It’s happened to all of us.
You’re going about your day and suddenly the guilt hits you. You realize that it’s time for you to make some serious changes in your life. Maybe you need to drop twenty pounds, want to beat your social anxiety, or fix your constant procrastination. Whatever it is, you start planning and scheming away in your journal. You craft an airtight plan that’s both audacious and exciting, and the next morning you wake up filled with motivation to tackle your demons and turn over a new leaf.
Inevitably, it comes time to take back up your words with actions. It comes time for you to close out Youtube and actually fix your constant procrastination. It comes time for you to start approaching strangers and actually fix your social anxiety. It comes time for you to leave for the gym so you can actually drop that weight.
What always seems to happen in these moments? You just don’t feel like it.
Within a few days, your motivation is shot. The burning desire to change your behavior has whittled down to a small flame. Not to mention, that brilliant plan in your journal is now useless without the motivation to carry it out. And so, you find yourself back where you started. Only this time, it’s worse. Because not only are you walking around with flaws you know you need to fix, you are walking around as someone who has already tried to fix those flaws and failed miserably.
Every single time we go through this painful process, we reinforce the belief that we can’t change our behavior no matter how hard we try. As a result, we start to internalize these beliefs and become stuck in stagnation. Not changing. Not growing. Not truly living. It’s time to get off of the self-improvement hamster wheel. If you actually want to permanently change your behavior, you have to get comfortable with the mundane. You need to realize that you don’t have to aim high, you just have to continue aiming up.
The Problem With Setting Big Goals
Why are our attempts to better ourselves so uneven – and why do they often result in failure? There are many reasons, but I’m going to boil it down to what I believe is the biggest culprit:
The reason why most people never change their behavior or achieve their goals is because they aim too high. You’ve likely been told that in order to achieve the life of your dreams, you need to set giant, Mount Everest-like goals. While this advice often comes from a good place, it’s actually the exact opposite of the framework you should adopt in order to create meaningful change in your life.
The reality is that there’s a fundamental difference between how you feel when you set a goal compared to when it’s actually time to make progress towards it. When you sit down and craft your plan to leave the 99% in the dust, you typically feel a surge of motivation that leads you to believe anything is possible. Unfortunately, that euphoric feeling that comes over you as you declare your ambitious intentions to the world is actually a trap. Your brain gets tricked into thinking that the way you’re feeling right now is the way that you will feel when the time comes to act.
So what do you do? Well, you do what any highly motivated, emotionally charged human being would do. You aim as high as you can and set yourself a monumental goal. However, when the time comes to make progress towards that gigantic goal, the motivation you felt when you set the goal is no longer there to push you into action. That’s when the weight of it all starts to hit you. You may still be excited about the goal, but you’re not so excited about the work you need to do to accomplish it.
Eventually, the enormity of the goal makes you realize how far you have to climb to reach your desired state. Excitement is replaced by dread. Motivation is replaced with doubt. And most of the time, you become so overwhelmed that you never even start.
Don’t Aim High, Just Aim Up
Think about life like a staircase. The top of the staircase represents your most ambitious goals, while the steps represent a chunk of smaller, more attainable goals. The mistake that most people make is that they only focus on the top of the staircase. Whether it’s losing 100 pounds, or building a seven figure business, the top of the staircase is what sets the criteria for success.
Instead of striving to reach the top of the staircase, what if you started by doing something small every day that got you that got you to the first step? Then, what if you took on a slightly more difficult challenge and pushed yourself to reach the second step?
Eventually, your actions would begin to compound and you’d reach the top of the staircase. Not because you had the courage to aim high enough, but because you had the humility to aim low enough.
If you want to achieve your most ambitious goals, you have to muster up the humility to set the bar properly low. You have to accept the fact that the path to massive personal growth starts with setting goals that you can actually attain based on your current level of competence. At first, there’s not going to be much glory to be found in these goals.
If you’re out of shape, and have been for years, the goal that you could attain tomorrow isn’t very exciting. It might be something as mundane as going on a five minute walk. There’s nothing earth shattering about a tiny goal like that, and you certainly won’t be bragging to your friends that you mustered up the courage to go on a five minute walk. However, the key is that it’s still a success.
Instead of failing at losing fifty pounds, you’ve succeeded at going on a five minute walk, and this “small win” provides you with the motivation necessary to take on a slightly bigger challenge.
Maybe the next week you bump it up to ten minutes, and then twenty, and then thirty. Then once you’ve mastered walking, you decide to start jogging, and then running.
All of the sudden, after several months of gradually raising the bar, you’re shedding pounds like crazy and reaching your goal becomes inevitable. The magic of small positive actions is that they compound over time, which eventually creates a fundamental change in your identity. The first challenge you take on becomes a small step on a very long journey that ultimately leads you to your desired state.
As Confucius said, “It doesn’t matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”