just distinguished is the difference between an art and a craft, between an artist and an artisan, or perhaps a hobbyist. All of them are fine but they do have different goals and different processes.
I’m also distinguishing between the finite and the infinite. The finite project is the specific book; the infinite project is to write. The finite project is the afghan; the infinite project is, from what I’ve seen, to collect yarn. Wait, um? Have I ever asked myself to identify my infinite project?
Most of my projects are signs of curiosity. I get interested in something and I want to dive in and immerse myself in it. My interests tend to layer themselves; I rarely drop them. That’s why I have a parrot, and a twenty-year-old bicycle that I still ride, and a vast recipe collection, and a tub full of backpacking equipment. I also tend to have a certain amount of random books and objects that signal my intention for future use. I drive myself crazy doing this, yet I do it.
I have all this stuff, but what I don’t have is a published novel. I don’t have a workshop on the calendar. I don’t have a podcast episode recorded. I don’t necessarily have to choose between these distinctly different projects; I do have to make some solid choices about where I’m putting my primary focus most days of the week. Do one until it’s done, and then do the other until it’s done, and then pick something else. Inexperience with this condition is probably why there are six juggling balls on my desk. What’s going to be my primary project for the next month? What will I have to show for the next three months?
This is the companion book to Jon Acuff’s earlier volume, Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average, and Do What Matters. Readers and fans kept telling him that they had no problem starting projects, they just need help figuring out how to finish them. I can identify with this. There are at least two projects that I was working on when I read Start that I still have not completed four years later. If those projects were only four years old, that would be one thing, but, well, they’re older than that. I’m ready to Finish and give myself the gift of done!
This book is great both for chronic procrastinators and for multi-potentialites. Some of us may think we are procrastinators, when really our main problem is wanting to do everything at once. Acuff shows that he fits in this group when he describes his garage full of equipment that he’s only used a few times, including a telescope, a fishing rod, and a moped. Just because we’re curious, adventurous spirits does not mean we’re quitters or procrastinators, it just means we need to learn how to say we’re done with something.
One of the main reasons that we as humans struggle to finish projects is the planning fallacy. We’re just not very good at estimating how long it takes to do things. Another issue is perfectionism, the crazy idea that it’s better not to do something at all if we can’t meet our perfectionist standards. An example that Acuff gives is all the people who say they want to run a marathon but refuse to start with a 5k. Familiar as these are, there are loads more, and Finish gives us plenty of laughs as we recognize ourselves over and over.
Of course, knowing the issue is not the same as solving the issue. The real strength of the book, aside from its humor, is that Acuff knows what it takes to get people to finish projects. He tested these ideas with hundreds of real people, and the results were analyzed by a researcher working on a PhD. This is more than a motivational self-help book; it’s a description of what other people have successfully done. That’s important, because as we all know, motivation is like a shower. It works great and makes you feel good, but it only lasts for about a day.
We start by being less strict with ourselves, making our goals more manageable, and choosing what else to put on hold while we finish.
A tool from the book that I have used is strategic incompetence. I didn’t have that name for it, but I did it, all right. When I went back to school at age 24 to finish my degree, I decided that I would put fitness on hold until I was done. This wound up being kind of a bad plan, because it was a false dilemma and I unnecessarily gained 35 pounds. I did, though, get my degree. I had a clear vision in my mind that I would study during almost all my waking hours, and it worked. I used the same strategy when I decided to get fit, picturing myself doing almost nothing but going to work and being at the gym. That worked, too. I chose to just be bad at everything other than my goal for the window of time that it took to finish. Aim low, drop your standards, and win!
This book is a delight to read. Acuff emphasizes having fun and celebrating your successes. I’m dedicating 2018 to finishing, eliminating, or formally scheduling every incomplete project I have, and I certainly plan to celebrate when I’m done. That’s a party I know I won’t put off until later.
[Paraphrasing]: The opposite of perfectionism is not failure, it’s FINISHED.
“Might as well” is never applied to good things. It’s never, “Might as well help all these orphans,” or “Might as well plant something healthy in this community garden.”
