Q: How to you build a good habit?
A: Start now, and don’t stop.
Sometimes we try to make it too complicated. There are very few tricks in life, and fewer still that can take the place of good, old-fashioned hard work.
A lot of people might not know what I’m talking about when I say “freeroll.” A freeroll is a gambling term. It means you make a bet with a potential payoff, but no potential loss. Let’s say in a game of no-limit hold ’em you and your opponent both hold AK on the river on an uncoordinated board. The freeroll bet would be to push all in. If he calls, you split the pot. But if he folds, you win the whole pot. All upside, no downside–assuming your read is correct, of course.
I believe that there are many freeroll situations in our lives, and to the extent that a person is aggressive, he takes advantage of these situations.
If you’ve ever called to cancel your cable service, there’s a good chance they’ve offered you a discount to keep your business. That tells me there might be a freeroll opportunity there. If I called my cable company, cell phone company, and all my other service providers tomorrow and asked for a discount, what would happen? It’s not like they would raise my rates. They might try to get something from me, like signing a longer contract, in exchange for the discount. Or they might just give me what I asked for. Out of all the plausible scenarios that could occur, the only things I’m losing are some time, and maybe a little bit of awkwardness.
I really think there’s a lesson here, and I hope it’s not lost in my particularly clumsy writing this evening. I could sit down and write a list of dozens of things that I want right now: a case for my new iPad, for baseball season to be here, some more good MMA training partners, and so on. I’d be willing to bet that a lot of things on that list are just a request away. There are a ton of undiscovered freerolls in my life that I have the opportunity to act upon if I am just willing to take the initiative to do so.
One anecdote and two practical exercises:
Several years ago, I took a job in sales in order to develop some skills I would need as an entrepreneur starting a business. Some of the guys I worked with had a game they would play: they would go into a restaurant and see which one of them could get the most free stuff. There was usually some flirting and “assuming the sale,” as it’s called, but the key was just having the guts at some point in the conversation to ask for something free. You probably wouldn’t believe how many free drinks, appetizers, desserts, happy meal toys, and phone numbers we all got every time we went out.
So if, like me, you think you could benefit from being more aggressive, I would first encourage you to start looking for freeroll situations in your life. Pull out a legal pad and start brainstorming. You’ll come up with a lot. If you have cable and a cell phone, I’ve already given you two ideas. And once you actually start acting on these and making simple requests, you’ll start noticing a lot more opportunities.
If fear of rejection is keeping you from rolling the dice, take the Rejection Challenge. The challenge is that you have to be rejected at least once every day for 30 days. There is even a set of playing cards you can buy with ideas for rejection opportunities (ask a stranger for a bite of their food at a restaurant, et cetera). You might be surprised to discover that there’s a certain gratifying exhilaration to taking these risks.
One minor caveat: I’m not saying that this should be how act all the time from now on. We all have material things we want, but if you start asking your friends and family for money every time you talk to them, they’ll stop taking your calls. In other words, there are valid reasons for not asking for things; fear, timidity, and passivity are not among them.
I firmly believe that aggressiveness is an essential character trait for achieving goals.
Used in the conversational sense, the word conjures up images of a brash Donald Trump-esque angle shooter who’s always looking for a way to squeeze more out of a negotiation. That’s not what I’m talking about. Aggressiveness, as I define it, means proactively taking more responsibility for a desired outcome, leaving less in the hands of others and to chance, acting, and doing so with urgency and regularity.
Lets’s take that one piece at a time: proactively taking responsibility for a desired outcome means that it starts out with an internal examination. You ask yourself, “could I be doing more?” You consciously choose to seek out new opportunities for action,
even if especially if they’re unorthodox, uncomfortable, or out of your comfort zone. Leaving less in the hands of others or chance is a part of that mental exercise. It is a lens through which you see actions you might not otherwise see. Acting is the most important part. Once you identify some actions you can take, you do them. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re “correct” actions–at least not as much as you might think. As Goethe said, once you act, “Providence moves all,” and you tend to get sifted to where you need to be. Doing this with urgency means exactly what it sounds like. You can’t be aggressive and be a procrastinator. And doing so with regularity means that this is a habit that needs to be constantly cultivated.
Aggressiveness as a habit is a difficult thing to master. Part of it is to constantly challenge and extend yourself beyond what is comfortable. So if you ever think you’ve finally got it, that’s just proof that you don’t. It’s a sliding scale of difficulty, and as your comfort zone and capacity to see possibility expand, the goal line moves farther away.
It may be that there’s an upper limit to this character habit, beyond which it’s impossible or not useful to be more aggressive. Speaking for myself, however, I’m nowhere near there.
I’ll have more on aggressiveness in the near future, together with a few specific exercises for cultivating this habit.
It is my theory that over half of our nation’s collective effort goes toward figuring out tricks to circumvent hard work on the road to achievement. I developed this theory based solely on the covers of magazines at the supermarket checkout and an episode of Oprah I accidently Tivoed, so take it with a grain of salt.
