The “grow” section
is designed to help you grow – to develop and live with a “growth mindset” as described by Angela Lee Duckworth in her book “
” and by Carol S. Dweck in her book “
In addition to the above sources, inspiration for this chapter is taken from multiple sources that bring a research-based approach to goal setting. In particular three books:
(Susan David, David Clutterbuck, and others)
(Owain Service and Rory Gallagher)
These three books, coupled with my own coaching training and experience have allowed me to develop an approach to goal setting and management that is flexible yet effective.
The exercises in this chapter are framed around six goal or objective types:
A dream, vision or purpose:
How you see the future and your role in that future, for example "Create a world where people work together in well-functioning teams and communities for the common good ...”
An end goal, life goal or moonshot:
to become the market leader, to be appointed sales director, to land a certain key account, to win the goldmedal. To put a rocket on the moon. It is seldom absolutely within your own control and you have no clear path to get there.
An objective that describes the performance level that you think will provide you with a very good chance of achieving the end goal; in your control and easy to measure. Examples of performance goals might be for 95 percent of production to pass quality control first time, for us to sell 100 widgets next month, or to have run the mile in 4 mins 10 secs by the end of September.
Setting and achieving personal goals in the form of projects such as renovating your boat, launching a startup business or planning and hosting a major event such as a family wedding. These projects may also result from your Life Balance Wheel assessment or from discovering and pursuing your Life Purpose.
: (Setting and achieving goals through development of positive habits and routines, such as sleep, exercise, weight loss. These objectives may also result from your Life Balance Wheel assessment but may also connect with habits and routines associated with living your life purpose. In this context I have adapted the SPACE acronym created by Victor Strecher in how book “Life with Purpose”. (Sleep, Presence, Activity, Creativity, Eating as core habits to support a purpose drive life)
The Habit tracker exercise and the daily reflection exercise help with these goals.
Setting and achieving learning goals for personal growth.
The Reading List tool, the daily reflection and monthly reflection helps with these goals.
Working with a growth mindset
Having a Growth Mindset is a key element in living life according to a life purpose and these exercises will help you develop the habits, the routines, to set goals, objectives, actions and to grow.
Finding your Life Purpose takes some effort and focus. Paraphrasing the words of Angela Lee Duckworth,
, in her Ted Talk on the topic she defines Grit as:
Passion and perseverance with a focus on very long-term goals
Stamina to see things through.
Sticking with your future, day in, day out, for years
Living life as a marathon and not as a sprint
In her book on the subject “
” she argues that one of the key attributes for grit is a growth mindset.
“I like to think of a growth mindset this way: Some of us believe, deep down, that people really can change. These growth-oriented people assume that it’s possible, for example, to get smarter if you’re given the right opportunities and support and if you try hard enough and if you believe you can do it. Conversely, some people think you can learn skills, like how to ride a bike or do a sales pitch, but your capacity to learn skills—your talent—can’t be trained. The problem with holding the latter fixed-mindset view—and many people who consider themselves talented do—is that no road is without bumps. Eventually, you’re going to hit one. At that point, having a fixed mind-set becomes a tremendous liability. This is when a C–, a rejection letter, a disappointing progress review at work, or any other setback can derail you. With a fixed mindset, you’re likely to interpret these setbacks as evidence that, after all, you don’t have “the right stuff”—you’re not good enough. With a growth mindset, you believe you can learn to do better.” Angela Duckworth. Grit.
Developing a “growth” mindset
According to Carol Dweck in her book “
the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.”
She argues that people live their lives according to a growth mindset or a fixed mindset, and that these mindsets are rooted in beliefs that people have of themselves.
A person living life with fixed mindset tends to treat each life situation as an opportunity to somehow prove themselves “
look smart, don’t look dumb
”. The core tenet of this approach is that “
If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics
A person living life with a growth mindset tends to treat each life situation as an opportunity to learn and grow as a person. “
Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.” (Carol Dweck)
Imagine you’re having a bad day. Your car wouldn’t start, and you were late for work, your computer developed a problem, and you couldn’t log in to your emails, you had a client meeting arranged and they cancelled at the last moment. You went home and WhatsApp’d a friend to share your day with, but they weren’t interested in your day and sort of “brushed you off”.
After a day like that, if you find yourself with thoughts such as: “I feel like a reject”; “I’m a total failure”; “I’m an idiot”; “I’m a loser”; “I feel worthless and dumb”;” Everyone is better than me.” In other words – “
I’m a victim of my circumstances and I need help”
. It may mean that you’re filtering your view of the world through a fixed mindset where your thoughts leave you feeling useless and a failure.
Alternatively, a person with a growth mindset would automatically look for the growth and learnings from those situations: “I need to service my car”; “I’ll send my work emails to my ‘phone in case my computer breaks down”; I’ll check with my clients the day before meetings to make sure they’re still available”. They see each situation as an opportunity to grow skills and strengths.
