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Designing Your Life Review : One Little Book that Changes My Life Forever

I just read Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and David Evans recently, and it has become one of my favorite books of all time. The book outlines an innovative approach to the answer an ancient question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, and I think humans of all ages should be asking this question, not just young adults.

Burnett and Evans, two Stanford professors, started with a problem of how do we guide college kids to find a fulfilling career path. As I was a former lost ivy-league over-achiever and now a university professor myself, I understand what an epidemic this problem is. Many of us, though smart and hard-working, can get stuck in a professional life that doesn’t quite jive with what we truly want. I, in particular, had my fair share of relapsing between “choose the right and safe option. your mama said hard work triumphs all” and “what the hell am I doing, this is quite miserable” years after college. So this book is definitely for me.

Designing your life utilizes the idea of Design Thinking, a process that startups use to innovate products that achieve market fit and make money. They adapted that concept to apply to the problem of developing a fulfilling career path — it’s a pretty damn complex problem to design for, if you ask me. Yet the book is up to that task and really evolutionary because it outlines all the important ideas needed to unlock and unleash your solid life plan.

First, it highlights an important design practice of reframing — an approach to release dysfunctional beliefs that prevent people from designing the life they truly want. For example, one might think that I would like to be carpenter, but I really cannot because I studied engineering all my life. The book walks you through common dysfunctional beliefs that most people have and point out the danger and irrationality to get you unstuck. This chapter was particularly liberating to me. Although I believe that I could do anything I would like to do with my life (and I always knew I want to start a small business), deep down I still have the fear of wasting my potential as a trained scientist. I was trapped in my past career choice. This fear has held me back from fully pursuing my dreams for years.

Second, it invites you to a compass building process where you get to ask yourself some deep questions, like “What does work mean to you?”, “What is your purpose in life?”, and “How does everyone else in the world fit in to your goals?” This exercise leads you to express who you are, what you believe, and what you do to cross-check whether they are all aligned. I got a big a-ha moment here. It’s not the first time I asked myself these questions, but it’s probably the first time after I finished my PhD. And man, I have changed so much since the last time I pondered my life goals. I have started two businesses and work in corporate worlds, which led to new beliefs and plenty of information to make better decisions.

Then the book explains that the idea of using engagement as a guide to finding the right work for you, by paying attention to moments and activities that make you feel engaged. My take on this is that we are looking for work that’s maximizing our engagement (not maximizing joy per se, because most work will induce some hardship and pain, like how writing this article gives me a little back pain right now). And I think it’s a great way to approach it. I mean most people might say they experience more joy when laying in a beach hammock compared to working their job, and it might be true for me. But I have plenty of moments in beach hammocks where I don’t feel engaged in the experience of glancing nude sunbathers so much, instead my thoughts are furiously occupied by my business plan. Would I rather choose to do what I enjoy more or engage more? The answer is clearly the latter. Laying in a hammock dominating the world in my head does get old after a while.

My favorite part of the book is when you actually do the designing. I will only talk about two phases that were incredibly powerful to me, which is ideation and prototyping. In the ideation process, you are going to come up with a few 5-year plans of how your life will progress. I definitely recommend you release the artist inside you and make an illustrated plan, as the book suggested. I find that my goofy drawings have stress-relieving affect to the point where I want to draw my alternate reality as a hobby. The framework is incredibly forgiving, as it asks you to draw at least 3 plans: plan A (your current plan), plan B (if plan A fails), and plan C (if money and social approval do not matter). It also asks you to rate each plan according to several metrics like likability (do you like it?) and confidence (can you pull it off?), and list 3 questions about the plan. I said it was forgiving because it acknowledged that no plan is going to be perfect in all dimensions and you will have some uncertainty. Also it gives us an option to lift the limitations of money and social approval, which are huge for most people.

Lastly, in the prototype phase, we start building. The bias-for-action culture of startups lead them to believe that anything can be prototyped, including your life. You will be trying out some minimal-investment versions of your most interesting choice to gather more data, involve others in your design, and hopefully iterate to better prototype in the future. My prototypes have led me to the point where I created this website and am now writing this blog. It’s all part of the big journey. And although it is a low-resolution prototype at this time, I am learning a ton and feel very confident in the process.

