Recently I hinted at a huge goal I’m working on. It’s been on my mind for a few years now, but two weeks ago it graduated from wishy-washy “dream” status to concrete “goal” status.
In previous articles, I’ve made clear what I think about supporting myself by working for an employer. Having been at the mercy of the fickle and disorganized kiwifruit industry for my income for two months, I’m remembering how strongly I yearn to be free of arrangements where somebody else decides when I work and don’t work, how much money I can make, and what I can wear, say, or do at work. I no longer want to have sell my weekdays to somebody else’s purpose.
By my 31st birthday, I will be completely self-employed. That’s less than 18 months from today. Mark it on your calendar: I will cease to be an employee by October 8, 2011, and I will never get a job again.
I know I can do it a lot sooner than that, but 18 months will give me the option of maintaining a more-than-decent lifestyle in the mean time. I always knew I wanted this, but I did not actually believe it was within reach until a recent insight made it clear that I can pull it off in a relatively short time-frame. I’ll explain what that insight is below.
Now, I have made similar “Okay things will change from this day forth” resolutions before. Typically, I come up with a thrilling new project, and enthusiasm mushrooms until it has crowded out all my other concerns of the moment — like that afternoon I became infatuated with the idea of tracing my family tree. I dropped everything I was doing and lost myself in dozens of blogs and articles about genealogy. By 8pm I was quite over it, content again to sit on it for a few years. But at 4pm it still felt like I was turning a giant page in life, undertaking this huge, rewarding project.
That same jilted-project pattern should have happened with this blog, too. I could have just as easily devoured Problogger articles for a few days, registered a domain name and written half an article, only to drop it all and start something else when the initial excitement faded.
That “honeymoon period” for new projects always fades. You need something to keep it moving after that. Willpower might work for a while, but it’s not sustainable either.
You’re reading this blog because during the honeymoon period I made a decision that turned out to be brilliant. To jumpstart my blogging career, I dropped almost five hundred dollars on a blogging mentor course called Blog Mastermind. It kept the enthusiasm feeding itself, by helping me reach a rewarding level of growth quickly, but more importantly, it committed me to the blogging pursuit until it started paying off. I was five bills in — I wasn’t going to walk away. So in order to recoup my investment, blogging became a habit, and it’s changed my life.
It’s scary to think that Raptitude never would have reached “critical momentum” had I not (inadvertently) made a habit out of it. Even though the decision to blog arrived in a glorious, “Aha moment” revelation, my personal history shows me that a flash of enthusiasm or insight is no match for a solid habit, good or bad.
Habits Drive Human Beings
Habits are the real forces that drive our lives, and it doesn’t take long — weeks or even just days — for them to wait out sudden infatuations or resolutions, and devour them. Your habit of not running in the morning is stronger than your New Year’s resolution to run in the morning. For the first few days it might seem like your enthusiasm is unconquerable, but if you miss a day, your enthusiasm dips a bit. The not-running habit sees its chance to regain its dominance. It rains the next day. A small part of you is grateful that you have an excuse not to run, and your enthusiasm is no longer any match for your habit. Not-running sinks its teeth in, and the new goal is doomed.
So the real insight I had last week is not what I should do, but how — I have to change certain habits so as to redirect my life’s momentum towards my goal, rather than just use my willpower to get a huge list of tasks done.
We all know what happens when we try to make a change that goes against the momentum of our lives — it doesn’t last, because it becomes a willpower marathon. Willpower is not sustainable. It’s for plugging holes. Trying to build a lasting change out of willpower is like trying to build a cabinet out of wood glue. It holds the big pieces together nicely, but you need those big pieces for it to be useful.
Essentially, my plan is to work through two lists of habit changes: helpful ones I want to form, and detrimental ones I want to drop. I will form the habits that push me towards my goal every day — regular writing habits, regular networking habits — and I will overcome the habits that impede my progress — poor time management habits, dubious purchasing habits, and whatever other impediments I identify. That’s what my current experiment is about: looking at my time usage to identify habits that need changing.
It’s all about habits. That’s the only way for human beings to make major changes reliably.