And how do you change a fixed mindset to a growth mindset? You change your mind: “
You can see how the belief that cherished qualities can be developed creates a passion for learning. Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.” Excerpt From: Carol Dweck. “Mindset.”
One of the core messages from Angela Duckworth in her book “Grit” is to achieve goal alignment. “
Grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time. Furthermore, this “life philosophy,” as Pete Carroll might put it, is so interesting and important that it organizes a great deal of your waking activity. In very gritty people, most mid-level and low-level goals are, in some way or another, related to that ultimate goal. In contrast, a lack of grit can come from having less coherent goal structures.
So how can you build your own goal hierarchy and why? In her book, Angela Duckworth describes an approach based on the method used by Warren Buffet: “
…the self-made multibillionaire whose personal wealth, acquired entirely within his own lifetime, is roughly twice the size of Harvard University’s endowment—reportedly gave his pilot a simple three-step process for prioritizing. The story goes like this: Buffett turns to his faithful pilot and says that he must have dreams greater than flying Buffett around to where he needs to go. The pilot confesses that, yes, he does. And then Buffett takes him through three steps. First, you write down a list of twenty-five career goals. Second, you do some soul-searching and circle the five highest-priority goals. Just five.”
She recommends a modified version of this method that starts with identifying a common “purpose”. “
So, to Buffett’s three-step exercise in prioritizing, I would add an additional step: Ask yourself, To what extent do these goals serve a common purpose? The more they’re part of the same goal hierarchy—important because they then serve the same ultimate concern—the more focused your passion.”
Create your own personal growth system.
The Grow worksheets in this chapter have been designed to help you put your own personal growth system in place.
As you consider your roots and development of your growth mindset, your goals and objectives may emerge from multiple sources:
Your dream, vision or purpose
may already be clear or may emerge as you progress through life as you pursue a growth-based lifestyle
Your end goals, life goals or moonshot goals
may emerge from your Life Purpose a 5–10 year or lifetime goal that helps bring your life purpose into focus as something more tangible. If this is on your mind, you may consider documenting it using the moonshot worksheet. The moonshot goal will be, by its very nature, general and visionary, and hard to build into a practical plan at this stage – after all, 5 years is a long way away, but it will become a beacon, along with your Life Purpose, to help define the concrete goals and objectives for the next 12 months.
Your learning objectives
may emerge as a development need you identified while discovering your Life Purpose, for example to develop a skill or improve on a strength you need to be able to live your life purpose.
Your performance and project objectives
may emerge from the Life Balance Wheel analysis as a focus area to improve your life as a stretch objective from your leverage Life Balance Segment) or from your moonshot of end goals as you identify milestones to get started towards the end goal.
Your process objectives
may also emerge from the Habits Tracker exercise itself, where you identify positive habits you need to bring into your life to support living your life purpose.
Gather your list of goals, list them on post-it notes. Then group them and name each group as a sort of “meta-goal”, taking into account which of these are “means goals” or “end-goals”. Then take these meta-goals and ask yourself which of these goals are connected to your Life Purpose that you identified from your
If you don’t yet have a life purpose then review these meta-goals to try to identify common themes (Your life purpose might be concealed inside these themes).
to organise these into life goals, 5-year goals and 12-month objectives.
Whatever their source, research tells us that attempting multiple goals/objectives at the same time is a recipe to fail at them all – so with that in mind, I recommend you prioritise the goals into the ones you plan to focus on now and the ones you may focus on later in life. Use the
to list and then prioritise your goals.
For each prioritised goal, use the
for a reality check to establish your starting point.
Take these prioritised goals for the next year and define success measurements for each one (using the META+ model (see Measuring Objectives below for more details). Use the OKR+ section of the
to document your metrics and consider an accountability partner to support your journey.
Take a separate piece of paper or use the brainstorm worksheet in this exercise and start to list all the things you could do to achieve your top priority goal – refer to the “turning objectives into action” paragraph below for ideas on this.
Take the actions you’ve decided on and use the task worksheet of the
to document the actions and outcomes by month. These actions will become tasks that then “haunt” you through many of the remaining worksheets of the toolbox until you have dealt with them.
As you progress through each month with the Purposeful Life Journal, you will manage the tasks that you have created on the
as you plan each month, week and day in the
for the appropriate month. At the end go each month you will assess your overall ability to achieve these actions in that month alongside other commitments and then plan, using the monthly planners in the life chapter to turn the actions into reality.
Finally, use the Habit Planner and Learning Planner, also in the
exercise to document desired changes and learning goals that you must have to achieve the objectives you have set for yourself.
Test yourself using the
from the Life Section - do you have the emotional grit or willpower to achieve the goals you have set?
, also from the Life section, to monitor and adjust the routines/habits to ensure you balance your life with healthy habits that support your objectives
Setting goals and objectives
Key elements of a high-quality goal
Dr. Edwin Locke’s goal setting theory, developed and published in 1968, identifies five key attributes for a high-quality goal.
