I used to think that goal accomplishing was about writing things on paper, making a plan, and having the discipline to work for it. This might be true in some sense. But my journey to accomplish my goals has led me to discover a deeper truth: that accomplishing a goal is not about discipline, it’s all about habit formation.
Why? Because your actions determine your outcomes in life, and about 40% of your day-to-day actions come from your habits. When actions become habits you do them effortlessly and frequently. These actions are easy for you and they become the definition of who you are. Consistent actions lead to big changes and over time dictate the major accomplishments of your life.
So I would argue that if you are looking to accomplish a goal, you should focus on forming habits that support the goal.
For example, if your goal is to lose some extra weight, your plan should be about making healthy behaviors becomes a part of who you are. This means moving and exercising should become easy and effortless to you. Fruits and vegetables should be something you reach out to unconsciously.
But how do we form such habits?
Recently, I discovered a series of wonderful books and blog posts about habit formation. Most of this revelation has come from James Clear at jamesclear.com. He’s an incredible author, who draws his insights from scientific studies, books, and historical case studies. I’ve been integrating principles he taught into my life. And the results have been incredible.
Here are some principles of habit formation that are so simple yet so eye-opening to me.
1. Start with a Tiny Action
When it comes to changing ourselves, we always come up with the most creative excuse. We always say ‘I want to change, but …’. Like ‘I want to exercise, but I am not in the mood.’ or ‘I want to study, but I am busy today.’
The start-small principle suggests that we commit to one very small change. So small you could not possibly reasonably say no.
For example, if you want to lose weight you might start with a commitment to do one squat a day. Yes, just one squat. The task takes so little time and energy that you have no excuse.
I’ve used this idea a lot for my own goals. For example, I wanted to build a successful business, which requires a lot of hard work. When I started, I only committed to doing one tiny action: that each day I would write down one business goal and spend two minutes getting started on that goal. The goal might be something like “Finish XYZ blog post” and then I’d spend two minutes writing on the blog post.
The action is so small it cannot generate any kind of results by itself, but it eliminates the excuse. If I don’t have this commitment I might spend the whole day procrastinating and forgetting about my business. The thing is this tiny action gets me started on the right direction everyday. Most days, the two-minute task leads me to feel very into my goal and I end up spending hours working on my business without internal resistance. Some days, I am really really not in the mood, so I just do my two minutes thing and take a nap. It’s fine! Overall, I spend much more time on my business than I would if I hadn’t committed to start small.
2. The Domino Effect
I read about the domino effect in a blog post and never thought it would happen to me. The idea is when you engage when one small habit, that one habit will led you to pick up other related habits as well. For example, if your goal is to save money and you commit to drop a dollar bill in a box every day then after a few days you will start noticing yourself committing other money-saving actions like saying no to Star Bucks or checking out discount coupons before picking up some groceries.
It sounds like magic but it actually happened to me. After sticking to my two-minute commitment for a while, I started to want to do more business tasks, no matter how boring they seemed to me. I used to really hate writing blog posts (or at least getting started on the writing) and now writing just became another easy habit. Other routine business tasks that used to be difficult, like accounting and social media posting, are getting done too.
From my experience, the domino effect happens for many reasons. First, the tiny two-minute commitment led me to spend more time working on my business and improving all skills required. These tasks become easy to do, so they get done more.
Another more important reason is when you are forming a new habit you are trying to adopt a new identity. For example, I want to go from being too lazy to do business tasks to being a productive business person. I want to change the definition of myself. When I picked up one tiny habit, like doing business task for two minutes everyday, I am proving to myself that I am now a productive business woman. When my brain buys into that new identity, it starts to adjust other behaviors to fit that identity. A productive business woman would not be afraid of writing and would do her accounting, right? So when my brain believes in the new identity, it has no problem gravitating to the right actions.
3. The Compound Effect
Many of you might be familiar with the concept of financial compound interest. If you start investing your money early on in life, earning small interest rate but reinvesting all of your interest too, your interest on that interest will in turn produce more return. Over a long period of time, your saving will grow so large you couldn’t believe.
I think the compound effect is so powerful in so many areas of our lives. For example, I taught myself to program and everyday I improved my programming skills bit by bit. Over the course of 10 years, my skill has become so good compared to my students who just began to learn programming. My coding speed and my ability to solve programming problems seem just god-like to them, but to me it’s just something I do and no big deal.
James Clear points out how the math of how compounding interest is an incredibly powerful force for personal development. If you improve yourself one percent every single day, in one year you will grow 37.78 times. Not percent, times!
For example, if you want to write a novel and you start on January 1 writing 100 words a day. Then each day you write 1% more words, so writing 101 words on Jan 2 and so forth. On December 31 you will be writing 3740 words per day. For the whole year, you will have written 367,834 words (that’s 1,471 pages)!
So start small and up your game just a tad at a time. The day-to-day improvement is so tiny you don’t even notice the difference, but the compounded result will always shock you.
For me, I’ve used this principle to improve on several fronts. For example, after sticking to two small habits for roughly two weeks, I add one or two new habits. I also extend the difficulty of my commitments, so the two-minute action gradually ramped up to 15 minutes action. This way I improve slowly but surely.
4. Focus on Consistency not Perfection
Before I started my daily commitment, I was afraid. I have started “I will do this thing daily” commitments many times in my life and most of them failed. In fact, most attempts never lasted more than 7 days.
The problem is I had a notion that if I miss a day I fail. My commitment always stopped the very first day I slipped. If I already failed, why would I carry on?
In the grand scheme of things missing one day doesn’t make any difference. If you manage to eat healthy breakfast 364 days out of 365 days, you will still accomplish your goal of being in shape. It’s the perfectionistic idea that you must not slip at all that was truly self-defeating and led you to miss the goal more than one day.
If you cannot be the person who performs your desired action everyday, that’s okay, at least strive to be a person who keeps saying “Yesterday doesn’t matter, let’s start again today”.
Last month, I lost enthusiasm for a moment and ignored some of my habits for 4 consecutive days. My response to that? Just picked it up where I left off. I focus tightly on how to make today count, rather than making the whole month perfect. This allowed me to check off 24 days out of 30 days, which is a huge improvement from my previous self. By allowing myself to fail without guilt, I also learned my patterns of failure and can better prevent them in the future.