There are two problems associated with the beginning stages of every habit or in achieving any goal. While we may want to take into consideration internal problems like one’s lack of motivation or purpose, we often tend to disregard outside forces at play in our decision-making process. The self-help community has taken an overly libertarian philosophy where everyone believes we have the free will to change our lives at will “only if you believe in it enough!” Though, this strategy is deeply flawed as it disregards many practical concerns as well.
Here are the two most common issues regarding building habits and setting goals:
The Lift-Off Problem
Rockets use most of their fuel only to get the rocket out into space. Then, propelling the spaceship while in space is not an issue. The problem occurs when one fails to use enough fuel to get the habit into orbit. By failing short at 90%, the remaining 10% leads to a defeating downfall.
On a second try, one might go all the way to 95% to fall short again, discouraged for a lack of results. This comes from improperly assessing how much fuel is needed to get the habit into momentum.
The answer: Go all in at 100%.
The Drifting Problem
We’ve all seen it in Fast and Furious. While racing, drifting into a corner looks way cooler than driving like a good citizen, doesn’t it? The problem is that drifting is a lot harder to control than driving normally. Most of us go into setting goals with the presumption that we will be able to drift and avoid all obstacles flawlessly just like in the movies, but that is simply naive and unrealistic.
We want to implement the habit right away, so we slam the brakes on our previous habits and violently turn the steering wheel for our lives to head in a new direction, but that only causes instability, disorder, and the high probability of crash and burn. Hence, we literally “burn out” and after we bring our car to the repair shop, we try again while repeating the same mistake. To drive at our best, it is not enough to know everything about the car we are driving. We must know about the map and the road conditions as well. Here are some car racing analogies for those of you who have a hard time slowing down in life:
Understeering in life occurs when one does not slow down enough before engaging in an important turn because of excessive speed. Examples:
- Wanting to start a business while being a full-time Ph.D. student;
- Jumping into a new relationship without taking the time to recover from a recent painful breakup;
- Anything overwhelming that necessitates you to excessively cut on personal time and even sleep;
If you are caught in an understeering situation:
- Let go of the gas pedal and breathe before you take a new decision.
- Realize that you cannot do everything at once. Pick one thing, and stick to it.
Oversteering in life occurs when one slams the break too abruptly before engaging in an important turn, causing major instability that is hard to recover from. Typical examples include:
- Going cold turkey on a bad habit in hopes of never repeating it ever again;
- Most new years resolutions that fail within the first month (from now on, I’ll go to the gym 5x a week or nothing! No more Netflix for the rest of the year!);
- Leaving all of your old friendships without having new friends in sight;
- Going “all out” by dropping out of college and starting a new business without having any realistic backup plans or transition period*
*Note that the latter has been overly romanticized in the self-help community with stories of college dropout Bill Gates and such, but they are far from the norm.
If you are caught in an oversteering situation:
- Realize that you do not have to go either all in or nothing. Consider a healthy, more realistic transition period that will ensure success in the long-term;
- If you’re stuck in this situation, focus on finishing the turn and do not divert your attention from it, or else you might crash.
Note that “going all out” can be a very useful strategy in the short-term in specific scenarios. Robert Greene called it the “Death-Ground strategy” where one does not have any second options. This tremendously raises the stakes and makes it more likely that the goal will be achieved. Though it also adds tremendous stress and if your car isn’t suited for it, you better be very careful with this strategy.
This article is only an overview of two of the most common problems with setting goals and achieving them. What I suggest is to combine the right amount of lift-off with the appropriate transitional period in order for a habit or goal to be realistic in its achievement.
Good luck on your self-development journey!