What happens when you just jump into doing something new? When you decide that you want to test out this thing called ‘bias toward action’ for yourself, or perhaps debunk it? What happens when you breathe through your tendency toward analysis paralysis and start, ya know, doing stuff? When you make motions in the direction of a goal rather than waiting around for the willpower or the motivation to show up?
What happens is that you come up with more reasons to do it.
My philosophy is: Do Things That Are a Good Idea; Don’t Do Things That Are a Bad Idea. I know, I know, that sounds too meta and deep for the general user. How did I ever come up with that? From reading lots and lots of super-heavy philosophical tomes. Just trust me. I’ll explain it a little more, though, just to make sure it makes sense.
Do things that are a good idea: If something is a good idea, then I only need one reason to do it. My dentist told me to floss my teeth, so I do. I’m not going to spend any more time researching and reading articles about flossing, because it only takes me two minutes a day.
Don’t do things that are a bad idea: If something is a bad idea, then I only need one reason NOT to do it. Don’t put a fork in the electrical socket. Don’t slam your finger in a metal door. Don’t read the comments. Don’t wear tights that are an exact match for your skin tone.
Most people tend to do a better job avoiding things that are a bad idea, especially if they’ve done any of them. Not me, though. Today is perhaps the third or fourth time I’ve spilled green tea soy latte inside my work bag.
Apparently I need more reasons to sit and savor my tea slowly. ...?
Think of your favorite thing. It could be an object, a place, an activity, a song you play over and over on repeat, just something you totally love.
Okay, now think of reasons why it’s so awesome.
Fun, huh? If you did that exercise, I highly recommend doing it every day. It’s good brainstorming and it reminds you to do stuff you like.
I’ll share one of mine. I love reading. What do I like about it so much?
Can’t stop myself
Learn new things
Keeps me entertained while I do boring stuff
Or folding laundry
Or driving on a long road trip
Or standing in line
Always have a way to squash bugs
Handy way to repel unwanted attention of strangers
Keeps me from perseverating or pointlessly worrying
Way to connect with old friends
And make new friends
Always have something interesting to talk about
Share with friends and family who want a book recommendation
Way to keep papers flat in my bag
Reminds me of other books that I also loved, like in the same genre or series
Financially support my favorite authors
Cheaper cost per hour than going to the movies
What the heck else would I do with my time?
I could go into exhaustive detail if I wanted. If I started sharing what I loved about particular books or authors, this could go on forever. The point is that I love something so much that I’ll never stop doing it, and I’m convinced it will always be a part of my life. I can’t think of a single reason why I should ever stop.
What else can I do that with?
If I were asked to come up with reasons to do something I know nothing about, I’d be a bit stuck. Why should I... buy a luxury vehicle? Um... I guess because maybe it would impress people who don’t currently talk to the likes of me? Maybe it would make me enjoy driving? I dunno. You tell me. I have a bunch of reasons NOT to buy a luxury vehicle, especially because it would be out of my price range.
This is the position in which we find ourselves when we’re contemplating a change in our behavior.
Why should I start running? I shouldn’t! Running sucks!
Why should I go to bed earlier? I shouldn’t! Late night is my only time to decompress from being so burned out and exhausted all the time!
Why should I pay off my credit cards? I shouldn’t! Please allow me to unroll my lengthy scroll of unavoidable expenses and I’ll document them for you.
Status quo bias. We all have it, and it’s a supremely useful tool for making rational choices. Obviously the status quo is fine, because what I’m doing right now works for me. Why should I change anything at all?
Allow me to offer some More Reasons:
Because making even one tiny change in one area could make your life easier, better, more fun, or more interesting;
Because no status quo is permanent, meaning that change is coming for you whether you approve of it or not;
Because it’s generally better to plan changes for yourself rather than having to react to the changes that fate throws at you.
It’s also worth mentioning that we usually don’t realize how uncomfortable the status quo was until we find ourselves in a better situation later on. Certainly this feels like the story of my life. I never really realized I was obese until years after I started gradually losing the weight. I didn’t really realize how unhappy I was in my first marriage until quite some time after the divorce. Arguing for the status quo is, in some ways, slamming the door shut against serendipity, felicity, or simply a shift in perspective.