Now that I’ve solved the biggest problem in my life, I feel confident that design thinking process can actually solve any difficult problems! This book has inspired me to go further and experiment with how design thinking can be applied to other aspects of my life. And I’ll be sure to tell you about them in later posts. If you have not done so, I totally recommend you read the book if you too have not quite yet found an optimally fulfilling career. Enjoy!

How to Really Build Self-Discipline (And Why All Blogs You Have Read Didn’t Help)

I’ve struggled with self-discipline for years and years. To give myself credit, I accomplish a lot in my life, but deep down I know that I could do so much more if I had more solid self-discipline. I dip into projects. Make plans here and there, but rarely stick to it long and hard enough to see it through. My inconsistent actions led to inconsistent results.

I am well on my way to rebuilding my self-discipline though. I have been keeping up with my morning routine tasks for the last 23 days (personal record breaking for me). I’ve been productive with my work and my business venture for the most part, and I think all this is due to a mini mental breakthrough I had recently.

After reading everything I can find on personal productivity, I heard people saying “Self-discipline is about showing up even when you don’t feel like it”. Some people say “Self-discipline is not about motivating yourself to do tasks, it’s about building a habit one bit at a time”. Some people say “To build self-discipline, start with a morning ritual”. You probably have read lots of productivity blogs, and can come up with a few bits of advice yourself.

To me, all the above statements are absolutely right, but they are just bits and pieces of what self-discipline really is. I realize that self-discipline is propelled by a large collection of beliefs and habits. And self-discipline is a complex skill set that requires multiple muscle memories, mindsets, and practices, much like playing soccer or playing a piano. All the pieces must be present and aligned in order for one to create a sustainable disciplined life.

For example, let’s say you totally believe it when someone said “if you want to build disciplines for work, you should break down tasks to small pieces and handle them one by one”. And let’s say you’re of the opinion this is a fair technique to not feel overwhelmed by your goals. However, there’s another piece to the puzzle: you have to have a habit of getting started — because if you do not get started on your tasks often enough, you won’t get things done either. The tips that tell you to “break down the task” is somewhat useless if you rarely get started with your tasks at all. Moreover, even if you have knowledge of both (1) break down the tasks, (2) get started as often as possible, you might still not notice any shift in your results. Because there are many other pieces that need to be there. For example, you need to “have enough confidence” in the plan to stick to it long-term or you need to “have a grand vision” of where the tiny action you take now is going to lead to a rewarding life.

There are probably hundreds of beliefs and habits that a self-disciplined person has, to allow them to do all difficult tasks with forceful determination and to succeed in what they do. It’s not only that the person has to have knowledge of all those chunks, he has to internalize the beliefs, practice the actions, and build habits of adopting those actions in different situations. It’s a time-consuming and difficult training process.

So next time you read “5 tips to auto-magically build self-discipline”, follow some of their advice for a while, then thought you have “tried everything” and it didn’t work, please be aware that everything you read is just a part of the whole story. There are much more details in the journey. It’s like expecting yourself to perform Symphony No. 5 on stage after reading a few tips from musicians who have played it. It doesn’t work that way. You have to patiently collect these pieces, bit by bit, accept it, and practice it, to have the whole puzzle solved.

 

How to Find Passion – Part I: The Myth about Passion

So many people have raved about this thing called PASSION. The sayings go something like “find something you are passionate about, do that for a living, and you will never have to have to work a day in your life.” It’s very Disney of them to say so.

Recently, modern thinkers have expressed their discontent in this idea of a ‘one true passion’. It might have been started by Cal Newport (one of my favorite authors). He outright dismissed the ‘true passion’ hypothesis and said that the more you focus on searching for what you love, the more you are unhappy you are with what you have.

Another party of anti-passion camp are Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, the brilliant authors of Designing Your Life (one of my most favorite books). They pointed out that a study shows that only 1 in 5 young adults have a clear vision of what they want to accomplish in life and why. People rarely have single passion to go after, so does a person have to belly dance AND race sport cars for a living if they love both? Their point was, if you don’t have a passion, it’s really not a big deal. Your lack of clearly defined passion should not prevent you from living a meaningful and engaged life. These mounting movements make the idea of passion sound so cheesy and outdated. Oh, now I can’t even stand the cliché when people say they are searching for their “true calling”.

Well, before we go bashing passion any further, let me try to make a case for how passion can still be useful. First, what do I mean by passion? I love the slightly unconventional definition of passion given by MJ DeMarco in The Millionaire Fastlane. Here I’m paraphrasing what he said.

