Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.”
— Lao Tzu
Change is hard. But what if we could make it a little easier? As Lao Tzu so eloquently puts it, maybe we just need to focus on that first step.
This is the time of year for New Year’s resolutions. It shouldn't surprise you that we tend to be pretty terrible at following through on them.
The average American makes the same resolution ten years in a row without success. Within four months, 25 percent of resolutions are abandoned. And those who succeed in keeping their resolutions usually do so only after five or six annual broken promises.
With a track record like that, it definitely seems like time to look at the problem differently. There is an interesting short book by Robert Maurer called, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way; in it, he uses his experiences as a clinical psychologist using something called Kaizen to help people make changes in their lives.
Kaizen has two definitions:
For this discussion let's focus on using it to help remove roadblocks to the behavior we are seeking, or to add roadblocks to behavior we are trying to discourage. As Maurer puts it, “using small steps to accomplish large goals.”
First, let’s take a look at change. Meaningful change is pretty hard. Our lives are homeostatic systems — they want to come back in alignment with what is comfortable.
We also live in a culture that tends to feel that bigger is better. We think that big steps or big dramatic changes will produce big results. And while this may be true a small percentage of the time, or may seem logical, it’s very rare and difficult to implement. Smaller steps are more doable both for our mind and for our body.
Let’s use the example of exercise for health. Many people want to live healthier lives and there is plenty of evidence that movement helps us to achieve those goals. However, we are often pushed to believe that only a certain type or certain level of exercise will get us where we need to be. We decide to make a drastic change to get a drastic outcome.
The issue is it’s very hard to go from no exercise to an hour at the gym everyday. The gym is expensive, you have to fit it into your schedule (travel and time there) and you have to stay motivated to go regularly to get those results you want.
The Kaizen way would be to pick one small step. It should be something relatively easy, something that takes little time and effort. For example, if you drive a car to work, purposely park as far away from the door as possible. If you bus, get off one stop earlier. But, initially, choose only one thing and do that one thing until it becomes habitual. Maurer suggests thirty days.
It almost seems too simple; so simple that you might think that you are effecting little to no change. But these changes are additive. Imagine if every month for a year you added a healthy habit to your life.
Those changes may come about slowly but they can end up being quite dramatic. In combination, they can be exponential. A total change.
The quick extreme change can actually cripple people into inaction. We reason, why bother if I can't succeed 100%?
Too often, you meet with success in the short term, only to find yourself falling back into your old ways when your initial burst of enthusiasm fades away. Radical change is like charging up a steep hill – you may run out of wind before you reach the crest, or the thought of all the work ahead makes you give up no sooner than you’ve begun.
There is an alternative… another path altogether, one that winds so gently up the hill that you hardly notice the climb. It is pleasant to negotiate and soft to tread. And all it requires is that you place one foot in front of the other.
So let’s make our way back to New Year's. These types of resolutions don't work because we command ourselves to implement them in their entirety starting the very next day. It’s almost like setting yourself up for failure on purpose. So, instead of looking at the resolutions the traditional way, let’s look at some of them Kaizen style.
In the book Maurer walks us through some of the common resolutions he’s seen and the small steps that his clients have used with success in the past. Just don't forget that any change requires eating the broccoli.
Small Steps for starting to exercise:
Small Steps for saving money:
Small Steps for asking for a raise:
Small Steps for using time more productively:
You will notice that some of these steps themselves are additive in nature. It’s helpful to look at the behavior you are trying to change and break it out into bite sized pieces. This will serve two purposes: it will give you more insight into the behavior itself; and it will break out the problem into sensible small steps for you to tackle.
One Small Step Can Change Your Life is a small book filled with big ideas. Much has been written about Kaizen and how it has revolutionized business practices, but it’s also interesting to look at this idea from a more personal perspective.
But first, let’s take just one small step. Good luck with your New Year's resolutions.
It's a wonderful idea to try to find a set of systems and principles that “work better” for big swaths of your life. Better habits, better mental tendencies, better methods of inquiry, and so on. We're strong advocates of this approach, believing that good thinking and good decision making can be learned the same as a good golf swing can: Through practice and instruction.
So, read the below with this caveat in mind: Constant learning and self-improvement can and must be done for great life results.
Now, with that out of the way.
The problem with the search for self-improvement methods, including the kind of multidisciplinary thinking we espouse, is that many, perhaps most of them, are a snare and a delusion for most people. And there's a simple reason why: They won't actually do it.
Think about it. Isn't that the most common result? That you don't do it?