One way that I started to look for more reasons to do things that are a good idea was to read through lists of other people’s reasons for doing that thing. I do this with extra focus when it’s something toward which I feel a strong resistance. The more I reject something that other people like doing, the more I want to inquire of myself: what’s so bad about it? For instance, I’m very afraid of snorkeling, but I keep hearing that many people find it absolutely magical, even peaceful. If my list of reasons to try it keeps getting longer and my only reason not to try it is that I’m scared, then at some point I’m going to sign up for lessons. Why would I deprive myself?
The reason I seek out more reasons to do things I don’t already do is that I’ve ruled out the standard default mode. I am insufferably bored by sitting around watching TV and I lack all interest in gaming. If I don’t watch TV or play games, what else is there to do? Watch paint dry? Listen to the grass grow? I already know why I do the things I enjoy. For a more interesting life, all I need is more reasons to do the things that other people enjoy, too.
I broke my 415-day activity streak on my Apple Watch. By five calories. Why? I was distracted and didn’t notice the clock ticking toward midnight. Also, I was getting over the flu.
That blank space is all the different ways I tried to put into words the inchoate rage and bottomless disappointment I felt when I realized that there was no going back. My streak is gone and I can’t even pick it up again until March of 2019. No perfect week badge. No January 2018 badge. Two and a half years, and I still haven’t managed a perfect calendar year.
I feel significantly worse about this than I did earlier this month, when I realized I had paid nearly $40 for an online class that I didn’t need.
The work that goes into maintaining a 14-month streak. The focus. The dedication. The, shall I say it, obsession. I’ve maintained that streak when I was sick. I’ve maintained it when I was injured. I’ve maintained it while traveling across eight time zones. I’ve maintained it with house guests and on road trips. I even bought an extra $30 charger to keep from breaking the streak when I forgot to pack that key, irreplaceable item. On the way to a major family event.
It got really bad the first time I broke my streak, by one calorie, because I didn’t notice it was past midnight. I went out into the yard with my hammer and beat a foot-wide hole into our lawn. I’ve been less angry at being burglarized!
Why midnight? Why this arbitrary split second of a minute of an hour of a day?
Why can’t the user set when a “day” starts and ends?
Why isn’t there a reminder, like the stand-up reminder, to point out that the “day” is nearly over and you’re really close to closing your ring?
Why am I so susceptible to this digital brain-prodding?
Obviously, the reason to wear an activity tracker is to bring awareness to your activity level. This is great. Certainly the Apple Watch has done that for me. I can look and see that I walk an average of over six miles a day. I can see how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed, literal stairs, because I skip escalators now. I can see my average heart rate and all that awesome stuff.
The problem comes in for me, and I suspect for a lot of other achievement-oriented alpha types, with the badges and the streaks.
My desire for a complete collection of rainbow-colored virtual badges knows no bounds. I know that other people have hacked and cheated by setting their goals artificially low, or coming up with some other method to trick their tracker. You could shake the old pedometers and get the step count to go up. Apparently you can dangle your arm from a chair and convince the Watch that you’ve stood up. The badges redirect the focus to badge-getting. Whether that’s through fair means or foul, we want to get those badges. It can be hard to distinguish one form of gamification from another, especially if the user is also playing other sorts of games that come with badges. OOH PRETTY.
I’m a fairly serious amateur athlete. I ran a marathon, I take martial arts classes four hours a week, I walk everywhere because we don’t have a car, I routinely go on backpacking expeditions. Someone who does not have a digital hook in their brain may believe that a real athlete would simply focus on the activity and ignore those dumb old badges. Sure. That person probably doesn’t need or wear an activity tracker.
I’m starting to think that I can’t do anything that involves tracking a streak. It... activates something inside of me. Something very dark and negative and unhelpful.
I want to rage-quit. I want to crush things. I want to throw something off my balcony. I actually had a flash of an image that involved me breaking our glass sliding door with a hammer, just to exorcise the demon of BROKEN STREAK somehow.
