Ten Lessons I Learned In 2012 (Learning Equals Behavior Change)

“You have to create a goal for yourself, short term and long term and go after it. Because if you do not see it and if you do not believe it, who else will?” — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mr. Olympia, Actor, Politician

1. To make a sustainable, long-term change in your personal life requires you to make an immediate change in what you do on a daily basis. As humans, we are creatures of habit—in thoughts and in behaviors. Who you are and who you’ll eventually be, can be traced back to what kind of disciplines you practice and the amount of time you devote to these discipline everyday; this applies to your career, your finances, your relationships, your health and body etc. The question is, what are your priorities and is your time and effort spent every day congruent with what’s most important to you? Your memory is never as good as you think it is. Numbers never lie. What’s the best way to know if you’re spending your time and effort focusing on your most important priorities? Measure it. Schedule it. Track it. Speak from evidence, not from memories. You can’t improve what you don’t measure.

2. Don’t assume, systematically test. In any area where you don’t have personal experience, especially in the areas you want to try but still hesitate to actually do anything—there’s a high likelihood you’re holding a set of untested assumptions. The problem is, how you got these assumptions are not through systematic trial and error but through what other people have told you, through an isolated experience or generally, biased information. These set of assumptions influences what you do—and don’t do. And the real cost of living based on a set of untested assumptions is robbing yourself of knowing what you could do, what you could become had you had act differently. Ultimately, reality separates what works and what doesn’t work. But you only know that if you have a systematic way of testing your assumptions. To me, a pragmatic person, unlike a highly idealistic or pessimistic person, approaches life as a series of never-ending experiments—what do I think works, how do I test it to see how it actually works, what’s the result, how can I adjust to make more intelligent decisions in the future?

3. You increase the probability of success—for your career, your finances, your personal development, your health and relationships—with a plan. Whether your plan works depend on a lot factors but having a plan, and this is the important thing, shows you’re proactive in getting what you want. Planning is essentially a thought exercise forcing you to be clear on what you want, your resources and how do you manage and execute to get what you want. What you want can change, so your plan can change. Your resources can change, so your plan will change. There’s a more effective approach, your plans will accommodate for that and there’s always the inevitable uncertainties of life you can never plan for. But the practice of planning to make decisions in an ever-changing reality, is a must.

4. You need to learn to motivate yourself everyday. Motivation fuels action. And without action, there is no result. From my experience, motivation is a state of mind. Motivation isn’t a ‘either or’—it’s not whether you’re a motivated person or you’re not a motivated person. I found motivation is an emotional drive that springs from knowing clearly your values, your goals and why you’re the person you are and why you do what you do. To me, why I invest a lot time and money in self-improvement is a burning desire to become a smarter, more resourceful, efficient person to eventually be able to make a lot ambitious things happen. But along the way, if you don’t motivate yourself, no one will.

5. To achieve congruency between your words and your behavior means creating rituals in your life. We all have habits and to a large extend, our habits define and control who we are and what we do, often unconsciously. This year, I’ve been able cultivate several rituals in my daily routine that has helped me increase my productivity, metal clarity and most importantly, made me aware of how a lot of my daily actions are not the result of intentional cultivation and development. A ritual is a conscious, highly specific habit you cultivate for a purpose. For me, I have rituals to ensure I get adequate rest, energy and focus whenever I sit down to work. I also have rituals that help me plan my day and prioritize what I have to get done. Rituals equals intentionality in behavior. Your time, energy and focus is limited, creating rituals is all about doing the daily disciplines that sculpts your mind, work ethic that moves you closer everyday towards your goals.

6. Set goals that scare you. A few weeks ago, while looking at my goals for the new year, I realize hardly any of my new goals actually scared me. To me, a scary goal is a challenging goal that forces you to think, to attempt things that are—upon hindsight—way outside your comfort zone and outside of what’s easily attainable for you. In short, you will probably look like an idiot, fail and have a nagging fear not knowing what to do when you pursue this kind of goal. Setting scary goals force you to grow—fast. Aiming for things you know for certain you can achieve isn’t good enough. If you aim for a high enough goal, even if you fail, you will have gone further had you aimed and succeed at a mediocre goal. And finally, don’t be concerned if your ambition makes other people uncomfortable. People are intimidated by your goals not because your goals are ambitious but your goals often forces them to re-examine their own direction in life.

