“What we do now echoes in eternity,” said Marcus Aurelius. It doesn’t matter where you are today or what choices brought you to this point. Today, right now, we all have the opportunity to make changes and improve their lives.
Right now, there’s something that you want to improve. Something’s bothering you in the back of your mind. You know you should do something about it. But try as you might, you just can’t bring yourself to take on that challenge.
Putting it off is easy. Complaining without taking responsibility is easy. For many people, these behaviors are their default state. But when have these tactics ever worked out to your benefit?
When was the last time a problem got better on its own because you ignored it?
When was the last time you looked back and thought, yes, all of that procrastination really made me much happier?
There’s no secret to making changes. No matter what the online gurus may claim, there’s no classified checklist that will guarantee your success. It comes down to a process. One that anyone can use. As Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov said,
“Winning is not a secret that belongs to a very few, winning is something that we can learn by studying ourselves, studying the environment and making ourselves ready for any challenge that is in front of us.”
1. Start with a problem you’d like to solve. And a future vision you want to achieve.
“If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” — Yogi Berra
The first step is defining the problem you want to solve. And giving yourself a better vision for your future.
Bill Moyers said, “Creativity is piercing the mundane to find the marvelous.” How creative can you be in defining a better future? How inspiring can you be in giving yourself an audacious goal?
If you imagine a future that simply repeats today’s events, that’s undoubtedly what you’ll get. If you settle for mediocrity, you’ll get mediocrity. Be creative. Set your sights high. As the original Mad Man George Lois wrote,
“Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.”
To be clear, vision isn’t everything. It doesn’t guarantee success. Creating a new-age vision board won’t convince the universe to come together and magically deliver all of your goals.
But it is a critical part of the process. Without a vision, you lack direction to focus your efforts. Without that destination, you can’t tell whether each step brings you closer to your goal or further from it. In the wise words of the late, great Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks,
“Remembering that destination will help you make the single most important distinction in life, which is to distinguish between an opportunity to be taken and a temptation to be resisted.”
Look at your life. For all of the areas going well, chances are that you have some type of vision to direct your efforts. And for those areas you’re struggling, the future is more of a haze. Without that vision, you can’t focus your energy. You’re more likely to simply repeat the same actions, hoping for different results.
2. Give yourself a compelling reason for change.
“Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.” — Charles Eames
If the change were easy, you would have already done it. The reason you’ve put it off is because it’s not easy. It’s not straightforward. And there’s a very real chance of failure.
The question then becomes, What’s going keep moving you forward in the face of that failure?
A lot of people like to ask the question, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” It’s supposed to help show your true desires, absent the worry of potential failure.
But it’s a bad question. Because the prospect of failure never goes away. What you’d do if you can’t fail doesn’t mean that’s what you’ll do that same thing when you can.
If I couldn’t fail, I’d probably go up to a tall building and try to fly. Because that would be awesome. However, when you add the potential for failure into the equation, this no longer seems like a good idea.
Seth Godin turned this question around into a better one. Instead, he asks, “What would you do if you knew you would fail?”
Knowing that you’ll struggle, fall short, and taste failure on the way, what would you do anyways?
What is so important to you that despite the guarantee of setbacks, disappointments, and failure, you’ll still push yourself down that path?
Nietzche said that “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Change can be difficult. Without a strong why to justify the inevitable sacrifices, it’s easy to relapse into old habits.
What is going to motivate you to keep pursuing this vision? What will justify the sacrifices that are bound to challenge your path?
What will you do not in the absence of failure, but in spite of it?
3. Create a 90-day plan.
“A vision without a strategy remains an illusion.” — Lee Bolman
You have a vision and a call for action. It’s a good start. But unfortunately, that’s the easy part.
Ideas and vision are easy. Execution is the difficulty.
Few people have a shortage of ideas. If you don’t believe me, try to give your ideas to someone else. I’m sure that they’re good. But most people won’t be interested. They have more than enough of their own.
Execution is the difference between a start-up with a good idea and a thriving company. You can have a great idea for a business, but unless you put in the work to actually develop the idea, build a product, establish a customer base, and maintain the discipline to focus on the right priorities, all you have is a good idea that will soon be out of business.
Execution takes time, sometimes a lot of time. In order to stay on track, you need to give yourself near-term milestones.
There’s nothing magic about 90 days. Choose a different timeframe if you want. But 90 days is long enough to demonstrate real progress, yet short enough to keep you engaged.
