To Achieve Your Biggest Goals, Do This
Compounded interest is a financial concept, and one that is surprisingly relevant to the pursuit of well-being.
Compounded interest is calculated based on an initial principal and on the accumulated interest that has come before - it is the interest on the interest. To best understand it, consider this: You have a choice between 1 million dollars right now, or a penny that is doubled every day for 31 days. Which will you choose?
The majority of us would jump at the million dollars, but the latter choice will yield you with over 10 million dollars in 31 days, which is not long at all to wait for a 10x increase in payoff.
We are enticed by the big payoff - in financial terms, the quick one million dollars; and in well-being terms, the achievement of the goal that will change everything. We all know what it is like to envision a future self that achieved that one big thing and is thus ridiculously and eternally happy. And yet, how many of us have actually accomplished this ideal vision, and if so, how lastingly happy does it really make us? It is incredibly hard to make these big goals happen; as the entrepreneur Derek Sivers so hilariously remarked, “If information were the answer, we'd all be billionaires with perfect abs.” Contemplating six pack abs from a place of ill-health or a billion dollars from a place of debt is like looking up at an enormous expanse of flat mountainous rock, with no path in sight: it seems impossible to try, so we do not ever even attempt to get started.
I am an enormous advocate of big, hairy, audacious goals. However, it is important to recognize what these BHAGs represent: a vision of future further happiness for ourselves. Aristotle argued that happiness is the ultimate goal of human existence, which he demonstrated through a thought experiment that sounds a little bit like this:
“Why do you want to lose weight?”
“Because it will lower my cholesterol and risk of diabetes.”
“Why do you want to lower your cholesterol and risk of diabetes?”
“Because it will make me healthier.”
“Why do you want to be healthier?”
“Because I’ll have more energy to hang out with my kids."
“Why do you want to have more energy to hang out with your kids?”
“Because it will make me feel good and as though I am a good parent.”
“Why do you want to feel good and like a good parent?”
“Because it will make me happy.”
Every goal in life is ultimately aimed at happiness, and psychologists have found that we are always pursuing goals, whether they are conscious or not. Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs tells us that we must set goals related to satisfying our basest requirements, such as food and shelter, before we can move on to pursuing greater goals like love and belonging. There are still far too many people suffering in a world that is hostile, who struggle to simply meet their goal of surviving every day. But those of us who have satisfied that desire inevitably move on to a new objective. As human beings, we have the choice to determine where we invest our psychic energy, and by choosing to invest it in meaningful goals, we can grow as individuals.
But those of us who are fortunate enough to have our lower-level needs satisfied face a bit of a tricky dilemma. First, we have been given the choice of the content of our goals: the perfect abs or the billion dollars, or more likely, while we're wishing for things, both. Second, we also can choose how we would like to pursue our goals, the process: we can do it in a way that encourages our happiness along the way and makes it more likely that we will achieve it, or more likely, we will not.
The content of your goal is up to you. While I encourage all people to maintain a focus on the why of their goal – the connection to their happiness – I am far more interested in the process of pursuing our goals, and finding a way to do so that actually makes it more likely that we will succeed in those goals and that even can enable our well-being in a deeper way.
How Systems Can Enable Your Success
You will never, ever, ever achieve your BHAGs without right action.
And that is why most people give up on their BHAGs without even trying. The questions are overwhelming. What is the right action to pursue my goal? How long is it going to take? Why is it so hard? How am I supposed to fit in so much work into my busy life? How do I get started? How do I maintain it? What if once I achieve the goal, I find out it doesn't make me happy? What if I can't achieve the goal, and that means I'm not a good/strong/successful/etc person? What if I fail?
Instead of these questions, which quickly will take you from excitement over your goal to utter trepidation over the next step, I want you to pose yourself a different question: What is the smallest possible action I can commit to every single day to help me achieve this goal?
This is the question that is at the heart of designing a system for your success. Systems can also be defined as processes, but I prefer this term because it speaks to a more thoughtful, intentional way of living: it is the system that you have created for yourself that both reflects your idiosyncrasies, embraces your realities and enables your pursuit of your BHAGs. It is something that only you can design and implement, and something that only you can execute. This might intimidate you, but really, it can also set you free: our culture is obsessed with maximizing productivity through sharing of tips and tricks and ideas, but at the end of the day, only you will know what works for you. Adam Grant, one of the most popular professors at The University of Pennsylvania, encourages everyone to stop reading productivity tips, and get out there and do something.