You may be thinking my great “insight” seems so obvious. It is. I’ve been listening to Leo Babauta and Stephen Covey and a thousand others rattle on about the necessity of deliberate habit change for years now, and I knew they were right, but for some reason I always had something more important to do than work pointedly on habits.
Surely you and I both knew this all along.
Well, not really. If we really understood how to make the big changes we dream about, we would have done it already. Personal-change-master Steve Pavlina explains:
If you claim to know something that isn’t readily apparent in your life, then you do not really know it.
To claim to know what you are not is merely to know the conceptualization of a thing but not to know the thing itself. You can understand the concepts of productivity, health, and courage without being productive, healthy, or brave. But to know the truth behind the concepts, then those things must be in you.
To know is to be. If you know productivity, you will be productive. If you know health, you will be healthy. If you know courage, you will be brave.
~From “Knowing is Being“
You can understand what you’d have to do to be fit, for example — exercise and eat right — but that doesn’t mean you know how to do actually make that happen in your life. My fitness level has undulated over the years as I exercise on and off but I’ve never actually been in great shape. That’s because I don’t know how to be in great shape. Yet.
As if on cue, that same week blogger/Zen monk/bass player Brad Warner wrote a post about one of my articles, How I Found the Secret of Happiness While Totally Naked. If you haven’t read it, basically I tell the story of a powerful insight I had about how to relate to life’s difficulties.
He said he liked the article, but:
There’s just one problem with the article. And, unfortunately, it’s a pretty big problem, and one that eludes many people.
It’s not enough to have this experience just once. Your old, habitual ways of responding to and interacting with the world will reassert themselves very quickly even if you are fully consciously aware that they are bullshit. [...] Practice is vital. It is the only way to develop new habits.
~From “Naked Happiness“
In the article I remarked that my big insight didn’t change “the score”, it only changed the rules. Insight can point to solutions, but it does not solve problems.
Action has always been the only problem solver. Applying action consistently is difficult though. Moods fluctuate. Relevant insights that are uncovered get forgotten again. But solid habits drive life in a steady direction over the long term, even as enthusiasm waxes and wanes in the short term.
Habits Are Sustainable Behaviors
Habits steer our action in a steady direction, all day, every day. They apply a constant force to our behavior, while insights and the enthusiasm that follows only give a hefty shove. Investing time in developing habits, even at the slow (but sustainable) pace of one per month, pays enormous dividends over time, by putting goals on virtual “autopilot.”
Again from Steve Pavlina:
Ask yourself: What daily discipline(s) would make this goal a done deal? The answer to that question will tell you what habit(s) to install. If you can condition and maintain those habits, you’ll very likely achieve your goal. It’s only a matter of time.
~From “Goals Into Habits“
For example, if you want to write a novel, a daily habit of writing two pages per day would give you a 400-page draft in less than seven months. Even if it took you two whole months just to nail down the habit of writing two pages a day, you’ve still got the makings of a manuscript in less than a year. The year will pass no matter what you do with it.
I am aware of the irony in this post. I’m telling you how I had an insight that all but guarantees this goal’s success, but I’m also telling you that insight alone doesn’t do anything. I know this latest insight is not going to change my habits for me. Just knowing that habit change is the key to making major changes doesn’t give me a magic bullet against complacency.
My latest experiment is the first major step towards this goal. Action is underway.
The Greatest Insights Are Old News
When something we read strikes us as “profound,” usually that means it is new to us. But why should that make it more valuable? Are we assuming we’ve really applied all the wisdom we’ve already absorbed just because it’s no longer new to us?
History is already full of human beings who have accomplished some form of virtually everything you could want to do: achieve greatness, find peace, overcome tragedy, amass wealth, live consciously, create great works — all before you were even born. So of course the insight and wisdom is out there. It’s probably so well-known that it’s a cliché by now.
The greatest revelations are not when you discover something new and profound, but when you actually apply something you already “knew.” That is when information becomes real wisdom. Only then is it finally able to change who you are instead of just what you think.
Insight is not enough. If you don’t embody your insights, then evidently you don’t really get it yet.
Photo by pizzodisevo