An epiphany came to me that seemed so obvious.

I was reading Keith Ferrazi’s legendary book on networking, “Never Eat Alone,” for the second time. The first time through, I enjoyed it, and while I took to heart the broader themes, I’d done a woeful job of implementing most of the practices it preached.

So maybe I just need to read it again, I thought. Refresh the memory on the concepts. Create a clear list of action items. Start anew. This time would be different.

While I went through this exercise, I had a realization.

The author is the best in the world at what he does. He’s been a CEO and started his own company. Attended some of the most prestigious schools in the world. Met some of the most successful and fascinating people on the planet.

And he’s telling me exactly how he did it. And how I can do it, too.

All I have to do is follow his directions!

Think about that. At this moment, you can spend $15-20 on a book written by someone who’s the best in the world at what they do. And in those pages, they’ll tell you exactly how to do it.

Losing weight…finding love…starting a business…finding fulfillment…anything you could want.

At least one person (probably many, many more) out there is an expert in any of those topics and has addressed it in a book or some other form of media. You could have that information today if you wanted.

But in all likelihood, two things will happen instead.

One, you’ll never even get around to buy the book. If you do, you could very likely let it collect dust on your shelf, unfinished.

Two, you’ll read it but never implement even 10% of the advice. Like what happened to me above.

Why do we do this?

We all have hopes and dreams and aspirations. And people that have already done what we want to do are out there to readily share their knowledge.

But we don’t follow their directions. The information is out there on how to lose weight, make more money, be happier, etc.

Yet, we do nothing.

I came across a quote on Twitter this year and that really struck me:

“Nothing will haunt you more than knowing what to do and not doing it.”

We all know what we should do to get what we want. If you want to lose weight, eat less and exercise more. Is that overly simplified? Yes. Will it at least get you started? Yes.

And after you get started, this experts are out there to take you to the next step. And the steps after that.

But most of us will never take that first step. We’ll never take advantage of that wealth of resources awaiting us for things we want to do.

The problem is that a bunch of information isn’t enough. We need a process for implementation.

In the Culture Code, the author was able to silence a room of diet and nutrition experts with this simple question (HT to Ramit for this story):

Years ago, Tufts University invited me to lecture during a symposium on obesity…

Lecturer after lecturer offered solutions for America’s obesity problem, all of which revolved around education. Americans would be thinner if only they knew about good nutrition and the benefits of exercise, they told us. Slimming down the entire country was possible through an aggressive public awareness campaign…

When it was my turn to speak, I couldn’t help beginning with an observation. “I think it is fascinating that the other speakers today have suggested that education is the answer to our country’s obesity problem,” I said. I slowly gestured around the room. “If education is the answer, then why hasn’t it helped more of you?”

There were audible gasps in the auditorium when I said this, quite a few snickers, and five times as many sneers. Unsurprisingly, Tufts never invited me to lecture again.

And this is where we find ourselves now. We have more information on how the world works than ever before. But the vast majority of us have no idea how to put that information to good use.

So people go their entire lives unable to do the things in life they say are important to them.

Year after year, we say that health is a priority, yet we never stick to a consistent diet or exercise plan.

We say we want to start a business and work for ourselves, but remain in soul sucking cubicles.

We say we want to save money for security and the ability to retire comfortably one day, but we run a balance on our credit cards anyway.

Why do we torture ourselves like this? Why is it so hard for us to do what we actually want to do?

That, my friends, is the question that behavioral psychology is learning the answer to.

We have more information at our disposal about how our brains work than ever before, but we’re only scratching the surface of how to use this to better our lives.

The goal of a small group of people studying the behavioral sciences, behavioral economics, neuroscience and related disciplines to uncover how to disseminate this knowledge in a way that allows all of us to lead better lives.

Since I’m a huge nerd and read this stuff for fun, my aim is to learn and share that knowledge.

Why don’t we do what we want to do? The answer is slowly but surely being unraveled.

So here’s to no more broken promises to ourselves.

The last couple weeks have been pretty wild.

I left my job of over five years. Started a new job. Left my city of over five years. Moved to a new one.

Needless to say, it’s been a crazy time. That craziness has killed my routine and, in turn, my habits.

The last two weeks have seen a significant dip in my exercising, healthy eating and a number of other good habits I’ve established.