For example, we heard from many people after we wrote a piece late last year on Reading 25 Pages a Day, a little practice that we think would benefit almost anyone in creating a very desirable reading habit.
What we suspect, though, is that even of the subset of people who felt so strongly about the idea that they contacted us, only a minority of them followed through and maintained to the habit to this day, ten months later.
Why is that? A huge part of it is Homeostasis: The basic self-regulating feedback loops that keep us repeating the same habits over and over. Predictable forces that keep us from changing ourselves, just as some forces keep us from changing organizations. (Or any self-regulating system.)
The failure to follow new systems and habits (mental or physical) follows this basic formula:
Now, with regards to the 25-pages a day “system” we outlined, we were careful not to make a “no broccoli” promise: All we said was that reading 25 pages per day was a habit that almost anyone could form, and that it would lead them far. But you still have to do all the reading. You have to do the thing. That's the part where everyone falls away.
We suspect that some people thought it would be easy to read 25 pages per day. That the pages would essentially “read themselves”, or that the time to do so would spontaneously free up, just because they starting wanting it.
This is never, ever the case. At some point, to be healthy, you do need to suck it up and eat some broccoli! And for many days in a row. Or, more to the point: The “failure point” with any new system; any method of improvement; any proposed solution to a life problem or an organization problem, is when the homeostatic regulation kicks in, when we realize some part of it will be hard, new, or unnatural.
Even a really well-designed system can only cut up the broccoli into little pieces and sneak it into your mac-and-cheese. A popular examples would be a fitness system whereby you do one pushup a day, then two pushups the second day, then three the third day, and so on. It makes the habit digestible at first, as you get used to it. This is plenty smart.
But eventually, if you're going to hang on to that habit, you'll have to do a whole lot of pushups every day! You can't just go back to plain mac-and-cheese, no broccoli. When the newness of the “one day at a time” system wears off, you'll be left with a heaping portion of broccoli. Will you continue eating it?
The point is this: When you're evaluating a proposed improvement to your life or to your organization, you must figure out when and where the broccoli will get eaten, and understand that you will have to sacrifice something (even if it's just comfort) to get what you want. And if anyone ever promises you “no broccoli,” it's probably a sham.
Remember that anything really worth doing is probably hard work, and will absolutely require you to do things you don't currently do, which will feel uncomfortable for a while. This is a “hard truth” we must all face. If it was easy, everyone would already be doing it.
Let's take the example of learning how to give better feedback. What could be a more useful skill? But actually doing so, actually following through with the idea, is not at all easy. You have to overcome your natural impulse to criticize. You have to get over your natural ego. You have to be very careful to watch your words, trying to decipher what will be heard when you deliver feedback. All of these are hard things to do, all of them unnatural. All will require some re-doubling to accomplish.
Thus, most people won't actually do it. This an Iron Rule of life: Biological systems tend towards what is comfortable. (Yes, human beings are “biological systems”.)
But this Iron Rule is a problem and an opportunity wrapped together. As the saying goes, “If you do what everyone else does, you'll get what everyone else gets.” If you can recognize that all things worth doing are hard at first, and that there is always some broccoli to be eaten, you are part of the way toward true advantageous differentiation. The rest is self-discipline.
We “go back” on our habits when they aren't truly formed yet. We think we’re there, but we’re really not — we’ve just been fooled by our sensory apparatus.
And the real and comforting truth is that you might really start liking, and even get used to eating, broccoli. Eating potato chips and candy will eventually feel like the uncomfortable and unnatural thing.
And that's when you know you've really got a great new discipline: Going back would feel like cutting off your hands.
“The goal of a mini-habit is to be consistent. In fact, consistency is much more important than what you accomplish with this daily habit.”
The idea behind mini habits is that you can get to a larger habit if you start small, create simple goals, and aim for consistency.
In his book Mini Habits: Small Habits, Bigger Results, Stephen Guise gives the example of “The One Pushup Challenge.”
He was doing what a lot of us do. Feeling guilty about not working out, he tried to fit years worth of exercise into the first workout which created an all or nothing attitude (not to mention a focus on goals and not process.) Well, one day he decided to do the opposite. He did only one pushup.
This allowed him to check the box that he did his activity. Only he didn't stop at one, he did 14 more. Then he did one pull-up and guess what? He didn't stop at one. His workout went on like this and when he was done it was a pretty decent effort. It started with one pushup.
In Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less, author S. J. Scott writes:
The core idea behind the mini-habits concept is that you can build a major habit by thinking small enough to get started. Most people don’t need motivation to do one pushup, so it’s easy to get started. And once you get going, you’ll find it’s easy to keep at it.
