In my latest series of neurotic experiments.I tried this thing in 2015 to fix some of my biggest problems and here are the results.
In 1979, on the promise of a unique flight experience, 257 people left New Zealand to visit the beautiful sights of Antarctica. Unbeknownst to the pilots, the flight coordinates of the flight path were miscalibrated by two degrees. This seemingly small error would place the plane about 28 km off course, straight in the path of Mount Erebus, a 12000 ft high active volcano on the Antarctic Ross Island. Although both Captain Jim Collins and First Officer Greg Cassin were experienced pilots, neither of them had flown in Antarctica prior to this flight. As they flew over the landscape — a white blend of snow and ice — the pilots took the aircraft closer to the ground to give their passengers a better view. By the time the ground proximity warning system alarm went off, it was too late for the aircraft to take evasive action and it crashed into the flank of Mount Erebus, killing everyone on board. The grisly accident became known as the Mount Erebus disaster, and it was at the time the fourth largest air disaster in history.
A huge impact caused by a small deviation. In fact, there’s a heuristic used in air navigation called the 1 in 60 rule which states that every 1 degree off course will result in 1 mile off course for every 60 miles.
To put its implications into perspective,
For every degree you fly off course, you will miss your target by 92 feet for every mile that you fly.
For every 60 miles, you fly, you will miss your target by one mile.
Flying around the equator will land you almost 500 miles off target…which means that if you had intended to fly to Berlin you’d land in Stockholm instead!
A mere one-degree error in course makes a huge difference over time.
The logic is analogous to our lives; each of us is striving towards a destination and we want to land at our destination as accurately as possible. The last thing we want is not realising we’ve gone off course until it’s too late. While pilots may use computer navigational systems on board to guide their bearings, but we too have a navigational system, a much more powerful one in fact — our brain.
However, unlike the plane’s computer which is often programmed with a singular focus — getting to one destination, our journeys tend to be a little more multi-dimensional and complicated. Most of us are simultaneously pursuing a variety of goals spread across different areas of our lives — relationships, work, personal development, pleasure — and it’s a constant juggling act between these while we strive towards our ultimate vision.
So the big question is: how do we ensure that we stay on course towards our destination?
Let’s begin with something that should be familiar to most of you — New Year’s Resolutions, a topic which suffers from chronic bad reputation.
Why we fail at New year’s resolutions
I want to get in better shape and exercise regularly.
I want to eat better and healthier.
I want to sleep more and sleep better.
I want to cultivate deep and meaningful relationships.
I want to grow and develop as an individual.
Nod if you have tried and failed at any of these resolutions. *Nods vigorously*
Research suggests that just 8% of people achieve their New Year’s goals. Why do we fail? Certainly, we start with the best of intentions.
Yet somehow by February the battle has been lost
By March we have slid back into our old patterns and habits.
By April most of our New Year’s resolutions have become the embarrassing uncle we don’t talk about.
By May: What resolutions? How about May-be next year?
Why do we fail repeatedly? Logically, it’s not that hard right. Set a goal, be disciplined, achieve the goal. Sure, everything works beautifully in theory. But we all know that’s not really the case when we put things into practice.
See, intentionality is important, but without a well-designed plan with grounded and clear strategy with actionable tactics, good intentions won’t get us very far.
Intentionality + actionable plan * execution = positive payoff
For as long as I can remember, my life has been governed by formlessness as I haphazardly fleeted from one thing to another. I would set lofty resolutions at the beginning of the year only to lose sight of them a few months later. Before I knew it, the year would be over. And I’d look back and wondered what the hell I had actually done with my time.
Sure I did things and I learned stuff. I met people and built relationships. But on a deeper level, however, I felt something was missing—I didn’t have an overall objective for me to strive towards, and when I did have one, it never lasted the whole year/it never made it to the end of the year.
Frustrated from years of aimless wandering, I decided to try a new approach last year. I needed something that would help me focus consistently throughout the year.
A sustained, concerted effort to stay on course towards a final destination if you will.
That’s when I stumbled upon the idea of creating a set of instructions I could use to orientate myself daily and remind myself of where I was going and how I will get there.
Directive(s) — A series of instruction that serve to direct, guide, and usually impel toward an action or goal. — Merriam-webster Dictionary
Think of directives as the compass in our navigational system which points us in the direction of our destination. A compass that once calibrated you can constantly refer back to ensure that you’re on course.
The directives experiment
The hypothesis: I’ll be able to mitigate my biggest pain points and achieve my goals with greater ease if I could constantly keep them top of mind.
Step 1 — Identifying key problems
Problem 1 — I’m a fast learner with a low attention span. This is how I saw myself my entire life, but over time, I’ve realized one of my biggest strengths is also one of my biggest weaknesses; I would fleet from a new thing to a new new thing and they would inevitably pile up in a long lists of “things I’ve tried but I lost interests in quickly.” In short, I’m excellent at starting but tragically bad at finishing. This didn’t bode well for me because I believe nothing in life worth getting comes without sustained focus and application.