Why? Because without my routine or normal environment, I have no cues or triggers to do those things. Those are what signal our brain to enact a habit. Without the ones we are accustomed to, those habits disappear.

Let’s look at diet. I’m still looking for places to live in NYC, so I’m crashing with friends. This means I don’t have my usual space to settle and cook. I don’t know where anything is in the kitchen. I don’t know where grocery stores are. I’m so busy running around between work and seeing apartments that I have no time or cognitive energy to make anything. I don’t know the area, so I don’t know where I can find healthy take out options. So I go with the easiest (aka unhealthiest) option.

And, partially, because I’m so worn out mentally from everything else going on, I feel like I deserve to give myself a break on what I eat.

Routine is important. It’s what triggers us to live out our daily habits (good or bad).

But as I’ve learned, planning for the disruption of that routine is just as crucial. I should have known this is how everything would go and planned accordingly. I could have set an alternative schedule and created options ahead of time. But now I’m too overwhelmed to worry about it.

Habits and routines are important. Planning ahead for when they don’t seem feasible may be even more valuable.

I always wondered what was wrong with me.

I read all of these books and articles about how to be richer, sexier, happier and so forth. Most pointed to how important goals are.  With nothing to shoot for, you get nothing done.

This never worked for me, though. I would get all motivated and write down all of these ambitious goals and timelines to achieve them.

Then…I would do nothing.

Weeks or months later, maybe I would revisit them. Then I would get down on myself and wonder what the hell was wrong with me that I couldn’t progress toward these things I wanted so badly to achieve. Rinse and repeat with nothing changing in between.

The problem, though, was I never made a system to progress toward those goals. And without a system, goals are worthless.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams touched on this in the Wall Street Journal recently:

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

….

But being systems-oriented, I felt myself growing more capable every day, no matter the fate of the project that I happened to be working on. And every day during those years I woke up with the same thought, literally, as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and slapped the alarm clock off.

Today’s the day.

Writer James Clear also wrote a fantastic post on why systems beat goals. In particular, one example stood out to me as being particularly enlightening:

As an example, I just added up the total word count for the articles I’ve written this year. (You can see them all here.) In the last 12 months, I’ve written over 115,000 words. The typical book is about 50,000 to 60,000 words, so I have basically written two books this year.

There were plenty of side effects too. I now have 100,000 people reading JamesClear.com each month. I was featured in articles on ForbesInc, and US News. And I have built relationships with all sorts of wonderful people who found me through my work.

All of this is such a surprise because I never set a goal for my writing. I didn’t measure my progress in relation to some benchmark. I never set a word count goal for any particular article. I never said, “I want to write two books this year.”

What I did focus on was writing one article every Monday and Thursday. And after sticking to that schedule for 11 months, the result was 115,000 words. I focused on my system and the process of doing the work. In the end, I enjoyed the same (or perhaps better) results.

Think about how pronounced that difference is.

If I gave you the option of picking between two challenges, which would seem feasible? Writing two blog posts a week or completing two books in a year?

Our psychology is not wired to break down a huge task like writing two books. It is, however, wired to process small steps done consistently. Both yield the same result, but one actually works.

The difference between goals and systems has become clear in my life. As a naturally skinny dude, I’ve always wanted to be bigger and stronger. So, one  year, I decided to finally make a change happen. I made a bet with five friends that I’d put on a set amount of muscle over a three month period.

The accountability and motivation helped and I came within tenths of a pound of hitting my goal. I made more progress than I ever had.

But when that challenge and goal was over, I slowly lost my progress over the rest of the year. The system was unsustainable and meaningless without the goal.

This year, I chose a new strength program consisting of three days a week of basic power weightlifting. I didn’t set a goal, but committed to completing those three workouts every week and tracking their progress.

Five weeks in, I was curious as to how much progress I’d made on deadlifts. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I’d added 50 pounds to my lift in those five weeks. I’ve continued to progress as I’ve stuck to the system.

Would I have accomplished that if I had simply set a goal to increase my deadlift by 50 pounds in five weeks? Very, very doubtful.

Goals themselves aren’t a bad thing, necessarily. But you have to have the system in place to meet that goal. Without that system, the goal is worthless.

You need the system. You don’t need the goal.

