The 1% Rule - How to really reach your goals this time
I like big goals, and I cannot lie.
The bigger, hairier and more audacious the better. I love making huge resolutions, writing them down and getting really excited. Like writing one blog post a day. Like running every day. Like losing 10 kg in a month.
The problem is that I was trying to lose 10kg in a month for about 120 months in a row.
You know what happens after you've tried and failed at something every month for 10 years? You stop trying. You identify with the results - in this case, failure.
The goal itself becomes a shining beacon of how much you suck.
I wanted significant results, quantum leaps, historic accomplishments because that's what's motivating. Big effort, big result. Big failure was what I was getting in reality.
I kept beating myself up because I was failing. I felt stuck, and tired and hateful of myself for being so 'weak'.
In my mind, the reasons could be one of two: either the goal itself was too hard to attain, or I was shit at it. Both completely disempowering.
I knew the problem wasn't willpower. I've put myself through insane diets and exercise programs during these magnificent monthly vision quests. I was waking up at crazy hours to exercise. I was eating the vilest things imaginable. I was scarfing down barely legal fat loss pills - one of which made me go on a frantic 5-hour walk with my dog who subsequently hated me for weeks. I'm looking at you, Hydroxycut (the pills, not the dog).
My problem with change was that I had ultra high ambitions and was tyrannical with myself. I had big hairy goals and was a bit masochistic about attaining them. I only felt I was actually working when it hurt.
I was relying on: Big effort. Big result. Never happened.
Then, I just stumbled on the fact that my secret sauce for weight loss was cutting carbohydrates. Of course, in the beginning, I was subsisting solely on beef jerky because the big goal was "never even look at a carb ever again", but after I invariably got sick of only eating dried strips of Bambi and went back to my regular diet, I tried one thing.
One minor thing.
Cutting carbs, but one at a time.
In a few months, I'd slowly cut and substituted most of the carby foods in my diet with other, more virtuous, alternatives. And lo and behold, a few months later I had dropped the pesky weight.
I even felt a twinge of Catholic guilt because I had done 0 suffering. It seemed perverse.
I decided to look into why this could be, and I stumbled upon a treasure trove of literature. I discovered why all my big hairy goals were leading me nowhere. I was failing because I had a lofty view of what my brain could do. My intuition was: If I could think it, I could do it. Immediately!
And to some extent, that's true. In the short run, at least. But long-term changes need an entirely different strategy.
Finally understanding my poor, bewildered brain
The human brain is like a sandwich.
A layer cake that goes from ultra-primaeval at the bottom, to somewhat medieval in the middle, to Elon Musk-esque on top.
The Elon layer, or the neocortex, is the one coming up with the goals. It's the layer that valiantly points you in the direction you should be going, imagines what it would look like and how you would feel if the goal was accomplished. Its powers include complex reasoning and Avatar-like CGI simulation capabilities (this reference already hasn't aged well).
But the parts actually doing 90% of what keeps you alive are in the lower regions of the brain. The Cletus, the slack-jawed yokel territory of the mind, and he isn't taking any shit from Elon.
The Amygdala, or the so-called "lizard brain" is one of these ancient structures.
One of its many functions is regulating the fight-or-flight response, an inbuilt alarm system that is as ancient as mammals themselves. What it does is prepare the body in times of crisis for either a brawl or an escape. This involves not only activating some organs but also shutting some down. When you feel fear, the amygdala steps in and tries to help by supercharging your muscles and sending you into direct action mode. To do this, it has to cut the body's energy investment in other non-essential programs, like the flamboyant SpaceX in your cortex.
So, when you feel fear, your ability to be rational, creative and goal driven is reduced significantly.
And in 2018 we've got little to fear from predators but we feel more fear than ever - we just call it "anxiety". This is a problem because the lizard brain can't distinguish between categories of fear, it's more like an on/off mechanism.
It just so happens that staring at a huge goal and the abyss between where you are now and what it would take to accomplish it gives you the same kind of fear that staring at a sabretoothed tiger gave you in ages past.
It's paralysing. The Amygdala knows it and wants you safe.
So, it will unwittingly sabotage your large-scale goals by trying to keep you away from the source of the fear, the goal itself. What a clusterfuck.
“Even if you're not aware of it, your fight-or-flight response is kicking in; that feeling you might call "writer's block" is actually fear. The question you've asked yourself is too large and frightening. You've awakened your amygdala, and your cortex has simply shut down.”
From Robert Maurer PhD. “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.”
The bigger the goal, the more complicated the question you are asking your brain to answer, the likelier it is that you'll start to feel fear.