Systems are not radical quick-fixes. They are slow, determined, thoughtful, creative, ever-changing, unique, and above-all, sustainable. Systems are built upon the wisdom of compounded interest – the recognition that every single day, we are investing in both the principal (ourselves) and in our already accumulated interest (all the work we have already done on ourselves) and we are reaping the payoff from our tiny continued actions.
Step One: Define Your BHAG
Make sure it is inspiring, and challenging, and hard but achievable. And most importantly, ensure that it is aligned to your values, your strengths, and your vision for your best self. Write it down somewhere (it has been shown to increase the likelihood of you achieving it!)
Step Two: Throw Away Your BHAG
Writing down your BHAG is only the first step. Now, we're going to reframe it as a system, using the answer to this question: "What is the smallest amount of effort I can reasonably put towards this every day?"
If your goal is "lose x number of pounds", then your system might be "do something active every day".
If your goal is to "write a book", then your system might be "write two pages every day".
Your hope here is to articulate the ways in which you will embed this into your life in a manageable, thoughtful way.
If you're having trouble coming up with it, a good old-fashioned brainstorming session can be pretty powerful. Excavate every piece of data that you have about your goal, and look at what it means to you. For example: if your BHAG is to lose weight... you probably need to eat healthier food and exercise more frequently. You might need accountability partners to check in with. You might realize through some self-reflection that you like working out with other people. Maybe you like a certain kind of exercise class. You could learn that morning workouts are best for you, and that you need a cup of coffee beforehand. Write down everything you know about yourself, your goal, your past efforts, your schedule, your commitments that is related to this BHAG. What are the trends that arise? How might this inform how you decide to engage?
For high-priority BHAG, you can also consider that maybe there are several systems that you want to implement. Using our weight loss example again, it's well-established that you can't outrun a bad diet, so you might need to make a system that, say, encompasses both 'do something active every day' and 'eat green vegetables at every meal'.
Step Three: Act & Track
Because you have broken your BHAG into a small, measurable unit(s), you can now take action. You can wake up tomorrow and make a salad for lunch, or walk to work instead of taking the bus, or write a page, or whatever else you have identified.
Systems are powerful because they can also be tracked quickly and effectively. Ideally, your system should have a simple yes/no answer to the question, "Did I do this today?" I personally use a Google spreadsheet to track my system, marking off whether or not I hit my target or missed it that day, with an automatic color-coding formula.
The systems below are what I categorize as my "well-being systems" - those things I have chosen to do in order to make sure that I am thriving as a person and am able to show up for my life and loved ones in a way that honors my deepest values. In a glance, I can see how I am doing towards my system of being 'well' and my BHAG of being 'my best self' - something that is overwhelming, hard to quantify, and difficult to execute.
Tracking is powerful because it drives accountability. If I notice that I haven't done something for a few days in a row, I can't brush it aside: it's bright red, staring me in the face, letting me know that I am not holding myself accountable for something that I profess to value.
An important note here is to recognize that life changes and that flexibility is key. If I notice that a particular pathway is no longer serving me over a prolonged period of time, I eliminate it without hesitation. If I know that I have a particularly rough stretch of work ahead of me, I calibrate my expectations about what I can achieve accordingly. Systems can ebb and flow, because you return to them, continuously building on your prior investments.
How Systems Can Enable Your Well-Being
Systems are endowed with a few secret powers that drives well-being in a meaningful way.
#1: They Build Self-Efficacy
Self-efficacy is the belief that you can achieve what it is that you set out to achieve. It is well-summed up in this children's book:
Thomas the Tank Engine thinks he can, thinks he can, thinks he can... and then discovers that in fact, he CAN!
When you engage in systems, it's hard not to build self-efficacy, as the data builds up over time. You start to see that you are more powerful and effective than you perhaps realized, building your belief that you can do what you set your mind to; this is also something that can have powerful effect on the rest of your life.
#2: They Change Your Identity
I spent many years of my life telling myself, my family, my friends, and virtually anyone who would listen that I wasn't an athletic person. That was reserved for other people, but me, I hated exercise. Not for me!
