I always thought that it was some kind of a sign of maturity: to set a deadline on your own. It was always someone else who set them. Either my parents when I was a kid or teachers in school, boss at work, thesis adviser in graduate school, conference committees, journal editors… Then I realized that the virtue is not in setting deadlines on your own: anyone can do that, anyone can fill up a calendar with various tasks with deadlines.
The actual sign of maturity, it turns out, is sticking to those deadlines, promises, tasks set by “you”.
It is one thing to be able to complete tasks that we hate doing, it’s another to actually assign those things to yourself. One might ask: why would you ever assign yourself the very things that you hate. Because if it was up to “us” (meaning the real self ) we would never get anything done. We would simply do the things we enjoy – and more often than not those do not contribute towards improving ourselves. Then again, I shouldn’t use the word ‘hate’ here (Is there a word for tasks that you know that are eventually good for you yet you just hate to do them?) And it doesn’t have to be something major: a trivial task, perhaps a to-do item, anything that requires you to do something that you do not want to do.
A common example is the following: You know that to live a healthy life you need to eat right and exercise regularly – among many other things. You set a goal for yourself. You say “I am going to be X lbs by the end of month Y” (usually people do this in the beginning of the year. They actually wait for the New Year to do that, like it has any significance). You say “I will eat this much every day and exercise this much every week and cheat one day every one or two days”. Ok. Sounds simple and straightforward. Then why on earth can’t everyone do this and be physically fit?
Here is another example: Suppose that you want to learn a computer programming language. No one is forcing you. It is just “you” who made that decision because you want to improve yourself and be more relevant in this fast moving technology world. OK, well, you say to yourself “I will spend 4-5 hours each week and learn this language” You set up your calendar and block time each day for one hour of programming language X. You know the story line: You stick with it for a few weeks, then other tasks get in the way and you simply stop following your own calendar hoping that you will pick it next week by spending twice as much time. You trade something that is more urgent or something that is easier in lieu of that task you assigned to yourself. And after several weeks you give up. It becomes another ephemeral venture.
The reason why you often fail is because no one is forcing you. “You” (your actual self) are forcing yourself. See, the one who is giving the command and the one receiving is the same person. That’s one hell of a catch-22.
How can you ever be strict with yourself? You will always let your guard down and be lenient after awhile. You will excuse yourself after two or three weeks when you are tempted to drink one more glass of wine or eat that shit food that you so very much like. That will be a treat yourself. It is ok. It is only you that whose rules you are not following. What are you going to do? Be mad and not talk to yourself? Be mad and fire yourself?
Whether the task on hand is personal or professional, not following our own rules has a pernicious effect on the self.
So how can we achieve that seemingly insurmountable task of sticking to the self-imposed deadlines, rules, promises, resolutions etc? If you search online, you can find multitude of approaches, ranging from announcing friends and family or colleagues that you have a certain goal, finding a mentor (online or in person) that can track your progress to setting a penalty for not sticking to a deadline. For example, if you are trying to finish a scientific paper you can try to submit to a conference that has strict deadlines, or if you are trying to quit smoking you can tell everyone you know that you have quit smoking, etc. You see, all of these approaches require another person that you have to report to.
We need to get deeper into the psychological reasons as to why we depend on another person to keep us in line. I am not a psychologist (obviously) but I believe this stems for our instinctive search for a mom or a dad who will always tell us what to do, to guide the way, praise us or scold us as a result of our actions. If we presume that we have matured enough, it should mean that we should be making decisions freely as an independent person. But no matter how mature we think we have become we still need others’ opinions to guide us. We keep seeking the praise of others.
It was Marcus Aurelius who said “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.” (Meditations).
I shall note here what I have found personally as the most effective method for dealing with this dilemma. I have been following this over a year and I shall warn you: It is by no means a panacea; I still give in every once in a while and pander to my childish whims. Yet it is better than any other method I tried before. (Meaning: it doesn’t always work. Requires lots of planning and self awareness).
However, I shall start from the beginning. It’s not just setting a goal, a deadline, a resolution… We must approach this like a chess player and plan very carefully.
Here are the precepts:
1) Determine Exactly What You Want
Quite simple: Ask Why.