The purpose of habit-stacking is to create simple and repeatable routines (managed by a checklist). The goal is to get this out of the cognitive load, “because all you have to remember to do is follow the checklist,” and not each individual habit. You do this by doing the same set of actions in the same order and way each day. Checklists, do more than simply tell you what you need to do next, they help you deal with complexity and increase productivity.
According to Scott there are 8 Elements of a habit-stacking routine.
17 Small Productivity Habits
All of these habits are from Scott's Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less.
I don't agree with all of them; Most of these seem like common sense.
Scott argues that if you add them to a routine, “you’ll see a dramatic improvement in both the quantity and the quality of your efforts.” I think a lot of that improvement will be from simply bringing awareness to how you spend your time and what you're doing.
#1 Drink a Large Glass of Water
Even mild dehydration can cause headaches and fatigue, affect your concentration, impair short-term memory and impede mental function. If you want to be at your most productive , it’s important for your brain to be firing on all cylinders. Therefore, you should make sure you are sufficiently hydrated before starting work.
#2. Schedule Your Day and Prioritize Your Tasks
Without at least a basic schedule, it’s frighteningly easy to get to the end of the day and realize you’ve achieved nothing of importance. At the very least, you should make a list of the tasks you want to accomplish during the day and decide where your priorities lie.
If you're lost on how to make this change or what it looks like, let Peter Bregman explain.
#3. Focus on Your Three Most Important Tasks
Another way to plan out your day is to focus on your Most Important Tasks (MITs). With a daily schedule, it’s easy to try to do too much. Then, when you get to the end of the day and haven’t completed everything, you feel like a failure . Picking your MITs each day gives you something to focus on so you don’t waste your day on tasks of low importance. If you manage to complete your MITs, you’ll feel productive— even if you do nothing else on your list.
#4. Turn Tasks into Manageable Steps
For each task on your schedule, consider how it can be broken down into smaller steps.
#5. Create Accountability by Telling Others
If your tasks don’t have accountability built into them (like a client deadline), creating accountability by letting others know your intentions is a great way to discipline yourself into staying on task. You won’t want to embarrass yourself by admitting you didn’t get any work done, so you’re much more likely to achieve your goals if you make them public.
#6. Reward Yourself for Task Completion
To keep your energy up and motivation high, alternate your work tasks with small treats. These treats not only act as a break to replenish depleted levels of concentration, but also work like a carrot on a stick— you’ll work faster and with more enthusiasm when you have something to look forward to at the end of it.
#7. Remove Distractions Before Working
Rather than struggling against your brain’s natural inclination to procrastinate, save yourself a lot of time and hassle by simply closing your email tab and banning social media during work time.
#8. Clear Your Desktop
Clear all paperwork off your desk except what you will need that day. Put everything else into physical folders, file boxes and drawers— out of sight, out of mind.
#9. Play Music or White Noise to Improve Focus
Low-level background noise helps muffle any distracting sounds that could interrupt your work and has been shown to improve creativity and focus for many people.
#10. Do the Hardest (or Most Unappealing) Task First
Look at your list of MITs (Most Important Tasks) and underline the one that you know you’d put off indefinitely if you had the chance. Get started on this task before you have a chance to think about it. Don’t work on your other tasks until it’s finished.
#11. Commit to a Very Small Goal
Look at your hardest task and plan a small, easy first step to completing it that will take only a few minutes. Pick a simple metric that you know (without a doubt) you can complete.
#12. Work in Small Blocks of Time
The Pomodoro technique is probably the most well-known version of this technique. It involves working for twenty-five minutes and then taking a five-minute break.
#13. Track Time for Different Activities
Most people overestimate the amount of time they spend doing actual work and spend a surprisingly large amount of time doing mindless tasks. By tracking your time, you become more aware of how you’re spending it, and you can start to spot patterns in your schedule that are reducing your productivity.
#14. Use the Two-Minute Rule
If a task will take you two minutes or less to do, deal with it immediately and move on.
Keep in mind that this type of framework is how the urgent trumps the meaningful.
#15. Capture Every Idea
Our minds tend to wander. Despite our intentions they drift off from the task at hand. Rather than a drawback this is one of the fascinating ways that we gain insights. Pull out a notepad and write them down. You can come back to them later and, who knows, it just might be a great idea or the solution to a problem you've been working on.
#16. Write a Done List
Most people are familiar with to-do lists, but these lists can easily make you feel overwhelmed and demotivated if you try to plan too much. A done list has the opposite effect. By writing down everything you achieve each day, you’ll feel motivated to continue.