7. If you decide to pursue a goal, there are only two outcomes: You achieve your goal or you get an experience to help you make more intelligent decisions in the future. But if you don’t do anything, you’ll still be at the starting line without having learned anything. When you make decisions, you have to consider the potential risks of action and the risk of inaction. While failure can be painful, underneath failure is an opportunity for brutal honest self-examination and a basis for personal growth. Don’t develop psychological apathy towards failure—accept it, dissect it and ask yourself how you need to change in thinking and in behavior to not be the same person that failed in the first place. Learning equals behavior change. Remember, what you fear most is often a good indicator of what you should go ahead and do.

8. Become a man. Psychological age doesn’t always match chronological age. You can grow older, taller, bigger but not grow up. The first thing about being a real man is taking responsibility for your life—take whatever life throws at you and choose your response in a way that reflect who you are. Your choice of action is the clearest expression of your character, not your intellectual understanding or words. Then it’s about discovering your mission and structuring your lifestyle to support the maximum achievement of your mission. “What do I want to do with my life” is a complex question. But don’t sit and wait for it to magically appear. Your life’s purpose or the discovery of it might very well begin with a decision to start the journey, to be proactive and open-minded of wherever your decisions ultimately lead you to. Perhaps, who you want to be isn’t a discovery, but a refinement process—you’re in charge of your personal development into a real man.

9. Train renewal. A key piece of your productivity is how you effectively renew yourself after a hard day at work—sustainability in performance is about intensity and focus in execution and recovery. In simple terms, when you work, really work. When you rest, really rest. Don’t be stuck in multi-tasking and dragging work from home to the office all the time. Burning out due to excessive work and underwhelming renewal doesn’t help you in the long-run. Renewal rituals can be naps, weekly goal reviews, working out or just spend time doing something you really enjoy like watching a movie, socializing and reading good fiction. Schedule renewal as a strategic priority to consistent recharge. It’s not only about how hard, how long you work, it’s also about how effective, how engaged and focused you are during those long, hard hours.

10. Circumstances don’t make a man, they simply reveal him to himself. Every time you’re overwhelmed by worry, stress, fear and uncertainty—remember, it’s amidst hardship that you reveal to yourself how tough you really are. It’s at the edge of your comfort zone that you grow. Think things through, be decisive, make plans and always look forward. The best way I’ve found to start eliminating worry is to take action towards resolving whatever is causing you to worry. Worry is simply a fear based on inaction or indecision. And you start to eliminate worry the moment you make a decision and start doing. Focus on doing, worry can’t be cured by thinking.

Ten Lessons I Learned In 2012 (Learning Equals Behavior Change)

‘Not Having Enough Time’ Is Always An Excuse (Why You Should Test Your Assumptions)

People often say “I don’t have enough time” for things they should do but are not doing. To me, the question of whether you should spend your on something depends on another question to be answered first, “What are your priorities?”

You have to know your priorities first, then schedule your time accordingly. Not spend your time doing random things all day and then complain you don’t have time to do the important things. It’s about prioritization. It’s about being intentional in your work and how you manage one of your most important resources—your time. It’s NOT about doing everything or anything you can or should do in a day. It’s about strategically doing the few things that move you the fastest, closest towards your goals and deliberately ignoring the less important tasks—first things first, second things not at all.

People tend to avoid what’s most needed to be done. I’d say if you’re going to procrastinate, procrastinate on unimportant things until you have to do them.

The reality: Doing a lot of unimportant things doesn’t make them important, it just wastes your time without getting much results. However, it does give you the illusion of getting things done. But like a hamster running feverishly inside a hamster wheel, ‘your busyness’ is nothing when you can’t get results. And results is what ultimately matters. The question is, are you willing to take a reality-check:

  • What are you trying to achieve?
  • Are you spending your time in the most effective way to achieve those goals?
  • And what are the results?

You need time to achieve results yet the achievement of results doesn’t necessarily depend on how long you work or how hard you work, it depends more on how effective your approach is. Not having enough time could be an excuse for not figuring what’s actually required to achieve a result, which often leads to doing the same thing over and over again without questioning the effectiveness of your approach. You can’t continue what you’re doing and expect different results.

An excuse is a rationalized fear. When you rationalize, you are fixated on a conclusion first and then you find reasons to support this conclusion. Obviously, if this is your default approach to things you’ve never personally tried, you’ll find biased evidence to support your viewpoint. Rather, your starting place should be a hypothesis—an educated guess of how you can reach your goals, what’s the process from A to B, what are your key assumptions and then systematically test those assumptions. Caution: Your initial guess or assumptions might be totally off and that’s okay, this is a necessary part of finding the right answers. Only a loser clings to his opinions in the face of overwhelming evidence that his opinion is wrong. That kind of person is more interested in being right rather than being successful. I don’t care about looking stupid as long as I get results. I have found that over the years, no one really cares about you anyway. They only—and rightfully should—care about what you can do for them first and then maybe they’ll entertain you by hearing your plea for how hard you worked.

