Developing the Habit of Seeing Things Through – How To Become a Finisher

If I had to put my finger on one thing that's made the most difference to my life in terms of results, it would be consciously changing from being a chronic quitter to someone who sees things through.

Here's how important it is to me:-

​Every day, I fire up Evernote and spend five minutes answering the same three questions:-

  1. What kind of person are you?
  2. Why are you doing what you do?
  3. Where do you want to be by...?

In response to the question "what kind of person are you?" I have a list of 17 items and the third answer on that list is always this:-

"When I make the commitment to do something, I see it through to the very end without fail"

At the time of writing, I have nearly 400 copies of that daily ritual archived.

Why have I carved this identity for myself?  Why is seeing things through so important to me?

Well, there are two main reasons:

  1. I used to suck so badly at seeing things through
  2. I failed at a lot of things because I gave up too soon.
  3. I admire this personality trait

At some point, I realised that when it comes to results getting (creating awesome things, making big changes, building companies, improving yourself, increasing wealth, creating successful web sites, lifting 400lbs in the gym...and so on) I needed to be more fucking patient.

Honestly, I used to have delusional expectations of what kind of commitment is needed to make big results.  I was just so naive.

If I could paint a timeline of my life and list all my successes and failures chronologically, I would almost be able to draw a line at the point when I committed to seeing things through.  Before this point in time would lie a barrage of failures, and after would be mostly successes.

It literally has been that significant for me.  

​The value of developing the habit of seeing things through, if you don't already have it, is extreme.  But I've found it to also be one of the hardest things to do and requires a lot of emotional labor.

  • To sit down and write every day for a blog that nobody is reading/cares about/even knows exists for 6 months​
  • Training for five years trying to hit a 100kg bench press, but seemingly unable to break through
  • Starting a business from scratch for the fifth time because you've failed with each previous attempt

All these things above are examples of what I mean.  It's just so difficult to get yourself to just keep going in these situations.

But if I hadn't done so, today I wouldn't own a successful web site, have a 130kg personal best on the bench press and be co-founder of a software company.

In hindsight, the decision to follow through and persist was so obviously the right one. But when you're in the trenches, you're having a bad day and you're pushing as hard as you can but nothing's moving it can be difficult to develop that mental toughness and resilience to just keep hacking away.

But...I now consider this a really, really good thing.

You're probably thinking, how can it possibly be good?​  

Well, it's good because if you're consciously aware of it, you can put it to your advantage. Allow me to explain..

Anyone can start something.  It's so easy to start 12 projects.  There's no emotional labor, dedication or commitment required.  Having the quality of starting is not valuable.

But how many people do you know that has the ability to mercilessly haul that project through thick and thin over the finish line​?

I've literally found a handful of people in my life who can take an ambitious, uncertain project on and see it through to completion.  Time and time again I see that people just lack the ability to persist.

A lot of people can get through the first few weeks or the first month...even the first 3 months or 6 months.  But I've found that after 6 months, you can count the people still standing on one hand.

This makes it a huge opportunity for you.  

If you can figure out how to be more strategic and execute over the longer term, then you're in an elite group of people and you'll be a far more prolific results getter than you are now.  Having the ability to finish what you start is extremely valuable.

The elephant in the room is...how do you do this?   How can you build this kind of resilience and persistence?

Developing the Relentless Bulldog Mindset

I don't have all the answers, but I have experienced a lot of personal growth in this area so would like to share what's worked for me.

I use a combination of things that, when used together, keep me on track with whatever I decide to do. 

Here's the list:-

  1. Create a New Identity
  2. Decide Deliberately
  3. Change your Focus
  4. Make it Habitual
  5. Develop a Growth Mindset
  6. Create your Contingency Plans
  7. Manage your expectations

1. Create a New Identity

I'm talking about the identity that you have for yourself in your head rather than your passport.

What type of person are you? 

Me? I'm the type of person that finishes things.

As humans, we can move mountains in order to live up to the identity that we have for ourselves and even the identity that others have given us.  Identity is a core and unavoidable part of all our lives. Our actions shape our identity, and in turn, our identity shapes our actions.

If you're the smart guy, or you know that other people perceive you as that, you'll be more inclined to play up to that role.  

If you're the fit guy, or you know that other people perceive you as that, you'll be more inclined to hit the gym....because it's what you do.

If you've ever asked someone why they do something, and they've replied with "I don't know, that's just the kind of person I am", then you'll know what I'm talking about. These people have an identity of themselves in their head that drives their behaviors.

How does this relate to seeing things through?

If you want to always see things through to the end then become the type of person that finishes things.

Consider the difference between:-

  1. I have a goal of finishing this project (achievement goal)
  2. I am the type of person that, when I commit to something, I finish it. Without fail. (identity goal)

The difference between the two might seem subtle on the surface, but it has deeper connotations than we might initially think.

First, let's consider the problem of achievement goal setting.  Why is it not effective?

​With achievement goals, it's a one or zero proposition.  You've either achieved your goal or you haven't. And let's face it, 99% of the time we are chasing a goal that we haven't reached yet (how long do you spend celebrating and focusing on what you've already achieved?).

When we focus on achievement goals, we reinforce a negative feedback loop.  

  • Despite having worked out for the past three months you're still not fit.  Failure.
  • Despite having worked incredibly hard on your new startup, it's still not successful.  Failure.
  • Despite having taken control of your finances and been frugal, you still don't have enough money to pay for the wedding.  Failure.

When you focus on achievement goals, you're constantly failing and there's no focus or reward for all the positive effort that you're putting in on a daily basis.  

Of course, this has a tendency to devalue all the positive actions that you've been doing, pushes you into negative thinking and makes you more likely to quit.

Contrast the achievement goal setting approach with carving an identity of being a finisher:-

For every day you goes by that you manage to get the work done, you have another piece of evidence that you're a finisher.​  

  • I completed my scheduled workout for today.  Success
  • I did a solid four hours of deep work for my new startup today.  Success
  • I ate my homemade lunch today rather than eating in the cantine.  Success

This, in turn, builds a continuous positive feedback loop that feeds off itself.  

You start to become focused on the chain of positive momentum that you've been building up and each day reinforces your identity even further, increasing the likelihood that you'll persevere.  

If you have an off day, it doesn't matter, because you still have this stack of evidence to prove that you're a finisher to offset it.​  You just jump back on the horse the next day.

And here's the beautiful part: At some point there's a tipping point.  You've been doing actions to reinforce your identity for so long that just the idea of going against it becomes repulsive to you.

At this point, quitting something wouldn't be about failing a project, but going against the entire value system that you've built for yourself, and would result in a massive hit on your self esteem.  

It would now be more painful for you to quit, than to continue, because quitting would be an attack on who you are as a person.​

Seeing things through has become your selling point.  It's your strength.

And then when other people ask you "how do you manage to have such amazing willpower to see things through to the end?"...

you can reply with:- "I don't know, that's just the kind of person I am".

How to Carve the Finisher's Identity for Yourself

Yeah, this all sounds great, McCarthy, but how do you actually do this?

Of course, I'm still trying to figure a lot of this stuff out, so don't take my experience as gospel, however I think it's a combination of two things:-

  1. Advertising to yourself how much of an amazing skill being a finisher is and look for concrete evidence to reinforce this notion​
  2. Create small wins, build momentum and don't break the chain.

Let's break these two points down.

1. Advertising the Finisher's Identity to Yourself

This can be quite tricky because it's subjective.  

The advertisements that worked for me, might not work for you.  But, the ultimate goal is to find a mental frame such that you'd be proud to be a finisher.

Here's how it worked for me: 

  • I developed an admiration and respect for people that relentlessly followed through.  For me, there's something honorable in beating away at something incessantly, even in the absence of results, and in spite of adversity.  

    I realised that the type of person who can do that is rare, valuable and honorable. It's a Warrior mentality and it's a personality trait that I highly respect.

  • I built up a ton of evidence to support the notion that high performers were able to see things through relentlessly.  This helped cement the idea it was a vital piece of the jigsaw for living a successful life.
  • Another angle that worked well for me was to use my own ego to my advantage:- I hate the idea of being ordinary and "just like everyone else" and ​I know that normal/ordinary people aren't able to see things through. If I quit, I become just like everyone else. A powerful repellent for me.

Once I had started to build this mental frame of how much I valued the trait of finishing (and how much I didn't want to be like everyone else), I developed a very strong desire to embody it.  

I wanted to become a finisher in the same way that, for years, teenage kids wanted to be like David Beckham.  

This mental frame might not work well for you, but you should try and find an "advertisement" that gets you going.

  • What do you admire about being someone who relentlessly pushes forward in face of adversity?
  • What aspect of being a finisher would make you proud?

It requires a little bit of conscious introspection, but once you find it, it's extremely powerful.

2. Create Small wins, Build Momentum and don't break the Chain

You've now got a strong desire to be the type of person that finishes things...it's time to get busy.

​Your job now is to start to slowly accumulate evidence to support your new identity. Make small victories, build them up over time and keep a running momentum score.

Let's run through what a finisher does:

  1. The type of person that sees things through works on a project to a schedule - every day or every week, for example..
  2. The type of person that sees things through doesn't allow many days where she's missed the schedule to build up.  She jumps back to work quickly after downtime.
  3. The type of person that sees things through doesn't let setbacks, bad news or unforeseen circumstances stop her from taking action.
  4. The type of person that sees things through accepts that she will have bad days but still manages to do at least something on the days that she doesn't feel on top form.
  5. The type of person that produces, creates, publishes, records, launches, ships, releases even though i) their work is not perfect and ii) they are uncomfortable and scared

Now we have a set of guidelines for being a finisher, it's time to translate that into a definite small win for the project that you're working on.

Your small win must be small, easily achievable and focused on activity, rather than the result.  

A bad small win:- "lose 1 pound every week".  (this is an achievement goal)

A good small win:- ​"Exercise at least 20 minutes three times per week" (better - this goal is focused on identity and action)

Some more examples of good small wins:-​

  • If you're working on a book, your small win might be to write for at least 30 minutes every single day.
  • If you're trying to read more, your small win might be to read 2 pages per day
  • If you're building a piece of software your small win might be to code for at least 30 minutes per day
  • If you're creating a new blog, your small win might be to write a blog post for 30 minutes per day.

For my video project, my small win was to get in front of the camera for 30 seconds every single day.  

​So, let's continue the example of losing weight.  

Each time you exercise for 20 minutes, you have a small victory.  A small piece of evidence that reinforces your new identity.

This needs to be celebrated and tracked.  So, you arrive home from the gym and put a big green tick on your very public and visual calendar.  (See my video below for more ways to track your progress)

Before long, you start to build up a long, beautiful chain of green ticks.  Each time you glance over at the calendar you're reminded of what type of person you are and of the increasingly long chain of momentum you've built up.