It’s this balance that keeps you on track. You want to see some accomplishments to justify your sacrifices. And you want some evidence that shows you’re on track. No matter how motivated you may be at the beginning, you’ll need to see these results to stick with it. As Daniel Pink wrote in Drive,
“The single greatest motivator is ‘making progress in one’s work.’ The days that people make progress are the days they feel most motivated and engaged.”
Where do you want to be in 90 days? What are the key results that would make you the most proud?
What wins, regardless of what else might happen, would make these 90 days a huge success?
Be specific. Be objective. And focus on results.
If you want to build more wealth, how much do you want in your account after this first quarter? What accomplishments would show that you’re on the right track?
If you want to be more outgoing and influential at work, what would demonstrate that growth? What new strategies will you put forward? What accomplishments will demonstrate success?
Give yourself a clear destination. As Peter Drucker observed,
“Without an action plan, the executive becomes a prisoner of events. And without check-ins to reexamine the plan as events unfold, the executive has no way of knowing which events really matter and which are only noise.”
4. Break it into daily actions.
“All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved. Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.” — Sun Tzu
Just because you’ve watched someone succeed, it doesn’t mean that you can achieve that same level of success. As Tzu notes, tactics are only effective if they’re in pursuit of a larger strategy.
Don’t copy someone else’s morning ritual. Develop a morning ritual that helps you deliver on your own goals. Just because Wim Hoff takes cold showers, it doesn’t mean that’s the right decision for you. Excellence is always driven by self-expression.
What daily actions will help deliver on your 90-day plan? Most people give themselves a vague strategy and then hope for the best. They say they want to lose 30 pounds, but don’t do anything different each day.
Losing 30 pounds is not a plan. Saving an extra $1,000 each month is not a plan. Until these goals turn into daily actions, they’re nothing but vague wishes.
What are you going to do each day to succeed? Lose weight? How? By exercising or eating better? What if you have a bad day? What if you’re short on time?
Build wealth? How? By spending less or earning more? How are you going to prioritize your time? What do you plan to sacrifice?
Without breaking down these goals into daily actions, you lose the opportunity to drive real change each day. It would be like saying that you’re going to earn that CEO promotion by showing up each day and working real hard at it. Maybe it’ll work out. But you shouldn’t get your hopes up.
Be specific. Vague goals are not plans. A good plan incorporates your strengths and weaknesses, accounts for your environment, and sets you up for the best chance of success in an uncertain world. In the wise words of Sun Tzu,
“First lay plans which will ensure victory, and then lead your army to battle; if you will not begin with stratagem but rely on brute strength alone, victory will no longer be assured.”
To the best of my knowledge, Phil Connors is the only person who’s ever lived the same day twice. Each new day brings a new opportunity. If you live to be 72, that’s 26,298 opportunities for a unique day.
There’s no need to make overwhelming progress each day. You just want to make some progress each day. As long as you’re moving forward, the results will compound into something huge. As the Stoic philosopher Zeno once put it,
“Well-being is attained little by little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself.”
5. Cultivate a Supporting Environment
“If you hang out with chickens, you’re going to cluck and if you hang out with eagles, you’re going to fly.” — Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You
In 1966, the Surgeon General started putting warning labels on cigarette packs to advertise the horrible health impacts. The tobacco companies fought back with their own alternative fact propaganda, but most people saw through their façade. Yet this increased knowledge had little impact. The percentage of smokers from this time through 1973 went from 40% to… 40%.
Yet the quantity of smokers has significantly dropped. While knowledge wasn’t the catalyst for action, environment was.
When many of us were growing up, it was common to see people smoking in bars, restaurants, and offices. You’d be hard pressed to find that now. It’s much more difficult to buy cigarettes and smoke in today’s world.
In New York, you can smoke in your house and your car, and that’s pretty much it. In Kentucky, smokers have much more flexibility. It’s not surprising that the percentage of smokers in New York is 10% of what it is in Kentucky. In fact, of the ten states with the lowest smoking rates, nine prohibit people from smoking in restaurants, bars, and offices. While the states with the highest smoking rates don’t have those laws.
Willpower will rarely be enough to carry you through a tough change. Sooner or later, you’ll have a bad day. And whether you relapse or not will depend on your environment.
