I tend to be pretty achievement- and productivity-oriented. I set a lot of goals and have a lot of expectations for myself. I try to implement a lot of new habits and behaviors that will spur on my personal growth, productivity, health, etc.
This practice, I think, has been a significant part of any success and growth I’ve had in the past. It keeps life interesting, ensuring I am stepping into some things that make me uncomfortable and which I think I can do better on.
But several months ago, I started noticing a cycle. I would set a new goal or behavior, like doing 50 pushups a day, meditating for five minutes a day, posting to Twitter once a day, etc. It would go well for a few days, so I’d create another new goal or habit, like reading for 30 minutes a day, or going on a walk every day, etc. That would go well. So then I’d set another goal, and then another goal … and then I had set so many f***ing goals that I would get totally overwhelmed and ALL of my goals would fall by the wayside. I’d get stressed and overwhelmed and fall back into less helpful behavior like overeating, smoking weed, etc.
I would overload my system, creating a whole lot of stress, frustration, and anxiety and not a lot of actual progress or self-improvement.
In short, I would add goals and hew habits successively until I had added too many and the whole thing fell apart. It was as if the feeling of my life being manageable indicated that I needed to put more on my plate, until I couldn’t handle it. And then I’d get upset with myself when I couldn’t handle everything on my plate. Really setting myself up for success, right?
So this year, I’ve been implementing a new system. It’s simple.
Every month, implement ONE small-to-medium-sized behavior change. No more, no less. It could be anything. It could be adding something in your life. It could be removing something. It could be shifting something. But it’s only one. And it’s something that you are very confident you can implement without causing a major disruption to your life. This goal must be easily achievable.
For example, in January, I agreed to plank (an abdominal exercise) every day, increasing my time by a little bit each week. It takes less than five minutes. That’s it. That’s the only additional behavior change I tried to implement that month. In February, I agreed to meditate at least five minutes every day. That’s it. In March, I am now writing at least 15 minutes every day.
These are all eminently doable. My focus is not on setting an ambitious goal, but rather to simply incorporate an unambitious goal every day. By only adding one every month, I have time and the mental space to incorporate them into my daily routine with relative ease. And I am transforming it from a desired behavior to an engrained habit.
There’s some science behind this. It typically takes about 20-30 days to turn a new behavior into a habit. Over that period, new connections are being made in my brain. What was once unfamiliar and required extra effort and attention, now gets locked into my memory. By the time the next month rolls around, my new habit is like clockwork. It’s a habit. I’ve come to expect it. I don’t need to fight with myself to get it done. It’s part of my routine.
That’s the monthly stretch. If you stick to it, by the end of the year, you’ll have twelve new behaviors that have been become habits. And you’ll have done it without adding a lot of stress and anxiety to your life.
When you go slow, you go far.