Of course, you psychologically this helps you stay on track.  Nobody wants to break their chain of momentum.  And that's all you focus on - not breaking that chain!

What we're doing here is to train the brain to focus on celebrating the actions and process required to lose weight rather than the result.

2. Decide Deliberately

​I'm sure you've experienced the type of thing before where an idea pops into your head, you get really excited, and within a few minutes of fantasizing you've already decided to start a new project. 

Then, of course, three weeks later you get bored with that project and a new idea pops into your head.  So, you abandon everything that you've been doing for the past three weeks to kick off this amazing new project. 

This kind of adhoc careless decision making does not jive with this new identity of being the type of person that finishes things. 

Wreckless decision making can cause all sorts of issues to come to the surface further down the road:-

  • You misunderstood the reality of the situation: The competition is more fierce, it will take more work than you anticipated, it will cost more than you realised... etc.
  • It's not something that you really want to do: it's easy to get excited by the idea of doing things, but often getting down into the trenches is not as much fun.  

    An extreme example:- The idea of learning Thai is great when you think about how you can impress the locals with your new skills while ordering food at the restaurant.  The reality of learning Thai, however, is hundreds of hours of pretty mundane practice get to even just a basic level of ability.  Of course, some people love it, but is that you?
  • You realise you're not fully in alignment: perhaps you spot a business opportunity that can make you some money, but you are not engaged nor proud of what you're doing and don't believe in the value that you're providing.  

Everything you commit to now has serious ramifications to your time and energy.​ You don't have the time to finish every project that you dream of.  So you need to get better at saying no and choosing your battles.

But, of course, some things that you decide to do might not be that important:  The type of thing where you dabble in something because you're curious or you just want to see what happens.​  

How do we reconcile being a finisher with having the freedom to trial things?

Scott Young has an approach I like of having two types of project that you agree to do - commitments and experiments. 

Experiments are things that don't require finishing or commitment, are of less importance and are things that you can stop at any point guilt-free.  By stopping an experiment, you don't sabotage your new finishing identity.

Commitments, on the other hand, are serious.  You don't make decisions about commitments lightly, because you know that once you're committed, you will always finish.

Before taking on a commitment, it's important to think long and hard about what you're taking on.  Here are some guidelines that might help you to make the right decision:-

1. Take Your Time to Decide

​My golden rule is to take at least a week to decide.  This helps to defend against emotional periods of excitement that potentially blind you to reality.

Man, I wish I had taken this advice in my early twenties.  I've got a graveyard of semi-completed projects to thank for this old chestnut.​

2. Can You Make the Worst Case Scenario Not So Bad?

I try only to take on projects such that the worst case scenario​ is still in line with the skills and experiences that I would like to build and accumulate.  In other words, even if I don't achieve the outcome that I want, it's still far from a wasted effort.

Let's take this blog for example.  The worst case scenario is that nobody ever visits the site.  But, for me, that's still a pretty good outcome because I have spent many hours cementing my understanding of self development principles, learning new things and deliberately practicing my writing and video creation skills.  Taking on this project would never be a fruitless endeavor for me.

3. Is This Project in Alignment with Deeper Meaning, your Values and the Type of Person you want to Be?

We're getting a bit deep here, but investing a load of time on something that you're not proud of, doesn't mean anything to you and is not in line with the type of person you want to be is a dangerous strategy.

The most typical example of this is "just doing it for the money".  

I've been here before - one of my first projects was a hotel booking site for my home town. I didn't give a stuff about hotels, and I still don't. I just wanted to rank high and make some coin. It inevitably failed as my interest waned to the point of wanting to jump out of the window rather than write another hotel review.

In contrast, this site is very much in line with the kind of person that I want to be for the long term future, so of course I'll see it through.

Some questions that will help you decide if this new commitment is in alignment with the type of person you want to be:-

  • Is it something you could be proud of?
  • Is it something you really want to do?
  • Is it something you enjoy doing and are likely to enjoy in the foreseeable future?
  • Is it something that you believe in?
  • Is it something that brings meaning to your life?
  • Is the price that I, and others, will have to pay worth it?
  • Would you excitedly and openly talk about this project to your family around the dinner table?
4. Does This Project Fit Into Your Longer Term Strategy?

Something I've noticed about high performers are that they are really strategic with their decision making.  They make decisions about their life in the same way that generals create strategies before going into battle.

If you have time, this video perfectly sums up what I'm talking about:-

Here's an example of how I strategically think about the work I'm doing on this blog: In writing all these posts, clarifying my thoughts, and creating videos on topics of self development I'm building up the skills and knowledge that I'm going to need to take lead a future software project.  I don't currently have the ability, so the work I'm doing here is invaluable practice for me to get me prepared.

This skill of strategizing is all about taking a bigger picture view of your life.  Do you know where you want to be in five or ten years time?  

If so, how does your project fit into this bigger picture?

5. Do You Have Other Conflicting Goals?

This can be really insidious and often quite difficult to recognize without having a healthy dose of self awareness.  

When I talk about things being in conflict, I'm mainly referring to insecurities ​that are contradicting with your bold plans.  These insecurities can jeopardize even the greatest ideas.

As an example, let's say you want to create a popular blog but deep down you suffer from low self-esteem.  ​If your blog does manage to become popular, you would suffer from imposter syndrome (a feeling that your success is unwarranted and that you're a bit of a fraud) and you would worry a lot about what other people think about you.

This can manifest itself in a number of other ways:-

  • You spend ages building a product that you never properly launch or put any marketing behind it.  Instead you keep postponing the launch, perfecting the product under the guise that you'll launch when it's good and ready.
  • You pass up opportunities and connections that would undoubtedly be good for you because you're afraid of being exposed.
  • You always opt for the safe and easy approach that doesn't involve getting yourself out there and showing the world what you have to offer.

Here you have a very typical example of the brain being in conflict with itself.  The conscious part of you knows that creating a successful blog can lead to good things, but your subconscious "animal" brain is scared and paralyzes you from taking the right actions.

Do you have any conflicts like this?  If so you'll need to work on them in order to properly follow through.

The Important Thing About Deciding Deliberately...

All these questions are designed to ultimately ask two things:-

  1. If the desired outcome is not attained, would taking on this project have been a waste of time for you?
  2. Am you fully in alignment with the project?

If you can genuinely answer no and yes respectively, then that's a very good sign that it's worth committing to.

3. Change Your Focus

Overwhelm is the biggest problem that people have when faced with huge and seemingly insurmountable tasks.  

If you're someone who struggles to see things through, this has probably affected you already.  You get halfway through a project, look at the sheer volume of work that you still have to produce, freak out, withdraw and eventually quit.

What can we do to combat this tendency?  

To answer this question, let's take the example of writing a book.  If I asked you to write a book in the next few months (let's say 100,000 words) then you could look at this in two ways:-

  1. You could look at the stack of pages and words that are contained in books and you focus on the sheer volume of work ahead.  You fixate on how much work you have ahead of you and try and start to wonder if it's even possible that you can produce so much.
  2. You could translate the seemingly insurmountable task of writing a book into a daily schedule that no longer intimidates you.   You realise that by simply writing an hour or two every day you can complete a book.

In essence: you commit to the action and schedule rather than the result.  You know that by doing the action, the result takes care of itself.  I talk about this a lot in my habit system because it's an essential tool to combat overwhelm.

4. Make it Habitual

I guess you knew this was coming, given how much I bang on about habits.

Taking the time to invest in building good quality habits makes a lot of sense, this is especially true if you want to ensure that you see things through to the end.

When an action becomes habitual, it's more automatic for you, easier to do, doesn't require so much willpower and alleviates decision fatigue.  These are all incredibly important for becoming a finisher.

Read my habit system to learn how to build positive habits.

5. Develop a Growth Mindset

Another common reason for not following through on something is if you don't believe you can do it (you don't believe you have the ability).  

This reaction can come about in a number of different ways:-

  • Maybe you're building a company and you see that a competitor is so far ahead of you that you'll always be behind
  • Maybe you notice that someone is way better than you and you think that you'll never be able to be that good​
  • Maybe you're at a bit of a sticking point and even though you're pushing really hard, you don't seem to be making any headway so you think you're at the upper limit of your ability

These feelings are all symptoms of a "fixed mindset" and has been brought to the forefront recently through a book of the same name by Carol Dweck.   Here's one of my older videos about this book:-

The key takeaway is that if you have a fixed mindset, then you believe in things like talent and innate ability, rather than the idea that abilities can be cultivated and improved over time. 

If you have a fixed mindset you might see someone who is great at public speaking and say something like "that person is clearly just a naturally good speaker - I'll never be able to reach that level of ability".  You don't see the hours and hours of deliberate practice that has gone into it behind the scenes, so your brain jumps to this conclusion.

The problem with the fixed mindset, of course, is that if you let limiting thoughts like these rule your attention then you're far more likely to quit.

The solution is to develop a growth mindset by realizing  and generating the belief that in pretty much any domain, high class performers have spent hours and hours beating on their craft to get to that level of ability.  And, in the same way that they've cultivated their ability, you can too.

The problem is that even though you like the idea of the growth mindset, you don't really truly believe in it yet.  

To fully believe this notion you need to build up a mass of evidence (that is already out there and readily available) to support the fact that deliberate practice, and not natural ability, is the most important component of success and high performance.

Here is a list of excellent resources to start with:-

  1. Peak - one of my favorite non-fiction books of all time. Completely dispels the myth of innate ability and provides lots of evidence to support the notion that deliberate practice is the single most effective way to get good at anything.
  2. Mindset - Dweck explains why it's not just our abilities and talent that bring us success-but whether we approach them with a fixed or growth mindset.
  3. Talent is Overrated - Talent is Overrated will change the way you think about your life and work - and will inspire you to achieve more in everything you do.
  4. Outliers - Famous for the 10,000 hour rule of success, Malcolm Gladwell looks at everyone from rock stars to professional athletes, software billionaires to scientific geniuses, to show that the story of success is far more surprising, and far more fascinating, than we could ever have imagined.
  5. Grit - Grit is a book about what goes through your head when you fall down, and how that – not talent or luck – makes all the difference.

Read as many of these as you can.  It's quite possible that reading just one of these books will be enough to convince you.

As your brain starts to learn about and interpret all this new evidence your beliefs will start to transform.  These new beliefs change the you way you think about new situations:

  • If a competitor is far ahead of you, you'll start to deconstruct what they're doing better than you to determine which areas you need to improve. 
  • If you're at a sticking point and don't seem to be making progress, you'll seek help or training from top-level coaches, deconstruct other high performers and keep pushing in the knowledge that sometimes breakthroughs take time to achieve.

Whereas your default reaction used to be one of dejection, negativity and quitting, you're now focused on what areas you need to do deliberate practice in order to better your ability and compete.