Be clear of what the positive change or desired improvement is. A clear, measurable goal with a specific timeline for completion is more achievable than one that is poorly defined.
Using a framework or a exercise such as SMART or META+ (see below) goals helps to provide a reliable and logical foundation for the goal.
The goal needs to be challenging in order to be motivating but setting too big of a challenge is overwhelming and de-motivating.
The way to set the right amount of challenge is to be realistic about the current situation. Plan ahead and prepare for scenarios that might slow you down.
Goals must be accepted by both you and others involved. Commitment is at the same time a rational and an emotional choice. Rational commitment derives from the question whether you are ready to commit to the goal. Emotional commitment comes from the fact that the objective means something for you.
In a team context: gain commitment from your team by agreeing and making sure the targets are realistic and sensible to your team members.
When working towards a goal, in order to stay motivated, you must regularly receive feedback on your progress.
This is why specific process goals can be so effective! Find ways to gather feedback related to your progress - either through measuring progress or from other people.
Highly complicated goals can be de-motivating and overwhelming. Be sure to break down complex objectives into sub-targets.
Your objectives may be too complex if you feel overwhelmed by them; in this case re-assess the objectives and break them down to smaller activities or milestones.
Objectives vs goals
A goal is a desired result you want to achieve and is typically broad and long-term. You might use company goals to inform yearly strategies and guide the direction of all your marketing efforts.
An objective, on the other hand, defines the specific, measurable actions each employee must take to achieve the overall goal. For instance, if your overall goal is to increase brand awareness, one objective might be to increase blog traffic by 10%
Setting end goals
, together represent one source of inspiration for your long-term end goals – thinking 3-5 years into the future:
Which of the experiences from your My Purposeful Future are causally related to your Life Purpose?
What contributions to society are related to your Life Purpose?
From these items, what would you like to have achieved in this 3–5-year horizon? Think big and scary – a stretch goal that you believe is possible but that some part of you might find a bit scary.
Your objectives are concrete milestones towards achieving your goals. Milestones, by their more concrete nature, tend to have 12 month or less horizons – what concrete, measurable outcomes do you intend to achieve?
These might form the basis for a series of tasks or activities that you would plan as a project. These are referred to also as performance goals “A goal that identifies the performance level that you think will provide you with a very good chance of achieving the end goal; in your control and easy to measure".
Or they might for the basis for a habit or routine that will achieve a concrete objective through a lifestyle change. These are referred to also as process goals - A small goal around what we wish to do on a regular basis to get to the performance goal, "Contact one new potential client per month. / Promote the opportunity on social media for 2 weeks at a time every 2 months." (Sleep, Presence, Activity, Creativity, Eating)
Finally, they might be learning goals, a goal to acquire the needed knowledge to achieve a performance goal (“I want to become familiar with the PMI Project Management Principles in order to develop my career path towards professional project management”.
By their very definition, objectives must be measured, but not all measurements are equal:
it must be something that can actually be
- for example, completing a task a specific number of times, a percentage, or a financial target – and the measurement must be related to the objective – there’s little use in measuring a child’s height as a measure of an improved diet, for example.
it must be
by this, I mean it must be measuring something significant that is desired, such as an improved lifestyle from not smoking.
it must be
– the objective must be set as a target for a specific date in the future.
it must be
if the objective is not possible to achieve then nobody will be motivated to achieve it.
it must be
framed – It is a lot easier to achieve an objective that inspires a positive frame of mind that a negative one – so, rather than weight loss, measure fitting the clothes you love.
This measurement framework –
is similar to the SMART measurements you may be used to (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time based).
Measuring objectives vs KPIs
Objectives and goals are all about change - taking conscious steps to move from some place to some other place. The META+ and SMART metrics are measurements that you put in place to know when you have achieved that changed state.
KPIs (key performance indicators), on the other hand, are measurements of control rather than of change. They measure the performance levels that a business needs in order to deliver outcomes (products or services) to a desired level of quality.
The two types of measurements are, of course, connected because the objective or goal may well be to adjust or improve an existing KPI, and because a KPI may be impacted as a side-effect of the actions done to deliver the objective.
In the context of this toolbox, I recommend developing one or two simple KPI measurements as ways to detect progress towards a goal or objective, but recognising that the KPI measurement and the objective key result meausrment may be the same. The main thing to keep in mind is that you have a way to track progress towards your objective that can continue to reinforce your
to deliver the change.
Visualising objectives and goals
Visualization is a simple technique that you can use to create a strong mental image of a future event. With good use of visualization, you can practice in advance for the event, so that you can prepare properly for it. And by visualizing success, you can build the self-confidence you need to perform well.
For instance, imagine you have a major job interview next week. You're nervous already, and it's easy to worry about giving poor answers to the interviewer's questions, speaking awkwardly about your past accomplishments, and forgetting your letters of recommendation.