Only a few weeks ago, I spent no fewer than three hours at the Apple Store, while no fewer than three separate geniuses sat with me and helped me transfer my iPhone 6 to my new iPhone X. The specific reason was so that I could keep my activity streak on my Watch. Nobody knew how to do it. Finally the floor manager came over and figured it out. I guess I let down the team. Sorry, guys.
I’ve felt less bad when I’ve shattered my phone screen. I’ve felt less bad when I’ve spilled dinner on the floor. I’ve felt less bad when I’ve gone to purchase airplane tickets only to see that the price has increased before the transaction was complete.
This is an entirely contemporary, artificial emotion created by technology. Or, rather, by the designers of it.
This isn’t the first time I’ve developed a little problem with streak maintenance. I was trying out a meditation app. I completed the meditation at 12:00 AM, and didn’t get credit. I had meditated for seven days straight and the app was only showing a two-day streak. There was no way to turn the feature off, so I wound up deleting the app. It struck me that a meditation app that generates the competitive streak feeling was counterproductive.
I want a cute little enchanting reward for doing well. Sure, of course I do. I want a collection of pretty, sparkly rainbow stickers to show off. Look how hard I worked! Straight As! Isn’t there a way, though, to set up those badges and stickers so they still reward the user, even if the clock has ticked past 11:59 PM? Couldn’t the rewards come for reaching mileage goals, or resting heart rate goals? Could a monthly badge come from the average daily activity rate, rather than an unbroken 31-day streak? Couldn’t there be a skip, or a make-up function, or a freaking doctor’s note?
The cruelty of the digital god. Applehovah.
I’m wearing this thing that I call The Overlord, feeling despondent and thoroughly demoralized. Do I actually want to keep wearing it? If streak tracking is going to mess with my equilibrium this much, shouldn’t I be wary of it? Maybe take it off? I looked through the other apps and features, asking myself if the other use cases are worth setting myself up for this kind of digitally mandated despair.
Maybe it’s just the flu, and I should have spent the day in bed, rather than trying to close all my rings.
Maybe there’s something fundamentally wrong with a system that incentivizes people to stay active even when they’re ill.
I’m an active person now. I didn’t start out that way. It wasn’t until my thirties that I stopped being almost 100% sedentary. Various digital displays have helped encourage and inspire me. I beat chronic illness and thyroid disease to become a marathon runner, and that’s saying something. What I want is a device that brings out the best in me. Not the beast in me.
This book is not for amateurs. Or, rather, an amateur who picks it up is in real danger of abandoning amateur status. Jocko Willink is not messing around. Discipline Equals Freedom has the makings of a cult classic, the sort of book that is handed down from person to person, possibly to inspire a series of tattoos. For the standard-issue procrastinator, it could be fun to explore this as poetry. Regard it as a peek into the mindset of a hardcore, never-quit action-oriented achiever.
Stoic philosophy lives and breathes. It’s really the only difference between a super-achiever and an ordinary person. Discipline Equals Freedom is an example of that. It’s a common fallacy to think that a muscular person is dumb, that bias toward action is a demonstration of lack of depth or strategy. That’s because most people don’t talk and act at the same time, at least not at an extreme level. Even the fittest elite athlete in the midst of the most strenuous training period is still resting at least part of the day. What are they thinking about? Now we get a chance to find out.
I freaking love this book. I love it so much that I bought a digital copy to keep on my phone. I’ve been following my husband around, demanding that he listen to sections of it.
“Is this what I want to be? This? Is this all I’ve got—is this everything I can give? Is this going to be my life? Do I accept that?”
We’re both huge fans of the movie Full Metal Jacket, and we often quote whole sections of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman going off about something or other. “A jelly donut?!” This is how I got through my first mud run. “Are you quitting on me, Private Pyle? Are you quitting on me?” If only I’d had Discipline Equals Freedom; I could have had so much more variety in my self-talk.
