1.7 When? When will I achieve my goal?

Good habits are the secret to success

We would all like quick success but the truth is that our biggest dreams will take considerable time, a lot of hard work and good habits to achieve. One wise person once told me that people overestimate what they can achieve in one year and underestimate what they can achieve in five or ten years. I have found this to be true. If you want to succeed then you need persistence and an understanding of the power of habit.

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Thomas Edison

Where should you be investing your time?

Don’t underestimate the cumulative effect of compound time. Investors understand the power of compound interest when it comes to money. The same applies to the time we invest, including in our personal development. If we continue to invest our time wisely and with focus then we can achieve great things.

Malcolm Gladwell did a study (Outliers: The Story of Success) that explored the lives of many of the worlds most successful people and looked at the patterns behind their achievements.  One large theme prevails: that it takes a concerted effort over time to achieve anything truly great.  Gladwell estimates that it requires 10,000 hours of quality practice to become an expert at one given thing or become world-class in a particular field.  This may not be a scientific proof but it is certainly indicative of the requirement for the dedicated application of time if we are going to achieve our goals and our dreams.

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” 

Malcolm Gladwell

We need passion to prioritise effectively

I started playing the guitar in my teens but I had never really improved beyond a certain (and fairly basic) level.  Why? Quite simply it was because I never practised enough.  It was not that I did not like playing the guitar; it was just that I enjoyed other things more.

In my dreams, I could play like Jimi Hendrix.  In my mind’s eye, I could see myself saving the day at a gig, strolling onto the stage to replace an injured lead guitarist and stunning my friends with amazing solos, my fingers a blur on the fretboard!  But there was a big difference between successful guitarists and me. That difference went beyond just raw talent (of which I had very little). 

Guitar legends such as Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton would pick a guitar up at the beginning of the day and hardly put it down until they went to bed; it is like an extension of their body.  I rarely picked mine up at all.  When practising I got frustrated or bored pretty quickly and if I had the choice between playing for an hour on the guitar or going to the gym I would generally choose the latter.

I realised that I did not have the motivation to be the guitarist I dreamed of being because I did not value it enough. I lacked enough passion. It turned out that this dream was not one worth pursuing.  Therefore, I decided to sell my guitars in order to properly pursue other dreams.  I did not want the good to be the enemy of the great.

Counting the opportunity cost

If we are going to be focused and invest our resources in one particular way we are going to have to count the cost and let other things go. For every outlay of time or money there is an opportunity cost; the cost of not investing our resources somewhere else.  In other words when we choose to do one thing, by default we choose to not do various other things.

The simple fact is: you can become good at almost anything, but you cannot be good at everything.

We watch sports stars, standing on a podium receiving their gold medal at the moment of glory.  What we don’t see is the years of training, the sweat and tears spent hour after hour, day after day, invested in the dream of that moment, in the winning of the prize.  How many days and evenings out with friends were sacrificed?  What number of holidays were foregone?  Which alternative careers were declined?  You can be sure that the opportunity cost was high.

There is no easy or quick win but through the right application of time, we can create our own perfect timing.  The fulfilment of a vision is going to take time and hard work.  That is why we need a dream to compel us, a mission to focus upon, and passion to spur us forward, no matter what the obstacles are that lie in the way.  If we have that level of compulsion we can make the investment of time that is needed to succeed.

Exercise: The Power of Habit

What is the habit that you need to achieve your goal?

To get the compound effect that we need for success we need to build new habits that allow us to invest our time effectively. Any new practice requires the passion or desire to change, but it also requires discipline. Understanding the way habits work makes habits easier to adopt or adapt.

Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit (2013), shows that we need to identify the habit loop of any given behaviour. We need to know the cue (the stimulus), the routine (or action) and the reward (the pay off).  Once we understand the cues to behaviours we can experiment with rewards to instil new routines.

The habit loop: cue, routine, reward

To do this, first think about the new habit (the routine, action or behaviour) that you want to create. Write it down, capturing as much detail as you can about it.

Next, think about the cues to this action or behaviour. If you are trying to change a bad habit then identifying the cue allows you to think before you act and you can start to test different rewards to help enforce new behaviours. For example, if you want to improve your sleep but have a screen in your bedroom that you are in the habit of watching late at night, then remove the device or remote.

If you are trying to create a new habit then you can create cues. You can start linking an action to something. For example, if you leave out your gym kit the night before you are much more likely to put it on in the morning and go for a run.

Now think about the reward. Brainstorm different things that might work to positively reinforce your new habit. Any embedded habit is usually hardwired due to the chemical reinforcement in the body. The trick is to find a new action/reward link that brings a similar hormonal, biological or psychological satisfaction.

“Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.” 

Charles Duhigg

Example of changing a habit loop

I tend to get a little hungry mid-morning and mid-afternoon.  I often want a snack.  When the blood sugar is low it is very easy to grab something unhealthy to eat at this point – a sweet biscuit, chocolate bar or similar would be my thing. But I know this is not good for me, therefore I have tried other replacement snacks.  I have experimented with various options, and some things just don’t hit the spot, but I have found that I have a real thing for hummus.  I know hummus is nothing like a chocolate digestive but it turns out that if there is some hummus around, especially with a carrot or some sweet pepper, then there is a good chance I can avoid a sugary snack.  It does not always work but I have nudged that behaviour in the right direction.  I still find it hard to resist biscuits laid out at a business meeting or someone else’s house so those are the new cues and stimuli I am working on.

Action: Experiment with the new habit

Most people fail with instilling new habits as they don’t persist and learn from their failures. Creating a new habit is hard. You will fail but that failure is just new data to help you succeed. If you did not get the required action, what can you change in the cue or the reward to get a better result? Experiment, changing one factor at a time until you find something that works.

For further reflection

Reflection Question: which habit have you most tried to change but failed with the most? Why?

“Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success” 

C.S. Lewis

Further resources

Read this article/post:

How do you set your priorities?

Watch this video:

Matt Cutts – Try something new for 30 days

Read this book:

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell