First we make our habits, then our habits make us. – Charles C. Noble
One of the most effective ways to actualize your own potential and goals is to form habits and routines that make the actualization (almost) automatic. We see reflections of this observation in the works of Aristotle and Lao Tzu from millennia ago on through the works of contemporary thinkers such as Stephen Covey and the Dalai Lama. At a certain point, habits allow you to reach the optimal state of achieving without trying to achieve.
The lead quote sums up things nicely, though, in that habit-building can be an active process, too. Much like choosing to be around people who help us flourish, choosing and habituating the actions that help us flourish is largely within our control.
Since we can choose, do, track, and evaluate the habits and routines that help us actualize ourselves and our goals, there’s a process with discrete but related steps. Here are the 5As of Actualization:
Let’s take a look at these a little more in depth.
The saying “if you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there” fits in nicely here. Before you can start building supportive habits and routines, you have to know what types of actualization you’re wanting to support.
Our bodies and minds are automatic habit-building systems – whether or not you actively try to build habits or not, you will. For instance, you might not intentionally train yourself to remember the path to your kitchen, but every time you walk to the kitchen, you’re reinforcing a neurophysical pathway that’s been formed. Habits are nothing but reinforced neurophysical pathways.
As you can probably tell, a pathway isn’t inherently good or bad. A good deal of your unconscious habits are probably not supporting your growth, though, because we’re wired to remain safe and secure rather than to be continually growing and changing. Once your system finds something that works, it encodes that pattern as something to keep – regardless of whether your desires change. This is how we get canoes.
This step in the process, then, makes your routine-building an intentional activity that supports your goals. Furthermore, most new routines have to displace an already-formed one, so the initial parts of the process will be harder than later parts. The more you’re able to keep fixed on the end in mind, the easier it’ll be to notice counterproductive habits and routines that you’re having to work through or fit against. Which brings us to…
Have you ever set a goal one day and forgot it the next day? Maybe you typed it into that spiffy new productivity app only to have it buried in other screens. As I just mentioned, if you’re going to make a go of habit-changing, you need to be aware of the fact that you’re doing it or old habits will win.
For instance, a lot of us buy gym memberships with good intentions, but we don’t do the small things that’ll help them scaffold that new routine. A small thing could be as simple as putting workout clothes in front of the coffeepot so that they’re seen the first thing in the morning. Sure, maybe there’s not enough time to workout today, but at least there’s a chance that that small act will open up the awareness and idea that working out is important.
Or maybe you want to start reading more rather than watching TV. Rather than keeping your books in another room, why not stand the book up in front of the TV so that, to watch the TV, you have to remove the book? That small action disrupts the old routine while bringing the intention to your awareness. It additionally makes the action concrete, making it more likely that you’ll complete it.
A very similar technique that you can do is place lists of goals in the places you can’t miss them. I’ve often recommended that clients place a list on their bathroom mirrors, near their computers, and on their refrigerators. There’s a sneaky thing going on here, because it’s not just that you see those goals more often, but you often see them when you’re primed for encoding things. If you’re brushing your teeth before bed and see your (hopefully small) list of goals, then you’ll be more likely to process and integrate those goals while you’re sleeping. Likewise, if you’re seeing those goals first thing in the morning as you’re getting water or preparing coffee, you’re more likely to integrate those goals into your day.
While I don’t have a lot of hard field data on it, I think the tangibility of lists and trigger items like shoes and books are better awareness items than digital lists. I also think handwriting your goals encodes them better than typing given the deliberateness of handwriting conjoined with the fact that you’re less likely to write a lot by hand. (This is why I focus most of my R&D on planner designs whose primary focus is printing and writing as opposed to web apps or fillable forms.)
As powerful as Awareness is though, laying those neurophysical pathways requires action.
In the initial stages of habit-building, doing the new thing is the challenge that keeps people from actualizing their new goal. They want to do that new thing, but something keeps them from doing it.
In my experience, what keeps most people from doing the action required is that they overestimate their capabilities in the initial stages and make it too hard for them to get started or sustain what they’ve started. The key to the initial stages of habit-building is to make the barrier to entry to any action as low as possible. Returning to the gym example, rather than trying to start out by going 5 times a week for an hour at a time, try to go three times a week for 30 minutes for the first few weeks. Once you get used to the process, increase the frequency and/or duration, but it’s more important that you keep at it over time than it is that you’re consistent in intensity over time.
The second thing that keeps people from acting is that they’re just not motivated to achieve the goal. What frequently happens is that people make a goal because it’s an external should rather than an internal desire, and the harder the goal is to achieve, the less likely that that external should will have the motivational force to get you there. Or maybe it’s one of the other 10 types of demotivation that’s keeping them from acting.
Lastly, some of us have trouble converting an intention into an action. We set the goal, we see the goal, but when it comes down to doing, we get lost. Here’s where the 5Cs of completion can come in handy, as it helps you convert intentions into completions.
It’s true that action isn’t everything, but without action, there is no actualization. That said, thinking, reflecting, and meditating can themselves be actions when done intentionally and done in a way to support your own actualization. Obviously, if one of your goals is to meditate, think, and reflect more, then actualizing that goal requires meditating, thinking, and reflecting. The simplicity and obviousness of “we become by doing” underscores the reality that so many of us behave as if the doing part was optional.