Discipline Equals Freedom is divided into sections. The philosophy section is Part One: Thoughts. Part Two: Actions has more philosophy, and then it’s divided into nutrition, injury prevention and recovery, and workouts. The nutrition section is based on the Paleo diet. While I dispute the premise of Paleo, I wouldn’t let that mess with my appreciation of the book overall. I agree with Jocko on a few important points, namely that sugar is poison, that we need to take sleep seriously, and that we should be as physically active as possible every day. I haven’t eaten meat in twenty-five years, and almost the entire cadre of instructors at my martial arts academy are completely plant-based. Both locations. Our paths are different, but we both agree that the Standard American Diet will kill you.
As for the workouts, even the Beginner level is quite tough. Jocko has modifications for those of us who can’t do a pull-up, a handstand, or a regular push-up. I’ve been there, and it works. If you really want to be able to do a pull-up badly enough, you can make it happen, even if, on the first day, all you can do is grab the bar and hang there with your arms straight. The first time your chin clears the bar is a feeling of childlike dazzling joy.
People constantly say, “I wish I had your willpower” or “If only I had the motivation.” These are core misunderstandings of what makes other people tick. It’s self-discipline. It’s the inner philosophical alignment that says I refuse to accept inferior results for myself. If I want a better life, more grit and determination, more education, better communications and relationships with other people, then I can’t accept anything less from my own behavior. Discipline Equals Freedom is an instruction manual that teaches the mindset of self-discipline. Now read it, and liberate yourself.
If a single critical comment or one harsh word can destroy your supposed motivation, you’ll quit everything you ever start. Hearing a phrase like “this is why you’ll quit” should spark an unquenchable fire inside of you. HA. I’ll show you. That’s what you think. You have no idea who you’re dealing with.
You’ll quit, though.
You’ll quit because you believe in “motivation.” You think there’s a magical feeling that comes shooting into your belly from a big sparkly rainbow. You don’t believe in determination or commitment or choosing things that suck on purpose.
You’ll quit because you believe in “willpower.” You think some people are born with it. You don’t actually want self-discipline or perseverance because you know those take work, more work than you want to put in.
You’ll quit because to keep going would mean waking up early and doing it when you’re tired. You’re tired because you stay up late, pretending you have two lives, and the late-night you doesn’t give two figs about the morning you. You’ll never stop staying up too late, and that’s why you’ll quit.
You’ll quit because you’re always going to choose instant gratification. If someone waves a brownie bite in front of your face, that’s it, you’re done. You’ll fold like an umbrella. You can’t bear the feeling of deprivation that you imagine is worse than your real deprivation. You deprive yourself of your own goals and dreams in favor of entertainments and treats that would impress a five-year-old kid.
You’ll quit because you went for something too far out of your reach. You’ll quit because your ego can’t take being at beginner level. You’ll quit because you can’t stop comparing yourself to other people who have put in months or years or decades of continuous practice. You’ll quit because you’d rather have nothing than having something cool in six months. Or three months.
You’ll quit because three weeks feels like a long time to you.
You’ll quit because your own future self is a perfect stranger to you. You deal with the poor choices that Past You made every single day, but you never realize that you continue to do the same thing. You get in your own way and make your own life harder.
You’ll quit because you’re in love with your television. You’d watch it twelve hours a day if you could find a way to quit sleeping.
You’ll quit because you can’t even choose sleep as a goal, even though it’s free, it feels great, and it makes everything in your day easier and better.
You’ll quit because you think the pain of change is worse than the pain of your status quo.
You’ll quit, and do you know how I know? You started in January. You’ll become a statistic, just like everyone else. If you joined a big gym, they didn’t tell you that their pricing model depends on having 6,000 members, 3,000 of whom literally never show up at all. There’s only room for 300 people to work out at a time. You’re not used to it, you’re put off by everything about that environment, and you’re not willing to budget the time or money to pay for anything else. You’ll quit because they set you up like a sucker.
You’ll quit because it hurts and three minutes of moderate physical pain is too much.
You’ll quit because of the delayed onset muscle soreness. The first time you do enough for your body to start making a difference, you’ll be so tired that you’ll quit before you find out that feeling eventually goes away.
You’ll quit because you always quit before the results have enough time to show up.
