Last week, I talked a little about what it takes to become someone worth dating – the holistic changes to your life that make you a desirable potential partner. However, trying to make those changes isn’t going to do any good if you fall off the wagon immediately.
Think of it like your New Year’s resolutions to join the gym or learn how to play guitar. It’s very easy to be gung-ho at the start. Within a month however, that guitar is in your closet gathering dust and you’ll have a long series of very good reasons why you can’t go to the gym this week. Now your plans for your amazing new life have fallen by the wayside and you’re back to your original status quo.
This is why so many people throw their hands up at self-improvement: it’s great at first when it’s all exciting. But once the excitement fades and the work starts, the drive to keep going falters. And once that goes… well, there you are, back where you started with nothing to show for it. If you want to be someone worth dating, you’re going to have to keep at it for more than a couple of weeks. You’re going to have to know how to make those changes stick.
This week, to inaugurate the new Level Up series, we’re going to start with a talk about how you make those changes a permanent part of who you are.
And the first step is…
Write It All Down
One of the best ways to start reaching your goals is very simple: write them down. Part of what causes people to not achieve their goals is that their goals don’t progress beyond fleeting thoughts. They’re gossamer and dust, soap-bubbles of inspiration that’ll pop and vanish as soon as another thought pushes it out of the way.
This isn’t a slight against you; it’s part of how our brains work. Our mental bandwidth is surprisingly narrow and we have limited storage space in our short-term memory. Our brains prioritize what we hold on to in the short-term by how immediate it feels to us at that moment. Something that’s less pressing tends to get kicked to the side to make room for something that feels more important. How often have you had some moment of inspiration and lost it five minutes later because you had to think about your commute and got caught up in driving? Or maybe you had an idea and realized that somewhere between thinking it and grabbing a soda from the fridge, you’d forgotten all about it? Now now matter how monumental that idea was, it’s gone and you’re left trying to recreate the original circumstances in hopes that you can get lightning to strike twice.
So it is with our goals. We may think about how much we want to work on ourselves and become new and amazing people, but those goals get a lower priority than “wait, when was that meeting with Josh in Accounting?”
Writing down your goals, on the other hand, prevents them from getting lost in the mental churn. It forces you to actually devote more resources towards remembering them because you’re actively thinking about it – you’re planning out how to get there and how to get around the obstacles you’re going to face.
Ideally, you want to keep a physical journal, rather than just entering things into the notes app on your phone. To be sure, that’s better than nothing. However, the act of writing – literally writing, with pen or pencil in hand – is powerful; it engages parts of your brain that don’t activate when you type. Writing things down is one of the simplest, yet most powerful tools to transforming your goals from a fantasy to a reality.
But it’s more than just writing out a list and calling it a day. You want to keep a journal, recording your progress regularly – ideally every day. What did you do to take another step towards your goal? What problems have you run into and what are you doing to overcome them? How are you progressing? Writing all of this down keeps it active in your mind; it forces you to be mindful of your progress. The more mindful you are, the more likely you are to prioritize those goals and take positive action. And having that record to refer back to can help motivate you when things are going slowly. Change may be slow going but you can see just how far you’ve come.
But while you’re doing this…
Remember The Opportunity Cost
The second reason why people tend to fail at self-improvement? They forget to factor in the opportunity cost. You aren’t going to make any changes or improvements to your life without giving something else up.
One of the oldest sayings in geek culture is relevant here: TANSTAFL – “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch”. Any change to your, whether large or small, requires sacrifice.
Your life has one very limited, non-renewable resource: time. Everything you do requires that you devote some of that time to it. Literally everything. Unless you’ve gotten hooked up with a Time Turner or the TARDIS, everything you do takes away from the limited amount of time you have.
If you want to make changes to your life, it’s going to take more than just adding something to your schedule. That time is going to have to come from something else you’re doing already. Where it comes from exactly is going to depend on your priorities. What are you willing to sacrifice in the name of bringing your ideal self into existence? What are your priorities? Are you willing to give up your “fuck around on the Internet” time? What about playing video games? What about sleep?
This is a tougher question than you might realize – the reason you’ve chosen to do anything is because that you’ve decided that this activity is the most important use of your time. Yes, even those times when you’re bored out of your skull, refreshing Twitter every five seconds; you’ve decided that this is your highest priority with your limited time. Is that a good use of your time? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s clearly more important to you than literally anything else you could be doing right then.
If you want to improve, then you have to make those improvements your priority. You have to decide what it is that you’re going to give up in order to pursue those changes.
If you don’t allocate the time… well, it’s clear that it’s not as high of a priority as whatever else it is you’re doing.
Up to you.