Passion is the thing that drives individuals to take massive actions towards a specific goal. Passion is the reason why you choose to do something rather than other things that might satisfy your instinctive needs better. For example, your child is missing and you love him dearly. The love for your child is the passion that gets you jump into the car and drive like a mad person through the streets to find him. It doesn’t matter if you have not eaten or slept in days, you are going to do every possible thing to find him. While you engage in those actions, your immediate needs are completely dismissed.

Have you ever experienced such passion? Can you remember the last time you feel such a love, a drive, a selfless pursuit of a purpose?

Now in a less extreme case of building a business or a career, passion is the thing that drives you to do things you usually do not want to do to achieve a goal. A passionate scientist can work up to 90 hours a week sleeping in the lab towards his next discovery. A passionate business owner, who desperately needs to feed his family, will pick up the phone to sell to his customers despite being rejected for the hundredth time and feeling scared to death. The passion zone is when your comfort matters much less than the thing you are passionate about. So when it comes time to decide what you want to do, your comfort is left out of the equation.

With this definition, you see that passion is not about roses and unicorns. Passion can be a blessing or a curse. Passion can be a very shitty thing to have sometimes. Indeed the root of the word: passio (latin), “to suffer”.

Passion doesn’t guarantee that the difficult thing you do will be easier. And passion is definitely neither a prerequisite nor a consequence of success. We all have friends with chillax-or-die attitude who seem to have no passion whatsoever, but manage through life pretty successfully. We all have friends who are very passionate about “not quite the right thing” and get nowhere in life. Passion factors in a lot in your decisions and actions, but it takes much more than passion to achieve goals.

But one thing that I have experienced is that passion can erase suffering from taking actions. At the times of my life when I have no passion, everything is a chore. Getting out of bed is difficult, getting off Reddit is impossible, working on that report I need to do is horrifying. This is because, although my conscious brain knows that I should get of Reddit and go to work, my unconscious brain takes immediate gratification, short-term discomfort, irrational fears into the equation, with lots of weights on them. But passion gives me a strong “WHY”, and a strong push towards the goal. Passion calls me to immediately answer to it and makes me forget everything else. That’s why I think passion is a very useful tool to have.

So I would stay right in the middle of the passion debate and say that “if you have ways to find passion, by all means, search for it”. I had to dig really deep to find mine, and it really makes all the difference. I’m glad I didn’t ignore it.

Now onto the question of how do you find passion? That’s something I will share with you in future posts.

Want to Escape the 9 to 5? Work for Yourself First

If you are like me as of a few months ago, you are running around all day trying to check off items on the to-do list. Every week, I wake up, rush to work, fill my day with meetings, and go home, yet feeling like I have accomplished almost nothing. Rinse and repeat for weeks and months.

Over time, these empty days eat away at my motivation to be my best self. My side projects are left untouched for weeks. I feel like I was completing other people’s to-do lists and working on other people’s agendas instead of making progress on my own goals.

Tired of that lifestyle, I started looking for ways to get more true productivity time in my day. Blogs about personal productivity often raved about rising up early, so that you always have some quiet time for a full breakfast, meditation, and journaling. Fantastic concepts! They usually talk about waking up at 5:30-6:00 to have an hour or two before you rush out the door. Well, how about waking up at 3 AM?

I am a morning person. My energy is at its peak right after I wake up. In my previous life, I’d wake up around 7 and rush right off to work, and I would spend my wonderful morning energy on morning meetings. What a waste! I wanted to have my whole morning free of distractions, but it’s impossible. I have client meetings, speaking commitments, classes to teach — stuff you cannot just reschedule and avoid.

So I created a new morning working shift! By waking up at 3 AM, I have at least 4 hours of free time with my best energy of the day. No emails, no phone calls, no disturbance. I spend that time working on my business, which is my most important goal. At first my body rebelled a little bit, either not wanting to get up or trying to jump to busy work instead of the high value items. But the key is that you convince yourself to do it regardless of the outcome. Just dive in and who cares if the product is only so-so, after just a little bit your body and mind will fall into the groove of the habit. Once the habit locks in and ‘everybody’ is on board, that’s when the real value can be created.