You’ll quit because there are no consequences.
You’ll quit because you let yourself off the hook.
You’ll quit because you never made any backup plans.
You’ll quit because you’re a “perfectionist” and that means you care more about weird inner standards than you do about results or performance. The moment something happens and you break your streak, probably by the third week of January, you’ll give up.
You’ll quit because you’d rather have a perfect nothing than an imperfect something.
You’ll quit because you forgot you had even made any kind of commitment in the first place. You are so loose with giving your own word to yourself that you’ll break promises you never really realized you made.
You’ll quit because you have no idea how to make yourself do things.
You’ll quit because it suits your image of yourself. Staying with it would mean redefining who you are, and if that’s someone with grit and determination, well, how are you supposed to recognize that person?
You’ll quit because you believe in personality, not behavior.
You’ll quit because you don’t care about your goal, not that much, not really.
You’ll quit because you always do.
You’ll quit because you take criticism personally and you actually let it inside of you. A single sentence will do it, one word, one facial expression, or part of a hint of one.
You’ll quit because continuing would take more approval and applause than the world is prepared to give, to anyone, for anything.
You’ll quit even though you paid good money to do it.
If you had it within you to do things you didn’t like, when you weren’t in the mood, you’d find that you could keep going.
If you knew you would never give a commitment you weren’t prepared to keep, come fire or flood, you’d look at your reflection in the mirror differently.
If you treated your future as if it mattered, you’d keep going.
If you were patient and humble enough to do tiny steps, one day at a time, you’d get there.
If you started taking next year as seriously as you take your next meal, you’d win every time.
If you heard someone say to you, “I know you are going to quit,” and it made you laugh deep inside, you’d never quit anything at all.
Well, which is it? Am I right or am I wrong?
Now that I have your attention, let me explain what Tetris has to do with habit change. Or, rather, let Sean Young explain it. He shares the research he used to get his PhD in Stick With It: A Scientific Process for Changing Your Life - For Good. This book isn’t about what “should” work, and it’s not about “willpower” or “motivation.” It’s about what has actually been proven to work on actual people in real-life situations. Think of incarcerated felons, people who are addicted to drugs, and veterans with PTSD. Yeah. Those kinds of real-life situations. If this research can help people in those circumstances, then it’ll probably work on us.
The huge takeaway from this material was, for me, differentiating between three different types of habit. Is it an A, B, or C? A is for Automatic, the stuff we do without realizing it. B is for Burning, the stuff we obsess over and can’t stop thinking about. C is for Common, the ordinary stuff we do on a routine basis. In my case, if I were talking about Past Me’s eating habits, I’d say corn chips were an A, Pepsi was a B, and my baseline consumption of baked goods was a C. I had to tackle each of my bad eating habits with a different strategy. It would have been a lot easier with information from Stick With It, rather than having to figure it out on my own!
Another area of Dr. Young’s research that was new to me was his discussion of neurohacks. He says that while there is plenty of research into the science, there is very little about how to apply it to daily life, and so he’s developing it himself. He starts with the way he gets his dog to quit acting up by moving her ears to put her in her submissive posture. Whoa. My dog Spike is sure going to have an interesting week.
I’ve used behavioral techniques on myself, with sometimes surprising results. As an example, I’ve been working on my fear of public speaking for two years, and I still sometimes get that horrid burst of butterflies in the stomach. If I know I’m going to speak that day, I put a rubber band around my wrist. The moment the butterflies kick in, I snap the rubber band as hard as I can. I used to have to do it three or four times, but now once is enough. When I get up to give the speech, I end with the positive reinforcement of laughter and applause. None of this would work, though, if I didn’t have the underlying story that public speaking is a valuable skill, a challenge that is a better use of my time than anything else. Going by the lessons from Stick With It, I used the Stepladders of the Toastmasters manuals, the Community of my club, my story that speaking is Important, and the Captivating rewards of winning award ribbons and having lunch at my favorite sandwich shop. It’s also Captivating that the process is really working, and that what used to make me sick with fear is now actually fun! At this point, the habit is Engrained. I’m sure I’ll do it for life.
