Have you ever experienced a moment of realisation when, all of a sudden, you were clear about your direction and what would make you happy, successful, and give your life true meaning? After this insight, no doubt you felt confident that this time you would not fail, but instead relentlessly pursue new destiny.
But have you actually realised this destiny, or is it only on rare occasions that you realise that this goal – just like all those preceding it, and those that are still to come – is now buried in the ever-growing cemetery of your unrealised dreams and plans.
Why is it that regardless of the importance of our goals, we hardly ever achieve them. Why do we prefer to stay in the rut? Is there anything we can do to improve the odds of making our plans come true?
Action and the three pillars of success
Three pillars are required for success. They are: defining the goals relevant for you; making the right decisions on the way to achieving these goals; and following your decisions with the appropriate action. Having managed scores of people in diverse situations, I have come to realise that it is the third pillar, action, that fails most people.
With the first pillar, although you may not have defined which goals are right for you, you may still be able to describe what it is that you are hoping to achieve. The second pillar, decision making, is a skill you can learn and become good at. But unlike the first two pillars, which can take place at your leisure, action is to be carried out continuously in the third – and therefore it’s the first to be dropped and forgotten. As a result, we too often find that what we know we should be doing is different from what we do.
As this is true for both our personal and professional lives, to improve employees’ performance, I used to send them to self-improvement seminars. But neither courses nor self-help books ever led to the desired result, and now I realise how naive I was. After all, did I really expect that a few days’ seminar would have a lasting effect, when those who have truly mastered personal change attribute it to their long-term dedicated effort? Martial art masters say that a minimum of three years of regular training is required to change behavioural patterns. The famous actors’ trainer Kristing Linklater was more lenient and believed that in her training of artists, “to affect real change you must plan a daily session of at least an hour, over the period of at least one year.” So, as hyped and motivated as you may feel after a life-improving workshop, do you believe that those dedicated professionals have been wasting their lives striving to achieve what can be mastered in a weekend?
Why can’t we change our actions?
Taking action by itself is rarely a challenge. After all, we live in a society in which action is easier than non-action. The true challenge is taking the right course of action. It is about doing what is needed and not what you are good at. It often requires breaking old patterns and replacing them with new behaviours. This cannot be achieved without long-term commitment, dedication, and careful planning. This cannot be acquired over a weekend.
You may have experienced it for yourself, for instance, if you ever decided to stop smoking or drinking, started a diet or picked up an exercise routine. At first you feel excited about your decision: waking early every morning to do your exercises makes you mind clearer, your body energetic like never before, and your entire day brighter. With such an obvious reward, how can you possibly fail?
Yet, a few weeks later, you may feel tired, and tell yourself that after such dedication you deserve some rest – especially after you had such a late night and you are so unbelievably tired. But once you’ve allowed yourself an excuse, your old habits, which you thought had gone forever, reappear and shortly after excuses replace your training routine, which soon becomes a distant memory.
Every action you take enforces existing patterns and makes them more likely to be repeated and more difficult to replace, in a life-long cycle of Karma. Various factors may contribute to your inability to break away from old patterns and acquire new ones. Which of them affects you the most?
Awareness (and the lack of it)
Consciousness is an illusive concept, upon which science has not yet reached a conclusion as to what it is and what we need it for. But with the progress in the field of neurological research, a great body of evidence is revealing that many of our actions are carried out prior to our consciousness being triggered: we first take action and only after do we become aware of it.
This fact is all too familiar to those who have failed to quit smoking or drinking, who frequently report that despite their commitment to quitting, they often find themselves holding a lit cigarette or a half-empty glass of drink, without being aware of how it actually got there.
Let’s try an experiment and attempt to acquire a new type of action: a simple exercise that will strengthen your perineal muscles (the muscles between the genitals and the abdomen). This will benefit you greatly, because despite the importance of these muscles to your core stability, they are hardly ever exercised in the gym or in most sports we do. Oriental arts like Chi Kung, Tai Chi or Yoga, on the other hand, put great emphasis on these muscles, as they are believed to prevent the escape of life energy (chi, or prana), and thus boost vitality and health.
The exercise is simple and effortless: exhale and contract the muscles between the pubic bone and the tailbone, pulling the perineum up and in towards the abdomen, and hold for a few seconds.
Try to perform this exercise for five seconds each time you are about to sit down. The benefits of the exercise will become apparent within a few days… but will you be able to integrate this exercise into your daily routine? Try it for a few days. How often did you forget to perform the exercise? Have you managed to make it into a habit? How long did it take you?
As sitting on a chair is an action you are hardly aware of, for most people it is nearly impossible to make even such a simple exercise into a habit. But if such an easy-to-learn, effortless action, which does not consume any time or require any change in our routines, is so difficult to adopt, what chance do we have to take on actions that are harder to learn, or require a significant change to our routine?
Change of focus
If you are a runner, running will probably be easy for you; it is putting on the joggers and making the first few steps that most runners find the hardest. If you are a writer who sits and writes for hours, it is the act of sitting and writing the first few lines or paragraphs that is the most difficult. It is not the doing but rather the change of focus which brings on resistance and internal struggle.
In extreme cases, the inability to detach your mind is considered an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD.) However, to some degree, the trap of being attached to the current focus of our mind affects us all. When you need to do something, such as going to the gym or finishing an important piece of work, how often do you tell yourself that you are just going to check your emails or watch the news for a few minutes, only to discover, hours later, that you are still involved with your short diversion, and haven’t started what you really should be doing?
Admittedly, the inability to detach is linked to the ability to focus and pursue objectives to their limit. This is the way masterpieces are created and Nobel prizes are won. In most cases, however, it leads to the inability to choose the appropriate action, and results in us being too busy to be efficient.