Do the people around you inspire you to achieve more and be a better person? Or do they drag you down and encourage bad habits?
One of the reasons that workplace culture is so critical is that in most cases, people align their behaviors to the environment around them. Even if you’re a naturally collaborative person, if you work every day in a cutthroat culture, over time you’ll begin to mirror these behaviors. Or you’ll get up and leave.
Think of change as trying to move a boulder up a hill. The magnitude of the change equates to the size of the boulder and the environment is the slope of the hill.
If the slope is too steep, pushing the smallest pebble can be exhausting. It’s no wonder that most people give up and fall into old habits. But if your environment is supportive — if instead it becomes a downhill slope — then it’s much easier to get that boulder moving.
Look around you. Is your environment encouraging the behaviors that you want to demonstrate? Are you struggling to push uphill?
Here’s a quick test. If you find that you need to exert tremendous willpower to follow through with a change, then your environment isn’t helping you. You’re still pushing that boulder up the hill.
Be mindful about who and what you bring into your life. Surround yourself with people who’ll lift you up, not drag you down. And make a conscious decision to design your environment to propel you forward, not hold you back. As Wendy Wood wrote in Good Habits, Bad Habits,
“Self-control is simple when you understand that it involves putting yourself in the right situations to develop the right habits.”
6. Measure and Adapt.
“Action and adaptability create opportunity.” — Garrison Wynn
Drucker’s old adage, “what gets measured gets managed,” has stuck around for so long because it’s true. When you measure something, you give it your attention. When you give something your attention, you prioritize it among the 10,000 other things all vying for your time and energy.
But that’s not the point of measurement. It’s simply a byproduct. The real purpose of measurement is to learn. And you learn so that you can adapt.
You measure so that you can adapt.
In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries discusses the idea of a minimum viable product — the fastest way to get through the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop within the minimum amount of effort. Ries also notes that “Lean thinking defines value as providing benefit to the customer; anything else is waste.”
Successful startups find ways to quickly validate their hypotheses. They test the value of their product and the growth potential of their customer base. By testing these hypotheses early, they’re can quickly determine whether they should pivot or persevere.
As you make changes in your own life, you’ll be faced with this same question: Pivot or persevere? Are you on the right track? Should you forge ahead according to plan? Or do you need to change your strategy?
The best way to make this decision is through your own minimum viable product. What’s the fastest way to test whether you’re on the right track? What results would you want to see? What objective criteria will help show you that each day’s investments are yielding benefits?
In these situations, most people focus on habits and behaviors. But habits and behaviors are merely a means to an end. If they’re not delivering results, they’re not a worthwhile use of your time. If they’re not benefiting the customer (in this case you), then they’re a waste.
If you’re cutting out your daily latte to save money, yet still not saving money, then it’s not a success. If you’re publishing articles every day to build an audience, yet not gaining any new followers, then maybe that’s not the right tactic for your goal.
When you measure behaviors without results, there’s nothing to flag a bad investment. You keep doing the same things each day, regardless of whether they’re helping you to reach your goal.
If you want to find a new job, it doesn’t matter how many applications you fill out or resumes you submit. If you’re not getting interviews and job offers, then those are nothing but vanity metrics.
If you want lose weight, the only thing that matters is whether you’re actually losing weight. If what you’re doing isn’t bringing those results, you need to adapt into new behaviors.
Your vision, strategies, and plans should never be set in stone. They need to change as you change. They need to adapt as you learn. Otherwise you’re just spinning your wheels. As Max McKeown put it,
“All failure is failure to adapt, all success is successful adaptation.”
Start Today. And Keep Moving Forward.
“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.” — Daniel Gilbert
Change can be hard. But it doesn’t need to be.
You’re already changing every day. You’re a much different person today than you were a year ago. I’m guessing that you can look back on who you were ten years ago and see a completely different person.
You’re changing every day. You just need to make sure you’re changing for the better.
Joan Didion defined the “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life” as the source for self-respect. Take responsibility for the changes in your own life. Don’t delay. Stop putting it off. Decide right now and move forward.
How do you want to change going forward? You’re already thinking about it. Now you just need to make it a reality.
1. Create a future vision.
2. Give yourself a compelling reason for change.
3. Create a 90-day plan.
4. Break it into daily actions.
5. Cultivate a supporting environment.
6. And measure what matters so you can adapt as needed.
Your future is completely undefined. Who do you want to be?