In short: the way you react to adversity is determined by the underlying beliefs that you have.  Taking the time to learn to develop a growth mindset will make you far more resilient and more likely to grind through the inevitable trials and tribulations that await you.

6. Create your Contingency Plans

You're probably already put off by the boring nature of this bullet point.

I know... contingency planning is not exciting and it's not a magic bullet tip or trick, but when used correctly they are highly effective at helping us see things through.  So don't just gloss over this section.

What I'm about to describe has been researched quite heavily.  In one particular study, 91% of the participants who used the technique below exercised at least once per week, in comparison to 38% who didn't.  So, this isn't just another regurgitated "that sounds like it would work" tip, but one that's grounded in science.

So, what's the technique?  It's called using implementation intentions.  Here's how it works:-

When you're trying to implement new changes in your life or taking on an ambitious new project, you can usually pretty accurately predict the conditions at which you're most likely to quit.

For example, if you're trying to write more, you might predict that you'll face the following challenging conditions:-

  • I sit down and I don't have any inspiration or know what to write
  • I wake up and I'm having a bad day such that I don't feel very motivated to write
  • ​I'm trying to clearly articulate an idea but struggling to convey it in a good way
  • I'm half way through my daily writing and I feel tired

​The ideas is that, ahead of time, we take these challenging conditions and create a battle plan to make sure that you don't succumb to them.  

The battle plan should be in the form of:-

  • If [condition] then [action]​

So, let's run through the examples again:-

  • ​If I sit down and I don't have any inspiration or know what to write then I will read through my most recent article to get into the flow.
  • If I wake up and I'm having a bad day such that I don't feel very motivated to write then I will read through why I'm doing this and just commit to writing the title and one sentence.
  • If I'm clearly trying to articulate an idea but struggling to convey it in a good way then I will make a note of this in my notebook, continue writing and revisit this particular part at another time.
  • If I'm half way through my daily writing and I feel tired I will get up, make a coffee, go for a 10 minute walk and come back to it in half an hour.

You're setting up a system ahead of time that you can follow to cover eventualities that you know are likely to derail you.

You might be wondering why this is so effective.  There is some evidence to suggest that once we decide on a plan for doing something, then at the time when the event occurs the decision making process is bypassed, preserving willpower and somewhat reducing the temptation to just cave in.  

It's incredibly simple and proven to be very effective, but how many of us actually do this?

In short: before you jump straight into the trenches, prepare your implementation intention battleplan!​

7. Manage your Expectations

I've found the following quote to be so true:-

"No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy"

You can have a beautiful grand vision with every last detail taken care of and prepared in advance but then four weeks into the project everything is up in the air.

  • Things you'd never even considered have popped up
  • Everything is taking far longer than you anticipated
  • Things are costing more than you anticipated
  • It seems like you're being attacked from all sides.

Unforeseen stuff, by definition, can't be planned for in advance.  But you can manage your expectations and prepare for it so that you're already holding the fire extinguisher when the fires inevitably appear.

I've found that many people, myself included, just have quite delusional expectations. Especially when we estimate how long things will take to achieve.​  It was only by adjusting my expectation barometer did I start to realise that I was being way too impatient.

​But how do we know what's realistic and what's not?

One of my favorite ways of becoming more in line with "reality", so to speak, is to dig deeper into the success stories of people that are further along and figure out what it really took for them to succeed.

In nearly all cases, you begin to notice that there is a long line of very deliberate steps over a sustained period of time that led them to where they are today.

For example, let's say we want to create a popular YouTube channel.  ​Our tendency is to look at some channels, look at a few videos, and think "that looks easy, I can do that!"...

But when you dig deeper, you realise that they've uploaded over 200 videos over the last few years, have been consistently active in the community, also have a popular web site that is contributing to their popularity and statistics and they've been doing a lot of promotion and marketing outside of the platform.  All of which contributes to their success.​

For instance, let's take a look at a channel with 60,000 subscribers, Nick Nimmin.

With a little bit of digging, I can see that he currently has 135 videos, which is a lot of work in itself.  His first video was 2 years ago and he only really became popular in January, 2016:

So, he'd already been uploading videos for around 18 months before his channel started to gain any kind of traction.  Many of his earlier videos were met with crickets but he kept on going and eventually made it successful.

You now know that it's quite likely that you'll be uploading videos for the first year without much reward for it. ​

By taking some time to look at this kind of evidence in advance, you can build a far clearer picture of reality and what it takes to create a successful channel.  Adjusting your expectations to be closer to reality helps you understand what it's really going to take to get your channel going.

Of course, there are many ways that you can get the "true" story of success:-

  • Listen to interviews and podcasts of people further on in your field
  • Read biographies 
  • Contact them and ask them!  Often overlooked but can be highly useful and help you to build strong relationships
  • Do some digging online to see what evidence you can find of past performance
  • Visit conferences and talk to people

There is no lenience for ignorance.  We live in a time where all this information is readily available so take some to figure out what it really takes to get to where you need to go by looking for clues in past successes.

Some Final Thoughts

​So, as a quick summary here are the key points to becoming a finisher:-

  1. Build up a new identity of becoming the type of person who finishes things, build up evidence to support it and track everything
  2.  Have a clear separation between experiments and commitments
  3. Decide deliberately - take longer and be more careful before you commit to something
  4. Focus on the action or the process rather than the result
  5. Where possible, build the actions into habits
  6. Develop the belief that ability and skill can be cultivated
  7. Plan ahead specifically for conditions that will jeopardise you seeing the project through with a battle plan
  8. Manage your expectations by studying pass successes

The good news is that you've made it to the end of this huge article, so there's already one piece of evidence that you're the type of person who finishes things 🙂

​Read More

Signs of Willpower Fatigue: How To Tell When You’re Burnt Out

If we know that willpower is a finite resource that we should treat sparingly, how do we know when we're pushing our limits and facing burnout?

​Apparently there isn't just a single tell-tale sign that can tell us whether we're suffering from willpower depletion or not.  However, there are a few traits that seem to affect us all in this state:-

  • Stronger emotional reactions - while depleted people don't show any single emotion, they do seem to react more strongly to the stimulus that's placed upon them.  

    In other words, willpower depletion seems to make you overreact to both positive and negative things that happen to you.

    A moment of joy will make you more happy than happy than usual, whereas the opposite is true if you watch a sat or negative film, for example.
  • Cravings intensify - studies show that people crave things with increased intensity when they're in a depleted state.

    In one particular study, those in a depleted state reported a stronger craving to eat another cookie...And they acted on those impulses when they were given the chance.

In short, when we have willpower depletion, we tend to react stronger to things that happen to us and our desires and impulses are stronger than usual.  It's like turning up the volume on life.  

Some other more Practical Signs that
your Willpower is Drained

Aside from the symptoms of willpower fatigue there are also numerous behavior signals that we can watch out for.  These include:-

  • If you're struggling with clarity of thought and decision making.  This could be  a sign that you're struggling from decision fatigue (a form of willpower depletion).
  • You have stronger resistance than normal to doing things that you usually do.  For instance, if you usually hit the gym three times per week but you're struggling to make yourself go.
  • If you give into temptations that you usually manage to resist through self control.
  • If you give up and don't have as much persistence as you usually do, or if you're struggling to focus or get in the zone when doing something that you can usually handle.  Perhaps you cut your workout short or you're not able to completely your daily meditation practice or writing routine.

The Practical Implications of this...

​The symptoms of willpower depletion are a little bit wishy washy.  There isn't a specific list of emotions, feelings and other symptoms that people have when they're depleted. Of course, this makes self diagnosis difficult. 

If we do, however, have the suspicion that we're depleted then the best course of action is to take a break, eat something (to elevate glucose levels), get a good night's sleep and just get some rest.

Another thing to consider is what's led you to burnout?  Have you been trying to tackle too many things at once?  Is your life a constant string of willpower depleting decision making?  

If so, follow these steps to design your life in such a way that preserves your willpower.

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The Surprising Little Known Facts about The Real Cost of Decisions

 

In a suburban mall, shoppers were randomly stopped and asked a series of questions about their shopping habits.  The questions were designed to understand how many buying decisions the shoppers had made that day...

They were then asked to attempt to solve a series of simple arithmetic puzzles and were told that they could quit whenever they wanted.

Those shoppers that had made the most buying decisions that day quit sooner.  They didn't have the same level of persistence as those shoppers that had made less buying decisions.

So what happened here?  

Researchers believed that the shoppers that had deliberated the most over what items to buy had suffered from a phenomenon called decision fatigue.

In short: Making decisions for our brain is like doing exercise for our body.  In the short term it fatigues us and leaves us with a diminished capacity to operate.

Prisoners, Parole and Decision Fatigue

This real-world example of decision fatigue left me speechless.

​Psychologists Jonathan Levav and Shai Danziger reviewed over more than one thousand decisions made over the course of ten months by judges who took turns presiding over the parole board of an Israeli prison system.

They started to notice a rather remarkable decision making pattern...

If you, as a prisoner, appear right after a food break then you have around a 65% chance of getting parole.  But if you are unfortunate enough to come right before a break such that the judges have been making decisions for the hours preceding your trial then that percentage drops to 20%​.

Quite simply: The longer the judges are in the court without having a break, the less chance you have of getting parole.

Your chances of getting a good judgment depends on what time you're scheduled in court!​

So what's happening here?

You guessed it.. The judges experienced decision fatigue.  

Right after eating, the judge's blood glucose levels are restored and they come back to the court room re-energized and ready to perform the necessary analysis for each case.

But, as time proceeds and the judges are forced to make decision after decision, decision fatigue starts to set in.  They slowly begin to lose their ability to do the analysis necessary to make good decisions and thus opt for the default or safe option, which in this case is not to offer parole.

What Happens when we Experience Decision Fatigue?

Decision fatigue leads to an inability to make good decisions.  Instead of doing the necessary analysis, we default to the safe or recommended option and lose our ability to make compromises on things.

​But, it gets worse than this....making decisions taxes your willpower.  Every single decision you make in your life comes at a cost to your willpower...

The price you pay depends on the effort and difficulty of the decision involved, but even insignificant ones, such as what you're going to eat for dinner tonight, have a negative effect.

This is why the likes of Mark Zuckerberg tend to wear the same clothes every single day:-​

Most of Us Need a Decision Diet

All these decisions that we make on a daily basis, a lot of them insignificant and unnecessary, are depleting our highly valuable willpower reserves.

This is that same willpower reserve that we often need to call upon when we're trying to ingrain positive habits into our brain's circuitry.  It's limited in supply and should be protected at all costs.

Be mindful of the fact that every decision comes at a cost and simplify your life as much as possible.

For more ideas on how you can do this, read this post.