Does this sound familiar? We've all probably experienced negative thinking like this.
However, instead of thinking negatively, you could use visualization to imagine that the interview goes well. You could picture yourself talking confidently, easily describing all of your past achievements, and providing letters of recommendation to the interviewer. That vision feels a lot better, doesn't it?
Visualization offers several benefits:
Visualizing outcomes that you want can increase your confidence. "Seeing" yourself succeed helps you believe that it can – and will – happen.
Visualization helps you "practice" success. When you imagine every step of an event or activity going well, you get your mind and body ready to take those steps in real life.
Anyone can benefit from visualization. You don't have to be a life coach or personal development expert to use visualization to achieve your goals.
Sharing a goal or objective with a friend, family member or coach and ask then to support you as an “accountability partner” is a great was to help achieve goals. Use the worksheet here to set your objectives for your life purpose, life balance and growth.
Planning and managing projects.
Projects, from a Project Management Principles perspective, are managed by controlling duration, resources, and scope. In practical terms this translates into three topics:
When do you realistically believe the outcome, or the objective will be available?
How much effort or cost are you prepared to invest in the activities required for this objective? This translates into “What actions are required to make this change?” Turning objectives into action!
How flexible or limited is the outcome – the minimum viable product that will result from the project?
By working through these questions, you can plan the effort, time and result for the objective and then monitor and adjust these as part of the
of the toolbox.
Turning objectives into action
Of course, you can make a list of steps and tasks that deliver the objective – can’t you? But how do you know if these are the right actions and all the actions? Enter brainstorming! You can brainstorm on your own, or in a team – individual brainstorming to achieve your personal objectives, team brainstorming for a project involving multiple “stakeholders”.
One best practice for individual brainstorming is to use mind mapping software. If you’re not familiar with mind mapping, consider the work of
, largely accredited as the inventor of this technique. The value of mind mapping is it allows you to visualise your thoughts as you create them, resulting in a more creative result than making lists alone.
Once you exhaust your initial creativity in generating ideas, here are some questions to consider as you brainstorm:
What would your (son, daughter, mother, father, spouse, great grandfather do)?
If you had a magic wand that could grant any wish what would you ask for?
If you had unlimited resources (time, money) what would you do?
If you asked Elon Musk, what would he suggest?
If you lived 150 years ago what would you do?
If you lived 150 years into the future… you get the idea!
The book, “Thinking Small” concludes with a set of “golden rules” for turning goals into reality:
Focus on a single goal and set a clear target and deadline.
Break your goal down into manageable steps.
Create an actionable plan.
Turn the plan into habits.
Write it down and make it public.
Appoint a commitment referee.
Put something meaningful at stake.
Use small rewards to build good habits.
Beware of backfire effects.
Tap into your social networks.
Know where you stand in relation to your goal.
Make it timely, specific, actionable, and focused on effort.
Compare your performance with others.
Practice with focus and effort.
Reflect and celebrate success.
Service, Owain; Gallagher, Rory. Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals
Habits or Rituals
In his book “Life on Purpose”, Victor Strecher discusses the relationship between Life Purpose, “Will Power” and five lifestyle activity areas (Sleep, Presence, Activity, Creativity and Eating).
“Ikigai: The Japanese secret to a Long and Happy Life (Hector Garcia)
introduces some thoughts on habits or routines that increase life expectancy:
Walk to work, or just go on a walk for at least twenty minutes each day.
Use your feet instead of an elevator or escalator. This is good for your posture, your muscles, and your respiratory system, among other things.
articipate in social or leisure activities so that you don’t spend too much time in front of the television.
Replace your junk food with fruit and you’ll have less of an urge to snack, and more nutrients in your system.
Get the right amount of sleep. Seven to nine hours is good, but any more than that makes us lethargic.
Play with children or pets or join a sports team. This not only strengthens the body but also stimulates the mind and boosts self-esteem.
Be conscious of your daily routine in order to detect harmful habits and replace them with more positive ones.
By making these small changes, we can begin to renew our bodies and minds and increase our life expectancy. Héctor García; Francesc Miralles. Ikigai
You will also find similar messages from Dr Laurie Santos, cognitive scientist, and Professor of Psychology at Yale University, in her course “the science of wellbeing”:
With such a strong connection between Life Purpose and lifestyle habits it makes sense to include this as a core element of the GROW chapter, reinforced in the daily reflection,
In this Toolbox I have taken the simple model from Victor Strecher (SPACE). These five aspects of habits or rituals form one of the “red threads” through the “grow” and “life” sections.