We shall ask ourselves : why do I want this? This is important not only because we get get deeper into the psychological reasons behind our desires but also asking why keeps us grounded. There is a great approach supposedly used by Warren Buffet where he lists 15-20 goals and then ranks them based on importance and then selects the top 5. That’s all. Never ever peek into the rest. Keep them aside and focus on the top 5 and never work for another goal unless one of those top 5 goals is complete. By using this approach we can perhaps weed out the goals that would suck our time and not yield a good ROI.
2) Divide and Conquer
This is a very important principle where we need to determine what exactly needs to be done in order to achieve (or get closer to) these goals. Meaning: we shall list the required tasks to achieve that goal. Let’s suppose that we want to learn a new language – whatever the reason is. The likely tasks required for this goal are to (not necessarily in the right order): Sign up for a language course, download Duolingo app, search YouTube for elementary videos or cartoon videos in that language, find a cheat sheet of grammar rules online, search for a native speaker of that language and pay to chat over a cup of coffee, plan for a trip to a country that speaks that language, etc etc. Obviously the number, the content and the order of tasks vary significantly for different goals.
3) Plan Ahead
This step requires our utmost attention. We must think like a master strategist. It is important to find the right amount of time required to finish each task identified before and spread it out to months or days or, for small tasks, to hours. I shall elaborate on this task later on but the key trick in this step is to remind ourself the maxim: “Everything takes longer than you think” Therefore I recommend multiplying the time you think you need to complete a task by a safety factor of 1.25 to 1.5.
4) Plan Closer
Starting every week, preferably on a Sunday evening, we should take 10 minutes to plan out our week. This is of great importance. We shall never start a new week haphazardly, hoping for the best. We can not simply reach our best without a sound plan. So, we should get a weekly calendar and determine how many hours we need to block time for each task and mark our calendar. We must hit those targets each week. Note that -whether work related or personal- there are always unscheduled tasks that come up. Always. So we need to schedule with that in mind.
5) Be Accountable
We must always keep track of our weekly progress. Each Sunday we need to review our week and gauge our performance. If those targets are not met we need to write down the reasons why. Accountability is the key here. Do not just let it go. Let’s explain to ourselves why we failed and find out what to do so that we can fix it. I suggest keeping a simple notebook divided into sections for each goal. Like a weekly diary for our goals. We must be brutally honest with ourselves. No matter how bad we did, we must write down. Did you just blow the entire diet because you were invited to a dinner with friends where you ate like a pig or could not stick to working on planned task? Well shit happens. We are not perfect. But write it down. Why did you fail? Explain. Find out what you can do so that it doesn’t happen again. It might not change your behavior overnight but helps in the long run.
I believe it is the most important precept and everything boils down to this one. However it takes time honing this skill: Being that person you always wanted to be. Well we might not ever get there but we can get closer. The fundamental idea is to create that person of high power within ourselves. We do NOT need a parent a boss or a mentor. Identify who you want to be and get closer to that self. Let’s not look for another to approve/disapprove our accomplishments / failures. Let’s be accountable to our ideal self.
To be able to get closer that ideal self we shall be mindful of our emotions and actions. Before succumbing to frivolous time wasters, to our whims, basically before giving in to anything that is not what we planned for we shall be aware. Understand why we tend to aberrate? We shall be grown ups and must catch ourselves before each dumb action and question our behavior. If we set out to lose weight, we must be aware of that fake hunger or that silly urge to gorge shit food. We must always ask: “Is this something that my ideal self would do?” This is very similar to that famous question: ‘What would Jesus do?’ We shall create our own Jesus, that ideal person to follow.
Quoting Marcus Aurelius again: “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.“ Replace ‘good man’ in that quote with ‘the ideal self’. We shall try to be that person.
Are these precepts enough to commit to a goal and actually achieve it? Who am I to say that these will work for everyone? I don’t know. In my case I have never felt more productive and time effective in my unprofessional or personal life. It works for me. But it can definitely be better. I’m trying to improve myself.
Try and see for yourself. If you’re tired of getting pumped up for a few days / weeks and lose motivation you’re not alone. People often lack will power. See this recent NYT article.
We shall try to improve everyday, be accountable first and foremost to ourselves. We shall strive to be that ‘ideal self‘.