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How to Preserve Our Most Valuable Habit Building Asset – Willpower

In previous posts, I've described the strength model for willpower depletion (otherwise known as ego depletion).  In short:-

  1. Our willpower is like a muscle: Using it comes at a cost by temporarily lowering our willpower reserves. 
  2. If we rely too heavily on it, we'll burn out and lose self-control
  3. Willpower can be built up over time if the right amount of stress is applied (do things that use willpower, without overdoing it)
  4. We have a limited global supply of it (no matter what nature of task we do, we seem to draw from the same supply of willpower)​

Here's the thing: If we run out of willpower while in the middle of building a new habit, we will fail.  Our self control will fall by the wayside and we'll default back to our old ways...

Therefore we must think carefully about how we can make sure we don't unnecessarily pull from our willpower reserves.

We should preserve it at all costs.  And that's what this post is about.

The Cause of Willpower Depletion:-
What 83 Ego Depletion Studies Tells Us

In 2010, an interesting meta analysis of 83 ego depletion studies was done to try and figure out what the most prominent causes of ego depletion are.

Significant effects were found for ego depletion on effort, perceived difficulty, negative affect, subjective fatigue and blood glucose.  

In other words, a cocktail for severe willpower depletion would be doing something hard that takes a lot of effort while you're tired, in a bad mood (while you're under stress) and having not eaten anything for a long time.

Important point:- what matters is the exertion not the outcome. If you struggle with temptation and then still give in, you're still depleted.

There are four main categories of willpower depletion:-

  1. Control of emotions (holding back anger, not telling your boss to get stuffed)
  2. Control of thoughts (making decisions, strategizing, mindfulness, limiting negative thinking, meditation)
  3. Impulse control (not eating those cookies that are next to you, not going on an all out bender after the first beer)
  4. Performance control​ (deep work, doing the next set of squats at the gym, doing hard things)

Enough of the theory, let's get practical.

What do we do to preserve willpower in our lives?

A System for Preserving Willpower

Just like the habits system, this is also a work in progress.  The two go hand in hand and there is a certain amount of overlap between the two.  They complement each other nicely.

First thing's first:-

A lot of the ideas and research in this system has come from studying a fantastic book called: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney.  

If you're interested in willpower and habit building then just buy it.

I also want to be clear about something before we begin - this post is simply about preserving willpower rather than building motivation.  It may seem like I'm splitting hairs, but the two are really quite different, although they have a strong relationship with each other.  

Things like tracking your progress and rewarding yourself are motivation strategies rather than willpower preservation strategies.  I talk more about some useful motivation strategies in this post.

Here are some steps for preserving your willpower:

  1. Do a Decision cleanse
  2. Close open loops
  3. Execute cleanly
  4. Remove temptation
  5. Be specific
  6. Pick your battles
  7. Never say never
  8. Take Care of Basics
  9. Avoid Procrastination

1. Do a Decision Cleanse

In a packed mall, shoppers were randomly stopped and were asked questions to understand how many items they'd purchased...

They were then asked to do some simple arithmetic puzzles.  They were politely asked to do as many as they could but told that they could stop at anytime.

The results?

Those that had shopped the hardest and bought the most items gave up sooner.

Why is this?  Scientists call it decision fatigue.  

The shoppers that had deliberated over many purchases during their marathon shopping trip had reduced willpower.  

Simply: when we make decisions, it depletes our willpower.

No decision comes without a cost, although the cost varies depending on the size and potential consequences for us (studies show that our willpower isn't depleted as much when deciding for others!)

This effect has been shown again and again in many different contexts - from students choosing courses to judges deciding whether to release prisoners on parole.

Decision fatigue doesn't just consume willpower, but it also reduces our ability to make good decisions.  When in this state, we suffer from a reduced ability to make compromises and tend to avoid making decisions, preferring to go with the default or recommended option.

Given this evidence, a high point of leverage for willpower conservation is doing what I call a decision cleanse.

Are you making unnecessary decisions on a daily basis?  

If so, remove them - they are hurting you.

Here are some ideas to get you started:-

  • ​Have your clothes already laid out from the night before or follow The Mark Zuckerberg strategy - wear the same thing every day
  • Eat the same things each week.  Or every day, if you're hardcore enough.
  • Where possible, create routines that you follow every day (ermm... habits!)
  • Have your personal trainer design you a training schedule to follow
  • Have your lunch delivered to you through a service like this
  • Have a morning routine that you do everyday so that it becomes automatic
  • Hire a personal assistant to manage less important decisions
  • Automate your finances so that bills are paid and money is moved to where it needs to go
  • ... for that matter, automate everything else that's possible to automate.  
  • Schedule necessities: e.g "On Saturday I do my clothes washing and on Sunday I phone my mother" (in other words:- alleviate the burden of deciding when things should happen)
  • If you work remotely, like me, then commit to staying somewhere for longer periods of time (at least 3 months, for example)

The idea is to streamline your life as much as possible.

Find areas of your life that are inconsequential to you and remove as many decisions as possible.  Instead of spending your valuable cognitive resources on things that don't really matter, you can redirect that investment elsewhere for a better return.  

​2. Close Open Loops

Have you ever had that niggling feeling in the back of your mind because of something that you know you have to do, but haven't got a plan of handling it?

It turns out that this *thing* actually has a name.  It's called the Zeigarnik effect.

​Blume Zeigarnik noticed, at a restaurant in Berlin, that the waiters had an incredible ability to remember customer orders up until the point they were delivered...  

​After this point, the waiters couldn't remember the orders, claiming "I remember each order only until it is served".

The original hypothesis was that the human mind hates unfinished tasks.  But this hypothesis has proven to be not quite accurate.  

​A bunch of studies and research followed and the Zeigarnik effect was defined:-

  • When we have stuff that we need to do, but haven't got a plan for doing it, our subconscious mind continually nags our conscious brain to sort it out.
  • Once the plan is formed, the unconscious mind stops the nagging

How does this relate to willpower?  

The Zeigernik effect causes stress, anxiety, takes up valuable mindshare and has been shown to cause willpower depletion.

Each time you leave tasks without a plan or system for getting it done, your willpower takes a beating

What does this translate to in practical terms?

  • Put in place a system for handling tasks that are thrown at you at work or in your business.  Read this book for a proven system that's pretty easy to implement (the whole book is based on setting up systems to avoid the Zeigarnik effect)
  • Got bills or debts that you need to pay but are not sure how you're going to pay them?  Come up with an action plan by yourself or sit down with a financial advisor
  • Got a deadline that you're not sure how you're going to meet?  Plan backwards and try to come up with a daily schedule to follow as your action plan.
  • Keep putting off going to the doctor/dentist/any kind of health appointment. Stop putting it off and prioritise it
  • Consider making a to don't list of things that you don't have to worry about once you write them down.  This is the one place where you record things that need to be actioned.

So, if you've got something that keeps bothering you and popping up in your mind, then take some time to figure out a plan for solving it.  Your willpower will thank you for it.

3. Execute Cleanly

​As we've already noted, decisions are draining and cause willpower depletion...

​Hard decisions that require a lot of effort cost a lot more willpower than the simple day-to-day "what shall I wear" type decisions.  

The problem is that oftentimes we stack these hard decisions before starting a task that is willpower depleting by itself creating a "double willpower whammy" effect.  

Consider these examples:-​

  • A blog post writer that sits down to write without a plan of what the topic is going to be about.  
  • A video presenter that needs to record a video, but first has to decide the topic and the script
  • A dieter who enters the kitchen to cook a healthy meal, but first needs to decide what meal to cook

In all of these examples, we are trying to do a hard thing that requires willpower immediately after making hard decisions that also require willpower.

So, in essence, writing a blog post, recording a video and cooking a meal just became twice as hard.

By comparison, here is how these things would be executed cleanly:-

  • A blog post writer sits down and already has a title and topic decided in advance
  • A video presenter gets in front of the camera and uses a script that's already been prepared
  • A dieter who enters the kitchen knows what she's cooking and already has the ingredients waiting​

By breaking up your willpower depleting tasks you increase your chances of seeing things through.

Executing cleanly:- When it comes time to do something difficult that requires willpower, you simply execute.  All the specifics, strategies, what's and how's have been decided upon beforehand.

Simple rule: When trying to make yourself do something difficult, execute cleanly.

4. Remove Temptation

This is a big one.

Many of the willpower depletion studies have participants sit next to something delicious, like a cookie or some chocolate, and ask them to resist eating it for a period time...

The participants then undergo some kind of test.  Sometimes it's a geometry test, other times the ability to hold onto a hand gripper for an extended period of time is measured.​

In all of these studies participants that resist temptation do so at the expense of willpower.  They always perform worse on the test that follows over a control group.

In short: Resisting temptation is hard.  And it consumes willpower.

We can ignore temptations when they're not immediately available but once they're right in front of us it takes a lot more willpower to keep perspective and retain the vision of our distant goals.

So, what can we do about this?  

We can proactively and consciously change our environment such that we aren't constantly tempted.

Here are some examples of how we can do this:-​

  • If you're on a diet, make sure you don't have tempting treats in the house and don't go to the grocery store when you're hungry
  • If you're trying to replace a coffee habit with sparkling water, take a route from the office that doesn't go past Starbucks
  • If you want to stop watching television, throw your TV out (my business partner did this and didn't regret it)
  • If you want to drink less alcohol, don't go to a place that sells alcoholic drinks
  • Hang out with people that are already doing what you want to do
  • Spending too much on social media sites?  Block them using browser apps
  • Spending too much time on your phone while in the office?  Leave your phone in the car while at work

Avoiding temptation is easier than self control.  Protect your limited willpower reservoirs by removing as many temptations as possible from your environment.

In short: "out of sight, out of mind" is a great way of thinking about temptations and willpower preservation.  Take some time to design your environment so that you're not constantly having to turn down tempting offers.  

In short: design a temptation free life.

5. Be Specific with Implementation Intentions

How do you increase your chances of doing something like exercise?

One answer is that instead of making generic plans ("I will exercise three times per week"), you create specific plans ("On Monday at 10am I will go to the gym").

These are called implementation intentions and are in the format of:-

On [day] at [time] I will [activity] in [location]​

Some further examples are:-

  • ​On Friday at 7am I will jog for 20 minutes in the park
  • On Saturday at 8am I will do 10 minutes of meditation in my living room
  • On Wednesday when I get home from work I will record a video in my recording studio

In a recent study by the British Journal of Healthy Psychology it was shown that just by​ writing implementation intentions increased the chances of someone doing at least one bout of exercise per week increased from 38% to 91%.

Not only do implementation intentions help you to follow through on the goals that you set for yourself, but they have also been shown to reduce the willpower that's required for you to do so.

It sounds like a bit of a fad, but there have been over 100 studies to back up the effectiveness of this technique.  At this point, it's pretty conclusive: Implementation Intentions are highly effective.​

In Willpower, the authors talk about another variation of implementation intentions.  It's called the: "if x happens then I will do y" approach.  

