The Cycle of Success: Taking Control and Letting Go

taking control

I firmly believe that people should take their lives into their own hands in any way that they reasonably can. Rather than let arbitrary circumstances dictate how they live, people who adopt this approach to life are those who begin exercising regularly, eating the right foods, working hard to build a thriving career, searching for the right life partner, and so on. They don’t make excuses; they take control. I cannot recommend this approach to life highly enough.

But I’m beginning to learn that taking control is not the whole picture. There’s another side to the coin: letting go. The act of letting go is what completes the cycle as you progress through your goals and grow as a person. In fact, letting go is just as important as taking control.

Why do I believe this? Over and over again, I’ve noticed that as I start experiencing success with a particular long-term goal, it becomes increasingly more important to let go of certain mentalities, desires, and habits that are no longer applicable or useful. This especially applies to habits that were once helpful when I was starting out, but have since morphed into wasteful, or even harmful.

The inability to let go of these outdated habits, desires, and mentalities is a major reason why people burn out, flounder, or stop making progress on a particular goal. On a personal level, one great example of this in action can be found in my first three years of weightlifting.

 

A Personal Example: Working Out

When I first started resistance training workouts in order to build muscle, I did what many guys do: I started taking protein shakes, pre-workout formulas, creatine, and various vitamin supplements along with my brand new weight training routine. While I was getting started, this supplementation regimen had a series of benefits:

  • Surrounding my workout routine with pre-workout cocktails and post-workout protein shakes built a routine, which helped me adhere to my workouts.
  • Other guys who lifted weights often had a similar supplementation strategy. And discussing this was a way to bond with people I met at the gym and get to know them better. And as I discuss frequently on this blog, strong social ties around a goal can significantly improve your success rate.
  • Anyone who has used supplements like pre-workouts can tell you how your mind focuses in on your workout as a result of the caffeine, and how your strength jumps as a result of creatine.

However, as I broke past the barrier of beginner status, I never stopped to re-evaluate my reliance on these supplements as a mental and physical crutch. As a result, the years of heavy caffeine consumption caught up with me, and I felt exhausted all of the time. And I’m pretty sure prolonged intake of creatine isn’t the best thing in the world for you either.

These same supplements, which are relatively safe to use short-term (and were crucial to helping me adhere to my new workout program when it was uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and overwhelming), were progressively becoming less useful, and increasingly harmful to my well-being. I never stopped to let go these crutches, and the habits that kept them a part of my daily routine.

I eventually caught on to the increasingly negative side effects of these supplementation habits, and I went through a difficult process of removing them from my workout routine. I’ve been much better off ever since (more energy, and less reliance on stimulants being the major two benefits).

 

Letting Go Applies to Most Goals

Let’s use another example: the recent college graduate who wants to build a successful career. This goal usually starts out with a strong desire to work hard, receive a promotion, and rise the corporate ladder. This desire drives a newly-minted college grad to work harder and more intently than she otherwise might – not to mention building a strong work ethic early in life – improving her odds of success.

But once she’s broken past the initial hump and is well into a fantastic career, what then? Should she keep her nose to the grindstone and continue to put in those long hours? Even though that’s what she’s trained herself to do since graduating school, that’s a dangerous strategy.

Blogger Cal Newport refers to this as the competence trap. In the words of Newport:

This is the competence trap: when you amass enough career capital to exert meaningful control over your life and career, the only investment presented as reasonable will be to further maximize your competence at the expense of the other areas of your life.

For example:

  • The Ivy League student who graduates with honors is attracted to law school because it’s the next rung on a competitive competence-growing ladder.
  • The ambitious med student turns to a demanding specialty because it’s presented as the domain for hot shots.
  • The young corporate star enrolls in an MBA program so she can return to the management fast track at the company, as that’s the prize stand outs are supposed to chase.
  • And so on…

[Living a remarkable life] requires a cautious awareness of the competence traps that will litter your path as you become better and better at what you do.

If you don’t stop, reevaluate, and let go of what’s unnecessary in your career, your career momentum will carry you to a position with more compensation and responsibility, which usually results in longer hours and higher stakes. Are the costs to your personal life worth it? It’s important to stop and reflect before you reach that point. If it isn’t worth it, start letting go of your desire to climb the corporate ladder, and build desires and habits that will give you a better life outside of the office.

 

Conclusion

Those who don’t stop, re-evaluate, and let go of desires and habits that are no longer beneficial will find themselves deviating from the right track. As we progress through life, our priorities change. What if our family becomes increasingly more important? What if we now have the career capital to make the jump to a more fulfilling career path? In almost all cases, significant changes to habits, beliefs and thought processes will be required at key points in life. When such circumstances present themselves, it’s time to let go of the old, and bring in the new.

