Do you sometimes struggle to take action, even when you know that it will help you achieve your long-term goals? I know I do.
Perhaps your long-term goal is to run (and finish) the London 2017 marathon. You know you have to get into a routine of training but you just can’t bring yourself to go for that run after work. It just seems like too much effort. You’d rather just kick back and watch Netflix with a beer.
Perhaps your goal is to move to South America and do that doctorate in marine biology you always wanted to do. However, you don’t speak a word of Spanish so your immediate goal is to sign up to some classes or make your way through that Spanish book you bought at the office book sale. But the classes are expensive and taking them means you won’t be able to go out for your weekly lash with friends or colleagues. You could finally open that book, but again the remote control and that lovely Bordeaux beckons.
Inertia is powerful — it’s the default state! Newton’s first law of motion states that a stationary object will, well, remain still unless acted on by an external force.
Fig 1. Your life on Unfulfillment Mountain (sorry for the US spelling)
So is there any hope for us or are we doomed to rot away in our state of inertia, never getting anywhere? Thankfully there are some practical steps we can take.
First is having your why clear (watch this 18 minute Ted talk by Simon Sinek), which can act as your external force driving you to action. Nietzsche (and Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and a holocaust survivor that wrote ‘Man’s search for meaning’) said “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’”. When you have a strong understanding of why you are doing the things you set out to do, like improving your English, it can help overcome procrastination and inertia — that feeling of “I can’t be bothered”. The stronger, deeper and truer that your why resonates within you, the stronger this force will be.
Fig 2. Your ‘why’ drives your life off Unfulfillment Mountain towards Fulfillment Mountain
The second thing you can do is to break down a larger goal down into smaller steps, in the same way that you identified improving your Spanish as a means of getting you closer to the greater goal of that degree in marine biology in South America, but just breaking that up to smaller, more achievable goals. The trick here is to be kind to yourself and really ease into it. Maybe it’s learning just one new sentence a day. That’s easy and takes maybe five minutes. Then you can reward yourself with that episode of Black Mirror. By the end of the week you’ll have learnt seven sentences. By the end of the month… By the end of the year…
It’s learning to see that the huge boulder you thought you had to move is actually a collection of smaller pieces of rock. Yes, you may not be able to shift the whole thing at once, but it’s so much easier to move one small piece at a time.
Fig 3. Sometime a task seems too great to overcome
Fig 4. See if you can take a tiny step / marginal gain
Finally, there’s accountability. When you commit yourself to a task or goal, research has shown that you are more likely to achieve it if you share this with others. This may come in the form of a coach or mentor, but it can also just be with friends or family who you agree to form an accountability relationship with (aim for 4–6 people). If I make a New Year’s resolution to lose that extra 5kgs I know I don’t need (or like 5% body fat) in 2017, but keep it to myself, I may just reach for that extra doughnut or beer because it’s easy to justify and make excuses to yourself. We’re complete pros at fooling ourselves. It’s so much harder to fool others.
Fig 5. Don’t eat the doughnut (donut?)!
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