I have included here a short summary for each of these ritual areas – for a more complete discussion I recommend reading
Sleep and sleep rituals
We each require an average of 7-8 hours of sleep a day in order to “reset” our immune system and to develop the plasticity of our brains so we can better cope with the day-to-day pressures of living, our behaviour, beliefs and emotions. Of that 7-8 hours of sleep, we require a healthy balance of deep sleep (to rest and repair our bodies), REM sleep to help consolidate what we have learned during the day into memory and periods of transitions between hypnogogic (falling asleep) and hypnopompic (waking up) sleep states where creativity occurs.
Sleep rituals are routines we can adopt to influence behavioural, environmental or emotional factors that get in the way of sleep. Here are some that I’ve tried to adopt:
Avoid blue-light emitting devices for at least one hour before bedtime.
Consider avoiding alcohol to improve sleep.
Keep your bedroom quiet, dark and cool to facilitate sleep, turning off any sounds your electronic devices might make.
Consider keeping pets out of the bedroom (not so good at this one)
Consider regular exercise to aid in sleeping.
Consider using a planner to write down tomorrow’s task list and anything else on your mind – so it doesn’t keep you awake stressing about it.
Being “in the now” is a critical skill to develop, especially to relax, reduce stress and improve focus. Some techniques you might want to consider adopting as rituals:
Simple breathing exercises where you focus on your breath and how it feels in your body.
Try to focus on a single activity or a single thing that you might see on your daily walk, and then really focus. Let it fill your consciousness as you take in and savour every detail. You could also consider doing this as you eat or drink something – take the time to really savour and appreciate the taste, the texture, the smell.
Meditate daily. There are lots of apps available on your app store to support this ritual.
I suppose we all know that being physically active it a key element of a balanced life and an essential element of life to maintain the energy you need to live a purposeful life.
In his book “Life on Purpose, Victor Strecher described 4 types of activity:
This type of exercise is also called “cardio,” because it makes your lungs and heart move harder and faster. It’s often divided into different levels of intensity and done for at least ten minutes at a time. Examples of high-intensity aerobic activity are jogging or running, swimming laps, riding a bike fast or on hills, and playing singles tennis. Moderate-intensity aerobic activity includes walking fast, water aerobics, riding a bike on level ground, or playing doubles tennis.
This is the kind of exercise that strengthens your muscles; it involves lifting weights, working with resistance bands, doing push-ups or sit-ups, and so forth. Your heart and breathing rates may increase, too, but that isn’t the point of resistance training—increasing strength is. It isn’t far from Aristotle’s 2,300-year-old version of physical strength training, which developed, in his words, “the power of moving another thing as one wishes; and to move another thing, one must either pull, push, lift up, press down, or squeeze.”
These include range-of-motion activities such as neck, shoulder, upper body, chest, back, and other stretches. (Yoga, mentioned in the previous chapter, is a terrific way to get more flexible.)
These exercises, which focus on the way your brain and muscles work together, include balance, agility, coordination, and gait. Yoga, qigong, and tai chi all improve these skills.
Strecher, Victor J.. Life on Purpose (p. 168).
The key to success with activity rituals is to start – start with something you enjoy and start slowly – at a pace you’re happy with. Consult a health-care professional if in any doubt. Consider using a ‘phone app to help you set a baseline and track progress… and enjoy it.
Get selective about the TV that you watch and use the time you save for short exercise activities.
Purchase a “
” and use this to do basic resistance training in your home.
Take short breaks from your desk to walk or jog around your house of office.
When you’re out and about, take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Rather than meeting a friend for a coffee, meet them for a walk.
Acquire a dog – those daily walks do wonders.
Creativity takes many forms, and in this context, it boils down to staying mentally active and engaged. In the words of Victor Strecher:
Researchers talk about two essential elements of a creative endeavour: novelty and usefulness. A custodian may come up with a new schedule for waxing floors in an office building (novel) that results in easier access for employees (useful). A teacher may concoct a new lesson plan for teaching (novel) that results in higher student performance (useful). A couple may improvise a kinky new sex game involving a brick (novel) that results in a stronger relationship (useful). These innovators may not even think of themselves as “creative”—but they are. Strecher, Victor J.. Life on Purpose.
Some ideas to stimulate creativity:
Develop your emotional intelligence, your empathy – seeing life from other people’s perspectives.
Learn to draw or paint, or take photos – it was Chase Jarvis who said, “the best camera is the one you have with you”, and nowadays almost all of us have a reasonably good camera built into our ‘phones so get out there and get creative.
Learn a new skill, a new language.
Write a book or start a blog.
One of the principles of Ikigai is to stop eating when you’re 80% full – eat until you almost feel full – and then stop. But there’s a lot more to eating than quantity. How much sugar is in your diet? How much wheat or other gluten rich ingredients? What about fats? Are they good for you? Probably yes! And what about drinking? How much water do you drink every day?
Eat slowly, savour each mouthful.
Eat frequently and lightly.
Drink water – lots of water.
Consider the Mediterranean diet.
Consider fish and lots of veggies!
Consider an Omega-3 diet supplement.