Problem 2 — I was inconsistent. As a result of the first problem, I was wildly inconsistent — no routine in my day-to-day life or any particularly good habits to speak of. All the things that are good for me and I wanted to do (reading, meditating, writing, etc.) I never seriously allocated space in my schedule to do them. As a result, this inconsistency created a lot of unwarranted and invisible stress as I exhausted my energy putting out fires and generally feeling that events controlled me when it should be other way around.
Problem 3 — I was deeply unhappy. The last few years of my life have been a dark and difficult period and they took a toll on me. Nothing has gone the way I wanted. I gave what I had and it wasn’t enough. There was a growing bitterness within me spreading like cancer so I dealt with this the way I knew how to: by putting myself down and getting angry at the world for slighting me. Friends told me I had changed. I knew I had changed. I decided it was a problem that needed fixing when I saw I wasn’t very fun to be around.
So I designed 3 directives in an attempt to remedy the problems
- Be an essentialist — I focus on the most important thing and make good and incisive decisions. I do less but I do it better.
- Be a fucking pro — I stick to my ritual by consistently showing up for training no matter what happens.
- Be an optimist — I see the best life has to offer and the good in people. I focus on making a positive contribution to improve a situation.
I repeated them to myself for a year as a part of my morning ritual to see if I could somehow fix it.
Did it work? Let’s look at my self-evaluation below.
1. Did I become an essentialist?
The key here was to focus on the important over the urgent. To be more effective rather than more efficient. Overall, adopting an essentialist mindset has made me much more aware of the importance of prioritising my most valuable resources: energy and time. As a result, I devoted more time to the activities with huge positive payoff — reading, writing, exercising, meditation, quality relationships. I increased the amount of time for the things that I was already doing and created room for new things I wanted to try. This was the layer I used as a foundation to redesign my daily ritual.
Concrete habits implemented
- Implemented the “Maker in the morning, manager in the afternoon” rule for 3 months. In essence, this is a strategy of dividing your day into 2 parts and dedicating the start of your day to tackle important and creative tasks when your energy and motivation level is the highest, and using the latter part of the day to manage administrative tasks such as meetings and answering emails.
- Always questioning the importance of tasks I was doing and why they exist.
- Reviewing my to-do list bi-weekly and shelving/trashing the non-mission critical tasks.
- I’ve become a better curator of the things, activities, and people I let into my life as I learned to manage my time and energy more strategically and conscientiously, and because of that I now derive more satisfaction from my day-to-day habits, knowing that they serve a larger purpose in the big picture.
- Less is more is the edict here and I still need to get better at removing things. Part of the essentialist mindset is to cultivate space by removing the unnecessary so there are more time and space to nurture the essential activities.
- I need to practice making more incisive decisions rather than letting them drag out (usually the unpleasant ones).
Self-evaluation score: 7/10
2. Did I become a fucking pro?
The key thing here was consistency. To develop the mentality of pros who never creates excuses to miss practice. Who shows up even when they don’t want to. Especially when they don’t want to. Being a pro also means to take a long view towards my craft and be flexible enough and embrace changes and uncertainty as they come and not be overly rigid in how things unfold.
Did I become a pro? I’m happy to say YES! This is the directive that made the most impact. I achieved a 95% success rate (I track all my habits daily) across my core habits.
Concrete habits implemented
- Going to the gym 3x / week
- Breaking a personal best at the gym every week in 2015
- Reading one hour daily
- Morning Meditation
- Physical warm-up routine every morning
- I learned that while inspiration is an important trigger, it’s extremely unreliable. Discipline triumphs all.
- As a wise man once said: compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. You’ll be surprised at how little things really add up over time.
- I started adopting a life-long practice perspective (I’m doing this for the rest of my life) towards the things I really care about.
- Adding new dimensions to my ritual to prevent stagnation.
- Refine and optimising my training processes to increase payoff.
Self-evaluation score: 11/10 I don’t say this often about myself but I fucking killed it here. Booyakasha!
3. Did I become an optimist?
The purpose here was to become happier and increase my well-being on a day-to-day basis. In hindsight, this was a little too abstract and therefore harder to quantify. It’s hard to measure if I became more of an optimist, but if I had spelt out what an optimist would do or look like, I probably would have enjoyed greater success with this directive. Thankfully, the mere existence of this directive drove me to try out things that could alleviate the pain I was going through.
I started a daily gratitude practice and that made me appreciate the world significantly more. Towards the latter part of the year, I embraced the abundance thinking mindset and that has largely helped me to view the world differently.
- Daily gratitude journal — be grateful for 1 thing every day and journal it.
- Smile first — To smile first at a stranger.
- Thinking in abundance and not scarcity. There are win-wins in every scenario if you look for it.