But kidding aside, I am convinced that too much of our brain power is spent looking for tips, tricks, secrets, and hacks to accomplish a goal without actually working toward it. That’s the entire premise of The Secret: All you have to do is think about something and “the universe” will magically bring about that thing. It’s an odious crystallization of man’s worst instincts about productivity–and it sells. Why should I count calories and work out when I could just sit around and think of thin people?
But the open secret about The Secret is that it’s a bunch of (pardon my language) poo hickey.
The real secret is pretty boring, and makes for horrible headlines: disciplined action over time equals achievement.
My favorite examples of discipline leading to great achievement come from martial arts. Supposedly the Shaolin monks used to practice their stances and footwork in a certain courtyard at their temple on Mount Song. Generation after generation of monks toiled away in the bitter cold, trampling and trodding the ground until their technique was perfect. Now, over 1,500 years since the founding of the monastery, that courtyard is a pit twenty feet deep, worn away by the footsteps of the martial monks.
That’s the kind of discipline that can produce real results. I think many people would be so much more competent and at peace if they just accepted the fact that there usually aren’t shortcuts in life. Accomplishing goals (in the general sense) is a solved puzzle, and yet people keep searching for answers that don’t exist–some slight mental adjustment or secret thought pattern known only to the masters that can obviate the need for all that boring work.
But here’s a funny thing about the secrets of the Shaolin monks: For centuries, their most secret texts that only the innermost initiates of their sect could study were kept hidden from outsiders. When the communists came into power, they publicized these texts as a part of an effort to weaken cultural institutions other than the Communist Party. They have since been translated into English.
And here’s what that society of some of the greatest warriors the world has ever seen was guarding. In a nutshell: if you want to be able to punch hard, punch a brick wall every day. Start with a few light punches, add more every day, and gradually increase the intensity. Ten years later, nobody will be able to survive a punch from you. If you want to be able to kick hard, start kicking a tree. Find one as thick as your wrist, and kick it every day until you break it. Find a thicker one, and repeat. A decade later, you’ll be able to use your legs to clear forests.
Heavy on the hard work, light on the pop-mysticism. Not a whole lot of affirmations and positive thinking. So if you want to be great at something, take the counter-cultural approach: forget the shortcuts, get to work, and don’t stop or slack off.
I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked. You may be more talented than me. You might be smarter than me. And you may be better looking than me. But if we get on a treadmill together you are going to get off first or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple. I’m not going to be outworked.
I was watching a movie recently, and a football coach told the following story to teach his team what mental toughness is. With the tiniest bit of artistic license:
There was an oil company building a pipeline through Alaska. Half the workers were from Oklahoma, and half were Eskimos. As the weeks wore on on this massive construction project, the Oklahomans couldn’t work near as long as the Eskimos because of the cold weather. The oil company had each group tested to see what gave the Eskimos the ability to handle the cold so much better. They performed every manner of blood test, body composition analysis, and took every measurement and reading they could. But they couldn’t find any physiological difference between the two groups.
They ultimately determined that the difference was mental toughness. The Eskimos knew it was going to be bitter cold. They accepted it, and they focused on the work at hand. The Oklahomans could never get past the cold. Their minds were completely occupied with how cold it was.
Don’t be an Oklahoman. Be an Eskimo.
That’s the best definition of mental toughness I have ever come across. Don’t obsess over how difficult the work is going to be. Accept that it is going to be hard, and do it anyway. Focus on the task.
Most people think “accountability” means “who gets blamed or punished when things go wrong.” It’s a shame that the word has such negative connotations for most of us, because acountability can be a powerful tool to help you keep your commitments and achieve your goals. Generally speaking, we perform better when we have to give an account of our actions. So with that in mind, here are 5 specific ways to use accountability to make yourself more effective at whatever you’re trying to achieve. Presented in no particular order:
1. Don’t Break The Chain
What it is: According to internet lore, Jerry Seinfeld forced himself to write every single day in order to become a better comedian. To motivate himself and track his progress, he marked the days he wrote with a red “X” on his calendar. As he accumulated more days, a “chain” began to develop. Seeing the unbroken string of days he had written was a powerful incentive to keep the streak going–hence, don’t break the chain.
What it is good for: Daily tasks or habits you want to develop: exercise, creative work, practicing skills, etc.
How to get the most out of it: You can create an account for free at the Don’t Break The Chain website, or you can download the free app for your iPhone. Or, just use a paper calendar. It worked for Seinfeld.
What it is: First, you’ll need a goal–something you want to do every day (exercise, etc). Second, you’ll need a buddy. You write your buddy a cheque for an amount of money that is significant enough to motivate you. Now you’re going to email your buddy every day to report whether or not you accomplished your goal that day. If you didn’t, or if your buddy doesn’t hear from you, he cashes the cheque.
What it is good for: Similar things as Don’t Break The Chain. But this one is more hardcore, so use it for the things you’re really stuck on.