If the goals you set are beyond your ability, any action you may take will only result in frustration, and is likely to be abandoned. Have you asked yourself whether you have the required abilities to achieve your goals? This most important question is often neglected in most self-help courses and books, which promote the notion that there is nothing you cannot achieve if you want it badly enough.
As attractive as this proposition may be, it does not reflect reality. We are all constrained by our natural abilities. If you are 1.60m tall you will never become a great basketball player, or if you are 40 years old you are unlikely to become the next Olympic swimming champion. This is also true of your mental ability and personality. If you are an introvert, you will not become the centre of the party (do you really want to?) and it is most unlikely that you will become a second Einstein if by the age of 30, you had not discovered your gift for maths.
Taking up swimming to improve your fitness or a university maths course as a pastime may enhance your life and give you purpose and enjoyment. However, in all probability, unrealistic objectives will only lead to frustration and loss of motivation. It’s not the action itself that will fail you, but rather the way you misperceive your ability. Clear perception is imperative.
Making action work for you
So you have set yourself a goal and, as you’re being true to yourself, you realise that it will not be an over-the-weekend task. What actions should you take?
First, make sure that you know why you want to achieve it, and be clear that it’s really what you want. Does your goal suite your personality? You might have just finished a diving course and fantasise about becoming a diving instructor. Do you truly see yourself spending your days underwater, or is it just a momentary emotional reaction to the great experience you have just had? Be critical; otherwise, you are unlikely to remain motivated when you encounter the unavoidable setbacks and hardships along the way. When you are clear about your goals and motivation, write them down and make sure you revise them frequently.
Second, list all the skills you will need to achieve your goal. If you have found a great opportunity and want to start your own business, what skills will you need? For each of the skills, write down if you have it, if you’ll need to acquire it, or find someone who has this skill and can complement you. If, for example, you feel that the detailed thinking required for the success of the business isn’t your strength, don’t fall into the common trap of trying to acquire this skill yourself (or worse, trying to do the job without having the skill). Your chances would be much greater if you found a partner or an employee who can do this part of the work.
Third, make a plan! But not just a simple business plan; your plan should include the skills you need to acquire, the difficulties you anticipate in maintaining your action and how you plan to overcome them. More on that later.
Last, take action. Every morning remind yourself of your goal, your motivation, and what you need to achieve during the day. Throughout the day don’t reward your mind for finding excuses. If you do, it will become good at it. For example, as soon as you have realised that when you last sat on a chair you failed to perform your perineal exercises, don’t tell yourself that next time you won’t forget. Doing so will tell your mind that excuses work. Instead, stand up and do the exercises there and then. It is amazing how fast your mind can learn when it is forced to.
A few basic principles will help you put together a good plan. But don’t forget these are only general starting guidelines. The plan you create must reflect you.
From easy to hard
Researchers who put food in a maze for starved rats found that untrained rats, as hungry as they might have been, would soon give up on the search for food if the maze was too difficult. But when researchers started with easy mazes, and gradually increased the difficulty, not only did the rats remain motivated, but in the end they were able to solve mazes that were much harder than the maze the original rats gave up on.
Similarly, people who start crash diets, or training enthusiasts who start their new exercise routine by training excessively, are more likely to drop their new routines and fall back into old habits. By planning to keep your action challenging yet achievable, you’ll be able to remain motivated for much longer, and gradually build up your ability until it becomes part of you – and effortless.
Time triggers vs. event triggers
If your experiment with strengthening your perineal muscles failed, it was not because it was hard or time-consuming exercise, but because of your lack of awareness to the sitting down trigger. However, if instead of linking the exercise to an action or event you would set an alarm to remind you at certain times; you are much more likely to be successful.
In a memory enhancing course, I was taught to attach imaginary pictures, which can be associated with a person’s name, to a distinct feature the person has. For example, if the lady with the blue brooch is called Mary, in my imagination I will attach a little lamb (which reminds me of the name Mary) to her brooch, and soon I will be able to associate the name with the person.
The problem was that whenever I met someone new, I was too busy meeting them and forgot to do this simple mental exercise. So I set my alarm and whenever it went off, every few hours, I would perform the exercise, randomly choosing three people around me. Within a couple of weeks this action become ingrained in me and now it happens, automatically, whenever I meet a new person.
If you can’t do it alone, get help
If you find that you do not have strong enough willpower to take the actions you need, make sure that someone else will force you to do so. This is how the various anonymous groups work. Give your goal and planned schedule to someone close to you, and take advantage of the fact that we let others do to us what we would never allow ourselves: ask them to nag you, remind you, or force you. This is how it works in boot camps, in the army, and this is how Japanese companies inculcate their new staff. Eventually the forced behaviour will become a habit, just like brushing your teeth in the morning.
Revising your plan should be part of your plan
Carrying on with your action plan, every day you will discover new things about the plan, about your action and about yourself. What did you fail to do today? How will you adjust your plan to make sure you will not fail tomorrow? Have you changed your view of your abilities?
If these most important questions are not monitored regularly, you are likely to drift and find yourself with a forgotten, or at least irrelevant and outdated plan. Analysing your new discoveries and updating your plan accordingly should be scheduled as part of your plan and be carried out frequently, preferably daily.
It is a paradox how we can believe that if we want something we can achieve it, and at the same time achieve so little. It is folly to believe that everything is achievable. But it makes no sense to limit ourselves to where we are now. So although true limits do exist, pushing our perceived limits is where we grow. It requires dedication, patience, awareness and good planning, but the reward is great. Only when a perceived limit collapses and the horizon opens up will you realise that breaking away from the rut is all that you need to feel truly free and fulfilled.