Redesigning your habits
So what exactly is a habit, why are they so important, and how do I change my habits?
Wikipedia describes a
“a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously”.
The same Wikipedia article continues:
“When behaviors are repeated in a consistent context, there is an incremental increase in the link between the context and the action. This increases the automaticity of the behavior in that context. Features of an automatic behavior are all or some of: efficiency; lack of awareness; unintentionality; and uncontrollability.
Psychologist Wendy Wood, in her book “
tells us that “
Our nonconscious selves are forming habits that enable us to easily repeat what we have done in the past. We have little conscious experience of forming a habit or acting out of habit. We do not control our habits in the same way as we do our conscious decisions. This is the under-the-surface, hidden nature of habit.”.
So, in summary, habits are formed as a consequence of repeated behaviour that then create mental shortcuts in our brain. Wendy Wood describes these shortcuts as part of “procedural memory” along with learning a second language, riding a bicycle. “
It’s such an important repository of information that only the most frequently repeated patterns get stored like this. It functions somewhat separately from other memory systems, and the specific information encoded isn’t accessible to consciousness. This kind of cognitive coding is a sort of mental equivalent of admin-only files on your computer. Your computer’s best functioning relies on you not naively messing around in its most fundamental code, which it stashes away behind several layers of obfuscation. This is why we don’t know much about our habits. The information we learn as a habit is to some extent separated from other neural regions.”
In his book
, author James Clear puts a strong case for tweaking your habits. He argues that a 1% improvement in daily habits results in a “compound interest” of 37% in one year.
He goes on to describe the positive or negative impact that this compounding has on your life:
. Accomplishing one extra task is a small feat on any given day, but it counts for a lot over an entire career. The effect of automating an old task or mastering a new skill can be even greater. The more tasks you can handle without thinking, the more your brain is free to focus on other areas.
. Learning one new idea won’t make you a genius, but a commitment to lifelong learning can be transformative. Furthermore, each book you read not only teaches you something new but also opens up different ways of thinking about old ideas. As Warren Buffett says, “That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.”
. People reflect your behavior back to you. The more you help others, the more others want to help you. Being a little bit nicer in each interaction can result in a network of broad and strong connections over time.
. The frustration of a traffic jam. The weight of parenting responsibilities. The worry of making ends meet. The strain of slightly high blood pressure. By themselves, these common causes of stress are manageable. But when they persist for years, little stresses compound into serious health issues.
Negative thoughts compound.
The more you think of yourself as worthless, stupid, or ugly, the more you condition yourself to interpret life that way. You get trapped in a thought loop. The same is true for how you think about others. Once you fall into the habit of seeing people as angry, unjust, or selfish, you see those kind of people everywhere.
Riots, protests, and mass movements are rarely the result of a single event. Instead, a long series of micro-aggressions and daily aggravations slowly multiply until one event tips the scales and outrage spreads like wildfire.”
OK, so now we know what a habit is and a bit about why they are important to our lives, but how to change habits?
According to the research from James Clear, the process of a habit can be seen as 4 steps: cue, craving, response, reward.
is the trigger that you brain receives that initiates the habit.
is the motivation or desire for something in response to the cue. It is the outcome of the habit that you desire. Some examples by James Clear
“You do not crave smoking a cigarette, you crave the feeling of relief it provides. You are not motivated by brushing your teeth but rather by the feeling of a clean mouth”.
is the habitual behaviour itself that you may carry out depending on your will to do it
is the end goal of the habit, to satisfy the craving. The reward is also the reinforcer for the habit – “
feelings of pleasure and disappointment are part of the feedback mechanism that helps your brain distinguish useful actions from useless ones. Rewards close the feedback loop and complete the habit cycle.”
James Clear. “Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.”
These 4 steps can be seen as a cycle – and depending on how you perceive the habit (is it bad or good), this can be seen as either a vicious or virtuous cycle.
If you want to build a new, good habit, you can focus on the above 4 step cycle to reinforce each of the steps. Similarly, if you want to break an existing bad habit, you can focus on these 4 steps to mimímise each step:
Wendy Wood offers a similar approach with three steps:
- The context of the habit – the environment and what’s going on that triggers the need for a particular habit (cue and craving).
“…the restraining forces, the driving forces, and the pitfalls of your introspection illusion.” Wendy Wood. “Good Habits, Bad Habits.”.
– Designing the actions for the new habit (response), and then committing to these actions for long enough that it becomes a habit (around 40 repetitions, according to Wendy Wood’s research).
– This is the secret spice for a new habit – to turn the pain of repetition and change into something that delivers something that you desire, even if small.
“Rewards, to have a role in habit formation, have to be bigger and better than what you would normally experience. That’s likely going to take some forethought and creativity. It might require some deliberation on your part.” Wendy Wood. “Good Habits, Bad Habits.”