However, over time, I came to grudgingly recognize that if I wanted to be happy, exercise needed to be a part of it. I started engaging in systems that nudged me towards being more athletic, and now, a few years later, I find myself doing things like working out twice a day multiple times a week, looking forward to exercise as the very best part of my day, and most interestingly, labeling myself as someone who absolutely loves to work out.
I never would have or could have set out to change my personal identity from a couch potato to an exercise nut. It happened gradually, day by day, as I built and executed upon this system. Your identity changing is a powerful thing, one that is not to be taken lightly; it bleeds into the other parts of your life. Someone who is passionate about exercise does not tend to go out until the wee hours of the morning, because it will mess up their workout; someone who loves to be active prefers to do workouts with her friends instead of hitting the bars; someone who is athletic finds joy in prioritizing her health in other domains, making it easier to make certain choices that might have previously been difficult.
#3: They Focus on "Being"
There two enormous factors involved in your personal happiness.
The first is consciously choosing to cultivate your unique self. And the second is taking responsibility for doing so.
We all have a unique fingerprint, encapsulating our histories and strengths and dreams and fears and areas for growth, and we can consciously choose to deeply engage in our lives. And since every goal we set is an attempt to make us happier, it is important to recognize that systems can also help us to directly address our well-being in a powerful and lasting way.
The reality of our world is that we have very little control over what happens to us. While we can certainly increase the probability that good things will happen to us through activities like building strong relationships, finding a job that fits our strengths, exercising and eating healthy, and so on, it is an unfortunate truth of life that these are only valiant attempts at very best. Even those of us who live the most blessed, fortunate life imaginable will surely know suffering. While it might seem bleak to recognize that the only assurance in this life is that we cannot control the external world, it is in fact something that can set us free. How will each of us choose to live our lives with this knowledge in mind?
I believe that it is through taking control of our attention that we take responsibility for ourselves. It is the only thing within our control, and it is also the thing that experiences every other part of life; all experiences are filtered through the lens of the self. Systems are one practical way to do so, helping us to take advantage of the power of compounding: making a few small actions every day has transformed my life in a way that would have been utterly unimaginable to contemplate from the bottom of the mountain.
Systems are all about helping you to enable this process, giving you a way to consciously cultivate yourself through full attention to the details of your self and your life. Do you yearn to be more loving? Create a system that includes activities that allow you to express love. Do you wish to be healthier? Design a system that gently invites you into taking more thoughtful choices. Do you want to be a master of your chosen skill set? Implement a system that helps you to build your skill every single day.
BHAGs can lead us to the hedonic treadmill, spurring us to believe that once we achieve our dream, we will finally be happy. In fact, the research is very clear: we adapt very quickly to any positive or negative changes in our life, re-establishing ourselves at our happiness set point. A study on lottery winners and people who had been paralyzed found that, six months later, neither group experienced lasting changes to their well-being. It is not the externals that matter so much as what is internal.
Instead of focusing on how wonderful it will be when you finally achieve that thing, systems encourage you to build enjoyable micro-experiences into your day. This is what it means to love the process - making the pursuit of your goal one that will actually increase your well-being along the way. For example, if a BHAG is to create a loving environment for your children, which is more likely to bring you joy and help you to cultivate your best self along the way?
- Option 1: You consistently ask yourself whether or not the environment is loving enough, agonizing if you have reached your goal or not. It's easy to regularly forget that there are so many other external challenges involved in making a loving family, and you blame yourself for not being able to control everything. You try haphazardly every day to make it a loving environment, but always feel like you are coming up short. You question your value as a parent based on the reactions you get from your family or those around you.
- Option 2: You decide that a loving environment, at this point in time, means a few specific things: a) setting safe boundaries for your children, b) complimenting them on their positive inner qualities every time you see them, c) expressing gratitude for your family in some way every day, and d) engaging in three fun family activities per week. You do these things consistently over time, creating rituals of gratitude, respect, and encouragement.
Personally, I have found systems to be one of the most powerful mechanisms in my life for helping me to thoughtfully and intentionally direct my attention, with the added bonus that they drive success in goal achievement and cultivate personal well-being. I'm curious to hear: what systems do you use? How have they impacted your life?