Among my numerous talents is a faculty for prophecy. I know, it’s unfair, but some people just get it all. So, let me tell you right now how your next attempt at losing weight/getting fit/making more money/improving your love life is going to go:
Stage 1: the stage of inspiration
Oh, you can feel it! The time for change has come! Maybe you just finished reading an excellent self-help book about how to get rich. Or a friend who just started Crossfit gave you a pep talk. Or Oprah just lost thirty pounds (again) and you know you can do it, too! So, let’s do it! Nothing can stop us this time around, this time you are really going to stick with it! Success is practically within reach.
Stage 2: the stage of planning
Just being inspired is not enough, of course. You know that. You need a sound action plan as well. So you vow to go to the gym every day before work. Great plan right there. Or, you vow to put aside $200 a month for your retirement fund – financial independence, here I come! The twenty points per day you get from your weight watchers plan? Ha, you will make do with fifteen, how about that?
Stage 3: the stage of doing
You already went to the gym four times this week and you are feeling GREAT. The first $600 is safely stashed away in your retirement account and you know you are doing the right thing. You are meticulously sticking to your self-allotted fifteen weight watchers points per day, and it doesn’t even seem that hard – you already lost a pound, how great is that?
Stage 4: back to baseline
Fast forward six months, you are not doing any of what you set out to do – you haven’t been to the gym in weeks, yesterday (and the day before) you had pizza for dinner and you currently need all the money you have for the down payment of your new car. Maybe you are still deluding yourself about getting back on track sometime soon, or maybe you have already postponed your big project until a “better time comes around.” Bottom line is you accomplished nothing.
Why the heck is that? Why do we constantly make it as far as stage three but then still don’t succeed? The answer to that question is what I call the ‘structure vs. freedom’ principle (very sexy name, I know). Here is how it works.
Why we never stick to our chosen course
Let’s look at an example, you decided on a sound workout program with a coach and you are now at the gym, three times a week, executing said program. If you stuck with this course of action for, let’s say, two years, you would see incredible changes. But, you simply can’t go along with it for that long. Somewhere along the way, you start fidgeting and you change the program around a little bit, then a little bit more. You give HIT training a try. You grow tired of lifting weights and go back to running. Then you read this article online about 5×5 training and go back to the gym. Then work gets in the way. And so on and so forth. It becomes a never ending stop n’ go process that doesn’t get you anywhere close to where your original basic weight lifting routine would have gotten you if you had just stuck with it religiously for two years.
And the reason for that is purely psychological, you can’t stand too much structure imposed on you – none of us can.
It is a paradox. In order to become successful, you have to enforce more structure on yourself, you have to decide on a certain weightlifting program, you have to decide on specific dieting guidelines, you have to practice your sales skills every day to grow your business. All these things, IF you keep them up, are guaranteed to get to you to success. Not overnight of course, but they WILL get you there. But we still choose to abandon them, because of the amount of FREEDOM they take away from us. Think about it, by deciding on a certain structure, you are essentially turning yourself into a part-time robot. Every day, there is a big chunk of time that always looks the same, where you are doing the exact thing over and over again. You could record yourself on video during these sessions and you would probably not be able to differentiate one day from another by just looking at your success routines. Every damn day pretty much looks the same.
And oh God, do we hate this – because IT IS mind numbing. By obeying to more structure for success, our life is turned into something mechanical. The routines and habits that are surely getting us closer to our goals are also taking away any feeling of freedom – a state of spontaneity and vitality that all of us crave. In this sense, we are robbing ourselves of feeling good right now for an expected payoff in the long, distant future. This is a very difficult thing to go through with.
So, almost inevitable, we eventually lapse back into our much-missed freedom and it feels so good! The first day you break the chain and don’t go to the gym feels like heaven, you sleep in a little bit longer, you sit down with your family for breakfast, you enjoy the food and the company and the absence of physical pain. Your body and your mind seem to reward you for letting more freedom back into your life! Isn’t that crazy?!
We oscillate back and forth between phases of imposed structure and improved freedom. But, by doing this, we are not able to ever get to success – we always just stay below the threshold, because every time we move closer to success, our need for freedom takes over and lets us abandon the vehicle, the structure that gets us there. As I said, it’s a paradox.
What to do about it?!
Rule #1: Reduce your minimum daily action as much as you can
The structure vs. freedom principle is one of the main reasons why I preach about going small, you always want to choose the smallest possible amount of action that will still get you to success. So, instead of doing a full-blown strength routine at the gym four times a week, opt for a set of pull-ups each day. Instead of taking up a one-year sales program with a famous coach, opt for just making one call to a new customer each day. You get the picture. This way, you will keep your chosen new habit as small and unobtrusive as possible, keeping the maximum amount of freedom while still moving closer to your goals.
Rule #2: Allow for a certain inbuilt freedom with your chosen habits
This is another strategy I like to use with many of my habits, I don’t even have to fulfill a certain quota – it’s simple enough if I touch on it. This is especially helpful with habits that already cause a lot of inner resistance for yourself. For example, working on my Ph.D. is not really among my favorite habits, so, in order for me to not make things worse, the habit is already fulfilled if I just symbolically open my books, stare at a new sentence for a second, and close them again. I know, this sounds silly, but you know what ends up happening on most days? Since I’m already in front of my books, I start studying anyways. And two hours later, I have actually gotten a significant amount of work finished. But, in my mind, I feel free and under no pressure because I know every time I want to, I can just open my books and close them again – maximum freedom retained.
Rule #3: Learn to rejoice in the flow state of practicing something
As seductive as the call of freedom seems (the smell of that burger place, hanging out with your friends at the bar, watching TV, etc.) there is also a very special kind of joy to be found in practicing your success habits. World-renowned psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term ‘flow state’ for it; some psychologists also use the term ‘zone.’ What these terms refer to is “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” And, strangely enough, this very nice state of Zen-like focus occurs most often with activities that you work on daily and have been working on for a while. And let me tell you, when it does, it simply feels awesome. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience – you kind of watch yourself effortlessly performing, no effort wasted, not a step amiss. It’s a beautiful feeling that is already rewarding you for all the hours you put it in – paradoxically, in those moments, reaching your goals is not even on your mind, you just do it for experiencing the flow state.
Speaking of paradoxes (my favorite word today), ultimately, if you stick to your minimal, inbuilt freedom, flow state-success habits, you will reach an even greater state of freedom – exactly THROUGH following the same structure, day-in and day-out. It’s hard to describe, but by seeing your habits working for you, by experiencing the return on investment, you will suddenly feel elevated. Where other people struggle and lose sight of what to do in order to get what they want, you know the answer, you know the process because you stuck with it, you went through it already. Now you have a working knowledge of it and you know you can apply it to ANYTHING you can think of – the principles are the same, they ALWAYS work. You will feel empowered and confident enough to do it all over again because you already did it once. And that is a kind freedom that will beat any other kind. Go get it, it’s worth it!