The point is to test the critical, key assumptions that prevents you from achieving your most important goals like a career change, starting a business, finding a partner or moving to a foreign country. Again, prioritization.

If you don’t want to try something, fine, don’t do it. But if you want to do something, you’ve set it as a goal but manage to convince yourself it’s not worth the effort in trying based on some subjective opinions how you can’t do something or it won’t work out without  ACTUALLY trying it—that’s an excuse! Excuses are never grounded in evidence, excuses only requires careful self-deception. You’re the biggest loser if you don’t systematically test your most important assumptions. Here’s a clue: Whenever you catch yourself saying ‘I can’t do THAT—ask, what am I assuming here? How can I test my assumptions before living with this assumption my whole life?’ I don’t know, you might find out you’re capable of more than you thought you could ever be—isn’t that worth a try?

Lastly, don’t ever confuse your confidence in your own personal beliefs with the validity of your own assumptions. Because your belief is what you like or hope for, which a personal preference but the basis of your assumptions should be how accurately your assumptions reflects the reality of the real-world—just because you honestly and sincerely believe in something that it has to be true in the real world. You can be honestly wrong. Beliefs are personal, assumptions demand evidence.

For example, how many entrepreneurs honestly believe they’ll be successful, profitable with their ventures 2,3 years into the game? I’d say ‘All of them.’ How many do actually succeed and turn a significant profit to keep going? ‘Probably one in every ten, or even less’, according to documented stats. See, confidence is a necessary but not sufficient condition. You can be confident all you want but if your planning is weak, your execution is poor and undisciplined, you don’t know the numbers, you don’t have a overall strategy and you mismanage your time doing useless things leaving the important things to help the business grow till tomorrow—you deserve to fail. Because you were too lazy to test your assumptions, learn from it and make intelligent decisions on what you should do and should stop doing.

It’s ego and it’s fear of failing again, again and again that prevents us from truly being bold in taking new directions in life.

To me, I see it very clearly, when you pursue a goal: you either achieve it or you get an experience that you can use to adjust your approach to reach your goal faster. More often than not, when you attempt completely new goals with no prior experience or limited knowledge, by the default, you will make more mistakes, get lost than being on the right path and making progress. It’s just the reality of what it is. This is why you shouldn’t waste a mistake. Not wasting a mistake means learning from it—learning from a mistake is NOT simply saying so, you must back it up with a plan, action, new behaviors, and you must force yourself to do the daily grind until you’re not the person who thinks and acts in a way that caused you to make the mistake in the first place. Otherwise, to phrase it articulately, you’re full of shit and you don’t even know it.

Never say you ‘don’t have enough time’—decide what’s important to you, figure out and systematically test your assumptions and follow through until you reach your goal or is educated by an experience of how to smartly approach the problem the next time. It’s either do or don’t, there are no room for excuses.

‘Not Having Enough Time’ Is Always An Excuse (Why You Should Test Your Assumptions)

Change Isn’t Progress; You Have To Plan For Progress.

Value planning for the thought process as your actual plan will inevitable change.

Most people say plans almost never work out exactly as they planned, so why have a plan anyway? That’s missing the entire point of planning—the planning process forces you to think, anticipate, and specify what are your goals and what are probable options of for achieving your goals. A significant part of planning is doing researching, gather information, making assumptions and testing those assumptions, deciding on the methods of achieving and measuring progress etc., all of which is demanding mental work, requires time and requires long-term, creative thinking; which is probably why most people tend to avoid it. Not to be judgmental but if you don’t have plans for your short-term and long-term goals, I consider that to be lazy and not being serious with your life. I think when we’re young, it’s easier to do things for the pure entertainment, for short-term gratification without thinking about the consequences simply because we have a lot of time ahead of us.

The details of your plan(s) will change to accommodate for both your personal and environmental change—expect it. For example, your personal goals for 2010 will probably be different from your goals for 2013. This partly reflects your growing or change in interest, ambitions and over general progress. This could also be affected about the new information you’ve gather through experience, reflection and other sources that better inform you of what you really want and your plans should accommodate for that. The value of asking, reviewing your answers and continuing to ask 1. What’s my outcome/goals/ambitions and why do I want it, 2. What are the things I need to do/plan for in order achieve what I want, and 3. What’s the next action? , is invaluable. This is the mindset of a doer, not a wishful thinker or an idealist.