The other weekend, I had every intention of making the 15-20 minute walk to the bar where I was meeting friends. 

But it was raining. And I really wanted to catch the end of the football game I was watching.

So I changed my mind and called Uber. All I had to do was open an app on my phone, tell them where to pick me up and a ride was there a few minutes later. I didn’t even have to physically pay, as it just charged the credit card they had on file for me after I got dropped off.

It was painless. In the back of my mind I knew it cost more money than walking, but those costs happened in the background. Out of site, out of mind.

This makes for a great experience using a service. It typically doesn’t help us make the best financial decisions, however.

When we don’t experience the “pain of paying,” as Michael Norton and Elizabeth Dunn describe it in their fantastic book Happy Money, we feel a lot more comfortable spending. Rationally, we know that we are spending $10 on that new book from Amazon. But when we can “buy with one click” and process the payment automatically with our credit card, we don’t really think about it.

Businesses know how important it is to decrease the pain of paying. For decades, advertisers have understood that the more friction between interest and the point of sale, the less likely it is you’ll buy and the methods for doing so have become incredibly advanced. Some examples:

  • Square
  • Amazon one click orders and subscribe and save
  • Storing credit cards on a web site for future purchases

The credit card itself is the most important innovation in decreasing the pain of paying. In the old days, when trips to school involved walking up hill both ways in the snow, you had to hand over your hard earned cash every time you bought something. And you had to physically go to the bank prior to the transaction to have even enough money. If you stumbled across something else, you were unable to give in to your impulse until you went to the bank yet again.

Now, you have more money than you likely even have in your checking on hand at all times. A simple swipe of a card and, sometimes, signature on your receipt completes the transaction and sends you on your way. When you see that impulse buy, you have the option of giving in.

This isn’t to say that innovations in ease of payment are evil. They do simplify life and make many transactions remarkably easier.

But be wary of how trigger happy they make you to spend. If you lack self control like every other human, you are probably going the easy and more expensive route most of the time.

I came across this great story about Ghandi in James Altucher’s excellent book, Choose Yourself:

One of Gandhi’s financial backers once said, “it’s very expensive to keep Gandhi in poverty.” Consequently, I suspect the financial backers felt they had some influence on Gandhi. But money means nothing to a spiritual leader.

One time Gandhi said to a group of his backers, “I need to set aside one hour a day to do meditation.”

One of the backers said, “oh no, you can’t do that! You are too busy, Gandhi!”

Gandhi said, “Well, then, I now need to set aside two hours a day to do meditation.”

“I don’t have enough time” has to be the most common excuse for not doing anything. It’s why we don’t exercise, read books, write, call our parents or any other multitude of things.

Ask anyone what their priorities are in life and you’ll hear a lot of the same answers: family, health, a rewarding career, etc. But if you looked at where those same people’s time went last week, you’d likely see a big mismatch.

Despite supposedly prioritizing health, they only went to the gym once last week.

Despite supposedly prioritizing their family, they only had one short phone call with a parent.

Despite supposedly prioritizing a rewarding career, they work 40+ hours a week at a job they hate, spending most of the day at wasteful meetings, answering pointless emails and killing time on Gchat and Facebook.

Why don’t our priorities match up with how we spend our time?

I’m not any different. I do or have done the exact same thing the majority of my life.

Every minute, we’re faced with the decision of choosing what tasks to focus on and the vast majority of the time, those priorities we claim to have get pushed to the side for something else unimportant, yet seemingly more urgent or pleasurable in the moment. Unfortunately, it’s how are brains are wired.

But then there are legendary people like Ghandi. A man of his stature would have literally millions of people wanting something from him on any given day, but he still avoided the noise and spent at least 60 minutes a day sitting in silence, observing his thoughts.

He had the same 24 hours a day we do. The same seven days in a week. He made the time for what he knew as necessary for his success and ignored the distractions he could have filled those hours with instead.

Meanwhile, I’ve struggled to meditate for five measly minutes every day. I have a feeling that my day is not as demanding as Ghandi’s.

Ultimately, how we spend our time is up to us. Saying yes to an endless number of bullshit meetings, events or tasks is a choice. Messing around on Twitter for an hour in the middle of the work day a choice. Neglecting to use time and money to get healthy or learn a new skill is a choice. No one is gifted the time to do great things. It takes courage to reject the waste and do what we know we should.