The fear of failure.
The fear of ridicule.
The fear of all the hundreds of hours of work that your goal will take to complete.
The simple fear that what you're trying to do might just be too damn hard.
But there's a way around it.
How to trick the lizard brain
"Being turned into a lizard can really mess up your day."
Rick Riordan - Author of the Percy Jackson book series
Once you understand that the lizard brain can switch your cortex on and off, you're in on the game your brain has been playing all along. You can now see the fear for what it is: information, rather than instruction, and you can create a system for success by making it fear-proof.
Sounds about as fun and sexy as a root canal, but it hides self-development gold.
To circumvent your brain's pesky alarms, you need to create tiny baby goals, micro goals, nano goals, even, that work around it. Goals so small you have no reason to fear them.
The big scary goal is replaced by a more general direction, a north star, with hundreds of adaptable mini-goals underneath it.
The added advantage is that if you take on the small goals mindset, you allow yourself to celebrate the small wins, the daily victories, rather than postpone your joy until you've published your novel or lost 20kg. It brings back the joy of the process by understanding that it is a journey and bringing a bit of gamification into the mix.
“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don't look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That's the only way it happens - and when it happens, it lasts. ”
John Wooden - head coach at UCLA basketball, one of the most accomplished coaches in the history of the sport.
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The jaw-dropping magic of compound interest
If you’re interested in economics or finance or are in some serious debt, you're familiar with the phrase ‘compound interest’.
In investing, compound interest is simply the extra interest that you earn by not taking out the interest that you got by investing in a previous period. It’s an almost magical way to make your pot of gold ever expanding at an increasing rate, through the alchemy of exponential growth. I know it sounds complicated, but fear not, I've prepared a stunningly detailed chart.
The bottom layer is the money you put in in the beginning, the middle part is the sum of the interest you'd earn if you'd take the interest payments out every time they are due and wouldn't reinvest, and the top part is the supercalifragilistic cream cheese icing that is compound interest. This graph is mathematically completely bogus, but as you can't model exponential functions in Canva (yes, Canva & iMovie, that’s where the magic happens) just yet, it'll have to do.
The actual magic of this rule doesn’t stop at your bank account or with your loan sharks.
It pretty much works for everything. And you can use it as leverage to improve your life.
Tiny goals play well with compound interest because they are equivalent to accruing a little bit of profit every day. You could aim at getting 1% better every day. And if 1% is a lot, let’s say 0.1%, an imperceptible amount. Like picking up an extra paper clip from a messy desk.
Even with that infinitesimal amount of change, in a year, it means that you grew by a factor of 3.65, so more than 3 times.
I know that sounds abstract. But think about it this way:
If you’ve committed to getting better at your job, gain valuable skills and become indispensable, in a year of constant, committed, minuscule daily growth, you’d be more than 3 times as far along as someone who sees growth as a ‘nice to have’, and is just going through the motions.
A famous example of this mindset is the story of (now Sir.) Dave Brailsford.
He's the man that used incrementalism to accomplish the seemingly impossible - bringing the ultra-prestigious Tour de France road cycling title to the UK. When they debuted the outfits for his newly established Team Sky, he proudly announced that they would be winning the Tour de France title within 5 years. He was almost laughed out of the room.
Three years later they won.
Four years later, they won again in the general classification.
In the book "Black Box Thinking", Brailsford explains his strategy to the author, Matthew Syed: “It is about marginal gains,” he said. “The approach comes from the idea that if you break down a big goal into small parts, and then improve on each of them, you will deliver a huge increase when you put them all together.”
Brailsford is not kidding when it comes to small. Everything from the quality of the rider's pillows to the best massage gel has been A/B tested to death to arrive at maximal gains. He growth hacked cycling.
Brailsford put his bet not only on the ease of incremental change but also on the compound interest of accumulating all these victories and winning big over time.
An incrementalist mindset helps you look at the world with a different lens. “Every error, every flaw, every failure, however small, is a marginal gain in disguise. This information is regarded not as a threat but as an opportunity." Matthew Syed - Black Box Thinking
Failure isn't a condemnation anymore, it's a reason to experiment.
It's an intrinsic part of the game, and wherever there is failure, it's a hint that there's a lot of potential growth hiding underneath.
The day - the master unit of measurement
“To live one day well is the same as to live ten thousand days well. To master twenty-four hours is to master your life.”
Aubrey Marcus - modern lifestyle guru and self-professed "warrior poet". I know, suspicious, but I have to admit he's got some excellent material on the subject.
Your life is a long string of days.