The if/then variation is useful to help negotiate tricky situations/temptations when they crop up in our lives.  They can help us make the right decisions in times where we are vulnerable to temptation.

For example, if you're on a diet, it's quite common to be in situations where you have to turn down food that you enjoy, like tasty cakes or pizza, in order to stick to your plan. You can use implementation intentions like a battle plan to help you negotiate these tricky moments.

Examples:- ​

  • If they serve chips, I will refuse them all
  • If there is a buffet, then I will only eat vegetables and meat
  • If my friends decide to party tonight, I will go home

Research suggests that this approach is also highly effective. 

One particular study was done with the stroop test.  

The stroop test is when the names of colours appear on your screen (for example, red), but the actual colour is different.  So, for example:- red

Two groups of participants were asked to do the test and then follow it up with a test designed to measure their willpower.  

One group did the test as normal, but the other group were given specific if... then instructions.  For example:- "If I see a word, I will ignore its meaning and look only at hte second letter and the color of the ink"

And the results?  

Well, you guessed it...The group that used implementation intentions demonstrated greater willpower in the follow up exercise.  

In other words, the "if...then" approach reduced willpower fatigue.

"Goals or resolutions stand a better chance of being realized when they are furnished with implementation intentions that link anticipated suitable opportunities to intended goal directed behaviors"

[pdf] - Implementation Intentions - Strong Effects of Simple Plans

There are two key takeaways from this:  When trying to create a change in our lives, such as going to the gym, that is going go to be a challenge for you:-

  1. Write down what day, what time and where this is going to take place
  2. Write down a battleplan of if/then scenarios and corresponding actions to do should these events occur

Not only will you increase your chances of following through, but you'll reduce the amount of willpower required to do so.

6. Pick Your Battles

You want to make big changes to your life.  Get in shape, read more, build a business, instill a writing habit...

You have a hit of motivation and excitement as you dream of all the amazing life-changing benefits that these changes will bring you and you make this grand plan of how you're going to start building all these habits starting TOMORROW.

I've been there before - it's so tempting to do this.  But it's really not going the best approach for the long term.  Why?  Because while you may succeed for a while by drawing on reserves to power through like a hero, it will just leave you more depleted and more prone to serious mistakes later.

Huge and quick transformations will fail if they seem impossible.​  In short: you'll completely drain your willpower, you'll quit and you'll be back to square 1.

A better approach:-

  1. Make changes during calmness when you're not in a chaotic willpower depleting phrase of your life
  2. Nail one thing at a time.  Once you've worked on that one thing, you can start habit stacking.

In much the same way that you can't get up and run a marathon right now, you can't become a habit warrior overnight.

Relax.  Take a more strategic approach.  

Budget your willpower like you budget your money.  Choose to invest in a few important things at a time, rather than trying to do everything at once.​

In the world of habits, the tortoise always beats the hare.

7. Never Say Never

It's Sunday, you're at the local cafe and you've been on a diet for the last three weeks. Everything is going really well...

But then the waiter wheels over the dessert cart, packed with glorious cakes and other sweet delights.  

Usually you'd avoid the temptation altogether (see point 4), but it's too late for that now.  Those cakes are staring right at you.

So, what's the best willpower preserving way of handling this?

Research says that rather than flatout denying the cakes, you should tell yourself "not now, but later".​

A study was done in this very scenario. People that had told themselves "not now, but later" were less troubled with visions of chocolate cake than the other two groups - both the ones who had imagined eating and the ones who had flatly denied themselves the pleasure.​​

It takes willpower to turn down dessert, but apparently it's less stressful on the mind to say later rather than never.  In the long run, you end up wanting less and also consuming less.​

In short: in tempting situations that you cannot avoid, simply tell yourself you'll have the reward, but at a later time.​

8. Take Care of Basics

I know...this stuff is boring, right?

But if you don't have all the stuff I'm about to mention in check, then fixing this is definitely your highest point of leverage and you should treat it as a priority:

  • Eat well - There is a strong and well researched link between glucose and willpower.  Your brain requires glucose to operate healthily and if you're not supplying the necessary nutrients, then your willpower will suffer (studies have shown this time and time again).  

    Simply, you can preserve willpower with regular and healthy meals.  If you have an important meeting, or a vital project, don't take it on without glucose.
  • Rest well - if you've had a hard willpower depleting day then one of the best ways to replenish that willpower reservoir is to have a good night's sleep.  If you don't have a good routine for sleeping then your self-control inevitably pays the price.
  • Be Neat - messy environments are subtly cue your brain and your behavior, making it ultimately more of a strain to maintain self-discipline.  The opposite is true.  A clean desk or a made bed subtly reinforces discipline.

    I've personally experienced the effects of this before.  With a messy desk, my chances of getting into a state of deep work are greatly reduced.  

    In short: keep things clear and organised where possible.
  • Exercise regularly - there are a number of willpower related studies to show that exercise actually helps self-control to spill over into other areas of your life.

9. Avoid Procrastination

Procrastination is a big willpower killer by draining a lot of our mental resources.

I've discussed in previous posts how procrastination is essentially a manifestation of your brain being in conflict with itself. ​ 

In the same way that the Zeigarnik effect eats up mindshare, procrastination does too. Having a constant battle to get a task done exacerbates willpower depletion.

Of course, procrastination is a complex topic that​ I will be covering shortly on this site.

In Summary

The way I look at willpower preservation can be summed up with the following:-

Design your life such that you use as little mental processing power as possible to do the things that you should be doing and as little mental processing power to not do the things that you shouldn't be doing.

While we love the idea of just battling through like some kind of hero, it just isn't a smart approach.  

We're not infallible or indestructible...if we push too hard, we'll burn out hard. That's an undeniable fact of being human that nobody is exempt from.

Useful Resources on Willpower

​Read More

How To Know if A Behavior is Habitual? Measuring Habits

All this talk about habits, but what actually is a habit?

In simple terms, we can define a habit as an automatic behavior​...

Delving deeper, a habit has these main characteristics:-

  1. Bottom up - ​meaning that habits are automatic with no conscious thought or attention required
  2. Impulsive - does not require intention
  3. Directly cueued - triggered by some kind of external stimulus
  4. Effortless initiation - once cueued, they are pretty much automatic

Brushing your teeth or having a shower each morning probably satisfies all the above criteria, because they're habitual.

​How Can We Tell if an Existing Behavior has become Habitual?

This has been the focus of many scientific studies about behavior and habit formation...

The best model they've come up with so far is something called the The Self Report Habit Index (SRHI).  This is simply a series of 12 questions that you can answer yourself about a behavior that you currently do.

​This particular method was used in the "famous" study about how long it takes to form a habit to figure out whether participant behaviors had become habitual or not.

The Self Report Habit Index (SRHI)

Below is the complete SRHI questionnaire that you can use to figure out if a behavior you have is habitual.  

Answer the questions as honestly as possible 😉

Behavior X is something...

  1. I do frequently
  2. I do automatically
  3. I do without having to consciously remember
  4. that makes me feel weird if I do not do it
  5. I do without thinking
  6. that would require effort not to do it
  7. that belongs to my (daily, weekly, monthly) routine
  8. I start doing before I realize I'm doing it
  9. I would find hard not to do
  10. I have no need to think about doing
  11. that's typically me
  12. I have been doing for a long time

Instructions:-

  • For each question, answer from 1 to 7
  • Answer 1 if you strongly disagree with the statement and answer 7 if you completely agree.

The higher your total score, the more habitual your behavior has become.

Why Is this Useful for Us?

For scientists that are trying to research, study and measure how habits are formed, then this method of obtaining results is one of the best models they have. 

For us, well...I think our attention can be better served elsewhere.

Sure, you could use the questionnaire as an "interesting" experiment to see how effective your recent 4 weeks of habit formation experiment has been...

But don't read too much into the results.  

Instead of focusing on measuring your habit, focus on setting up your habit system, paying close attention to your willpower, and getting those reps in.  

Just keep on keeping on and your habit will form sooner or later.

​Read More

How Long Does it Really Take to Form a New Habit?

I get a bit frustrated when the so common, but false, idea that it takes 21 days to form a habit is regurgitated.

There are two main reasons for my hostility towards spreading this false notion:-

  1. It sets false expectations - ​"I'll just commit to this new positive ritual for three weeks and then it'll become automatic and I won't have to try so hard"...  

    The harsh reality is that it'll take at least 3 times this long for a simple habit and a helluva lot longer for a larger, more difficult habit. 

    Any journey where expectations vastly underestimates reality commonly leads to a rude awakening, followed by abrupt failure.

  2. Aren't we focusing on the wrong thing, here?  - We're building lifelong habits, not those with a start and end date.

    We're investing time, energy and willpower to build positive habits that will have a lasting effect on our lives.  We need to be focused on the bigger picture. Habits are built relentlessly, indefinitely, continually and without a finish line.

    I find this type of question to be indicative of someone who is not thinking about habits in a healthy way...  

    ...Kinda like the budding entrepreneur that asks "how long does it take to make $x,xxx per month"...Dude, you're asking the wrong questions.

With all that said, I'd like to now play devil's advocate to my own rant...

I'm allowed to do that, because this is my blog! 

So the counterargument:- It's good to see scientific evidence that supports the idea that in the world of habits, you gotta take things slow and steady...

So, let me provide you with said evidence ;)​

So How Long Does it Take to Form a New Habit?

A study called "How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world" set out to answer this question. 

Details of the Habit Study

  • 96 volunteers chose an eating, drinking or activity behaviour to carry out daily in the same context (for example ‘after breakfast’) for 12 weeks.
  • Each participant filled out a questionnaire that contained a number of questions designed to determine whether the behavior had become habitual on a daily basis.

And what were the results?

Firstly, the number of days required for the habit to form ranged from 18 to 254 days.  On average it took 66 days.

Two important conclusions can be drawn from this:-

  1. Habit formation can take a really long time
  2. The time it takes can vary wildly and is likely subjective and dependent on the size and difficulty of the habit in question

There are some other valuable insights from the study:-

  1. ​Missing a day didn't seem to materially affect the habit formation process (so skipping a day isn't catastrophic)
  2. The more consistent the participants were, the better they fitted the habit model (that behaviors become easier to perform and more automatic over time)

So What Does This Mean for You?

We don't really have an accurate way of estimating how long any new habit will take to form.  It's likely dependent on a lot of variables, including the neuro plasticity of your brain, the size and complexity of the habit in question and so on...

It can take as little as a few weeks, but unlikely.  On average you're looking at 66 days.  In some cases it can take the best part of a year.

What we do know, is this:- If you you want to ingrain a habit into your life, then it's really a question of deciding, setting up your habit system and then following through.  

