On reflection and growth 31 Dec 2013

Yearly resolutions; a flawed business

It’s the last day of the year again, and the internet is awash in new year resolution suggestions. Articles with top 10 lists of the most popular resolutions, and suggestions on how to keep them going into the new year. People all over the world are optimistically hopeful that 2014 will finally be the year they lose weight, quit smoking, make a habit of waking early, or a plethora of other things. Productivity is but a clock’s chime away!

Most likely, the majority of the people you know (including yourself) will have given up on their resolutions by February. After the high of the holidays and group pressure to better themselves fades away, people go back to their old habits.

Why is this? What happens to our once fiery enthusiasm for personal growth? Why do gyms make a fortune on yearly memberships?

Reflection cat

Constant reflection, constant growth

Change is a constant process. It happens slowly, through habitual persistence. Picking a specific date to make a change in your life, because either someone else suggested it (magazines, productivity blogs, or your coworkers) or you’ve always wanted to make it, likely won’t turn out well. A single isolated decision won’t make a difference.

Real change, the change people making new years resolutions aim for and miss, comes from constant reflection. Don’t subscribe to a new diet only to follow it religiously for a few months. Instead, pay attention to and question everything you eat. Every meal you cook, every ingestible purchase you make.

If you reflect in this manner in all aspects of your day, you won’t need to make specific isolated changes in your life. Instead, you’ll gradually orient yourself onto the path you deem optimal.

Reflect every day, make every mistake yours. If someone cuts you off on the road, don’t get angry at them; instead think about how you can better avoid them in the future. Better yet, if you weren’t in any danger at all from it (you just deemed it a nuisance), then ignore it completely.

Reflection like this is a sort of cure-all new years resolution. If you are tired during the day, reflect and see what you can do to be more rested. Make it an active process, not a fire-and-forget goal formation.

External motivation

External motivation isn’t a solution

While external motivation may help you reach your goals today, it is no longterm guarantee. Change should come from within, and you shouldn’t rely on external factors to make the changes you want to see happen. An article online suggests to “Give a good friend the ability to take some money from your bank account if you break your diet.” What happens after 6 months of sticking to your diet, and closing the deal with your friend? When that external motivation wanes?

Intrinsic motivation is the best, and only valid (in my opinion) type of motivation there is. If your friends are pushing you to be a better person, that doesn’t mean you are pushing yourself to be a better person. The latter is what most of us want, yet we accept the former and let it guide us.

Some view external motivation as a temporary solution; dare I say even that is flawed. If you can’t get yourself to wake up at 6am every morning, a solution like fixing your waking energy levels solves the problem permanently, whereas having your roommate drop a bucket of cold water on your face only gets you up once.

The bucket of cold water (or any other external factor like it) also denies you responsibility for your actions. If you weren’t able to wake up, whose fault is it? Yours, or your friends’ for not waking you?


Goals are short-sighted

Goals in and of themselves present their own issues. Setting a long-term goal today leaves no room for changes between now and the deadline. If you’ve set a goal to run every morning for 6 months, what happens if you need to go on a business trip and can’t run during it? Your goal leaves no flexibility, and missing it will likely de-motivate you.

Instead of making concrete goals, have a longterm vision for yourself. In the productivity circles, this is known as a “Mission statement”. Know where you want to end up in 2, 5, 10, or even 100 years. Write down what the optimal set of habits and state of being would be for your future self. Then make constant, tiny (breakable) goals for yourself on a daily basis. Constantly reflect on how you can reach your future self, and on how you can improve your future self.

Instead of setting the goal of running every morning, try to run whenever you have the opportunity. If you can’t this morning, run in the evening. Or do some situps/pullups/crunches instead (if that’s inline with the image of your future self). Constantly try and do all you can to optimize yourself. You might not meet your concrete running goal, or keep to your specific diet or sleep schedule, but you can still do other things and move closer to your vision.

In short, reflect, and constantly work on steering yourself towards your ultimate future goal (mission statement). Don’t make one giant turn (static goal), but many small ones.

(Of course, a mission statement is a goal in and of itself. The section above and my general negative disposition is towards those discrete, isolated goals, like “run every morning” or “wake up at 6am every day”)

Just do it

How to really change

If you feel the need to make a change in your life, and you know it is better than the current state of things, then just do it. This is a favorite suggestion of my mentor, Thomas. Don’t spend hours googling for methods, and don’t ask others if they think it’s a good idea or suitable for you. If you know it is the right thing to do, then simply do it. No “starting tomorrow”, or “I’ll make it my new year’s resolution”.

Make a mission statement of sorts. Either literally write one down, or sit and reflect about where you want to be in life. What image do you see for yourself? Then steer towards that. Reflect constantly about what you can be doing differently, and try to improve in any way possible. Make every little mistake your own, and grow from it. Don’t set one-shot isolated goals on the 31st of December and call it a day.

Ruminations on 2013

This has been a very interesting year for me. I wouldn’t have been able to give the advice above 365 days ago, nor to follow it after reading. Growth of this sort is a deeply personal process, something that inevitably takes time.

I started the year by founding my first company, Spectrum IT with two amazing partners. I moved to Vienna, Austria, and had the first truly productive year of my life. Although only the last six months were productive in the usual sense of the word, the first half of the year was still rich enough in reflection to become a catalyst for change.

I gave my first pitch (at Pioneers festival in Vienna), and finally stopped attempting to adjust to a polyphasic sleep schedule. After learning Coffeescript and NodeJS, I advocated building the Adefy platform and all related tools on a MEAN stack. If you haven’t heard of Adefy, be sure to check it out!

I’ve also switched to working exclusively on a Mac, but that isn’t a result of reflection so much as it is of Apple hardware feeling damn amazing.

This has been an awesome year, and I’m quite excited to see where things are at the end of 2014. Happy new years everyone! :D