- Experienced how happiness is a state of mind and how it can be induced.
- Realised that suffering stops when gratitude begins.
- Developed more empathy towards myself and others.
- Doing fewer things that make me unhappy is as important as doing more things that make me happy.
Self-evaluation score: 6/10
Note: In case you’re wondering why I scored myself so lowly here…it’s because while the things that I tried out for this directive had a profound impact on me, and helped re-calibrate my perspective on what it means to be happy, in terms of day-to-day mood and emotional well-being, I was struggling like hell. That said, I’m happy to share that I’m currently reaping the rewards of the efforts I invested last year.
Why set directives?
Let me ask you something, do you want to have to relearn how to ride a bicycle or drive a car each time you’re doing it? Of course not. Now, do you ever think about driving while driving, or walking while walking? Probably not. That’s because you’ve internalised the concepts behind those activities.
Internalisation occurs when you absorb and adopt something as an integral part of your attitudes or beliefs. It takes you beyond the plane of intellectual understanding and to the next level where it becomes a truth within you, which directs your decisions (hence directives!
If you think about it, habits are essentially internalised concepts that allow us to function autonomously. The great thing about internalisation is that the moment you internalise a concept, you don’t have to expend energy learning or recalling the concept again.
One of the reasons directives work so well is because they operate on a deceptively simple but effective tactic: reminders.
I believe a lot of things in life come down to reminders. You may laugh but they are signals in a sea of noise that help us to refocus. Remembering the person we truly want to become is sometimes the difference between a good and bad decision.
Science has also shown our brains are plastic — also called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of your brain to reorganise by creating new neural pathways to adapt, both physically and functionally, throughout your life due to your changing needs, behaviour, emotions, and environment.Neural connections can be forged and refined or weakened and severed. The more adept we get at a skill the stronger the neural connections get, the same way it gets weaken when our skills deteriorate. #itsScienceBro
Wait, what? We can reprogram our navigational system!!? How awesome is that?
6 reasons why directives work
- Consistency — constantly remind yourself of your goals
- Simplicity — creates easy focus
- Low effort / potential high payoff — takes 1 min to reaffirm your directives
- Feed your subconscious — slow-cooking concepts in your brain
- Set once and automate — a useful default state
- Relieving cognitive load — releases the stress of having to recall your goals
How you can set your own directives.
Alright, hopefully now you’re convinced, or curious to give it a go yourself. Let’s walk through the 8 steps you can take action on on how you can design your own directives.
Step 1 — Discovery: Take 10 mins to identify one problem you’d like to work on for the rest of 2016. The problem should ideally be something that’s holding you back and can have a huge payoff just from you working on it. For most of us, we already know what those are.
- Negative self-talk
Step 2 — Why is this important to you? Understanding the “why” behind anything is 50% of the job done. Use the 5 WHY method here by asking yourself a cascading series of whys, questioning each answer with another WHY for a total of five times. By the end of the fifth WHY you should have gotten more clarity on the main motivation behind a goal.
Step 3 — Declare the ultimate success scenario. What does it look like if you solve this problem completely / you achieve the goal? Reduce it into a 3–5 word statement.
Example: Be a fucking pro.
Step 4 — Define a list of concrete positive actions / behaviors / emotional states that will serve as instructions to get you to your goal as defined in step 3. This should be 1–2 line.
Example: I stick to my ritual by consistently showing up for training no matter what happens.
Now combine step 3 and step 4. Tada! Now you have a directive.
Example: Be a fucking pro. I stick to my ritual by consistently showing up for training no matter what happens.
Step 5 — Rules of the game
- When will you do it? At what time exactly?
- How frequently will you do it? How much time will you set aside?
- How will you do it — will you say it aloud or write it down?
The key here is to make it as clear as possible in the beginning to remove as much uncertainty as possible. Try to be realistic and integrate it into your existing daily rhythm so it’s not a massive effort to get it done.
Step 6 — Reminders — Remember folks: Out of sight, out of mind. Write this on a post-it and put this somewhere highly visible. Put it in your calendar / to-do list as a reminder. Get it tattooed.
Step 7 — Commitment device — Who will keep you accountable — tell a friend. Even better, do it with a friend. If you’re self-reporting, how will you track it — journal, app, spreadsheet?
Step 8 — Evaluate, improve, and iterate. How do you feel 7 days in? Do you feel emotionally charged when reciting the directive(s)? Are they easy to remember? How can you improve that statement? Keep tweaking your directives as you go and over time you’ll slowly reduce it to its essence. P.S. It took me over 20–30 iterations.
Before we part ways, one last reminder: It’s critical that you link up your directives with some form of concrete action to reinforce the directive and aid the reprogramming process. That is the difference between an empty affirmation and an effective directive.
Hope this helps. Send me an email if you have any questions, or if you simply wish to share your directives!
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