Stick With It is full of case studies. How do I quit drinking cola? How do I get my kid to quit snarling every time we ask her to put her iPad down? Sometimes all it takes is a valid story of someone with a similar issue for you to say, Hey, you know what? I’m tired of annoying myself and if that works, I’m going to do it, too. It helps to remember that behavior change happens by 1. Doing the action and then (quite a while later) 2. Feeling the emotions and thinking the thoughts that go with change. Also, lasting change comes from tiny little itty-bitty eensy steps, which Dr. Young calls Stepladders.
Now I’ve done one of the Neurohacks. I’ve written this book review on habit change, thereby convincing myself that I am the kind of person who knows how to do this stuff. This builds the concept into my self-image, and also tells me that I have a reputation to uphold. Tricksy, isn’t it? I recommend that you read it and then explain one of the anecdotes to someone. Then the same thing will happen to you!
PS What was the deal with Tetris? Apparently, it works as a “cognitive vaccine.” If someone plays Tetris for ten minutes within six hours of a traumatic event, they have dramatically lower rates of flashbacks afterward. I’m going to try this technique the next time I get into even a minor kerfuffle.
“Acknowledge that your plan to change the behavior may not be as easy as you believe.”
I put a bunch of habit-tracking apps on my phone and tried them out so you don’t have to.
The first thing about habit trackers is that you should only use them for habits that matter to you. Habit tracking is a habit in itself!
Also, it’s best to add just one or two new habits at a time. Maybe something fun that you look forward to, alongside something you do to annoy yourself that you want to quit. A common pitfall is to stop tracking all the habits because you don’t want to admit to yourself that you aren’t doing one of them right now.
Next stipulation: Make sure the habit you are tracking is the habit you actually want to track. Your metrics may lead to one objective when your real objective was something else entirely.
I’m the sort of person who gets very hooked on metrics and analytics. I will basically lose my mind at the prospect of breaking a streak. Imagine rage-quitting a meditation app at midnight and you start to get the picture. If you’re an alpha type personality, a habit tracking app may turn into a negative for you. The app should be a value-add to your life, something that feels emotionally neutral while supplying valuable information.
I’m using an iPhone X. Almost all of these apps were first installed on my iPhone 6, and a few I’ve had since the iPhone 4S. Sorry, Android users - I also have a tablet that runs Android and I simply don’t like it as an operating system, on its own merits, much less in comparison to iOS.
In alphabetical order:
Countdowns. I really love this app for reminding me that an important date is coming up. New Year’s Eve, race day, a party, anything exciting that I’m planning. I put the widget in my Today screen so I see it all the time.
Days Since. The opposite of Countdowns. I mainly use it to show how many days have elapsed in the current year. There’s something compelling about seeing that it’s Day 200 of a year!
Done. This app allows you to track whether you want to build or quit a habit and at what frequency you’ll do it. You can write your own motivational statement for each habit, choose the color, and whether you want a reminder.
Goalmap. I like this app because it has two different types of goal-setting features. You can set reminders for habits you want to track on both a daily and weekly timeframe. You can also choose “aims.” I have one for reaching a particular net worth by a particular date, and it shows my percent complete. I have another for “complete world tour” by 2035. Seeing it reminds me that Future Me said to travel more. There is also a ‘Motivation’ section that has inspiring quotes, videos, and silly poems.
Habits. This app is really pretty! It opens to ‘Ideas,’ a bunch of floating colored bubbles that each contain a new habit to try. The color corresponds to whether the habit is physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. You can set a daily reminder and choose the days of the week you’ll do the habit. It starts with a 21-day challenge. There are some fun ideas like ‘go barefoot’ and ‘kind deed for stranger.’ You can also create your own habits and track your streaks.
Mint. This app changed my life. I’ve used it for years. Just link all your bank accounts, credit cards, investments, student loan, and any other accounts, and you can see your financial picture at a glance.
MyFitnessPal. When I first downloaded this app, I deleted it. I realized it was a food log, rather than an exercise app, and I thought it was dumb. Then I logged everything I ate for a year, focusing on micronutrient intake, and it was revolutionary in my life. Cured my migraines and my night terrors.