#17. Review Your Goals
Everybody has goals. Whether they are big or small, we all have things that we want to accomplish. Sadly, the daily hustle and bustle of life can make us get off track. You need to review your goals so that you can create plans to reach those goals, put your day in perspective and know what’s important to accomplish.
Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less goes on to offer small habits in six other areas: relationships, finances, organization, mental well-being, physical fitness, and leisure.
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
We've entered a new phase of self-invention.
Thanks in large part to technology and the pace of the modern world, finding your way through the labyrinth is more difficult than ever.
Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career (Kindle), edited by Behance’s 99U editor-in-chief Jocelyn Glei, and featuring contributions from over twenty of today's creative minds, explores the timeless skills—generating opportunities, building relationships, and taking risks—that can help you navigate today's changing landscape.
In the foreword to the book, Behance founder Scott Belsky, author Making Ideas Happen, explains the concept of free radicals.
Chalk it up to new technology, social media, or the once out-of-reach business tools now at your fingertips. The fact is, we’re empowered to work on our own terms and do more with less. As a result, we expect more from those that employ us and we expect more from ourselves. When we get the resources and opportunities we deserve, we create the future.
Here’s a name for us: Free Radicals.
Free Radicals want to take their careers into their own hands and put the world to work for them. Free Radicals are resilient, self-reliant, and extremely potent. You’ll find them working solo, in small teams, or within large companies. As the world changes, Free Radicals have re-imagined “work” as we know it. No doubt, we have lofty expectations:
We do work that is, first and foremost, intrinsically rewarding. But, we don’t create solely for ourselves, we want to make a real and lasting impact in the world around us.
We thrive on flexibility and are most productive when we feel fully engaged. We demand freedom, whether we work within companies or on our own, to run experiments, participate in multiple projects at once, and move our ideas forward.
We make stuff often, and therefore, we fail often. Ultimately, we strive for little failures that help us course-correct along the way, and we view every failure as a learning opportunity, part of our experiential education.
We have little tolerance for the friction of bureaucracy, old-boy networks, and antiquated business practices. As often as possible, we question “standard operating procedure” and assert ourselves. But even when we can’t, we don’t surrender to the friction of the status quo. Instead, we find clever ways (and hacks) around it.
We expect to be fully utilized and constantly optimized, regardless of whether we’re working in a start-up or a large organization. When our contributions and learning plateau, we leave. But when we're leveraging a large company's resources to make an impact in something we care about, we are thrilled! We want to always be doing our best work and making the greatest impact we can.
We believe that “networking” is sharing. People listen to (and follow) us because of our discernment and curatorial instinct. As we share our creations as well as what fascinates us, we authentically build a community of supporters who give us feedback, encouragement, and lead us to new opportunities. For this reason and more, we often (though, not always) opt for transparency over privacy.
We believe in meritocracy and the power of online networks and peer communities to advance our ability to do what we love, and do well by doing it. We view competition as a positive motivator rather than a threat, because we want the best idea—and the best execution—to triumph.
We make a great living doing what we love. We consider ourselves to be both artisans and businesses. In many cases, we are our own accounting department, Madison Avenue marketing agency, business development manager, negotiator, and salesperson. We spend the necessary energy to invest in ourselves as businesses—leveraging the best tools and knowledge (most of which are free and online) to run ourselves as a modern-day enterprise.
One of the best insights in the book revolves around cultivating passion. We're told from a very young age to follow our passion. Cal Newport, author of How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less, points out the flaw in this wisdom.
This pattern is common in the lives of people who end up loving their work. As described in Lesson 1, careers become compelling once they feature the general traits you seek. These traits, however, are rare and valuable—no one will hand you a lot of autonomy or impact just because you really want it, for example. Basic economics tells us that if you want something rare and valuable, you need to offer something rare and valuable in return—and in the working world, what you have to offer are your skills. This is why the systematic development of skill almost always precedes passion.
In other words Newport argues that what you do for a living matters less than you think.
“[T]he right question is not “What job am I passionate about doing?” but instead “What way of working and living will nurture my passion.”
Stepping back, he writes:
The goal of feeling passionate about your work is sound. But following your passion—choosing a career path solely because you are already passionate about the nature of the work—is a poor strategy for accomplishing this goal. It assumes that you have a pre-existing passion to follow that matches up to a viable career, and that matching your work to a strong interest is sufficient to build long-term career satisfaction. Both of these assumptions are flawed.
Newport argues a more sophisticated strategy for finding passion means “we should begin by developing rare and valuable skills.” Once we've done that, we can use these skills to navigate our career towards the general lifestyle that resonates with us.
