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How to Make Changes that Stick in Your Life

Cai Yuqian

April 13, 2020

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

We published an article on how to stick to your 2020’s New Year resolutions back in February because we know sticking to goals is not easy. Unfortunately, sticking to goals is only one part of the whole story about making concrete changes in life, a life-long exercise that we all want to master but few can call themselves experts in. In this article, we will talk about some common reasons why it’s hard and share some practical ways to really get things done.

Why people fail at making changes in their lives

The first common reason is a lack of direction. If you don’t know what kind of changes you would like to make in your life, how are you going to know the things you should do to make it happen? We see this happen around us — some people are too comfortable with the status quo or paralysed with the complexity and immensity of life that they need some signals to trigger thoughts in them in order to take control of their own life.

Once we have an idea about which area we want to make changes in, we are faced with another common but intractable obstacle: planning fallacy. For some of us who are ambitious, we set too many goals for ourselves believing that they can all be done, which tends to not be true. For others, it may be that we often ignore leaving buffers for emergencies or unpredictable tasks that may come up. In general, we underestimate the time needed to complete the goals, or we ignore an insidious enemy that is eager for our precious attention, which is the third common reason why people fail at getting things done: distractions.

a remote control pointing a television
“I can’t wait to watch the new episode of xxx!” (Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash)

Distractions can be either internal or external. On the one hand, we can get distracted by ourselves — random thoughts pop up in our head (“what’s for dinner?” “What should I do this weekend?” “I can’t wait to watch the new episode of xxx!”) and disrupt our present flow and focus. On the other hand, today’s environment is constantly emitting external signals that test our ability to hold our attention. The smartphone buzzing and ringing every now and then, the noise outside the window or from people in the room chatting, and even the room temperature can all be great forces that play against us, depending on how susceptible we are. And it doesn’t help that with the latest Covid-19 situation, a lot of us are working from home as part of business continuity planning and are closer to more distractions, e.g. TV, Netflix, the bed, etc.

The final common reason, which causes headaches for so many of us, is procrastination. Procrastination is the most persuasive enemy that treats us with instant gratification for a short before crushing us brutally when the fleeting enjoyment is gone. This universal villain not only delays the completion of tasks, but also leads to frustration and distrust of our ability to accomplish tasks that can become a vicious cycle, further impeding us from doing our work.

different clocks hanging on the wall
“There just isn’t enough time!” (Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash)

Practical ways to really get things done

“Above all, it is necessary for a person to have a true self-estimate, for we commonly think we can do more than we really can.” — Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind, 5.2

Luckily, humans can always strive to be better. The importance lies in how we do it in a practical and effective manner. With the aforementioned common traps, we list 5 things that we can all do to get things done.

First, know what you want so you can work on the right things and move in the right direction. Knowing what you want requires you to have a deep conversation with yourself.

Second, divide and conquer. A common approach in computer science, this methodology keeps breaking down a problem into two or more sub-problems of the same or related type, until the sub-problems become simple enough to be solved directly. It can be applied to goal-setting as well. You can break down your tasks to bite-sized ones that you feel comfortable with and won’t take too much time and strength to complete. To help yourself track and measure the progress, one tool we highly recommend is OKRs — Objective and Key Results:

“An OBJECTIVE is simply WHAT is to be achieved, no more and no less. By definition, objectives are significant, concrete, action-oriented, and (ideally) inspirational. When properly designed and deployed, they’re a vaccine against fuzzy thinking — — and fuzzy execution.”
“KEY RESULTS benchmark and monitor HOW we get to the objective. Effective KRs are specific and time-bound, aggressive yet realistic. Most of all, they are measurable and verifiable.” - Measure What Matters (by John Doerr)

Third, curate a conducive environment to get things done:

  1. Create a checklist and work through it. Its simplicity, usefulness, and charm are often ignored by people. But the satisfaction you get when you cross a task off your list can be rewarding and motivating.
  2. If you work on your laptop, use ad blockers to get rid of distractions when you do online research or other online tasks. Personally, I use AdGaurd AdBlocker, a Chrome plug-in, that helps me focus on my research work.
  3. Use timers to block 15–20 minutes to really focus on one thing at a time. The Pomodoro technique is a time management method that just does that.
  4. If a task feels too difficult to start even if you have broken it down to smaller ones, switch to an easier task first. Once you enter the concentration mode, the previous task may not seem so challenging anymore.

Four, balance. Remember to give yourself a break and treat yourself a reward (no binge watching Netflix during work, of course).

Five, reflect. It’s often neglected by people, but its power can bring you compounded benefits. Through reflecting how well you’ve been doing and what’s not working, you understand yourself better. As you know your operating style better, you can adjust the process for improvement. Through on-going adjustment and feedback, you optimise your own operating system. One methodology that you can try adopting is the one Ray Dalio introduces in his book Principles. It contains five steps: Goals -> Problem -> Diagnosis -> Design -> Do.

The Five Step
Ray Dalio’s “The Five Step Process”
“The process is iterative: Doing each step thoroughly will provide you with the information you need to move on to the next step and do it well.” — Ray Dalio

The most important thing is to find your own operating system

At Binomial, we believe in the culture of “getting things done”. In order to do that, each person on the team finds their own preferred operating system and works in their own style. At the end of the day, we all need a strategy and a framework that works just for us. So if you find some of the aforementioned tips work for you, include them in your tactics!

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