by Robert Guzzo, co-founder of Handcrafted Honey Bee
We’ve all been there.
Maybe for you, it was an amazing retreat or a conference with a dynamic speaker. Maybe it was a late-night discussion with a good friend. Maybe it was a moment of clarity after a long struggle.
You’ve had a breakthrough moment–a realization that things can be better than they are today. You can see the potential so clearly. You feel energized, excited to embark on a new path for your life. Your head is swimming with ideas, plans, dreams, and visions for the future. The future…when you focus on how good that future destination is going to be, it feels incredible! Things are going to change, and it’s going to be so good.
And then a week passes. And then a month. And another…Perhaps you’ve made some initial progress, but it just feels like you are stuck in the same rut as you were before. When you try to recapture the excitement of that moment, you have trouble holding onto it. When you try to recall the ideas that seemed so clear at the time, you aren’t quite sure how it all fits together anymore.
It’s easy to beat yourself up when your big ideas lose momentum and fizzle out. It’s easy to chalk it up to lack of perseverance, a character flaw, or just plain bad luck. It’s easy to get discouraged and feel like dreams are for other people.
But your dreams aren’t the problem. Your character (flaws and all) isn’t the problem. Your life isn’t the problem.
It’s just that you’re doing it all wrong.
There are many reasons why big plans fail and why most breakthrough moments don’t stick. But they mostly boil down to this: we fail to take human nature into account. Our brains are wired to respond to pleasure and reward, not hard work and daily action. This makes it very easy to get excited by a moment of clarity and to have our thoughts jump right to the rewards of reaching that goal. This also makes it very easy to lose focus and become discouraged during the long haul of getting there.
We are creatures of routine and habit. Habits are as sticky as a tar pit. They can pull you down, make you lose momentum, and cause you to revert back to doing the very things you are trying to change.
But if you understand human nature, you can channel those tendencies and accomplish great things. We may be wired for reward, but you can use that wiring to reinforce your actions. We may be creatures of habit, but you can establish new habits that pull you forward instead of dragging you back.
Actions lead to behaviors, which establish habits, which create a mindset. But it all starts with a choice, and often that choice is born from a moment of clarity.
The next time you have a breakthrough moment, consider using this list as a road map for maintaining momentum. It’s not easy, and you have to be prepared to do things differently if you want to see a different result. But if you work with your natural tendencies instead of against them, I think you’ll have greater success in achieving your goals and living into your dreams.
- Write down a plan of action and take small daily steps on only one of them
While you’re still charged up from that conference or still excited by that moment of insight, take 5 minutes to write a list of tangible actions you can take in order to get closer to your goal.
Now, here’s the key: pick exactly one action on that list. Commit yourself to focusing on that thing (and only that thing) every day for the next 30 days, and set the rest of the list aside.
When you plan to pour your energy into 10 things, you actually end up doing none of them. That’s when you lose focus and momentum. But if you focus on a single thing for 30 days, you can start to see results, which builds your confidence and strengthens your commitment to the larger purpose. After 30 days, pick a second action from your list to work on every day for a month, while maintaining the momentum you’ve gained on your first action.
- Cultivate new habits
Taking 30 days to focus on one thing with intention can be difficult. But your own worst inclinations can be your greatest ally, if channeled properly.
Remember how I talked about habit being like a tar pit? Wouldn’t it be great if the tar pit was sitting at the finish line pulling you forward, instead of along the race track holding you stuck in place? If you cultivate new habits that reinforce your actions and align with your goal, then you’ll feel those habits propelling you forward instead of sapping your momentum.
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes a framework for the habits that take hold in our lives. That framework looks like a feedback loop consisting of cue (environmental or mental triggers), routine (the consistent actions that form the core of the habit), and reward (the positive reinforcement that encourages the habit to develop).
As you begin your commitment to one action for 30 days, develop a cue and a reward to consistently associate with that action. The cue could be as basic as going to a different room for your daily writing. The reward could be as simple as drawing a line through an item on your daily ‘To-Do’ list. Whatever it is, if you cultivate good habits, your own human nature becomes a tool for achieving your goals, rather than an impediment.
- Start saying no to good things
If you commit to something for 30 days, you’ll start to notice something interesting. It might be difficult at first, but you’ll get into a rhythm. Then…about 15-20 days in, it will get really hard. You’ll start to find excuses–even good ones–to break your commitment. You’re a real person living in the real world and you have many, many other commitments.
Life happens. Stuff happens. Things happen along the way that you couldn’t possibly anticipate when you started on this path toward your goal. You may start to feel like you just don’t have the time to take on something new. But if you want to get a different result, you have to do things differently.
That means taking a close look at your current priorities and figuring out how your new commitment fits into that list. You have to start making space for the things that matter by saying ‘no’ to other good things. You’ll have to set aside some good things–at least for a time–if they are getting in the way of the commitment you have made to change for the better.
- Be patient & realistic
Do the math: you have written down nearly a dozen actions to get you closer to your goal, and you are going to devote 30 days working on just one action at a time. That means this process is going to take the better part of a year!
Don’t get discouraged! You just had a major moment of clarity–a realization that your life has gotten off-track from where you want to be and that you need to get back on course. Something this big is going to take a lot of hard work…which is why things might have fizzled out in the past.
But take comfort in the knowledge that small daily choices and actions are what got you off-track in the first place, and small daily choices are what it will take to get you back on course. You may have gotten lost in the deep dark woods, but you have left a trail of breadcrumbs to retrace your steps and bring you back into the light. The only reason it feels hard is because you probably didn’t notice all the steps you took to get lost, but you are taking conscious, intentional steps now towards recovery–and you notice every one of those.
- Focus on the finish line, not the awards stand
You might think that the best way to reach your goal is to focus on the rewards and benefits of achieving it. That seems like basic human nature. But if you spend a lot of energy thinking about how great it is going to be when you cross the finish line, you can lose focus on the hard work that it takes to get there. The value of the reward will actually start to diminish as you begin to question: “Is it really worth all this?”
To make it to the finish line, you have to think like a runner. When the pistol is fired, the winning runner isn’t looking over at the awards stand, thinking about the cheers of the crowds and the medal they’ll place around her neck. She focuses squarely on her target; she puts all her energy and effort into crossing that finish line, secure in the knowledge that all those other good things will follow.
By remaining focused on your goal, you may also discover benefits and rewards you hadn’t even anticipated when you started. The lessons you’ll learn, the strength you’ll find within you, the relationships you’ll form along the way–these are all ‘prizes’ you receive well before the race is over.
- Get ready to do it again
I have something to tell you that will either discourage you or envigorate you: it never stops. There is no highest mountaintop, no final finish line, no ultimate goal in this world where everything is perfect and you can rest satisfied from your efforts. But that means that every day you are alive is an opportunity to live for the better.
When you make progress toward accomplishing something big in your life, it’s only the beginning. You can apply all the lessons you learn along the way for the other areas of your life that you want to grow or improve. You have built confidence in your abilities to change for the better, and that can give you the courage to tackle even bigger things.
Just remember: take it one step at a time; don’t get discouraged but be realistic about the progress you can make; and be ready to change your priorities in order to change your outcomes.