Ivan Ilic, a professional pianist, just reached out with a guestpost and reaction after reading "I think the biggest barrier for me to overcome was myself." Some really fantastic observations on breaking through in here -
Sebastian’s last post was inspirational to me, but not because of the story itself, poignant though it was. Although I would love to read a more detailed account of R’s unusually successful turnaround, there was a turn of phrase in Sebastian’s response that really resonated with me.
“The good news and bad news is that there’s almost never a silver bullet. So, you can safely stop looking for [it] and start picking up 1% edges, 2% edges here and there. Trend upwards and establish little good habits, a better environment around you, and so on. R covers this when he says, “Make sure that all the small steps you take are taking you in the right direction. A little bit at a time, over a long period, and you’ll always win.”
The only way to realize the power of incremental positive changes over time is by experiencing it yourself. Although self-discipline has not been my biggest problem, I had a serious slump in the second half of last year. When I needed to move my most important projects forward, I seemed paralyzed. Does that sound familiar?
The past six months have been the first time I have orchestrated my own turnaround, without external factors to motivate me. “Picking up 1% edges, 2% edges here and there” and establishing modest good habits has been so effective that looking back over the past six months, I’m still shocked.
Tracking is the key part of this process; Sebastian is right to insist on its importance. The act of writing down progress is actually the best reward. It really builds your confidence which you can use the next morning as motivational fuel. This, to me, is one of the most underrated reasons to track your time: it just feels so good.
However, there are times when it is essential to break through your orbit of inertia.
Let me explain that metaphor: if you are far enough along in your progress to have good daily habits and a system of tracking, it is as if you are a satellite orbiting the Earth, coasting along in slow motion. From one day to the next, you are fulfilling small daily expectations, and it becomes easier the longer you do it. It is as difficult to stop (ie, fall towards the Earth) as it is to make a sizable increase (ie break the gravitational pull). There is inertia in both directions.
But at some point you have to break through and make a big change. I bet that there is something that you want to add to your life. Maybe it’s a daily activity that demands some of your best energy, but that you haven’t been able to incorporate yet. Once in a while, you just have to launch, like a shuttle propelled by rockets, perpendicular to the earth, with a force powerful enough to help you break through the Earth’s atmosphere.
I have my own way of doing this, which I will now describe. You have probably already done things like this before, but oftentimes it is not a controlled phenomenon; it just happens randomly. Imagine how amazing it would be if you could decide to do it, and then follow through. That is what I’m going to try to help you do.
The first step is to choose a parameter in your life, a big change to make. That should be easy: if you read this blog you probably already know what you’d like to do, and are looking for the tools to do it.
Now imagine how this change will be integrated into your life. At what time of day will you be doing this activity? How long will you be spending on a daily basis? I recommend choosing a goal as modest as possible to begin with, almost symbolic. It is important to be confident that you will stick to it in the short term, minimizing the risk of a failure. So small is good.
Now, imagine that you were to have a day in your life when, all of a sudden, you would make major progress on, say, forming that habit. What would that look like?
If your goal was to exercise daily, maybe you do a first session at a local gym with a personal trainer. If you wanted to eat better, you could cook a simple healthy meal using fresh vegetables and meat from the market. If you wanted to reduce your time on the Internet, perhaps you could disconnect for 24 hours and spend most of the day outside in the fresh air.
Okay, so you’ve decided what it is you want to do. Now write it down somewhere, maybe on the back of a receipt, whatever, it doesn’t matter where. Then, and this is somewhat counterintuitive, continue doing your daily routine for a few days with no change. It’s like entering a room and making eye contact with somebody new, and then walking towards a friend you see in the crowd. In the back of your mind, you feel the presence of that new person. But you get comfortable first, before making your move.
Then, when it feels right, and you’ll know when it does, completely abandon your usual daily routine and dive into that new activity. Take pleasure in the way that your brain’s alert system goes off when you deviate from your positive daily routine. The stronger your brain sends out alarm signals, the more powerful your daily routine has become. This is a wonderful sign. But it is also evidence that getting to the next level necessitates a big push.
I highly recommend doing this either first thing in the morning, when your energy tank is full. Alternatively, try it on one of those days when you haven’t done that much to feel proud of. You feel like you have a surplus of energy but don’t really feel like doing any of your normal stuff. This happens to me once a week or so, often on Sundays. I recommend spending a big half day doing this, at least the first time. Your body and emotions will try to pull you back towards the comfort of your daily routine repeatedly. Take mischievous pleasure in ignoring them.
Here are several other guidelines that I recommend:
- Make sure that what you’re doing qualifies as hard work, versus long work. I am referencing a fantastic blog post by Seth Godin; if you haven’t read it yet it is here.
- If you can, finish early, as soon as you have made a good chunk of progress. Don’t wait until you are exhausted. I realize that this isn’t always possible, but it is preferable.
- Be proud of what you have achieved and share it with one or two people who you are absolutely sure will give you positive reinforcement. Undoubtedly you have people in your life that you turn to when you need constructive criticism. Save those people for later; that’s not what you need now.
- Celebrate your victory by doing something that requires leisure time that you don’t normally allow yourself. Ideally, this should be something that replenishes your energy rather than something that depletes it further. Take a walk, eat a hearty meal, go to a bookstore, anything that involves leaving the place where you broke through and where you can smile to yourself about what you did.
- The next day go back to your regular daily routine, with one small change: continue work on what you did the day before in some small way. Re-read and tweak the essay. Stretch the muscles you used. Write a thank you note for the meeting. Pick up the book on the same page and continue for a bit. Remember what you did yesterday and how good it felt, psychologically.
What I just described is what I would call the micro version of breaking through. There is a macro version, which is taking a chunk of time out of your life, which can be measured in weeks or even months, to carve out to do something really big. The process is the same, except it needs to be something really important enough. Something that will make a huge change in your life, so you will feel the burning motivation every morning you’ll need to upend your routine.
In terms of the micro level of breaking through, I don’t recommend doing it more often than once every few weeks. Otherwise it will damage your daily routine. In terms of the macro, I wouldn’t do it more than once a year, for the same reason.
Hopefully reading this post has got you thinking about what changes in your life you want to make and how you could take a half day off and really break through.
It turns out that writing this post has been a breakthrough moment for me. I have made several failed attempts at blogging before, but I’ve never really written anything that would be immediately recognizable as a blog post versus an essay. Like many of you, I read HackerNews on a daily basis and it has brought me great joy including the discovery of Sebastian’s blog. My goal was to help one person in the way that I have been helped countless times over the past years.
If you are that one person, then you have just made my day. My daily tracking template for today is completely empty, as is my stomach. My bed isn’t made, I haven’t taken a shower, my shoulders are slumped, and there is a slightly manic look in my eye.
But I know that it won’t take me long to write another guest blog post for someone I admire. I have just broken through, and it’s one of the best feelings in the world.
Thanks Ivan. Lots of wisdom in this one. Particularly, ending an improvement-session when things are going well instead of pushing too far into exhaustion. After a lot of practice of establishing habits, my experience is the same. Don't be too hardcore in the beginning. Hardcore is good, but consistency is more important.
Ivan doesn't have a blog, but you can listen to some of his classical music here - it's really beautiful. Thanks for writing this up for us, Ivan.