12 Micro-Strategies to Help You Reach Your Goals Faster
Including the calendar system that helps Jerry Seinfeld stay focused
It’s a scenario most of us can relate to: You set a big goal for yourself—maybe you wanted to write a book, or start your own business, or perform standup comedy. In trying to achieve that goal, you had waves of motivation, but they were never enough to push you to the finish line. So you stopped trying. Now, years later, you look back at your life and realize that nothing has really changed. You start to think that maybe you’re just not smart, talented, or brave enough to do the thing you wanted to do.
I spent a good chunk of my life being a royal screwup who couldn’t focus on a goal to save my life. But then I started a career in writing and learned what it really takes to keep going (hint: it’s not taping a motivational poster on your wall). Real success requires a set of micro-strategies that propel you past all the things that keep you from doing the work — the time constraints, the distractions, and of course, your own head. Here are 12 that have worked for me.
Get as many quick wins as possible. To gain momentum, lower your criteria for success and stack small victories on top of each other as fast as you can. For instance, if you want to be a writer but can’t bring yourself to sit down and write for long periods, commit to writing for 10 minutes each day. Set a time and go.
Avoid the “second mistake.” Author and entrepreneur James Clear explains that we all screw up at times on the path to our goals — we’ll skip a workout or miss a day of writing, for instance. Just don’t let one mess up pave the way for more. As Clear writes: “One mistake is just an outlier. Two mistakes is the beginning of a pattern.”
Find your can’t-live-without reason. The more compelling the reason you have for wanting to achieve your goal, the more likely you’ll follow through on it. I was determined to stick with writing because I thought about what it would be like to work for someone else my entire life and was legitimately terrified.
Stop taking advice from people who haven’t done the thing you want to do. These people, while probably well-intentioned, should not be your models for success. Instead, look to those who have reached your goals and study their paths obsessively. Find out exactly how they got there.
Find your “one thing.” The book The One Thing by Gary Keller explains that you always want to have a primary goal to focus on each day, week, month, and year. I do many things as part of my business, but my “one thing” for each day has always been to get a blog post done. Find that keystone goal that makes all of your other goals easier to achieve.
Use the chain strategy. Jerry Seinfeld once shared the system he uses to motivate himself to write: Buy a calendar and mark off an “x” each day you do the task that leads to your ultimate goal. You will form a chain of x’s. The longer the chain, the less likely you are to break it.
Focus on your environment. If you want to become healthier, you can’t keep junk food in the house. If you’re trying to stay focused, it isn’t great to have trash all over your desk and the TV on while you look at 72 open tabs. Find ways to modify your environment to work for you, not against you. This might mean thinking strategically about the people with whom you surround yourself.
Understand the costs of hesitation. You might think being in a state of limbo is easier than doing the hard thing, but in fact, the opposite is true: Hesitation is actually more mentally taxing. You’re doing your brain a favor by taking action.
Focus all your effort on the “tipping point.” Most people who quit too early don’t understand that once they reach a certain point on their journey, success starts happening at a faster rate. With writing, for instance, once you gain a small audience, your audience will begin to grow faster from there. Work on your goal until you reach a “tipping point” in which your efforts start to compound, and the payoff will be greater for the same amount of work.
Put some stake in it. Often, investing money to reach your goal gives you the emotional leverage to keep at it because you don’t want to see those funds go to waste. That’s one reason why signing up for a coaching or training program can be an effective motivational tool.
Don’t get caught up in optimization. Sometimes, thinking too much about productivity routines and motivation strategies can become a form of procrastination. If you’re watching pep talks on YouTube more than doing the actual work, take a step back. The simple strategy that has worked for me: I journal about the things I want to achieve, and then I get to work.
Use Pavlovian conditioning. You want to work toward your goals at the same time every day and preferably even in the same place. This way, you’ve conditioned your brain to be ready to do the work at that time.
Think about death. I use my own mortality as a motivator constantly. I want to get to a point in life where if I knew I was about to die, I would be comforted by the fact that I’d done all the things I wanted to do and achieved the goals I set for myself. I’m pretty close to that point.
How would you feel about your life if you knew today was your last day? What would you rush to get done?