In a tweet some days ago I mentioned how much I liked this episode of Tim Ferriss’ podcast. In the episode Tim and Chase Jarvis talk about the importance of setting easy goals as a key to long term success.
The way to long term success is (surprise!) long and hard. It’s a marathon not a sprint. To make it through a marathon you only need endurance, but for success on a world class level endurance is not enough. Successful marathon runners train their running technique so throughly that it becomes second nature. Only this way they are able to maintain optimum output under full steam. For an world class athlete running efficiently becomes a habit.
Translated to other fields this means that one key factor for longterm success is having the right habits in place. Habits that don’t break under pressure. The problem, however, as knows everyone who’s ever tried eating more healthy is that achieving habitual change is not easy as most of us will have noticed already. So the question is: How can we achieve lasting habitual change?
The answer might be surprising: By setting easy goals. Why is that you might ask - so let me explain:
As we are taught by psychologists changing habits requires either positive or negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement in basic terms means that something pleasant happens if you achieve the goal. Negative reinforcement means that something unpleasant happens if you don’t achieve your goal.
When it comes to changing habits most of us are on our own (unless we have a peer group, mentor or coach). If working on changing our habits all by our selves negative reinforcement most of the times will not work. Negative reinforcement usually is served in the form of physical, personal or social consequences. Obviously (hopefully) we or others will not harm ourselves if we don’t achieve our goals. We won’t go to jail if we don’t practice yoga every morning. And most of the times, our families won’t expel us if we don’t manage to change our eating habits.
This leaves us with the necessity to positively reinforce habitual change. Positive reinforcement stems from the Nucleus accumbent, a region of the brain that has a significant role in the cognitive processing of aversion, motivation, pleasure, reward and reinforcement learning (check Wikipedia for more info). Many things can trigger a response in this area. Drugs, sex, social interaction, physical exercise and the feeling of success. Obviously, the best way to reach a goal is to set an easy goal. Once you’ve achieved the easy goal positive reinforcement kicks in. You gain momentum and can set the next goal a little bit higher.
Let me give you an example: I have realised that practicing yoga tremendously helps with my back pains. But I was still sloppy and only did it every now and then. To make practicing yoga a lasting habit I want to include it in my morning routine. I start out with only 10 minutes per day, and track this habit in an spread sheet. At the end of the month I analyse the data. Like back in med school I defined 60% as a pass - that means I succeed for the month, if I stick to my routine 6 out of 10 days.