If you think hard about it, you’ll notice just how many “automatic” decisions you make each day. But these habits aren’t always as trivial as what you eat for breakfast. Your health, your productivity, and the growth of your career are all shaped by the things you do each day — most by habit, not by choice.
Even the choices you do make consciously are heavily influenced by automatic patterns. Researchers have found that our conscious mind is better understood as an explainer of our actions, not the cause of them. Instead of triggering the action itself, our consciousness tries to explain why we took the action after the fact, with varying degrees of success. This means that even the choices we do appear to make intentionally are at least somewhat influenced by unconscious patterns.
Given this, what you do every day is best seen as an iceberg, with a small fraction of conscious decision sitting atop a much larger foundation of habits and behaviors.
Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career explores how creating opportunities, building expertise, cultivating relationships, and taking risks can propel you forward. With contributions from Tony Schwartz to Ben Casnocha, you'll be left thinking about the next opportunity and how to get there. (Best served with a side of its prequel: Manage Your Day-to-Day.)
In this short video Charles Duhigg, author of, The Power of Habit, explains how to break a habit.
Every habit functions the same way. At first, there is a cue. Some type of trigger that makes the behavior unfold automatically. … The next part in the habit loop is the routine, the behavior itself. … The last part of the habit loop is the reward and in some respects the reward is the most important part.
In his book, Daily Rituals, Mason Currey explores William James's thoughts on Habit.
“Recollect,” (James) wrote, “that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action — and consequently accumulate grain on grain of wilful choice like a very miser — never forgetting how one link dropped undoes an indefinite number.” The importance of forming such “habits of order” later became one of James's great subjects as a psychologist.
In 1892 James delivered a lecture to teachers in Cambridge, Massachusetts that was eventually incorporated into his book Psychology: The Briefer Course. James argued that the “great thing” in education is to “make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.”
The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding or regretting of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all. If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my hearers, let him begin this very hour to set the matter right.
Mason adds, “James was writing from personal experience—the hypothetical sufferer is, in fact, a thinly disguised description of himself.”
In his 2006 biography of James, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Robert D. Richardson wrote:
James on habit, then, is not the smug advice of some martinet, but the too-late-learned, too-little-self-knowing, pathetically earnest, hard-won crumbs of practical advice offered by a man who really had no habits—or who lacked the habits he most needed, having only the habit of having no habits—and whose life was itself a ‘buzzing blooming confusion' that was never really under control.
We know a few of James's tendencies. In Daily Rituals Currey writes:
He drank moderately and would have a cocktail before dinner. He stopped smoking and drinking coffee in his mid-thirties. … He procrastinated. As he told one of his classes, “I know a person who will poke at the fire, set chairs straight, pick dust specks from the floor, arrange his table, snatch up a newspaper, take down any book which catches his eye, trim his nails, waste the morning anyhow, in short, and all without premeditation—simply because that only thing he ought to attend to is the preparation of a noonday lesson in formal logic which he detests.”
Currey got me wondering more about James. With a bit of research, I discovered that in 1887 he penned Habit, a short book exploring the philosophy and psychology of habit (available for free in google books and archive.org)
Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself; so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances, without any consciously formed purpose, or anticipation of results. … The great thing, then, in all education, is to make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and to guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague.
James offers three maxims to aid the successful formation of new habits.
The first is that in the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall reenforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.
The second Maxim is: Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallibly right. As professor Bain says “The peculiarity of the moral habits, contradistinguishing them from the intellectual acquisitions, is the presence of two hostile powers, one to be gradually raised into the ascendant over the other. It is necessary, above all things, in such a situation, never to lose a battle. Every gain on the wrong side undoes the effect of many conquests on the right. The essential precaution, therefore, is so to regulate the two opposing powers that the one may have a series of uninterrupted successes, until repetition has fortified it to such a degree as to enable it to cope with the opposition, under any circumstances. This is the theoretically best career of mental progress.”The question of ‘tapering-off,' in abandoning such habits as drink and opium-indulgence, comes in here, and is a question about which experts differ within certain limits, and in regard to what may be best for an individual case. In the main, however, all expert opinion would agree that abrupt acquisition of the new habit is the best way, if there be a real possibility of carrying it out. We must be careful not to give the will so stiff a task as to insure its defeat at the very outset; but, provided one can stand it, a sharp period of suffering, and then a free time, is the best thing to aim at, whether in giving up a habit like that of opium, or in simply changing one's hours of rising or of work. It is surprising how soon a desire will die of inanition if it be never fed.
A third maxim may be added to the preceding pair: Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ‘set' to the brain.