It starts by choosing where you want your time to go. Then, more importantly, where you don’t want it to go and actively eliminating that wasted time. Then taking baby steps toward the schedule you want. Ghandi probably didn’t start meditating for an hour a day. He probably started small at something like 5 minutes and worked his way up. That’s how change works: slowly and steadily.

What’s one thing you’ve been putting off because you “haven’t had time?” Set aside five minutes tomorrow to take the smallest step possible. Then another five minutes the next day. Observe the barriers preventing you from doing it in the first place and get rid of them. See where you get from there.

A few weeks ago, Team USA won the America’s Cup in “one of the most monumental triumphs in sporting history.” Down 8-1, the team found themselves one more loss away from elimination. Miraculously, they rallied back to win.

As it often is for sports comebacks, momentum was credited as helping.

“Like we’ve been saying, we think we can win this,” said team skipper Jimmy Spithill during the race. “We believe we’ve got the boat to do it. We’ve got the team. And we’ve got a wave of momentum now that is getting bigger every day behind us.”

Momentum is not limited to sports, though. It plays a big part in our every day lives.

And it’s probably pulling you where you don’t want to go.

We are all creatures of habit. Once we have started living a certain way, we are extremely likely to continue doing so indefinitely.

Behavioral economists refer to this tendency as status quo bias. Whatever our current situation is, we are probably going to stick with it.

Ever signed up for a “free 30 day trial” to test something out, only to realize 5 months later that you’re still paying for it, despite not even using the product? That’s momentum in action (and marketers taking advantage of it).

Our brains really don’t like us to change what we’re doing. What’s amazing is this holds true even when what we’re doing isn’t working. It’s why, even though you say, “this is the week I’ll start getting healthy,” you find yourself eating Taco Bell on Thursday night having not exercised since Monday. It’s why people stay in bad relationships and boring, underpaying jobs for years.

Momentum really screws us over in those times. But, luckily, we can also make it work for us.

So, how can you take advantage?

The key is to start with small successes that build positive momentum, just like a basketball team that’s caught fire in front of the home crowd. When you attempt to make a change for the better and succeed, even if it’s laughably small, you’ll feel good about continuing.

The problem is that when we get motivated, we tend do the exact opposite and make huge, sweeping changes that guarantee failure and kill any of that potential momentum.

If you didn’t work out once last week, it’s going to be a daunting task to go for an hour every day this next one. And when you inevitably fail to do so, you’ll feel bad and give up as a failure. You’ll revert to the old bad habits once again.

Instead, resolve to work out once. Just get yourself up and exercise one time that week.

Sounds ridiculously easy right? That’s the point. It is easy. And when you complete that easy task, celebrate and reward yourself. You did it.

You might even go for another workout after that. Wow, you just beat your goal! Now doing two or three workouts next week sounds pretty easy. You’ve built positive momentum. The home crowd is cheering you on.

There are two keys here:

  1. Pick the smallest task to begin. You don’t need to be 100% perfect right away. You just need to get started. Pick the very first step to the new goal and make it as small as possible.
  2. Get a quick win. Once you complete that small first step, celebrate that you did it. You made a change! Now, you have positive momentum. The next steps don’t seem as daunting as they did before.

What will you use momentum to change this week?

Some stuff for you to read, listen to and generally kill time (productively!) as the week winds down:

Read

Being poor changes your thinking about everything

Great interview with behavior economist Sendhil Mullainathan about how scarcity affects our behavior. When we have very little of something, it affects what we do. He gives a great example of how financial predators before the recession were able to prey on people who’s money was tight (aka, most people).

The science of introverts and the workplace

Fantastic interview with Susan Cain, author of one of my favorite books, Quiet. She will really open your eyes into how extroverted, to a fault, our culture is and, if you’re an introvert like myself, let you embrace your personality.

How a full-time law student earned $50k on the side

Oldie but goodie from Ramit Sethi that will give you a good kick in the ass if you need some motivating, plus some great productivity tactics. This is a post by one of his students who managed to make $50k in side businesses while in law school and starting a family.

Music

SUCH a great collaboration here.

Chill and retro and awesome.

Favorite song of the moment and one of my favorites of 2013 thus far.

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