Before we can know how to attack our goals, we first have to understand the two kinds of goals that hoard our daily focus and efforts. They are: benchmarks and deadlines.
They both are peppered with to-do lists, meltdowns and all nighters, but the former is personally defined whereas the latter is externally defined.
Some Benchmark Goals
- Run a marathon
- Lose 10 pounds
- Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro
- Launch website
- Set up an LLC
- Own a house
- Don’t eat meat/drink alcohol for a month
Some Deadline Goals:
- Write my dissertation/term paper
- Return X items by March 31
- Pay my taxes by April 15
- Finish project for my boss by 5PM
The behavior being adopted to reach a lone benchmark/deadline goal is not there to rewire how we do things, it’s simply “the shit we have to do to get what we want.”
“Obviously, the bigger the goal, the more effort it requires, the more dopamine* we get. This is why it feels really good to work hard to accomplish something difficult, while doing something quick and easy may only give us a little hit if anything at all. In other words, it feels good to put in a lot of effort to accomplish something. There is no biological incentive to do nothing.”
But if our life is only about some imaginary goal in the future that we’re building towards (a book, a marathon, a million dollar company, a summit), then the effort that gets us there becomes our enemy, we become unpleasant to be around, and behavioral change has no chance to thrive.
That’s where a third style of goals comes in.
A lifestyle goal is not about accomplishing a specific long-term benchmark, it’s about doing something differently more consistently. It’s what you do on purpose on an average Wednesday when no one’s looking.
It’s more: writing, meditating, exercising, painting, playing with your kids, dinners with friends, healthy eating, reading, sleep
It’s less: smoking, coffee, attachment to the phone, procrastination
And how do you reach a lifestyle goal? Well, systems, of course. (I’ve talked about systems here and here. Scott Adams talks about them here. James Clear talks about them here and here. Ramit Sethi talks about them all the time.)
A system is nothing other than a repeatable mini benchmark that can be reached in one sitting/one go ‘round changing our behavior little by little.
Systems put in place to reach lifestyle goals can be the following:
- Writing, meditating, reading, exercising, painting or playing with your kids 30 minutes everyday
- Eating breakfast at home and not at Dunkin Donuts during the week
- Not checking your phone first thing in the morning
- Not drinking coffee/smoking cigarettes before/after noon
- Not watching TV in bed at night
Systems work because these mini benchmarks become the progress points that we enjoy reaching. They are what give us the dopamine hit of accomplishment and the longer we do them consistently, the more natural they will become.
Systems are nothing more than a planned addiction.
A system is not the opposite of a benchmark, it is a bunch of identical benchmarks right next to each other. We are not robots, we are not inspired – nor know how to proceed – when the call to arms is simply “doing more or less of something.” We need a tent-pole in the distance that we work towards, even if the tent-pole is 20 feet in front of us.
In order to become a million dollar company, part of that process might be reaching out to 3 potential clients a day. At first, this benchmark will be uncomfortable but eventually it will become easier. Once it becomes easy, it becomes habit and it’s part of your natural lifestyle. Once something becomes habit, our brain will look for the next benchmark to chase, no matter how mini. We like to be challenged and we like the idea of getting somewhere. (Dopamine is a hell of a drug!)
So we need benchmarks, deadlines and systems.
Work from the inside out though. Change the lifestyle/habits first and then you can create new benchmark goals around that lifestyle if you want. Regardless, you’ll be better prepared to deal with the deadlines when they rear their inevitable heads.
The only way to change people’s minds is with consistency. – Jack Welch
And this includes our own minds too.
*What is dopamine? In short, it is the feeling of pleasure & satisfaction that happens naturally when we’re moving towards something we want or when we get what we want. Food releases dopamine. Sex releases dopamine. Cocaine releases dopamine. Your cell phone’s push notification releases dopamine. We like dopamine. If you want to know more about how these chemicals in your body drive and control us, check out Simon Sinek’s 99u talk or read his new book, Leaders Eat Last.