The longer you repeat the activity, the more chance you have of it becoming habitual.  If you just keep on keeping on, then it will eventually become habitual.

If you miss a day, don't worry, just be sure to jump back onto the schedule the next day.​ It won't make any noticeable difference.  Clearly, this doesn't mean you can miss one day in every three, but one-offs are fine.

In short:- 

  1. Decide what habit to ingrain
  2. Commit to the schedule
  3. Who cares how long it takes - just keep going.
  4. If you miss a day, don't worry, but be sure as heck to nail the next day.
  5. Focus on the action of doing.  The result will take care of itself.

Good luck nailing those habits!

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How to Be Prolific: A Look into the Mindsets of Prolific Creators

The one thing that really impresses me about someone is if they are continually shipping stuff.  

A writer that is continually pushing out novels, an artist that relentlessly produces music, a blogger that's been publishing videos for years... and so on. 

In a word, these people are prolific, and they generally have one thing in common.  

Prolific people make results happen.​

I'd hire someone prolific over someone who is smart and currently has a great skill set any day.  

Why?  

The ability to grind on your craft day in, day out for extended periods of time, is itself a skill

Rather it's a meta skill; If you know how to grind and be prolific, then you develop other skills faster, more deliberately and more effectively.  

Simply put: If you can focus on something relentlessly and consciously for long periods of time (read: years) then you can get really good at anything.  You'll also end up surpassing most of those who were previously more skilled than you.

That's Why I'm Working on Being More Prolific

​I'm not bad at what I do.  I work hard.  But I'm not prolific...

And that's something that I'm working on right now.  Literally, right now, as I write this sentence.​

In "Peak", Anders Ericsson mentions that an important component for deliberate practice (the currently best known method of getting good at stuff) is to either get lessons from a world-class teacher, or in absence of that, closely analyse what top performers are doing to be so good.

So, as I don't have access to a world-class teacher in the art of being prolific, you can find below a continually updated log of golden nuggets extracted from the minds of prolific creators.

The Prolific List

1. Anthony Trollope (author)

He published 47 novels on top of an array of other publications in 38 years.  His ability to publish works so prolifically left him the envy of many authors who didn't understand how he could achieve such a rate.  

He said that he was never late for a deadline and while one book was being published, he'd usually have two or three finished ready to go.

He's one of the most prolific writers of his generation.

So how did he do it?  I picked up this from the great book, Willpower:

  • He woke up early (at 0530), had a coffee, and spent the next half hour reading the previous day's work to get himself in the right voice.
  • He then wrote for 2 and a half hours, monitoring the time with a watch placed on the table.  By breakfast he could produce 2,500 words.
  • He kept a running log of his word count, planning for 10,000 words per week.

    Here's a quote:- "In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour so that the deficiency might be supplied."

Anthony Trollop's Habit System 

We can see clearly that the reason for he was so prolific was because of his habits.

  1. ​He had a core habit of waking up early
  2. The trigger for his reading and writing habit was caffeine
  3. The reward for his habit was the satisfaction of keeping a log of all the hours that he produced (possibly he followed his habit up with other things but they aren't specified in the book)
  4. He clearly focused on the action of writing than the result.  In other words, he didn't focus on producing 47 novels, but simply writing 10,000 words per week.  By focusing on that action alone, he knew the result would take care of itself.
  5. He kept a visual log of his habits.  

    "If at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face".  

    I've mentioned the idea of using visual reminders as a positive feedback mechanism before, but Anthony seemed to have a different approach.  He used the visual reminder of his failures to meet his word count to kick him into action again.  
  6. Clearly he liked to work with minimal distraction, engaging consistently in deep work.
2. Adam Grant (Professor at Wharton)

I learned about Adam Grant from a great book called "Deep Work" by Cal Newport.

Adam has been able to progress through the ranks in his profession and is now the youngest full professor at Wharton.  

And the reason for this incredibly fast progression is that he produces at a rate far superior to most of his colleagues.  

For example, in 2012, he published seven articles in major journals which, according to Cal Newport, is an absurdly high rate for his field.  He's since gone on to publish 60 peer-reviewed research papers and, at 34, became a New York Times bestselling author from his book, Give and Take.

It turns out that this is not accidental.  Apparently Adam has spent a lot of time thinking about productivity and how he can get the most out of his time.

Adam Grant's Habit System 

  1. He batches hard and important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches. During periods where he is writing, he closes his door to students and isolates himself to focus completely and without distraction on a single research task.   His environment is in alignment with his goal.
  2. During periods of intense writing, he'll put an out-of-office autoresponder on his email so correspondents will know not to expect a response. Again, streamlining his environment.
  3. Here is a quote from Adam:- "I can sit down for 15-30 minutes and plant the seeds of an idea. I actually write every single day for at least 15 minutes based on that."

    Clearly, the act of writing down the seeds of an idea is, at this point, habitual for him.  
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Why Trying Harder is a Terrible Strategy – The Strength Model for Ego Depletion

 

This time you're not going to quit...

It's new year's eve and you've decided that this is the year.  This is the year that you're going to finally get your body back into shape...3 times a week at the gym, without fail.

And your strategy for doing this?  

"I'm just going to try really hard and make sure I follow through".​

Really?  That's your strategy?

You've tried this before, haven't you?  And what happened last time?  

​Herein lies the problem.  Trying harder is usually a recipe for failure when trying to instill a positive new habit in your life.  It's just really not very effective.

What's the Problem with Trying Harder?

Of course, training yourself to do difficult things through willpower is a virtue and is not a fruitless endeavor by any stretch of the imagination.

Studies show that the more you manage to get yourself to do difficult things, the bigger your capacity to do difficult things becomes.

​The problem with just resolving to trying harder for habit formation is twofold:-

  1. It's extremely limited in its capacity (and once depleted you're screwed)
  2. It's often not your highest point of leverage for getting habits to stick

I've written extensively about point 2) in my habit system guide.  In this post I want to talk about the first issue - why is trying harder limited in capacity?

A lot of the information in this post has come from a fantastic book called "Willpower - Rediscovering our Greatest Strength" - I highly recommend that you pick up a copy.

Radishes and Geometry

Fasting students were sent into a classroom containing cookies, chocolate and ...radishes.

The lucky students were told that they could munch on the cookies and the chocolate whereas the less fortunate were only allowed to eat from the bowl of radishes.​

Of course, to maximize the temptation, the evil researchers then left the students alone in the room.  ​

Those who were only allowed to eat the radishes looked at the cookies and chocolates, flirted with them, one even picked one up and dropped it on the floor.  They resisted, but clearly they had to exercise a good degree of self control.

Radish, anyone?

After a period of time, all the students were asked to work on a geometry puzzle designed to measure their ability to persevere. Unbeknownst to them, the puzzle couldn't be solved.  

And the results?  

Those in the chocolate/cookies group worked on the puzzle for 20 minutes whereas those who were only allowed to eat radishes and thus had to exercise self control only lasted 8. 

Scientists concluded that the radish eaters successfully resisted the temptation of the cookies and the chocolates, but the effort left them with less energy to tackle the puzzles.

This is the flagship study for what's now commonly known as ego depletion.

A litany of research followed, all with similar findings.  Here are a few of the most interesting:

  • The Sad Italian film experiment found that people had reduced endurance  while gripping a hand exerciser if, prior to the physical test, they are asked to either over exaggerate their emotional reactions or suppress them when watching a film.  In short: The effort to control their emotional reactions depleted their willpower and performance worsened.
  • Subjects that were ask to watch some upsetting clips from documentaries showing animal suffering and dying while trying to control their emotions and then perform the "Stroop" test took longer to respond and made more mistakes than a control group.  In short: the effort to control their emotions meant the brain subsequently performed slower.

The vast number of studies have helped us form a strong picture about what willpower actually is.

Summary of What Research Tells us about Ego Depletion

  • You have a finite amount of willpower that depletes as you use it
  • You use the same reservoir of willpower for all manner of tasks.  It doesn't matter if you are resisting chocolate, sticking to a diet, working on self control for work, exercising - the same source of energy is affected.
  • Use of willpower can be divided into four categories:-
    • Control of emotions
    • Control of thoughts
    • Impulse control (or, rather: how you react to impulses)
    • Performance control (focusing energy on the task at hand)
  • A meta analysis of 83 studies about ego depletion discovered that the five biggest things that cause ego depletion are:-
    • Effort - how much effort is required to do something
    • Perceived difficulty - how hard something is to do.
    • Negative affect - if you are in a bad mood.
    • Subjective fatigue - if you are tired
    • Blood glucose levels - low levels of blood glucose.

So Why Is Trying Harder a Bad Strategy for Habit Formation?

There's no denying that willpower is one of your tools to stick to habits, but it's an extremely valuable resource that should ​be used sparingly.

Why?

Using willpower puts you in a state of ego depletion...

This will leave you with diminished willpower, increase your sensitivity to fatigue, tiredness and other negative emotions and make your cravings (for unhealthy food, for example) as strong as ever.  

Simply: once you've exercised self control, you are less effective afterwards...until your willpower reserves are restored.

Of course, using willpower is not inherently bad, and we all need to use it at times.  Also, It's like a muscle and can be trained.  But, in the same way that you can't obliterate your biceps with 20 sets of curls every day, you have to keep willpower use in balance.

Out of all the ways that you can increase your chances of sticking to a habit, willpower needs to be the one that you protect and pay attention to the most.

Use it only when you have to, and don't rely on it.​

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Showing Up Consistently and Using Brute Force

As I sit here and write this post, I'm experiencing resistance. 

I​ don't really want to write at the moment....and my brain is masterful at providing me with seemingly justifiable reasons and rationalizations as to why I can just put this off until tomorrow.

"You have nothing good to say, do some more reading and you can just write tomorrow"...

​"One day won't matter, take it easy... you've had a hard week"

"You've been writing every day for the past few weeks, one day off won't matter"​

Of course, I don't always feel like this - some days come way easier than others.  

On the one hand I know that writing this piece of content is the right thing to do, but on the other hand I don't really want to.​

This battle of wits seems to occur to everyone, yet some people seem to have the ability to feel the resistance and plough ahead anyway.

Why is that?  And what are they doing differently?

Well, they tend to have a habit system.

But, even with a habit system, no matter how much you streamline your environment, put in place traps, implement minimum commitments and build up momentum... sometimes you still have to brute force it.  

Sometimes you just gotta show up, whether you like it or not. 

This is More than Just a Piece of Writing

My brain is right, if I don't sit down and write this piece of content, the world will carry on, the sun will come up tomorrow morning and it won't really matter.

But, to me, this matters... a lot.  

It's not about words on a page...it's about my ability to do things that I don't feel like doing in the moment because I know that it will serve me well in the long run.  

