In the context of setting out on the journey to write my second book, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the changes needing to take place in myself to accomplish my goal. Here are four thoughts on how to get your mind right when approaching a new chapter of life.
1. Fight Resistance
If you want to accomplish, learn, or do anything, you have to do the work. As humans, we are driven by either the avoidance of pain or the hope of reward: a shiny new toy, a better physique, a new skill, writing a book. In our desire to avoid pain and reap a reward, we try to act a lot like water, searching for the shortcut, immediate path of least resistance. Reality doesn’t offer the easy path. The reward is only achieved through the unglamorous work it takes to achieve said reward.
By work, I don’t mean the tired platitudes of “executing,” “making time,” and “pushing the ball forward”. These are too surface. The real work is in overcoming the internal obstacles, doubts, and challenges standing in our way.
Author Steven Pressfield refers to this as “fighting resistance”. Resistance is the fear, procrastination, bad habits, justifications, and doubts we all face when setting out to achieve something new. Pressfield goes on to offer an unsettling rule of thumb: “the more important a call or action is to our soul's evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”
The more we want it, the more resistance we will have to overcome. Fighting the resistance means doing the work every single day. It is the maxim, “Chop Wood, Carry Water” come to life.
If something is worth pursuing we have to learn to navigate the conflict between achieving the reward and avoiding the pain.
2. Adapt/Adopt Habits
For me, the work becomes natural when it becomes habitual. From marketing neuroscience to self-help gurus, tons of thought has been devoted to the subject of habit. The most useful to me are two core ideas: keystone habits and environmental regulation.
Keystone habits are behaviors that trigger other good behaviors. They explain why making your bed each morning has been strongly correlated with increasing your productivity. Discovering, creating, and optimizing keystone habits can provide a runway for increasing the likelihood of accomplishing your work. Careful consideration of the keystone habits you either need to install or become aware of is crucial at the onset of any new venture.
Goal: Publish a book → What triggers your critical creativity?
Goal: Launch a Startup → What triggers you talking to a potential customer?
Goal: Learn to play guitar → What triggers you to practice?
Environmental regulation is the conscious management of the conditions surrounding your behaviors. This includes everything you experience (taste, touch, see, hear, smell) and the people and contexts in which you place yourself.
To solidify lasting habit change, intentionality about your environment is pivotal. There are a number of techniques including task association, increasing or decreasing environmental friction, using contextual clues, and system building to help you better handle your environmental regulation (which I encourage you to research and try at your convenience).
When approaching a new challenge both keystone habits and environmental regulation help ground me in adapting my behaviors to produce effective, habitual work toward achieving my goals.
3. Find Your Flow
My best defense against resistance is getting in the zone – a state where I am fully immersed, energized and absorbed in my work. Psychologists refer to this state as “flow”. We can enter into a flow state doing any activity although it is most likely to occur when we are wholeheartedly performing a personally meaningful task or activity. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who coined the term in 1975, described flow as, “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
Csikszentmihalyi describes 8 characteristics of flow:
- Complete concentration on the task
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down of time)
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding, has an end in itself
- Effortlessness and ease
- There is a balance between challenge and skills
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
- There is a feeling of control over the task
A few tactics I use to find my state of flow have proved successful over the last few years. First, I need to eliminate as many attention-robbers as possible. This means getting rid of the phone, turning off notifications, having dedicated time without hard-stop deadlines, and finding physical space to support my efforts.
Second, I need to align the level of the task at hand with the skills I have to accomplish it. If it’s too hard I’ll feel overwhelmed. If it’s too easy, I’ll feel bored.
Third, I need to ensure I’m working on something meaningful to me. No matter the task, I need to find a reason as to why I am doing it. This may be as simple as ensuring I am making someone else’s job easier or as complicated as finding the meaning of life (it’s Belgian chocolate, btw).
These three tactics – eliminating distractions, task/skill matching, and finding meaning – can help enable a state of flow in fighting your resistance.
4. Attach Solid Metrics
In navigating the tug-of-war between reward and pain it has helped me to make my resistance tangible by measuring my effort against it. I can only fight resistance if I can see it. I ask myself, “how much of the 30 minutes I dedicated to the work was assaulted by my resistance?” “How do I know I actually achieved the work today?” “How am I measuring my work to ensure I’m fighting my resistance?” (See the bonus below for an example).
By putting solid metrics around “fighting resistance” prior to starting my work, I can measure how effective my habits are and how likely I will be able to find my flow.
Some of the metrics I’ve used or am currently using:
Work Measures (Positive)
- Daily word count
- Productive time (typically in 25-minute increments)
- # of content slides completed/set time
- Time spent attempting or in my flow
Resistance Measures (Negative)
- # of blockers encountered (unavoidable interruptions, sudden tasks, time-sensitive requests)
- Time spent “distract-me reading” (espn.com, trending on Twitter, promo emails)
- # of meetings accepted despite dedicated “work” time
- # of “autopilot” tasks completed (routine emails, posts, conversations)
The key to using metrics is to boil them down to their simplest and most indicative form. In my work with innovation teams, we call this the, “impact metric.” What is the one metric above all others that indicate the health and growth of your new venture? The same is true for our personal struggle between reward and pain.
Ask yourself, what is the one metric that indicates the impact of your “fight against resistance”?
Bonus: My one metric = 500 Words
Writing 500 words a day represents my habitual resistance fighting. These words don’t necessarily have to be good, production-ready, edited, refined, or even on-subject. Not 300 edited and on-point. Not 499. 500 words a day.
To hold myself accountable, I’ve put a few things in place:
- Calendar: I’ve blocked out time on my calendar each day simply titled “500”
- Accountabilibuddy (s/o Southpark): I’ve asked a few friends to check-in regularly on my progress and call me on any justifications or excuses I may have
- Environment: I will change my seat (even if I just go sit at another desk) for each of my “500” calendar events
- Keystone: I’m searching for my keystone habit. I’m not sure what I’ll find just yet.
This article is part of an ongoing series, The Friday Four. Every Friday I publish four top of mind thoughts from the experiences of the previous week. Themes include growth, coaching, startups, innovation, family, fatherhood, travel, food, or any other top of mind topic.
The rules are simple:
- Publish every Friday.
- Four thoughts (as long or as short as necessary).
- No content calendar. No SEO hacks. No marketing bullshit.