Some of us have trouble with accountability because we associate the word with punishment, scrutiny, and/or not meeting standards or agreements. Perhaps that’s fair because the majority of discussions of accountability arise when we’re not doing what we’ve said we’d do.
There’s a much more positive way to understand accountability, though: we can see accountability as a way to keep up with what we’re doing. What we need to remember is that we’re much more likely to discount the things we actually do and place too much weight on the things we don’t do. Accountability techniques, then, can be quite supportive because they provide some objectivity to your self-perceptions and at least provide some evidence to buttress against this negativity bias.
The other reason that accountability is so important is that it gives you the structure for the information you need for assessment. Often times, thinking about how you’ll account for your actions gives you a lot of good ideas about how frequently you need to do those actions. For instance, let’s say that you’re trying to build a habit of watering your flowers more. When you project into thinking about accountability, you might see that watering your flowers twice a week is what it would take to actualize that goal. Supposing that you keep a monthly calendar on your fridge, you might decide to place a blue W on every Tuesday and Friday. When Tuesday rolls around, you look at the calendar, see the blue W, water the flowers, and then circle or line through the W for that day.
The example here is illustrative of the fact that it’s often quite easy to embed your accountability system into your awareness system. The blue W makes you aware of the goal, so you can act on it pretty easily. Circling or lining through the W lets you keep things simple – simple is good. Awareness reinforces accountability and accountability reinforces awareness.
This step in the process is where you evaluate what you’ve been doing. There are really two major questions to ask yourself at this stage: 1) Am I doing the things that are consistent with manifesting my goal? and 2) Are those actions actually progressing me towards actualizing the goal?
If you look at your checklist and you see that you’re not doing the actions that are consistent with your goal, it’s a good time to check in with your motivations first, your awareness techniques second, and your time allocations third. The reason you want to go in that order is because if you don’t want to do it, it doesn’t matter whether you’re aware of it or have time for it – you won’t do it. If you want to do it and keep forgetting, then getting some awareness techniques in may help. And, lastly, if you truly don’t have time for it, you need to think about what’s actually possible for you to do.
Sometimes we do things that we think would support our momentum that turn out not to. For instance, you might try putting the book you want to read in front of the TV and it still doesn’t help you read. If you try something a few times and it’s not working, it’s time to try something else. This step allows you to make those types of determinations so that you don’t keep doing the same things and getting the same results.
On the positive side, the assessment step helps you see that the things that you’re doing are making a difference and it also gives you a chance to think about the entire chain of actions to see what’s making the difference. For instance, perhaps you noticed that you had to both pack your workout clothes and drive by the gym in the morning for you to work out later in the day. You can then make sure to include both supportive actions in your regimen until the intended action of going to the gym is routine.
This step allows you to focus on progress rather than achieving the goal. It’s easy to get frustrated when you’re not “there” yet, even though you’ve come a long way from where you started. The reality is that you’ll always be a work in progress, and setting up your expectations so that you don’t get credit until you’re “finished” leads to a lot of frustration, disappointment, and self-abuse.
Assessment and Aim are very tightly connected in that sometimes your assessments will change your aim. Let’s say you aim to write three blog posts a week and end up writing five for two weeks in a row because of the routines and techniques you’re putting in place. When you do an assessment, you can then adjust your aim – maybe you’ll want the goal to be five a week, or maybe you now see that five is too many and you’re going to try to keep to three, higher-quality ones, so you look at what you’d need to change to write those three rather than five.
Or perhaps you aim too high and see that you need to adjust your goals so that they’re realistic for now. However, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be building toward your higher goal; you just need to focus on smaller steps for now so you can build your capability to tackle bigger ones.
Lastly, assessment will tell you whether you need to be actively building the habit/routine or whether it’s now integrated into what you do. If you’re at the point to where you’re no longer having to think about doing something because it’s a natural part of your day, you can just maintain the routine you currently have. Perhaps you’ll want to try something new, or maybe you’re fine exactly where you are. Either way, assessing your progress gives you the information you need to know so that you align your resources with your desired goal(s).
Remember, Start Small
I’m a huge fan of dreaming and thinking big, but time and time again, acting small is how you manifest those dreams and thoughts. It’s a lot easier to focus on one habit for a month than it is to try to “focus” on five, and it’s much more gratifying to make substantial progress on one than to creep on five.
Actualization is not just about the external changes – I might go as far as to say that the external changes are secondary. Even more important than the outer changes are the self-trust, -confidence, and -appreciation that you’re building, and this is a second reason why starting small is better. The more you achieve what you set out to do, the more you trust in your own capabilities and resources, so you’re more likely to try something new. The more you try but don’t achieve, the more you feed the idea that you can’t do it, which saps your motivation and commitment to try new things. Remember that some of those neurophysical pathways go out to our bodies, but others are pathways in beliefs and values; the more you reinforce counter-productive pathways, the harder they are to retrain. Hence Socrates’ statement “the soul, like the body, accepts by practice whatever habit one wishes it to contact.”
In an earlier post, I wrote that no productivity system can override your choices. The key idea there is the same one that I want to bring up here: having a system, process, or technique won’t do the work for you. It can help you immensely, but at the end of the day, if you’re not doing the things that it takes to actualize your goals, then these ideas are worth less than the amount of electricity it takes to share them. Please, start small, but start nonetheless.