Then you ask, does it mean you work 12 hours a day? Essentially yes. Although the afternoon where my energy is most crappy, I’m usually in some meetings that require very little or no energy (those meetings where your boss is busy scrolling his phone). On days I don’t have any meetings, I usually spend my lunch hour working and clocking out at 4 PM. After all that I still have time to have nice dinner and relax a bit before going to bed at 7-8 PM.

As a result of this practice, I have 4 free high-energy morning hours everyday. I spend it on tasks that require the most energy, such as creating products, writing original content, and maintaining my business. I noticed massive improvements in my productivity on the items I care most about after changing my wake up time, and that’s when my side hustle really started to meaningfully expand.

If you want to escape from 9-5, make sure to work for yourself first. Try adjusting your schedule to give your side hustle the best block of your energy.

Law of Attraction is Pseudoscience, but Here’s Why It Works

I was introduced to Law of Attraction (LOA) through ‘The Secret’, a book written by Rhonda Byrne. This book was very famous in my late adolescent years, and it led me to read many other LOA books. Overall, law of attraction has been immensely important in my quest for self improvements. But when I recommended it to people (especially my intellectual friends), they often came back and told me they couldn’t even finish the book as it is full of bullshit and it advertises pseudoscience.

I agree that the law of attraction literature is full of bullshit from a scientific perspective, if the words in them are to be taken literally. I have degrees in both Physics and Neuroscience, so statements that contradict our tested knowledge in these disciplines tend to stick out like sore thumbs to my analytical self. But it is also undeniable that the law of attraction literature has helped me achieve many of my goals. Scientifically false but functionally true; how can this be reconciled?

The fact is, I think the book does have some good ideas that actually agree with science of goal achievements. In this post, I’m going to explain just the key lessons I learned from law of attraction and leave the BS behind.

Embrace Your Desire

When I grew up, I was stuck with the idea that ‘Having desires is wrong’. It is a whole set of beliefs such as ‘Money is evil’, ‘Wanting to be beautiful is shallow’, ‘Focusing on your desire is selfish’, ‘Materialism is pointless’, ‘Rich people are not happy, you gain happiness through helping other people’, ‘You should work hard and don’t ask for anything in return’.

At the time, I knew that hard work is expected from me, but I was not taught to enjoy the process or the outcome of hard work (this is very common for many Asian kids). So when I read The Secret and they said ‘Ask the universe for what you want’, it kind of blew my mind. It’s not about actually going ahead and praying to the universe for what you want (it probably doesn’t care). It is about becoming fully aware of our desires. It is about paying full attention to what we want, without limitations. LOA emphasizes the idea that everything is possible and whatever you can perceive you can achieve. LOA urges you to ask yourself “If you have infinite resources, what kind of life do you want to live?” Whether you believe everything is possible or not, I think it’s good exercise to free your mind from guilts, doubts, and social expectations; to fully indulge in considering your desires; to develop the courage to fully accept and fight for what you truly want.

When you are crystal clear about what you want, you allow your actions and thoughts to align with the things that truly drive your joy. And you allow yourself to make sure that you are rewarded for your actions, which encourage you to take more actions.

I knew so many people who didn’t embrace their desires and suffer from it. For example, I know people who choose college majors and jobs because their parents said so, or because the jobs pay well, when in retrospect they realize they really should’ve started with asking what they wanted out of life before choosing a career path. You don’t want to be working so hard just to find out that all this work gets you to a kind of life that you didn’t really want.

You are Responsible for Everything that Happens to You

Law of attraction theory believes that you co-create your world (with the universe). You attract everything to your life, both the good and the bad. Some go so far as saying that victims of murder and rape attract criminals to their life. I know that sounds terrible.

These statements are way too extreme, but there is a grain of truth in it in certain sense. Let me explain.

First of all, you create your own world. This I know is true. Your brain devotes a large amount of resources to create your version of the world. The neuroscience of perception has long understood that what you perceive to be the world is not really the world; instead your neurons work together to create a copy of world in your brain. So when you see a wall, it is not a wall that you are aware of, it’s your visual neurons’ reconstruction of the physical wall.

You perceive the world through your nervous system, which can be distorted and sometimes outright lying to you. Your brain embellishes the reality with its belief and assumptions all the time. For example, for a man who has a problem approaching women all his life, when he sees a woman smiles at him, he might think she’s of course not attracted to him, maybe he has a funny thing on his face? What’s the real reason the woman is smiling he will never know. But in his world, she’s not attracted to him. He constructed this reality that could be false based on life experiences.