Rewards can be intrinsic or extrinsic to the behaviour of the habit.
rewards are the most effective to reinforce a behaviour,
“This could be the feeling of pleasure you get when you read an engaging story to your kids and see their enjoyment; or maybe the warm glow of generosity you experience when doing a good deed, like volunteering at the soup kitchen.” Wendy Wood. “Good Habits, Bad Habits.”.
rewards rewards you in a hedonistic way, for example, a treat, an hour on Netflix, a new pair of shoes.
Tips to overcome change resistance
Katy Milkman, in her book
, builds on the work of James Clear and others, and provides a set of research-based, practical tips to facilitate change:
are times in your life that you could consider a new life chapter – such as a birthday milestone, a new job or home, a new year, or even the start of a new month.
Katy’s research advises
“Fresh starts increase your motivation to change because they give you either a real clean slate or the impression of one; they relegate your failures more cleanly to the past; and they boost your optimism about the future. They can also disrupt bad habits and lead you to think bigger picture about your life.”
The Purposeful Life Journal is naturally designed for a “fresh start” each new month.
is a technique where you engage in something you enjoy while conducting your new habit.
In Katy’s words “
Temptation bundling entails allowing yourself to engage in a guilty pleasure (such as binge-watching TV) only when pursuing a virtuous or valuable activity”.
– for example, in my case, I watch Netflix while cycling on my indoor cycling machine.
She goes on to say “
Temptation bundling solves two problems at once. It can help reduce overindulgence in temptations and increase time spent on activities that serve your long-term goals”.
can be used to overcome procrastination by openly committing to something that you will do if you fail to commit to the change.
Present bias often causes us to procrastinate on tasks that serve our long-term goals. An effective solution to this problem is to anticipate temptation and create constraints (“commitment devices”) that disrupt this cycle.
Whenever you do something that reduces your own freedoms in the service of a greater goal, you’re using a commitment device
Cash commitment devices are a versatile form of commitment device. They allow you to create a financial incentive to meet your goal by letting you put money on the line that you’ll forfeit if you don’t succeed.
Public pledges are a form of “soft” commitment that increase the psychological cost of failing to meet your goals
can help overcome forgetting. These could also include cue-based reminders, such as remembering to floss after you have brushed your teeth.
“Timely reminders, which prompt you to do something right before you’re meant to do it, can effectively combat forgetting. Reminders that aren’t as timely have far smaller benefits.
Forming cue-based plans is another way to combat forgetting. These plans link a plan of action with a cue and take the form “When ___ happens, I’ll do ___.” Cues can be anything that triggers your memory, from a specific time or location to an object you expect to encounter.”
can combat laziness, making it easier to complete the desired action. “
Laziness, or the tendency to follow the path of least resistance, can stand in the way of change. A
is the outcome you’ll get if you don’t actively choose another option (such as the standard factory settings that come with a new computer).
If you select defaults wisely (say, setting your browser’s homepage to your work email instead of Facebook), you can turn laziness into an asset that facilitates change (say, wasting less time on social media).
Habits are like default settings for our behavior. They put good behavior on autopilot. The more you repeat an action in familiar circumstances and receive some reward (be it praise, relief, pleasure, or cold hard cash), the more habitual and automatic your reactions become in those situations”
can be used to help you stay confident and on track with a plan.
“Set ambitious goals (say, exercising every day) but allow yourself a limited number of emergency passes when you slip up (say, two per week).
That strategy can help you stay confident and on track even when you face the occasional, inevitable setback”
Immunity to change
The very practical change resistance tips from Katy Milkman described above can prove effective in making change around routines. But how to effect changes in behaviour that are rooted in your core beliefs or values? Enter
author of the book
. Robert is a developmental psychologist and until recently was the William and Miriam Meehan Professor in Adult Learning and Professional Development at Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Backed by over 30 years of research into adult development, Robert Kegan and his colleague Lisa Lahey have identified three phases of adult development which they labels as:
They continue by introducing the concept of “adaptive” learning (in addition to “technical” learning): the ability to learn how to transform your mindset, thereby advancing to a more sophisticated stage of mental development. They then go on to pose the question: “
What would it mean to intentionally support the development of complexity of mind?
After years of extensive research and testing they have developed what they refer to as an x-ray exercise – that you can use to understand the inner conflict between a desired “behaviour goal” and the “conflicting behaviours”, fuelled by “competing commitments” that in turn are driven by “big assumptions” or beliefs that may reside in your subconscious.