When you get started in anything, whether learning a new skill, launching a new career, or building a business, become obsessive. Learn everything you can. Build the desires and habits that will push you in the right direction. Take control.

But once you’ve successfully built the momentum that will keep you moving forward at a rapid pace, be sure to periodically pause and reflect. Let go of the mentalities and habits that are no longer productive. The obsession that once helped you lift off the ground may be what causes you to burn out if you’re not careful. As your circumstances change, so must you.

 

The Day I Turn 30

It’s been said that people in their 20s don’t appreciate their youth until they lose it. Am I one of those 20-somethings? Very likely.

I recently heard some fantastic advice on this topic that I’d recommend to all people in their youth. Set up a countdown timer on your phone/computer/device of choice and start counting down the days until you turn 30. I installed an extension in my Chrome browser which is now a permanently pinned tab in my browser. It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2013-01-30 at 7.39.07 PM

 

This isn’t advice exclusively for people in their 20s. If you’re in your 30s, count down the days until you turn 40. You get the idea.

The point is that every decade of our lives is, for most people, ideal for a particular set of activities. Take risks while you’re young; seek deeper meaning as you mature; leave an impact on the world as you progress through live.

Having a countdown timer quantify exactly how many days, hours, minutes, and seconds you have until you enter a new decade of your life has a powerful way of motivating you to make the most of your time.

I’m so glad I heard this advice through a co-worker, and I won’t soon forget it.

Slow and Steady: Using Kaizen for Your Personal Goals

 

Introducing Kaizen

If there is one concept that I feel embodies everything I’ve learned about personal development and effective change, it’s the Japanese concept of Kaizen. Taken from Wikipedia:

Kaizen, Japanese for “improvement”, or “change for the better” refers to a philosophy that focuses on continuous improvement of processes in manufacturing, engineering, game development, and business management.

Although most frequently used in the business world to describe a process for eliminating waste and increasing efficiency, the concept has immense value for people who want to build better habits and reach their goals. I’m certainly not the first to recognize Kaizen’s relevance to personal development: Lifehacker featured an article on Kaizen and productivity long before I was even aware of the concept.

Kaizen deserves this popularity  decades of research on motivation are very clear on one point: People resist extreme change.

It’s hard-wired into our brains. If something changes too rapidly, it’s threatening. Our bodies resist, our minds seek ways to fight or flee and we desire to return to the comfort of what we’re familiar with.

Although there are methods to make extreme change work, it requires incredibly high amounts of support and discipline, otherwise the changes won’t be permanent (as an example, the failure rate amongst those who attempt strict, extreme diets for weight loss is around 97%, as reported by the CDC).

That’s why Kaizen is so effective. It acknowledges that people, business and processes that can make intelligent, gradual changes often end up better off in the long-run than those who attempt a series of extreme changes.

 

Kaizen is not quite perfect

Although Kaizen makes a lot of sense, there’s a distinction that needs to be made when adopting kaizen for personal development: Unlike business processes, human beings are driven by emotions. 

It’s natural for us to backtrack, revert to old habits and cave in under stress. There are periods when we can handle changes very well because we feel optimistic, energetic and ambitious. But just as there are times when we’re at our best, there are times when we’re at our worst. We could get sick, experience a traumatic event, go through a bout of depression or lethargy (especially in winter), or just succumb to destructive habits. Just as with night and day, both versions of ourselves are inevitable (although, we have some control over the intensity and duration of each version, but that’s a story for a different day).

It’s important to accept that even though we can be making negative progress in the short term, we can still be making positive progress in the long term as long as we’re able to bounce back quickly. How do I know this? I experienced it first hand.

As some of my readers will know, I conducted an experiment in which I gamified my life over the course of a few months. What I like about gamification is that it makes tough goals more enjoyable. And enjoying the pursuit of my goals allows me to pursue them without burning out from excessive effort.

The gamified system I developed worked wonderfully for me during the course of the experiment. I even had a chance to speak about it earlier this summer. But before I reached a point where I understood how effective gamification could be for my goals, I hit a major roadblock. I started working 60 hours weeks in the heart of winter, my energy levels plummeted and I backtracked on a great deal of the progress I had made. The entire experiment came to a screeching halt.

I panicked.

Where did my discipline and ambition go? Was gamification not as effective as I thought it would be? What happened to all of the progress I was making?

But I hung in there. Once my work load settled down a few weeks later, I had a chance to catch up on sleep and resume my social life. I felt imbued with newfound energy, and my gamification system began improving my motivation as it had been doing previously. The steady lifestyle changes I had made through my gamification experiment (prior to my insane work schedule) had given me habits that kicked back in once my stress levels dropped back down to normal. And over time, I’ve felt those habits growing stronger. For example, when I don’t adhere to my healthy diet or I neglect to go to the gym, I feel strange. I can feel my carefully-cultivated habits gnawing at me to exercise and eat right.