Remente (came up in spell checker as Revenge). The reminder hoots like an owl! This app tracks goals along with your mood and life balance. If you like life wheels, this is the one to get.
RunKeeper. I used to use MapMyRun but it started to get glitchy. I love that RunKeeper tracks elevation, splits, and how many runs I’ve done over the years. I don’t love it when I forget that the narrator voice is on and it starts shouting my stats over my audio book.
Streaks. This app is really stylish and simple to use. If you want to set up a streak and “not break the chain,” Streaks is a great choice. For someone like me who obsesses about habit streaks to the point of disrupting vacations, it’s good to evaluate whether we want to open that door.
Things 3. I finally bought into the hype and discovered that this IS the best planner app of all time. “Expensive but worth it.” I adore being able to put in tasks by date that don’t demand a reminder at a specific minute. The ‘Anytime’ and ‘Someday’ sections are magic to me, and I also love the concept of sorting by ‘Areas’ as well as projects and tasks.
WaterMinder. I paid for this app a few months ago and it’s saving me. When I don’t drink enough water early in the day, I start getting irritable, and if I don’t make my hydration goal, I wake up in the middle of the night with cotton mouth. Also has a useful widget, although it gives the message ‘Unable to Load’ if you haven’t made an entry for the day yet.
Way of Life. This is my favorite habit tracker for tracking multiple habits. Being honest about whether I did it or didn’t, and using the ‘skip’ feature, gives a trendline. I can really evaluate whether I’m keeping my commitment or whether I need to adjust my schedule... or my expectations.
My best advice for using habit tracking apps is to consider how you respond to notifications. If they keep popping up at inconvenient times, or if you’re getting the sound effects AND the banners AND the badges, pause and adjust the settings. Choose a time during the day, like while you’re getting ready for bed or while you have your first coffee, when it’s convenient to check in. Habit tracking is a parallel habit that can either help your focus or drive you batty by draining it. Pick something that delights you visually. There are so many beautifully designed apps that it’s easy to pick one with a color scheme or icons you really like.
Best of luck with your new habits in 2018!
Choose a resolution you can finish in one day, and you automatically get the same bragging rights as the people who choose something more complicated. If you never make resolutions because you “know” you’ll let yourself down, change the rules! You are invited to look over this list of one-day resolutions. Pick one if you think it could make your life better, easier, more fun, or more interesting.
Apply for a passport.
If you already have a passport, get it out and check the expiration date.
Change all your passwords and find out where you can use dual authentication.
Throw out everything in your kitchen that is past its expiration date.
Cull any expired medications. Ask your pharmacy or police station if they accept them, or burn them, but please don’t throw them in the trash or flush them.
Throw out worn-out socks and underwear.
Cash in your change jar.
Make an appointment to get your teeth cleaned if it’s been more than 6 months.
Make sure you’ve had a tetanus shot booster within the last 10 years.
Pull out your driver’s license and check to see when it expires. Is it this year? Oh snap.
Give back anything you borrowed from someone else.
If you have overdue library books, return them.
If you quit reading a book because you lost interest, let it go. Give it away or trade it in.
Match up the lids with all your pots, pans, travel mugs, and plastic containers.
Make a “dump run” and get rid of the broken junk from your garage, yard, or anywhere else it’s piled up.
If you have a mending pile, look it over right now and decide to fix it or throw it away.
Increase your retirement contribution 1%.
Get a free copy of your credit report and check it for errors.
Fill out a living will and have it witnessed.
Sign up for a first aid/CPR certification class.
Set a timer for one hour and spend it cleaning or filing.
Go through your email inbox and unsubscribe to as much as possible.
Look through your queue of movies and TV episodes and delete anything that no longer interests you.
Look at your keys. Are there any you don’t need any more that you can get rid of? Mystery keys you don’t even recognize?
Think of any task you’ve been procrastinating for longer than a year. Make the decision to do it this month or let it go.
Make a vow not to make negative comments about other people’s resolutions.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.