Take Your Laziness Into Account
So, straight talk: your brain is lazy.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not calling you lazy. I’m not judging you. What I’m saying is that your brain wants to conserve energy as much as possible. Whenever it gets the chance, your brain will choose the path of least resistance because that corresponds with the lowest energy expenditure. When you think about it, this can explain upwards of 90% of the reason why you do (or don’t do) things – you’re doing things that requires the least cognitive energy as possible. The old patterns are the easiest; they’ve worn grooves into your brain and thus require minimal energy. Getting out of that rut, on the other hand, takes a lot of energy. As a result: your brain tends to fall back to the status quo as much possible.
Similarly, the more effort it takes to do something, the less likely you are to actually do it… especially when an easier alternative is available. If it takes fewer steps to do one thing than another – get take out instead of cooking dinner – then you’re more likely to do take the easier option.
Now, it’s possible to force yourself to take the less-efficient path by through expending your willpower. But willpower is also a limited resource and depleting it means that you won’t have any in reserve for when you need it… like when you need to force yourself to go practice making small-talk.
So when you’re planning your resolutions and improvements, you want to do so in such a way as to minimize the amount of energy and willpower you expend in the process.
The first step is to minimize the number of steps between the idea and the goal. If you want to learn how to play guitar, keep that guitar out in plain sight so you don’t have to go looking for it. If you want to eat healthier foods, making unhealthy foods more inconvenient is a key step. It’s easier to resist the siren call of a soda when you have to leave the house to get one; meanwhile you have a bottle of Topo Chico at hand instead. Sure, it’s not exactly what you want, but it’s close enough and – more importantly – it’s here.
The second is to make the pursuit of those goals a habit. Remember how I said that your brain prefers to stay in it’s grooves? Carving a new groove makes it easier to maintain your changes. It’s more energy up front, but it makes maintaining the changes easier in the long term. If you want to write a novel, then you have to make it a habit to crank out 1000 words a day, every day. If you want to run a marathon, you have to make your practice a habit. Keeping things as regulated as possible – spending the same time every day in pursuit of your changes – makes it easier to develop and maintain those habits because it requires less energy. Fitting it in whenever you can, adds steps and thus more cognitive energy and willpower.
Just remember: the easier you can make it on yourself, the less likely you are to decide not do it.
Failure is Temporary
If you want to keep making progress, you have to keep motivated, and there’s nothing as likely to destroy your motivation as the first time you fail.
Maybe you failed a willpower check and ended up getting a double cheeseburger instead of having chicken and broccoli. Maybe you went out to a party and hugged the wall instead of tried talking to people. When you hit a roadblock or fail a test of your self-control, there’s a natural temptation to throw your hands in the air and say “fuck this”.
Motivation tends to be incredibly fragile at first, especially when you’re trying to make major changes. It’s easy to stay motivated when everything is going well, but when you hit your first major obstacle, it can shatter into a thousand pieces. This is why people who are trying to eat better will have one slip-up and devour a giant bag of chips. It’s why one rejection at the bar can send you home, feeling like the biggest loser ever to lose. That failure feels like a referendum on everything about you. You fucked up, clearly it’s hopeless and you may as well give up now. And of course, giving up means falling back into those old patterns.
Why are is our drive so fragile? Because we see that failure as being permanent. It’s a sign that clearly this is hopeless and you should just give up now.
How do you overcome this? By expecting it to happen and making allowances for it. You’re going to backslide. This doesn’t mean that you’re weak. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It means that you’re human. Backsliding is pretty much inevitable, because breaking out of old patterns is really goddamn hard. Your improvement isn’t going to be one smooth curve, it’s going to look like a jagged line. There will be peaks where you do amazingly well, flat areas where you plateau and valleys where you lose ground. That’s normal. It’s to be expected. The more you recognize that this is going to happen and forgive yourself for it, the less those failures will haunt you.
You didn’t succeed this time, but that’s OK. You’ll do better tomorrow. Those failures are just temporary setbacks. There is always tomorrow.
The Future Is Always Possible (So Acknowledge It)
Of course, one of the biggest obstacles to making those changes is simply not believing that you can get there in the first place. This is especially true when you’re trying to make big, intimidating changes. When you’re trying to go from, say, a guy who literally chokes trying to talk to attractive women to being charismatic and outgoing, it’s very easy to say “that’s not me.” Or to say “I can’t do it.”
But there’s one magic word people tend to leave off that makes all the difference…
“Yet” is the reminder that while the path may be long, you will get there in time. It’s the difference between Pollyanna-ish optimism that’s just as unrealistic as Eeyore-like fatalism. Both are equally draining on your motivation. It’s important acknowledge the reality of the situation; you’re having very real challenges. At the same time however, you don’t want to just decide that something’s beyond you because you haven’t not there right this instant. Adding “…yet” is the reaffirmation that, yes, shit’s hard, but hard isn’t the same as “impossible” and even “impossible” is only true until someone does it.
So take that moment. Own the struggle. It’s real and your frustrations are valid. But the fact that you struggle doesn’t mean you won’t improve or that you can’t get there.
You’re not where you want to be… yet.
But you will be.