You can’t be positive expectancy without concrete justification. If you don’t workout regularly, how can you expect to have fit, muscular body and feel energized? If you don’t study, practice and have discipline in your business, how can you expect customers to be happy and turn a profit? If you don’t take time and plan out your strategy for your health, business, personal learning, relationships—amidst all the inevitable ups and downs of life—how can you expect your future to be better, with more fulfillment and achievement? In short, there are a lot things you can’t control in life, but you can control your time, energy and focus and it’s prudent to use your valuable resources in a way that enables you to have the most fun, rewarding life.

p/s: Money, as I’m slowly learning, is only a secondary utility. In other words, it magnifies what you already have and a important indication of how well you’re doing in life is how well are you managing your time, energy and focus—are you spending most of your time, energy and focus on the top long-term priorities, everyday?

If your plan doesn’t turn out as expected, it means you’ve already taken action (which seperates you from 80% of people who talk, talk but rarely act) and now you have a clear indication of how to redirect yourself towards the right path. That’s it. Don’t dwell on how far or how costly side-tracking is, learn to focus on making sure you won’t ever make the mistake again. This, once again, often involves a change in behavior(s). And I admit, this sounds like the most logical thing to do. In my experience, the process of change in an emotionally visceral experience because it means admitting I was wrong, I’m fallible, lazy and far from my ideal of who I am. But that’s okay. Ideals aren’t meant to be reality-checks or descriptions of reality. Ideals are, forever, standards for what could be—standards for who I could be. I’d choose to be reminded of where I am so that I can push forward to where I want to be, rather than drift hopelessly without knowing both.

Change Isn’t Progress; You Have To Plan For Progress.

Any (Sustainable) Change Boils Down To A Change In Daily Behavior.

Nothing will change—don’t count on it—unless you start doing something differently or new in your daily routine. Change is an eventual outcome of an accumulating process that starts with a decision to change. And the true measure of a real decision is not just saying you’ve decided but what actions you’ve taken since you’ve made the decision. If you say over and over again to want to make a change, yet haven’t followed up with real, concrete action, you’re kidding yourself.

Possibly the highest leverage form behavior change is creating rituals. A ritual is a conscious habit that you deliberately design and consciously practice until it becomes automatic in your daily routine.

The opposite of a ritual is a bad habit you’ve simply picked up, often unconsciously, a long time ago that fails to add value to your life but you continue anyway. The reason you continue with bad habits is you don’t know how to change, you’re surrounded with people who have the same habit who aren’t willing to change themselves and would like you to remain the same so they keep their influence—control—on you.

One of the most common reason people fail to effectively change their habits is fatigue. People try to change too many habits, often all at once, with no clear direction of how to change, how to measure their progress and to add insult to injury, they have surrounded themselves with other people who have the same habits, feeding off the same environment and wouldn’t encourage the individual to make the change. Even with the best intentions and strongest will, most if not all people will give up due to being emotionally and mentally tired.

The most persisting fallacy when it comes to habit (behavior) change is thinking that relying on willpower i.e. forcing yourself to do something whenever or wherever you want to, alone will be enough. Though this often makes a better story of agency, perseverance and the triumph of idealism over moral temptations, it’s a bit far from reality. The reality is, we only have a limited amount of willpower to do self-regulating tasks. Neuroscientists and behavioral researchers have repeatedly shown that once our limited reservoir of willpower is drained, we fall back on habits or automatic, stimulus-triggered behaviors to do the rest. The scientific term for this phenomenon is ‘ego depletion.’ Typically, any activity that requires mental strain like solving a difficult math problem, reviewing a lengthily contract, a intense discussion requiring a lot emotional self-control or diverting your attention away from a sexually attractive mate will all drain your willpower.

We must make strategic use of willpower to effectively change our behaviors. By strategic, I mean figuring out all the main factor that plays a casual-role in behavior change, then use our willpower to focus exclusively in tweaking those factors to make it easier for us to make the change. Depending on the specific behavior, how clearly you define the new behavior, how you create consequences for failing to adapt the new behavior, how you organize your physical and social environment are key factors for any change.