Their research has demonstrated that once these “big assumptions” or beliefs are uncovered, you can then develop and carry out some “tasks” to challenge these assumptions. They use the acronym “SMART” for these tasks (not to be confused with SMART goals) to help define these tasks:
The idea of these SMART tests is “gradually building up a psychological space between ourselves and our Big Assumptions in order to move them from subject to object, where we can look at them, turn them around in our hands, and consider altering them” Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey; “Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization”
I have adapted the X-ray exercise and the SMART test exercise for use in this chapter and if you’re interested in the research cases behind this approach I can recommend
, or for a shortened description, this
exercise (in the “grow” section) takes the principles and “laws” from these multiple sources (
Wendy Wood. “Good Habits, Bad Habits”, Service, Owain; Gallagher, Rory. Think Small; James Clear “Atomic Habits” and Katy Milkman “How to Change”)
and combines them into a table you can use as your “plan of attack” to change old habits and create new ones.
allows you to track the repetition/frequency for the habits you want to change, on a daily basis.
The Habit Tracker then provides you with a monthly overview of your progress to help you recalibrate your approach at the end of each month.
Growth and learning
I don’t know about you, but as a Life Coach, I find myself on a constant and steep learning curve – studying books and articles all the time. And it seems that the more I study, the less knowledge I retain.
It’s made me realise how difficult it is for me to actually retain the knowledge that I have read. How to capture the insights and related references so I can recall them when needed?
So with that in mind I have tried to “weave” the worksheets I might need to support my learning goals into the Purposeful Life Journal.
The starting point for this journey has been the book “Make It Stick. (Brown, Peter C.)”. This has made me realise that my approach to learning – something that I guess I learned while at school some 50-odd years ago, is very wrong.
“It turns out that much of what we’ve been doing as teachers and students isn’t serving us well, but some comparatively simple changes could make a big difference. People commonly believe that if you expose yourself to something enough times—say, a textbook passage or a set of terms from an eighth-grade biology class—you can burn it into memory. Not so. Many teachers believe that if they can make learning easier and faster, the learning will be better. Much research turns this belief on its head: when learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer.” Brown, Peter C. “Make It Stick.”
The core of the “make it stick” concept is to use techniques and habits to:
help the transfer of learnings from short-term memory into long-term memory, (so you actually learn) and…
train in the retrieval of learnings from long term memory (so you can access what you learn).
“One of the best habits a learner can instill in herself is regular self-quizzing to recalibrate her understanding of what she does and does not know. It comes down to the simple but no less profound truth that effortful learning changes the brain, building new connections and capability. This single fact—that our intellectual abilities are not fixed from birth but are, to a considerable degree, ours to shape—is a resounding answer to the nagging voice that too often asks us “Why bother?” Brown, Peter C. “Make It Stick.”
Throughout the book Peter reinforces the point that retrieval must be “effortful” – that the practice of retrieving the knowledge as the basis for learning requires some effort, some hard work:
“Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention. We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier, but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better. The greater the effort to retrieve learning, provided that you succeed, the more that learning is strengthened by retrieval. After an initial test, delaying subsequent retrieval practice is more potent for reinforcing retention than immediate practice, because delayed retrieval requires more effort.” Brown, Peter C. “Make It Stick.”
These techniques and habits are somehow interwoven as the process of retrieval is fundamental to the process of storing into long-term memory. In summary:
Practice reflection, using different techniques or situations to force yourself to retrieve the learning, for example by creating tests for yourself or describing the learning to another person (I use my wife for this)
Create context for the learning, enlarging existing mental models you may have to encompass the new learning with cues from prior learning.
Space out your retrieval exercises – practice retrieving the learning later the same day, later in the week, after a few weeks etc.
Look for principles behind the learning that you can then relate to similar principles in different contexts – enlarging your mental models across a set of shared principles.
The book “make it stick” provides deep research as well as other aspects of learning that are beyond the scope of the purposeful life planner, but I have applied the essence of these 4 recommended techniques to the worksheets and guides here.
“Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time.” Brown, Peter C. “Make It Stick.”
exercise to keep track of learning resources as you discover them – books, podcasts, videos etc that you discover or that people recommend to you that may help your growth journey.
to plan the learning and development activity you plan to complete over the coming year or period
during the month to update the learning plan and resources list, and also to manage the learning tests you will arrange to help make the learning efforts “stick”:
adjust and manage the learning resources and learning plan in that month:
at the end of each week, to write down test questions for each insight or key learning that you will use to test yourself on at the end of the month;
to test your memory using the questions you have made in in the previous weeks to help move these learnings from short-term to long-term memory.
exercise (“What I have learned” section) to record insights and key learnings that you have noticed and that you would like to develop into long-term memory. As you do this, consider the mental models that this learning shares with previous experiences you have had – to enlarge your mental model of the world in such a way that it includes also this new learning.
“The good news is that we now know of simple and practical strategies that anybody can use, at any point in life, to learn better and remember longer: various forms of retrieval practice, such as low-stakes quizzing and self-testing, spacing out practice, interleaving the practice of different but related topics or skills, trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution, distilling the underlying principles or rules that differentiate types of problems, and so on.” Brown, Peter C. “Make It Stick.”
An additional resource you may find useful is the
– a free resource from the web site
“resource to help teachers understand how students learn and use that knowledge to inform their teaching.”