So are you responsible for everything that happens to you? I think a more true statement is that your life outcomes are a combination of what you do and random events you cannot control (a.k.a luck). And what you do does have a heck lot of influence. Your habits and beliefs shape your identity.

This part of Law of Attraction has taught me to completely abandon ‘The Victim Mentality’. When I was battling with an eating disorder, it was easy for me to conclude that I am the victim of the disease; that maybe I have some combinations of genes and brain chemicals that make it impossible to lose weight and recover from the disorder. After reading The Secret, I chose to deliberately let go of victim-based theories and opted to believe that I am responsible for everything. That belief was functional in helping me to take all the actions I could to recover.

So “You create your world” and “You are responsible for everything” are the two beliefs that LOA instills to facilitate changes. It leads you to understand your power to change your internal world, and in turn, what kind of an influence that has on your external world.

Change Your Vibration to Match Your Desire

Let me just say I really dislike the word vibration. It’s so vague and pseudo-sciencey. Law of attraction taught people to ‘Act as if you have already achieved your goal’. This means that if you want a new car, and having a new car will make you feel safe, free, and uplifted. You should start pretending like you have it now, start feeling safe, free, and uplifted now. LOA also advocates visualization, which practically means that you close your eyes and day dream about your desires. So if you want a new car, you will visualize buying it, driving it, and enjoying it. These acts are designed to adjust your vibrations to match your desire.

The part of LOA most people don’t understand is that visualizing and pretending are not supposed to automatically attract you a new car. No laws of Physics prescribes that if your vibration matches the object of your desire, it will come to you. It is not true, period. But it doesn’t mean that what LOA preaches didn’t help.

In fact, ‘acting as if’ and visualization should lead you to change habits and belief to achieve what you want. They should prompt you to be emotionally ready to change your identity.

Suppose my current identity is of someone who does not have extra cash to afford a new car. To get a new car, I need to change my identity to be that of someone who has plenty excess money and can go acquire a car. Achieving a goal is about changing the identity, and this means changing my physical habits (such as reducing excess spending and actively looking for new income opportunities), mental habits (such as getting rid of the fear of rejection when asking people for money in exchange for my work), etc. If I change my habits to be similar to those people who can afford a car, then the outcome that I want, i.e. cash in my wallet, will reflect the new identity I have acquired.

‘Acting as if’ and visualization have helped me understand what it takes to achieve my goal. For example, when I was trying to lose weight, before bed I would imagine the life of a naturally thin person. I day dreamed what it would be like to have the body that I want without worrying about food and dieting. What healthy snack my thin self would enjoy eating and what physical activities I would enjoy doing. My brain was allowed to consider alternative possibilities, and it came up with possible sets of actions and beliefs required to live that alternative life. Although at first, it feels forced to pretend to be something you are not, it gets easier and more natural over time. When it becomes natural to me to constantly act and think like a thin person, the outcome of these actions is that my body gradually changes to match my identity.

I hope this post presents a new perspective on law of attraction for non-spiritual people. If you have something to add, please feel free to leave a comment below!

On-Demand Immersive Productivity

In his famous book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as the mental state in which a person is fully immersed in the activity he’s performing. He’s experiencing the feeling of intense focus, loss of self-consciousness, bliss, and explosive energy. Some claim that when experiencing this in-the-zone state, your physical and mental capabilities are heightened and your brain can process more information, more effectively. Time flies and you don’t even notice any discomfort from long physical exertions.

In my experiences, some activities such as playing games, driving, and programming are more conducive of flow state. This makes sense because according to Csíkszentmihályi, the flow experience often occurs when you are engaged in activities that involve immediate feedback and fit your skill level.

However, if I become very productive in playing video games, driving, and programming, it wouldn’t necessarily help my business. In fact, when I tried to start a business in my early years, I got in the zone with website building regularly. I can code for 10 hours in a day non-stop. But as a result, I avoid other important tasks (like marketing my website). Overall, it hurts my chance at succeeding. So in fact, flow can hinder you from your goal at times, if it can only occur in a narrow domain at the expense of other less flow-like but necessary states.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have the totally immersive and focused experience all the time, no matter what task you are engaged in?