Writing this blog post is a means of deliberately practicing that skill.  It's an opportunity for me to exercise my ability to manipulate my animal brain.  

The famous metaphor of the rider and the elephant is particularly prevalent here:-

So, here, this is me showing up to write for another day...Brute forcing it.

My habit system has another victory to add to its ever increasing pile of victories.

Each victory is like a heavy set at the gym; We don't always want to do it, and we don't always enjoy it, but we ultimately get stronger and can handle more weight the next time it matters.  (Caveat: If you're brute forcing too much, you'll eventually fail).

​The other, probably more important point is this: Doing hard things makes us happy.

What have you done that you didn't want to do today?

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How to Build Habits for Good – The Warrior Habits System

By taking the time to grasp a basic understanding of how our brains operate we can learn to use it more effectively and become a more prolific results-getter.

Without this understanding is like owning a Ferrari without taking the time to understand and learn how to drive it properly.  You can't get it to perform to its potential and you're simply not making the most out of the incredible machine.

​In this post I want to talk about the single most important discovery that I made about the design of our brain that's really helped me tame and manipulate the wild animal inside of me and allow me to do difficult things on a consistent basis.

A Story of No Discipline

I haven't always been very disciplined in my life

In fact, I would say that for a large majority of my life I have been completely the opposite...Especially when it comes to deep work.   

Deep work, where you get lost in a state of flow because you're so focused and deeply engaged in what you're working on, used to be so elusive to me.  ​ I would go weeks and weeks without managing to get myself in that state.  

Intellectually I knew that I needed to get into that state on a regular basis, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it.  No amount of thinking or reasoning with myself helped this situation.  I spent many hours trying to find a mental "frame" through which to pitch to myself the benefits of deep work... but it didn't work

I lacked the skills and self-knowledge needed to design a system that would consistently get me into that state.

I've since made quite large inroads and have managed to build some difficult habits into my life.  Of course, the way I did this came from a completely different place than I expected.  And that's what I want to share with you today.

First let's look at the problem, then I'll give my best solution (which, by the way, is continually being developed)​.

The Problem: The Impatient Elephant and the Wise Rider

​Your brain is in a never ending conflict with itself...

In the red corner, you have the extremely powerful, large and automatic subconscious part of the brain that is very animalistic by nature.  This thing​ wants sex, food, sleep, to avoid pain and have as much pleasure as possible.  Immediately.

This thing can't tie an action now to a reward next week.  It's only appeased by actions that produce immediate results.  

You eat, you're immediately rewarded.  You sleep, you're immediately rewarded.  You have sex, you're immediately rewarded.

And then in the blue corner, you have the "smart" and "wise" part of your brain.  This part is called the prefrontal cortex.  This part has way more understanding of the complexities of modern day life and is able to understand that consequences often take a long time to materialise.  

This part of the brain understands that if you work out three times per week for the next 6 months, then you'll eventually be fit.  It understands that if you deliberately practice your writing every day for a few years, you'll be a recognised author.  

To further paint this picture, I'm going to use an analogy that was first introduced to me by a book called the "Happiness Hypothesis" by Jonathan Haidt...

Imagine a small rider on top of an incredibly large and powerful 1,000 lbs elephant...  

The rider is doing its best to control the mammoth, but it's a constant battle.  The mammoth is fiercely independent and difficult to override and when it decides to go a certain way, no matter how hard the rider pulls on the reigns, that's where they end up going.

Of course, in this analogy, the rider is your prefrontal cortex and the mammoth is your animal brain.

So why is this important?​

Well, here's the thing:-  To live a successful life and be a prolific creator, you need to learn how to give control back to your rider.

Simply put: You need to learn the skills of manipulating the elephant to go where the rider knows is best in the long term.​

It's very easy to recognise this, but it's incredibly hard to do in practice.

Designing a Habit System

Any big result that you want to attain is going to come through an action that you repeatedly do on a regular basis.  

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
Aristotle​

The problem with habits is that there's no immediate reward...

It's not uncommon to do something every day for months or years before the result ever comes to fruition.  ​

In other words: Your animal brain hates habits.  Yet habits are probably one of the most cruical elements of success.​  If you can continually work on a skill for years, you'll be in the top few percent of people in the world.  You'll be successful.

Here's the thing:  You don't need a habit.  You need a habit system.  

Deciding on the habit that you want to implement is the first step.  The next step is to run through the checklist below and design a habit system to support it as strongly as possible and ensure that you stick to it consistently.​

The Warrior Habits Elephant Trainer

This is the system that I'm currently using to make sure that I stick to my important habits.  

These habits include:-

  1. Recording a video on a daily basis
  2. Writing on a daily basis
  3. Reading on a daily basis​
  4. Hitting the gym three times per week
  5. Still having enough time to my day to day busy work

This system has enabled me to stick consistently to positive and productive habits while still having plenty of time to do things that I really enjoy doing.  

Of course, I can't take credit for any of the ideas here. I've just pulled together a bunch of things that I've learned from reading as much as I can about habit formation into one system that we can use.

Here are the steps:-

  1. Decide a suitable reminder and reward
  2. Create a minimum commitment
  3. Purposely design your environment to assist you
  4. Predict "resistance points" and design traps to snare yourself
  5. Track your achievements visually and build up momentum
  6. Plan for enjoyment and downtime
  7. Plan for failure
  8. Take care of your Core Habits

1. Decide a Suitable Reminder and Reward

A not very effective approach to instilling a new habit is something like this:-

"I'll commit to doing 90 minutes worth of writing each day at no specific time, just when I feel like I have the time to do so".​

Why isn't this effective?

It relies far too much on willpower.  

You set out with the best intentions of sticking to this schedule but as time progresses you'll find it harder and harder to "find the right moment" and follow through.

Scientists have found that a better approach is to sandwich your habits up with a trigger and a reward.  

Each morning you have your morning coffee and you immediately sit down and do your daily reading.  Once you're done, you follow this up with a healthy lunch out.

The trigger for your habit is drinking a nice coffee and your reward is to eat lunch.  

Over time these cues generate an automatic habit response.  You'll drink your coffee, and it will feel normal and natural for you to sit down and do your daily reading.  You'll have minimal resistance (if any) and minimal willpower will be required.  This is the ideal.

This trigger and reward system is a very effective method of creating habits for two reasons:-

  1. The trigger removes the deliberation of "should I do this now, or later?" and signals to the brain to expect the reward after the routine.
  2. The reward creates a positive feedback loop for the brain so that it knows that this loop is worth doing again.

It's not enough to just have a reward, though.  The reward must be such that you crave for it when the trigger occurs. Scientists believe that this is the key part of changing the neural pathways in your brain to support your new habits.

The trigger kicks of a craving which is satisfied with the reward.  The neural pathway is strengthened every time this happens making it easier to do the loop again next time. This is how habits are formed.

How to Choose a Suitable Trigger for Your Habits

The approach I use to list down all of the actions that I always do on a daily basis, for example:-

  • Have a shower
  • Drink a coffee
  • Eat lunch
  • Check emails
  • Write my daily ritual
  • ​Travel to my co-working office
  • Eat breakfast
  • Eat dinner

From that list, I'll choose the trigger that makes the most sense.

At the time of writing this post, here's my current habit schedule:-

Trigger

Habit

Reward

Morning breakfast and coffee

Daily ritual and reading

Motorbike to my coworking space (I love riding my motorbike)

Arrive at coworking space

Daily writing

Food! Order lunch

Finish lunch

Day to day work

Motorbike home

Arrive at home

Record Video

Viewing my YouTube account live on my account while eating snack

Video published (on Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays)

Head to Gym

Healthy dinner after workout in restaurant

This is a pretty packed day, but I'm usually done by early evening giving me the rest of the time for sport, recreational activities that I enjoy doing and chatting with friends.

2. Create a Minimum Commitment for Each Habit

I was inspired to include minimum commitments in my habits system by a book called "Mini Habits" by Stephen Guise...

The author let himself get into pretty bad shape and wanted to go to the gym to lose some weight and get stronger.  But he just really didn't want to do it.  

No matter what, he just couldn't get himself to go the gym, even though he knew that he really should.

​His answer was to just start doing something stupidly small and build up from there.  In his case it was doing just one press up per day.  Long story short - this led him to building up a consistent workout habit three days per week.

Here's the thing...

When trying to incorporate a habit into your life, you will experience resistance. There will be times where you really, really just don't want to see your habit practice through.

You'll try and think about all the reasons why you should do it, trying to rationally convince yourself why it's important to follow through... but it won't work.

Rather than trying to rationalise and intellectualise all the reasons as to why you should do the work...just get started.​

"You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking." - Bill Wilson

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Convince yourself to do the smallest possible thing towards your daily habit.  What tends to happen is that your brain slowly switches into "ok, we're doing this" mode.

  • If your daily habit is to read an hour each day, then commit to reading a single page.​
  • If your daily habit is to write, then commit to writing a single sentence
  • If you daily habit is to record a video, then commit to getting in front of the camera for 30 seconds.  Even if you have nothing to say.
  • If your daily habit is to go to the gym, then commit driving there without committing to doing the actual workout.

The chances are that once you get going and you start getting into it, you'll do much more than your daily commitment.  In this way, it's a bit of a trick for your brain.

However, even if you only manage to do your daily commitment, it's still a success for you.  You've still got something done and you've reinforced that habit further.

So, come up with a minimum commitments for your new habit.  This is your "success criteria" if you like.

This minimum commitment should be extremely small, something that only takes a few minutes, but that you can still consider a victory if you achieve it.

Here are my current minimum commitments:-

Habit

Minimum Commitment

Daily ritual and reading

Read 2 pages

Daily writing

Write 50 words

Day to day work

Do at least one task or reply to one email

Record Video

Get in front of the camera for 30 seconds, even if content is nonsense

Head to Gym

Drive to the gym and do one single set

Having minimum commitments offer greater flexibility and a fallback if you're having a really bad day.

You can complete all your minimum commitments within half an hour... it means that:-

  1. If your day to day work starts to get pretty intensive and takes up a lot of your time, you can still manage your daily habits
  2. You can plan for trips / adventures without jeopardizing your habit building​
  3. If you have a bad day, you can convince yourself to just do the minimum commitment leaving you with a positive feeling of success.

Habits need to be done regularly and consistently in order for them to stick.  The minimum commitment leaves you with little excuse for not following through and greater flexibility.

3) Purposely Design your Environment to Assist You

​This is a really big part of the habits system and can make a huge difference in your ability to stick to do hard things consistently.

​The key point is that you need to design your environment to make it as easy possible to stick to your habit and as hard as possible to fall off the rails.  I call this: setting yourself up for success.

