Many of us have aspirations yet unfulfilled in our lives. These could be as personal as starting each day feeling amazing, exercise more, improving relationships, or launching a passion-driven startup. They could be as audacious as world peace, or even more so.
I would love to hit more bulls-eyes in my life. I mean, who wouldn’t? But I have been off target many, many times. Thankfully, these mis-steps have ignited a spark in me to ask some important questions about hitting bulls-eyes.
What are the tiniest, most impactful actions that lead to achieving the goals we really want?
What is standing in the way of these becoming realised?
The Moments Standing in The Way
Anyone who has ever felt inspired or moved to achieve something would often not lack in motivation, except especially in moments of weakness. The moments when you are starving, and skip “just this one” exercise session to eat straight away. The moments of inconsideration when you feel like complimenting a loved one, but pride gets the better of you. The moments of doubt, when you see the vision and the value in your idea, and wonder why your audience or key stakeholders do not.
These are a snapshot of the Achilles heel of achieving anything requiring focus.
Looking to overcome these, in my research and self-testing, I came across something interesting. I had not given much thought to this insight in the past, because it had always seemed too easy to be effective.
Before I go into the insight and how to use it, heres a true story to illustrate.
If They Can Do It, Whats Our Excuse?
In 1992, sixty Scottish patients, all around the age of sixty-eight, had recently undergone hip or knee replacement surgery. Most were earning less than $10K a year and without higher education. They were all in rehab to relearn to stand and walk again.
Two British psychologists, wanted to see if they could fast-track the recovery for these elderly patients. The researchers added blank pages to the end of their usual rehab booklets. They asked the patients to fill in the pages with specific plans — a new plan for every week in rehab.
3 months later, the researchers revisited the patients. Not all patients had used the blank pages. However, those who had, were standing up three times as fast, and were walking twice as fast as the others!
Why was this? The researchers found that the plan makers were writing down similar things — how they would respond to what they expected to be moments of weakness. For example, there was one man determined to meet his wife at the bus stop. He wrote down every obstacle he thought he would confront and pllanned how he would respond.
The key difference in recovery speed was in anticipating moments of challenge ahead of time, and making well thought out plans.
Putting This to the Test
I had a good feeling about this, and have since started to experiment to find out if it works well for me.
The first goal I experimented with this on was improving my morning practice. (By the way I find the phrase morning routine very uninspiring)
In September last year, somehow checking social media / messages / email on my phone had creeped into most mornings as the first thing I do when I wake up. I need to get online sometime in the morning, but usually not before breakfast, or even until an hour or more into my workday.
These distracted mornings led to less focused and productive days working. I felt myself checking my phone more times during the day without purpose… so checking my phone first thing was undesirable! Soon after, I resolved to replace this with a better waking up habit.
To achieve this, I thought about my experience before I would check my phone on certain mornings. I would be lying in bed, feeling a little lazy. Morning sunlight would be streaming through my blinds.My bed feels warm, too cozy to get out of. This mix of feelings and memories of that situation together formed the cue for any change I wanted to make.
I would have that experience in mind, as I thought about my preferred response to that situation. That response was to express one thing I was grateful for, and then one thing I wanted to focus on for the day, before launching out of bed and into my morning practice.
So every time I felt lazy in a cozy bed, sunlight through blinds, I would be grateful and focused. I repeated the link between the cue-behaviour-intention, until I felt confident enough I could do it.
Then I left it until the next morning when my phone would tempt me again.
I have had great results with this approach, since starting it nearly three months ago. For the first two months, I had a slip up every two weeks or so. I was happy with that. Then a break over summer, and I found myself more distracted by my devices. Since refocusing on my projects for 2014 in mid January, I have found it quite effortless to not check social media on my phone until at least lunchtime. The improvement to my focus with work and presence with people has been amazing!
But that benefit also is because of some other habit tweaks that I will share another time.
For now, here is a 5 step guide to train resilience in those moments of weakness:
How to Stay Focused, When Motivation is Lowest
0. Start with some attention and (blank) paper
1. Choose an aspiration
Make sure it feels great to achieve it. You will need that motivation later when it counts most!
2. The most challenging moment standing in the way
It has to be the biggest challenge to this goal you have chosen, as otherwise it will still be in your way later.
3. Remember your experience of that moment
This is like a ID number on the experience. Think about what makes this experience distinct from others. The stronger, more vivid the feelings and the sense of it, the more likely you can change your response. Look back at where I bolded the word experience above for my example.
4. Choose your preferred response
Make it as clear, specific and real as possible. Engage your senses and write it down.
5. Strengthen the behaviour link
All is primed and ready for this key step to connect the cue — behaviour — desired intention. Starting from your experience of that moment, see yourself responding the way you want to, and then achieving the outcome you want. Again, the key is to be as specific as possible. Repeat this step as many times as you need to feel confident that you will respond as desired.
5 minutes may be enough, though only experimentation will tell!
Once done, all thats left is observe how you actually do respond when that challenging moment arises. I review my progress with this approach every week.
I don’t think achieving the things we really want to see happen is meant to be easy, but I hope this makes it easier for you!
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Aristotle
Charles Duhigg’s excellent book, The Power of Habit, is the source of the story about the elderly patients. Many thanks to Professor Paschal J. Sheeran, co-author of the study, for his immediate feedback about the patients.