A great analogy is that of muscle memory. If a bodybuilder stops lifting weights because of a temporary injury, and loses most of his muscle, he will regain it very quickly when he resumes weightlifting again. Why? Because his muscles, which were primed for years through diligent weight training, remain well adapted to the specific weightlifting movements, allowing him to gain back strength and muscle quickly. Our habits work the same way. Old habits die hard, whether they’re the positive or negative kind.

And there lies one of the secrets as to why Kaizen is so effective: Kaizen is excellent at building good habits and removing negative ones. Habits must be developed or broken over time (the established norm is 21 days at the minimum), and the steady, gradual approach of Kaizen is very well suited for this, whereas extreme change is not.

TL;DR  To sum up this section, using Kaizen  a steady, gradual approach to achieving your goals  is an effective way to achieve goals through the creation of new habits. But you must remember that backtracking and failure will happen along the way – be ready for this. Thankfully, the deep habits you cultivate through these steady, gradual changes will be there to get you back on track after going through difficult times. You just need to hang in there and consistently embrace the steady improvements that Kaizen promotes.

 

Using Kaizen to help you through the rough patches

So we’ve acknowledged that Kaizen is a great strategy for long-term success. But we’ve also discussed the inevitability of negative progress, at least in the short-term. If this negative progress is inevitable, how can we best handle it to prevent ourselves from losing all of our progress, or giving up from frustration? One strategy I’ve found that works well is the use of short-term crutches. A good example of using short-term crutches can be found in my epic quest to give up sugar, which has long been an addiction of mine.

As much as I hate chemically-sweetened diet sodas, they were very useful in helping me kick sugar out of my diet (as was just mentioned, I’m a sugarholic in every sense of the word). Whenever I had a craving for sugar, I would crack open a diet coke instead (this would happen a few times a week). After a few weeks, the sugar cravings began to die down. With the habitual sugar consumption habit fading, I moved off of diet sodas to stevia-sweetened sodas, black coffee and tea. And this is where I am currently. At the moment, I’m making the move towards more green tea and water, with the occasional unsweetened, black coffee and stevia-sweetened drink.

On one hand, this is a great example of Kaizen as demonstrated through the use of steady, gradual changes, rather than a grandiose removal of every gram of sugar from my diet in one fell swoop (which would have most likely backfired a week later with an epic sugar binge). But here’s what may bother some people: notice how I had to use a somewhat unhealthy crutch in the beginning (the artificially sweetened drinks). Although those artificial sweeteners are far from healthy, it’s important to be realistic about your discipline and will power  I knew deep down that I couldn’t summon the willpower to avoid all sugar-laden drinks and foods for more than a few days without a crutch of some sort. I had been failing at removing sugar from my diet for years at this point, and diet sodas were one of the few things that were able to keep me sugar free long enough for the habit to be broken.

The lesson to take away from this example is that short-term crutches (even slightly unhealthy ones) should be considered in tough times for the sake of  building better habits in the long run.

 

Conclusion

Kaizen is an incredible tool for effective long-term change. It doesn’t quite work as perfectly as it does within a corporate context since we’re emotional beings that are prone to backtracking in our goals during times of high stress. Therefore, the use of short-term crutches and the understanding that it’s perfectly normal to backtrack are key to keeping us in the game long enough for habits to build and become strong enough to pull us forward with minimal effort.

If you’re the type that likes to make massive changes all at once (such as you New Year’s Resolutions junkies), I highly recommend trying a Kaizen approach just once over the course of a few months and see how you like it. You might just be surprised at how effective it is.

What I Learned From College Commencement

Binghamton University Commencement

I’d like to apologize for my lack of posts lately. Having just graduated, I’m in the midst of a storm comprised of both rapid change and activity. I’ve finished classes, graduated, moved out of my apartment, moved back home, re-packed, moved back to my college town, and am preparing to begin full-time work next week. It’s been pretty hectic; this is my first chance to have a few hours alone at a computer in quite some time. As I write this post, I’m also reviewing my bucket list to update a few items I just realized I’ve completed during my college years.

If you recall from my last post, I applied to be the student speaker at my college commencement ceremony (I didn’t get it). In the process of applying, I was asked to create a draft of the speech I would give and read it in front of a panel. So although I didn’t get the honor of speaking (the student chosen over me was very qualified and delivered an excellent speach), the process of aggregating the lessons I’d wish to impart unto other students was a very valuable process in of itself.

So instead of letting my thoughts go to waste, I decided to re-post the speech I would have given in the hopes that others may benefit from it. Although there is some humor and specifics referencing my particular school (Binghamton University), the main lessons are applicable to all students and I believe college seniors and recent graduates will find the advice relevant and actionable. Enjoy!
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