One of the most productive rituals I developed this year was to focus single-mindedly on one single task in time increments of 60’-60’-30’, often at my peak hours during the day. This basically means I decide beforehand what’s a priority task, set my timer for 55’, then I work on the task while ignoring everything, not even getting up. After my 55’ timer goes off, I get up and take a break for 5’-10’, completely disengaging with the task. Afterwards, I work for another 55’, followed by a longer 30’ break. I often divide my time in these time 2-hour blocks to help estimate how much time I’m willing to commit to a task but most importantly, when I focus, to have clean, laser-like focus on the task. I’ve been doing this for 6 months now and it’s a key ritual in my time/self management.  In addition, this type of engaged focus is very demanding the more complex the task so I can only do two 2-hour sessions per day. Now, disciplining yourself to focus is an important—but focusing on what and why is another (strategic) issue. Lastly, if you work in an distraction-prone office like I do, you’ll have to multi-task or run around but the issue is if you don’t give significant (real) focus to your priorities, everyday, all the distraction will rob you of time, focus and you won’t even achieve anything significant to show for it.

Any (Sustainable) Change Boils Down To A Change In Daily Behavior.

Do Things Always Work Out As Planned?

Plans (usually) don’t work out but the practice of planning does.

I have no illusions about the role of planning—just because I write out my goals and plans doesn’t mean my plans will become a reality. One of the fallacies of planning is thinking your planning efforts justifies the effectiveness of your plan. Which means if you spend a lot time planning for something, this should work out. And when it doesn’t, you have failed. All your efforts amounted to nothing. You give up.

This is simply not true.

When your plan don’t work out, you make a new plan, based on what you learn didn’t worked in the previous plan—you adjust. Don’t linger on how off track you where as if that will help you get back on track. And when it comes to learning from mistakes, saying you learned from a mistake doesn’t mean anything. Learning from a mistake is all about actively putting in practices, habits or conscious effort to avoid putting yourself in the position where you made the mistake in the first place. Otherwise, as a matter of habit, you’ll repeat the mistake, continue to make the same mistakes.

I value planning for the thought exercise. It generally forces me to clarify what I really want, set clear outcomes, set deadlines and create a series of actions step I can take to move me closer towards my goals. All of this requires researching, gathering information, making educated guesses about what to do based on the information at hand, decisions on how to do it and then taking action, trusting my intuition. This is hard, hard, hard mental work. Both to digest, synthesize, getting creative about the ‘whats’ and the ‘hows’ and having the willpower to get started initially, then sticking to a course of action, no matter how uncomfortable it is.

Planning for my goals is how I take control of my time, focus and energy, directing it to get what I want—increase my income, sharpen my skills, start a business, make new partners. Whatever. Now, does that mean I’ll certainly get what I want? No. Does it mean I’ll get what I want on the second, third forth, fifth etc. attempt? No. But it does improve my chances of succeeding in the next attempt? Possibly, if I’m smart enough to learn from my mistakes and make course corrections. But learning often means admitting I was wrong, and don’t we all love to do that? And there’s a far cry between admitting you were wrong and developing the discipline and will to not repeat that mistake.

Planning is most challenging when you’re planning for the future, aiming for things you have no previous experience of, little idea what the end outcome looks like and have no idea how to get there. And you’re not special if you’re new. Thinking that you’re special and telling yourself that is very motivational but never confuse self-motivation with concrete, real world results. You will make mistakes, mistakes will cost, you’ll be emotionally beat up and there’s a chance you won’t get what you want. After such consideration, whether you decide to proceed anyway, in my opinion, truly show how important the goal is to you.

When it comes to achieving your goals, you need to have something that borderlines being obsessive. You need to have the attitude of whatever it takes, that I will do. Not a bunch of “ifs”—if only I had ___, then maybe I’ll___. This is how a loser thinks. The only exception is when it comprises your principles or character. Otherwise, whatever feat of self-exertion, discipline, effort, ‘stick-to-it-ness’ required, that you will do. You do this despite a sense of uncertainty, knowing that as a matter of probability, you might not achieve what you want but you won’t ever let self-doubt defeat initiative and in the end, you’d rather die knowing you tried, rather than saying “I should’ve” when it’s too late.

I think most people avoid planning in general because whenever a plan doesn’t turn out the way they wanted, their sense of agency and control goes awry—they’re harshly reminded that there are many factors outside of their immediate control, the world is chaotic, the world is surprisingly random, people are fallible and you don’t always get what you want, exactly the way you wanted.

So, what?

A part of growing up is coming to terms with reality—through experience, accepting what you can control, accepting what you can’t and having the wisdom to know the difference. Failure sucks, mistake hurts but have a sense of proportion and remember, fitness is the speed of recovery. It’s not about getting side-tracked, that’s a given. It’s about how fast do you get back on track?

Your plan didn’t work out? Make a new plan.

Do Things Always Work Out As Planned?