Let’s say our friend Bob wants to move 10 million gallons of water miles down a hill. Every day Bob wakes up, he cups his hands together, scoops up as much water as he can, and hurries down the hill. Despite his great effort, a lot of the water trickles out, but Bob empties whatever he can, walks back, and spends the rest of his day exhausted. After a few years of this Bob starts to wonder: “Man, what’s wrong with me? Why am I so sick and tired of carrying all this water, and how come I’m not making much progress with all my water-carrying goals? John down the street gets tons of water down the hill. . . it just isn’t fair. . . I guess I’m just one of those people who wasn’t meant to get much water-transportation done in my lifetime.”
Poor Bob. He wasted all his precious energy and willpower on the wrong thing. If he had learned how to create a structure…a waterway…he could have moved water to his heart’s content. In fact, it would have practically moved itself, and with much greater efficiency and force than he ever could have imagined.
Creating a structure for your goals is exactly like creating this waterway. Like water, willpower tends to flow in the path of least resistance. It has incredible energy when you channel it, but dissipates quickly when you don’t. In other words, if you create the correct structure around your goals, you have a much higher chance of getting from point a to point b.*
So how to create a structure? In general the process is simple: determine your goal, know how to get there, and then create an environment that focuses your energy and holds you accountable. There are a lot of different ways to think about this process, but I’ve broken it down into 6 easy steps:
1) Determine a long term goal.
Books can and have been written on this complex subject, but for our purposes, lets assume you already know what you know what you want to do. Say, for instance that instead of moving a bunch of water, you want to write a book on goal setting.
2) Figure out your intermediate goals.
These can be milestones you need to reach along the way. For example:
- Write 12 chapters.
- Find a publisher.
- Read 2 books on marketing.
3) Give every milestone a deadline.
Without specific deadlines, your milestones are worthless. If possible, work your deadlines into the immediate future. Here are some examples of deadlines:
- 3 Chapters a month for the next 4 months.
- Contact 5 publishers in the next 3 weeks.
- Get up at 6AM every day and write for a solid hour.
You might notice that the last item on this list is the most immediate, and could even be learned as a habit if you like. Some ongoing goals simply require one or two daily habits. For instance, staying in shape could be as simple as working out for an hour each morning. Other more elaborate goals require many intermediate goals that may or may not be ongoing.
4) Reduce friction.
If you’re trying to lose weight, get the junk food out of the house. If you want to write a book find a quiet place to work, turn off your phone, and close the e-mail. Meditate every day to reduce internal stress and distraction. Keep your house decluttered to help with the external side of things (I’m awful at this!)
5) Create positive momentum.
Set aside time every day to visualize your final goal and the steps in getting there. The more vivid the goal and the rewards that come with it, the more direction and energy you’ll have.
6) Surround your goal with rewards and accountability
This is probably the most important, and least often used, element of creating a structure. You might have the building plan, all of the raw materials, and the energy to do the work, but accountability is what braces everything into place. Even a great deal of momentum and energy can grow diffuse and dissipate. There are two ways to bolster your structure: positive rewards, and negative accountability.
In my experience, rewards work well as long term support, while “negative” reinforcement is extremely powerful in the short term.
For your book, you might buy yourself a nice dinner or whatever for each 3 chapters you write. This provides a nice positive undercurrent to your work. Like visualization, rewards offer a nice forward looking activity that will help general momentum.
Unfortunately, “positive” reinforcement and thinking, while great for planning, is often inadequate when the rubber meets the road. This is where the incredibly powerful technique of negative reinforcement comes into play.
To create this type of reinforcement, you have to find a way to keep yourself absolutely accountable in every step towards your goal. The long and short of it is that there need to be negative consequences for not reaching your milestones!
Websites like stickk.com are a great way to do this. Stickk lets me make a legally binding contract with myself in which I lose money if certain tasks aren’t completed. It also lets me pick a referee to monitor my progress.
“Negative” accountability is such an important topic that I’ll be devoting all of Wednesday’s post to it. I’ll give some tips I’ve discovered in keeping myself accountable, as well as some really exciting and empowering psychological phenomena surrounding this area.
*Yea, a better analogy might be that you create the waterway to carry you to your goal…floating on your willpower… but you will all have to get my point.