In the past few months, I have been experimenting with a few techniques to induce immersive focused experience — very similar to flow state. What I am after is on-demand productivity, where I can be immersed in creative work on whatever task I want, and whenever I want. I am surprised that it’s actually not that hard to achieve that. So in this post, I am outlining my latest thoughts on the techniques.

How to Achieve Immersive Productivity On-Demand

High Energy State

I found that the ability to trigger immersive productivity depends largely on my energy state. I can most reliably get into the zone right after I wake up (from a long-night sleep or from a short mid-day nap). So when I find it hard to focus, I tend to use a nap as a way to reset my system. I know that this is not true for everyone, so you might have to experiment with a few things to get yourself in an appropriately high energy state.

Clarity

This is one of the most important tips for me. The problem is not that I don’t want to do work. Most often, I have too much work to do and struggle to pick one thing to do at a given moment. I am constantly wondering whether the one thing I pick is the optimal thing to do. So what I did was to deliberately practice in being more decisive. For example, I will take a piece of paper and write down one important goal to focus on for an hour. I just decide that this is the action with the highest payoff at this time. Then I will force myself to not think about other tasks, as if a gun is pointing at my head, and I need to get this task done ASAP.

A clear goal is really important. Imagine driving at high speed without knowing where to go; it’s just not fruitful.

Pomodoro

For people who have attention deficit or mild ADHD like myself, it is very difficult to focus. Our heads are filled with ideas and we constantly want to jump onto the next brilliant idea. So I have been using the Pomodoro technique to combat this problem. If you have not heard of Pomodoro, it’s a productivity technique where (1) you set timer for 25 minutes, (2) focus on one task for the whole period, (3) take a break for 5 minutes, (4) rinse and repeat. It’s incredibly simple and magical. I recommend you try it, if you have not done so.

At first, it was hard for me to do 25 minutes, so I actually started with 3 minutes. Yes, I asked myself to focus for only 3 minutes at first; it was ridiculously easy. Then I gradually built up to 25 minutes. These days I can focus for 90 minutes at a time at my peak energy. With practice, anyone can do it.

Shut Down Mind Chatter

This is another important tip for me. I have to deliberately silence all questions, doubts, and internal dialogue when Pomodoro is on. If I catch myself thinking ‘Is this good enough?’, ‘Am I good enough?’, ‘Ah, I hate this’, ‘This is stupid’ I immediately switch my thought back to the task I’m working on and what I should do next.

Also, shut down all external distractors like cell phones, but every productivity blog has already told you to do so, so this should go without saying.

Practice Being an On-Demand Worker

Getting started is always the hardest thing. I still struggle with this, but I’m getting better. One practice that has helped me is what I call ‘Beep Drill’. I downloaded an app that plays a beep sound every 30 minutes (I use one called Blip Blip on Android, but any app will work.) Then whenever I heard a beep, I dive head first into actions (for example, open Evernote and start writing a blog post). This might sound like a silly game, but it’s designed to condition your mind to get started on any random trigger. After several runs of this drill, I became much better at getting started without overthinking.

These days, in the morning when my energy is peak, I never fail to launch head first into actions. For example, my current focus is writing these blog posts, and I can dive into 1000-2000 words first thing in the morning everyday. I am working on building other habits that will help for other times of the day too.

The Bootcamp

My favorite part is when I combine all these things to generate real results for my side business. When I have free days devoted to my side business, like Saturday and Sunday, I set up what I call a Bootcamp.

In the world of programming, there are bootcamps that are an accelerated type of curriculum you can take that can guide you from novice to getting a software engineering job in 3-6 months. This type of education is often called ‘immersive learning’. I like ideas of bootcamp and have participated in some online versions. It’s fun and it helps you improve so fast. You can feel limitless and proud after it’s all said and done.

So I tried to set up the same type of bootcamp for my business on weekends. I give it some exciting names, like Content Marketing Xtreme or Social Media Hackathon to motivate myself. I set up a clear major goal and write down a list of good actions to do during the bootcamp. Then, I dive in Saturday morning. I set up Blip Blip for go off hourly. If it beeps and I am not doing something productive, time to pick action from my list and dive in for at least 15 minutes of Pomodoro. I usually get around 8 hours of bootcamp activities in a day before I need to take a long break. But this results in a pretty massive change in the bottom line of my business.

How to Accomplish Big Goals in Life

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.