How to get the most out of it: Stick to well-defined goals with sharp edges. If your goal is to “be nicer to co-workers,” your buddy might end up having to make a judgment call about whether smiling at the receptionist really counts or not. So nothing nebulous: either you ran two miles, or you didn’t.
3. The Nightly Inventory
What it is: This one comes from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. The idea is to take an inventory every night of how you did that day. Franklin made a “resolution of the day” every day, and focused on one character trait: industry, frugality, humility, etc. So each night, he would take stock of how well he lived up to those standards. In his words:
Let not the stealing god of Sleep surprize,
Nor creep in Slumbers on thy weary Eyes,
Ere ev’ry Action of the former Day,
Strictly thou dost, and righteously survey.
With Rev’rence at thy own tribunal stand.
And answer justly to thy own Demand.
Where have I been? In what have I transgrest?
What Good or Ill has this Day’s Life exprest?
Where have I failed in what I ought to do?
In what to GOD, to Man, or to myself I owe?
Inquire severe whate’er from first to last,
From Morning’s Dawn till Ev’ning’s Gloom has past.
If Evil were thy deeds, repenting mourn,
And let thy Soul with strong Remorse be torn:
If Good, the Good with Peace of Mind repay,
And to thy secret self with Pleasure say,
Rejoice, my Heart, for all went well to Day.
There are many ways to do this. I use a spiral notebook. Each morning I write down my resolution at the top, and in the evening write a couple of sentences at the bottom of the page evaulating how I did that day. Make it as simple or as elaborate as you like. Personally, I like it simple.
What it is good for: This one is pretty universal, and I think everyone can benefit from using it, no matter what you’re working on: a strict diet or workout regimine, nebulous character goals, etc. Right now, I’m using it to work on not criticizing, condemning, complaining, and correcting other people (the “4C’s”).
How to get the most out of it: Be honest. Presumably, you’re not going to show this to anyone else, so take advantage of that privacy to be honest. You’re not doing yourself any favors by giving yourself slack and just writing down empty praise. When I find myself doing that, I ask myself how I could have done even better. That usually generates some good ideas.
4. Post Online
What it is: Join an online discussion board and post. There are thousands of these boards online devoted to everything imaginable, and odds are you’ll be able to find one related to the goal you’re trying to achieve. So look around, get to know the posters, and start a progress thread. For example, if your goal was to put on some muscle mass, you could join The Bodybuilding Dungeon (no, I don’t post there) and post your workouts every day. You could post what lifts you did for how many reps/sets, how your body is feeling, your diet, protein shake recipes, progress pictures, etc. The interaction of others combined with the habit of posting your progress can be a positive pressure to stay on track with your goals.
Or, start a blog. You have more leeway if you can’t find a discussion board specifically dedicated to what you’re trying to achieve, but the tradeoff is that you have to put in the work to develop a following. But the same principles apply.
What it is good for: Posting on a discussion board lends itself more to concrete, specific goals: running a marathon, fixing up an old car, learning a new language, etc. Your blog, on the other hand, is whatever you want it to be. There are some really great blogs out there that are just about some guy’s struggle to be a more courageous person by taking risks.
How to get the most out of it: Get to know the people you’re posting with. Don’t just talk at them; interact. Give more than you take. Try to help them without asking for anything in return. You’ll be rewarded. Oh, and keep it classy. There are a lot of jerks on the internet, so don’t pick fights.
5. The Accountability Partner
What it is: Everyone has heard of this arrangement, but it’s difficult to do well. The more your accountability partner is willing to dig, pry, and interogate you, the more it helps you stay on the straight and narrow. The more they take it easy on you, the worse off you are in the long run.
So you have to find someone willing to be honest. It can be a friend, but most of us don’t have the context for that kind of honesty in very many of our friendships. For many people, a stranger is ideal. You can reach out through your network. Ask around to see if your friends know anyone who would be willing to hold you accountable.
Most people look for someone who is trying to achieve the same goal they are–two people trying to get in shape, for example. In my opinion, these relationships often become a “conspiracy of mediocrity,” especially if the people were friends before becoming accountability partners. If one of them reports that he just didn’t have time to go to the gym that morning, the friend rushes in to reassure him that it’s OK and that he knows what it’s like juggling work, family, and fitness, etc. The appropriate response from a good accountability partner should be, “that’s not good enough. You committed to go to the gym today. It’s only 8:30, so you can still get a good workout in before they close tonight.” That’s why I recommend finding an accountability partner who’s not your friend and who’s not trying to achieve the same goal you are.
What it is good for: This one can be used for just about anyting, from concrete actions like working out every day to big, broad goals like being a better father. The secret to making it work, especially with the broader, less well-defined goals, is the willingness of your partner to call you out.
How to get the most out of it: Find someone who’s not your friend and who’s not trying to achieve what you are. Demand that they be completely honest. Give them permission to call you out. If they go easy on you, find someone else.