While changing your life overnight is the dream, your life has momentum, and your lizard brain is the keeper of that momentum, like a squishy grey Cerberus guarding the gates to happiness.
A lot of things won’t budge if the only thing you do is "decide" to change.
Small, incremental, daily habits work because they use the magical power of the fact that there are a shit ton of days. You could go hourly, but sweet Jesus, that would be a bit much.
So, look at the day as your basic canvas. What is one tiny change that you can take today to make your career, your relationship, your health better?
Make it a small one and then optimise.
There are things in your day that you do every day. If those systems aren't serving you, you are racking up some severe losses through the weeks, months and years of your life. So, from things like the time and way you wake up, to the things you eat and the media you consume, make them serve your North Star a bit more every day.
Experiment. Measure. Repeat.
It's a mantra of management that what gets measured gets managed, and it couldn't be more accurate. The fact that you've now turned your enormous goals into manageable bite-size victory nuggets is the first step. What this allows you to do is be experimental.
Create daily systems where you can learn, adapt and make small changes, and go wild with experiments.
It kind of goes without saying, that to do that you need to document. You don't need charts and graphs but writing down observations on the things that work and don't work is incredibly important. If you have numbers, even better!
Identify the patterns of mistakes that you make most often. That's where the meat is - your development areas. Those are the places where you'll get the quickest wins by experimenting because you've got the most to gain.
Few other areas in economics are more disputed than the minefield that is foreign aid spending. In "Black Box Thinking", Matthew Syed uses an example from this dicey universe to illustrate the incredible importance of measuring outcomes.
For years, it was thought that programs like handing out books to children in impoverished regions of Africa would boost educational outcomes. It seemed intuitive. Then, when some economists actually went to measure the outcomes empirically, it appeared that these programs didn't seem to make much of a difference in the children's results. The results were startling and against what seemed like common sense. Then, the economists tested another approach, colourful flipcharts with bold visualisations of the subject matter. No difference here either.
Then, they got to thinking a bit more laterally.
The next thing they tested was a de-worming medication to improve the children's health and by that, their concentration & energy.
Not only did the experiment result in better health outcomes, like increasing children's height, but it reduced school absenteeism by a quarter.
If the economists hadn't been curious to measure outcomes and look closely at the data, these gains wouldn't have been possible. The aid organisations would have continued to pile money into ineffective programs and useless flipcharts instead of doing the, by far cheaper, intervention that in the end proved successful.
The dark side
“Success is a few simple disciplines, practised every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.”
It works both ways - you can get compound interest on the positive change you make and "collect" negative interest in the form of skyrocketing debt on the negative change. Every day you let one more detail slip, cut one more corner, pay less attention to the things that keep you going - your body, your relationships, your job, the deeper into debt you get.
They don’t call it a downward spiral for nothin'.
So, when you do add a good habit, keeping it up is half the battle. So that’s why incremental change is the only way to go for lasting results. You want to build a stable structure, not a house of cards that you stack up in one day.
3 things you can do right now
1. Ask the right questions.
You need to challenge your brain with gentle questioning. Remember, nothing too scary.
Examples of good questions are:
What would I do different today if I knew I could not fail?
What's the one small change I could make that would give me the most benefits today?
What small task can I start today that I will be thanking myself for starting a year from now?
2. Keep a journal and focus on the improvements
This one is all about the measurement.
On every page of my daily journal, I have a little section called: Lessons Learned. It's a place where I take stock of what I've learned that day and how I could improve. The purpose here is less to keep a record, but more to get you into the incremental gains mindset. Once your juices are flowing, the ideas for little improvements will come up naturally.
3. Practice patience, enjoy the game and don't overdo it
I was probably more guilty than most in not taking this advice.
I love my huge goals, and I have little patience, but, in the end, there's no way around incrementalism. We were not built to change overnight, and we need to find ways to bypass the ancient programming to steer ourselves where we want to go. It's the 1% rule for a reason. You should focus on small, iterative improvements not because you couldn't make huge leaps in a day, but because it's unsustainable and you will run out of steam.
So, realise that everything will take more than you think, and live for the experiment, live for improving the system rather than for the outcome. Once you reach your goal, you'll soon realise it's not nearly as satisfying as the journey itself.
Books that preach the 1% rule
One more thing I want to leave you with is some of the incredible literature I came across while researching this post. Here are some books that cover this subject extremely well and that I've found to have some more useful nuggets of wisdom:
Matthew Syed. “Black Box Thinking.”
Aubrey Marcus: "Own the day. Own your Life."
Robert Maurer PhD. “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.”
Here is the video version if you have 10 minutes to spare:
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