Raising The Bar: Your Five-Point Checklist

Here we stand, on the threshold of a new decade: it’s a fresh start, a new beginning. This is it, your chance to really make a change, once and for all – it’s now or never. Yikes, talk about pressure.

Sure, the beginning of a new year provides fresh inspiration and impetus for your goals. The question is, how do you sustain your motivation and stay on the continuous improvement track when daily life and familiar temptations rear their head (did you really think chocolate or “Lost” reruns were just going to lose their allure?). The “all or nothing” approach – i.e. giving up when you get off track – doesn’t work. Here’s the checklist I return to (over and over) to bolster my resolve and keep moving forward.

1. Figure out your why. That’s what the human brain instinctively responds to. As Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, points out, however, most people start with the “what.” Whether it’s at the macro level — living a life of purpose – or micro level – losing 10 pounds — sheer willpower only goes so far. Without a driving “why,” motivation falters, inspiration fades and change fails to take hold.

Let’s take a typical New Year’s resolution — losing weight — as an example. At a seminar on change by Martha Beck, the Harvard-trained sociologist and resident life coach at Oprah magazine, there was an older Indian woman in the audience who was very insistent that she wanted to lose weight but simply couldn’t. “Are you sure you really want to lose weight?” asked Martha. “Oh yes,” said the woman, “Since I came to America to live with my daughter and her family, I have gained so much weight and I want to get rid of it.”

Martha called the woman up to the stage to demonstrate an exercise where the body acts like a lie detector. She asked the woman to hold out her arm and say, “I like chocolate.” Her arm stayed firm when Martha pressed down on it. But when she said, “I want to lose weight,” her arm immediately gave way when pressed. “Hmmm,” said Martha, “I don’t think you really want to lose weight.” “But I do,” said the woman, “I want to be able to play with my grandchildren.” Ahhh,” said Martha. “So it’s not that you want to lose weight, you want to be healthy and have energy so you can keep up with your grandchildren. Now that you’ve identified what you really want, see if the weight doesn’t start to come off.” The woman walked back to her seat looking stunned but enlightened: she had replaced her what with a why.

2. Fast-forward past the excuses. Too old, too young, not enough time, not enough space, not enough energy, too early, too late…we’re so resourceful in coming up with excuses. And they’re always valid, of course. Except, as Nike pointed out in a recent ad, there’s someone out there who has a good excuse and they’re doing it anyway. So here’s a thought: You know how you can skip commercials when you TiVo a show? You’ve seen them all before, know exactly where they’re going and the featured program is what you really want to see anyway. Hmmm, kind of like your excuses – why not do the same and fast-forward past them right to the action?

3. Create positive rituals. We are creatures of habit. In fact, research suggests that as little as five percent – five! – of our behaviors are consciously self-directed. That means as much as 95 percent of what we do happens automatically. We use this principle to perpetuate our “bad” habits (having a cigarette when drinking with friends, for example), why not create positive rituals as well?

The key, say Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz in their book, The Power of Full Engagement, is to make the behavior precise and the time specific: meditating for 10 minutes before work, say, reading a novel for 20 minutes at lunchtime, or stretching during The Daily Show.

4. Ask a small question. Once we’ve asked the big question – what is my why? –  it’s time to ask a smaller one. Daniel Pink, who goes beyond carrots and sticks in his latest book, Drive: The  Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, suggests that at the end of each day, you ask yourself: “Was I better today than yesterday?” It’s not about critical judgment or self-flagellation: “Instead, look for small measures of improvement such as how long you practiced your saxophone or whether you held off on checking email until you finished that report.” There are days, says Pink, where his answer is, “No, I wasn’t better than the day before.” But, he says, it’s rare that he’ll answer “no” two days in a row. Asking the small question — and a healthy sense of competition with yourself – is subtly motivating and will help you raise the bar an inch at a time.

5. Measure and track. News flash: memory and conjecture are not an objective way to determine whether you’re sticking to the plan or making progress. Instead, come up with concrete, quantitative ways to measure your goals — e.g. how often you went to the gym, how many Spanish verbs you learned to conjugate, the number of sales calls you made – and keep track on a piece of paper or Excel spreadsheet. (Check out http://www.joesgoals.com for a simple online habits tracking system.)

Or you can use the technique that Jerry Seinfeld used to discipline himself to write jokes everyday. Get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page, and a red magic marker. For every day that you finish your goal task, put a big red X over that day. “After a few days,” says Seinfeld, “you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

If you can embrace the idea that change is a daily, iterative process — with reviewing and tweaking to be expected — you’ll find that, even if you’re taking two steps forward and one step back, you’re moving faster and forward.

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