Imagine you're trying to work on a habit to drink more water on a daily basis.  What can we do to make this as easy as possible to follow through?  Let's run through the options at our disposal:

Level of Environment Assistance

Description

Analysis

None

N/A

With no environmental assistance then you have to get up and go to the kitchen each time your habbit trigger occurs. This means disrupting your focus and could negatively effect the amount of deep work you do on a regular basis. Clearly this is not ideal.

Medium

Have a bottle of water right next to you on your desk

This is better than going to the kitchen.  You can drink regularly without disturbing your workflow and focus.  Doesn't require the unnecessary additional effort of walking to the kitchen.

Pro

Have a cooled water dispenser right next to you

This solution doesn't require the additional burden of remembering to purchase and bring the water bottle each time you sit down to work.  

It's always there in plentiful amounts.

You don't even have to think about it any more.  It's a set and forget system.

Just by taking the time to think about your environment and tweak it to support your habit, you make it far easier to follow through.

Here's another example of tweaking the environment that I personally use for recording videos:

I know that I am highly likely to experience resistance right before I record a video. Therefore it's crucially important that I design my environment to make it effortless to get shooting...

So how do I do this?

I have a makeshift fully prepared video recording studio in my room.  The camera always has a full battery (charged from the night before) and is sitting on its stand in exactly the position I need.  

My lighting is also set up in exactly the right position.  Same for the black background canvas that is hanging on my wall.

My microphone is sitting right next to the camera, also with fully charged batteries.  

I can simply step up, press the record button and start talking nonsense!

Why is all this important?  It means that when it comes time to record, I can simply stand in front of the camera, turn on the light, attach the microphone and start recording.  It takes me less than 20 seconds to do this - it's effortless.

​Contrast this with going through the rigmarole of setting up both the camera tripod and the lighting tripod and plugging everything into the wall, finding the camera and the microphone and checking the battery levels of each respectively, hanging up the background canvas and doing a test recording to make sure everything is in the correct position...

Forget it...

The willpower depletion that comes from doing all of that nonsense before even hitting the record button would guarantee my failure at sticking to the habit.

Let's consider some other examples of designing your environment to support your goals:-

  • ​If you're trying to lose weight, don't keep sweets, chocolates and other foods that you're trying to avoid in the house.  If you start craving for things that you shouldn't be eating, you'll have to go all the way to the shops to buy them which could be enough of a deterrent to put you off.
  • If you want to go to the gym tomorrow, get your gym clothes ready the night before and put them next to your bed.  In the morning, when you wake up, they're right there.
  • If you want to be more focused at work, leave your distracting phone at home or in the car, turn off all communication apps on your computer and use ear plugs to protect yourself from interruptions.
  • To save money you can automate your finances so that money is automatically transferred from your current account to your savings account at the start of each month.

There are so many ways you can set up your environment for your success.  It's just a case of taking some time to think about to design how it can support you, rather than hinder you.  

It's amazing how simply taking the time to consider how you can optimize your environment can make such a big difference.

4) Predict Resistance Points and Design Traps to Snare Yourself

Whenever I decide to do instill a new habit in my life, I can almost always predict ahead of time the parts that I will find extremely difficult to stick to.

For example: If I'm trying to instill a gym habit, I know that I'll experience the most resistance right before I have to leave for the gym.  Once I'm at the gym, I never have any problems seeing the workout through.

​Another example is that when recording a video I'll have resistance right before I'm recording. This will be exacerbated if I don't have a clearly defined script that I'm comfortable with and have rehearsed.

In the above examples these two points of resistance need to be handled so that they don't stop me from following through.

There are techniques to handle these points of resistance in the moment (see point 2 about "just getting started"), but you can also put in place what I call "traps" ahead of time.  

These traps or "snares" as I like to call them leave you in a really nasty predicament if you don't follow through and they are designed to appeal to your elephant.  The traps are both painful and immediate, something your elephant respects.

Let's use the gym example for clarity...

I can predict that I will have resistance before I head to the gym.  What traps can I lay?

  1. I can agree to work out with a friend who also wants to get into shape and we can hold ourselves accountable. 

    This works well because if you miss a session on your own, then it's no big deal. But if you know that you're letting someone down, that's an added layer of pain.

    You can ramp this up even  further by agreeing that the first person to miss a workout has to pay the other person $100.  

    There are accountability apps online that can help you set this up.

  2. If you don't have a gym partner to train with, no problem.  You can give $200 to a friend/spouse/partner and tell them to give it to charity if you miss a training session.

  3. You can sign up for some kind of physical challenge or assault course in the near future that costs money and that you can't do in your current state of fitness.   You can also invite your friends to join you.

    Better yet, commit to donating the money to charity if you complete the course. 

The idea is that you come up with creative ways of trapping yourself into doing hard things by raising the stakes and making the benefit/pain more immediate. 

In the early days of creating videos, I had an accountability agreement set up with my friend.  We committed to publishing videos once per week. If either of us failed then we had to pay the other person $100.​

​This rule definitely helped me put videos out on days when I really didn't feel like doing it.

5) Track Your Achievements Visually and Build Up Momentum

It's important that we celebrate small wins.  For each day that successful habit reinforcing day that goes by, you need to give yourself a pat on the back.  To celebrate.  

The best way of doing this is to track your victories in a very visual and public way.  

For example:-

  • A large calendar that's on the wall with a green tick for each day that you stick to your habit.
  • A glass that contains a paperclip for each day that you've succeeded. 
  • A spreadsheet that you look at regularly and is publicly viewable.

It's very motivating to see the stack of paperclips build up over time!  
On the left is my paperclip store glass and on the right is my momentum glass...

I find that an important part of doing this is to make sure that you can visually see the current momentum number.  In other words, you should be able to immediately see how many times you've successfully done your habit in a row.  

If I look over at my calendar, I can see that today I have a momentum score of 25.  I know this immediately because I have a massive green "25" showing there.

So, why is monitoring so effective?

Studies show that this kind of monitoring and tracking improves your chances of sticking to things.  

There are a few subtle psychological things going on here:-

  1. It's designed to serve as a reminder for you.  Each time your calendar/paper clips or spreadsheet enters your attention, it serves as a gentle reminder of what you're trying to achieve.  It's never far from your focus.
  2. As you build up momentum, you'll have a constant visual reminder of how well you're doing and you'll the pain of breaking that chain becomes larger.  Nobody wants to break a string of ticks with a huge red cross.  This is why I recommend highlighting your "running score".

So come up with a way that you'll publicly track your progress.  Make sure it's highly visual and that you can clearly see your chain of momentum growing over time.

6) Plan for your Enjoyment and Downtime

​The temptation when starting a new habit is to go all out.  Generally speaking, the motivation is high and you're excited at all the benefits this is going to bring you.

The temporary motivational high makes it very tempting to work 16 hour days and focus relentlessly on the thing you're trying to achieve.  

Every spare minute of the day you're focusing on your new habit...

That's great, right?  How can this possibly be a problem?

The problem comes from willpower.  It's a finite resource that we all have and needs to be used smartly.  It's a bit of a balancing act between maximizing short term progress and "stickability" (the ability to stick to something) over the long term...

Here's a great metaphor for this...​

When I was younger I used to play an athletics game on my computer.  One of the races in the game is a 10,000 meter run and to win it requires a certain degree of strategy.

On the left hand side is a colored bar that represents your athlete's remaining energy.  As the player, you can control how hard the athlete runs over the duration of the race.​

When I first took part in this race I used to burn it way too fast at the start.  The athlete would be knackered after about 2,000 meters and would either finish last or sustain an injury and fail to complete the race.

Clearly, given the length of the race, a smarter strategy is pace the athlete accordingly.

The same is true for habits...they are a matter of balance.

It's far more important to consistently do something over the long term than go nuts for the first few weeks and wear yourself out.  It's the stereotypical tortoise vs hare scenario.

I know, for a fact, that I can't sustain 12 hours of focus per day for the long term.  I also know that if I don't include flexibility and times where I can do things that I enjoy, I'll fail.

​The importance of incorporating downtime to rejuvenate has been studied extensively and is known as Attention Restoration Therapy (ART).

With all this in mind, here's the one thing I recommend:-​

Stop Working at a Certain Time Each Day and Do Stuff You Enjoy

I only work up to 1800.  After this, I'm done for the day.

My fun and relaxation schedule changes fairly regularly depending on how I feel but currently it looks like this:-

On Tuesdays and Thursdays I will often go out and practice pool with my playing partner and on Wednesdays and Fridays I will go out for dinner with company.

I also interchange this with feeding homeless dogs (something that I enjoy immensely), going to the beach to watch sunset (there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that nature is highly effective for attention restoration), exploring new places and other random excursions.

On the weekend I aim to do my minimum commitments and not much more. The rest of the time is sidelined for spending time with people and doing things that I enjoy doing.

The net result of this is that when I sit down and work, I'm recharged and in a great state for deep work, something that I constantly strive for.

7) Plan for Failure

Sometimes life gets in the way and you won't be able to meet your minimum commitment.

Hey, don't worry about it - this small failure doesn't make you a failure, it just makes you human.

The good news is that while habit formation takes quite a long time to build (average range is from 18 to 254 days with an average of 66 days), it doesn't matter if you miss a day or two along the way.

When it comes to failing, here are a few key points:-

  • ​Just do something.  Even if you can't make your minimum commitment. Something is better than nothing.  

    Can't get to the gym?  Do one push up
    Can't write your post?  Write a sentence
    Can't read your book? Just read a page

    A small failure is better than a big failure.
  • Be wary of failure stacking.  Missing one day is not a big deal, but it's problematic when these days accumulate.

    If you miss your habit on one day, pay particular care and attention that you nail it the next day.

8) Take Care of your Core Habits

If I sleep in and get up late then, for one reason or another, I very rarely have a productive day...

Psychologically I'm unhappy that I've wasted some of the day but physically I'm also lethargic.  The unfortunate net result is that I'm less likely to have a productive day and stick to my habits.

This link between getting up early and having a strong, productive day is something that I've grown to recognize and accept.  Simply put: this is one of my core habits.

My business partner has fitness as a core habit.  If he doesn't regularly exercise at a high enough intensity his mood suffers and that cascades down into other areas of his life.  

So what is a core habit?

A core habit is one that every other habit is dependent on.  It's something that has to be in place first, before you can reliably stack other habits on top.  Without this core habit in place, everything else falls by the wayside.

What are your core habits?  Are there things that you absolutely must have in place before you work on additional habits?  

If so, you need to own them.  You need to be all over those core habits like a cheap suit.​

For me, this meant doing a bunch of reading and research about how to make sure I stick to a consistent sleeping schedule and get a good night's sleep.​  I bought a sleep mask, adjusted my sleeping environment, experimented with supplements like melatonin and will shortly be going for an operation to remove a cyst that's obstructing my breathing. 

I can't tell you what your core habits are, but ​take some time to figure out what they are and get them in check.

To be continued...​

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