This is part 2 of 3 of my life goals series. In these articles, I combined the research from 10 books on mastery, the Stoics and habit forming, with my conclusions from many hours of coaching, reflection and mindfulness meditation.
-This is part 2 of 3 of my life goals series. In these articles, I combined the research from 10 books on mastery, the Stoics and habit forming, with my conclusions from many hours of coaching, reflection and mindfulness meditation.
In part 1, I told you about my audacious goal for Stanwood “Build the largest remote digital agency in the world”, and how I burned out hard chasing after it. In hindsight, this goal was purely driven by ego. It was during the course of 2019 when it hit me: Neither this nor any other goal of the static, ego-driven, superficial kind would ever make me satisfied or happy. So I scratched all of those goals and started from scratch.
From my research, I learned that goals have the potential to fulfil me and make me happy should focus on:
- effort (input) rather than the achievement (output)
- small, continuous improvement rather than a static end result
- helping and connecting with others rather than achieving something for myself
So, here come the 10 goals that I want to follow for the next 10 years. The first eight goals focus entirely on making me a more centred and rounded person. The last two goals project outwards to the nature of my relationships and my place in this world.
- Become A Life-Long Learner
- Reign In My Ego
- Delay Instant Gratification
- Lean Into Discomfort
- Avoid Procrastination
- Reduce Distractions
- Get Healthy
- Get A Hobby
- Help Other People
#1: Become A Life-Long Learner
I dedicate one hour every day (at 9 am) to reading non-fiction books on topics that fascinate me and often sneak in more time in the evening or on weekends. With this simple regime, I read over a hundred books in the past three years. Every book I read, I use the highlighting feature on my Kindle and write summaries on Medium. I found that writing about a subject is the best way for me to deeply learn and reflect on it as it requires more effort and thought to restructure what you read and integrate it into a coherent thesis in order to explain it to others. Cultivating this learner’s mindset, I noticed another side effect: It is a great way to keep my ego in check. If I’m constantly learning new things, I cannot have been right all the time. ;-)
# 2: Reign In My Ego
It seems to me (and others like the Buddhists) that the source of all the unhappiness both on a large scale (wars, tribalism) and personal (depression, anxiety), comes from ego. To have an ego requires the sense that there is an “I”. And that can hit you two ways: “I” feel hurt, misunderstood, underappreciated, ignored, mistreated, attacked etc. Or secondly, “I” feel overwhelmed or stressed out.
The Buddhists define “enlightenment” as cognitively and emotionally (the latter being the hard part) understanding that there is no “I”. That we are connected to everyone and everything. Case in point: The worst punishment for hardened criminals in jail in solitary confinement. They rather spend their time with murderers and rapists than alone by themselves. Physicists too will tell you that all is interconnected by cause and effect and you actually have no free will.
The tricky part with reigning in our egos is that there is no simple practice or ten steps plan we can follow. There are no “hours” on the treadmill we can put in. I have considered shock therapy: Standing naked on the town market square, singing deliberately off-key at the top of my voice every day for an hour. But disturbing my neighbours doesn’t jive well with the later goal of loving-kindness. And it might also land me in jail. ;-)
So, getting a handle on the ego is a long term cognitive process. I recommend reading books about the topic to build an intellectual understanding of the processes that feed the ego and why it’s there from an evolutionary standpoint. Then you build habits that catch you before your ego starts acting out and you reflect on the situations where you were not able to reign it in. I found journaling quite useful for reflecting. If we make this effort, we will slowly un-learn ego-driven behaviour, this will change our brain composition and we will slowly but surely work our way into nirvana. :-)
#3: Delay Instant Gratification
Nearly all of our bad habits are driven by misfirings of processes that evolution built into us to survive 50,000 years ago. The sneakiest ones are all cravings that trigger our dopamine level. This can be the urge for chocolate, food, sex, alcohol, TV, shopping, computer games, social media etc.
Giving in to those cravings gets us a short “fix”. We feel sad, anxious or stressed, so we drink a beer. That gets us a dopamine hit and we feel better for about 30 minutes. Then our dopamine levels out again and we are right back where we started. Or we feel worse because when our body decomposes even one beer, we get a mini-hangover that lowers our dopamine levels slightly, so we are even more inclined to have another one to keep it up.
The vicious thing about this process is: Every time we repeat a behaviour, it gets ingrained deeper into our brains and it is harder for us to change in the future. That’s our neurons building new connections from the things we do. This also explains why we get more “set in our ways” as we get older.
The key is to avoid giving in to our urges and delay gratification. I regularly review things that make me feel good. Usually, “feeling good” from something is a sure sign of dopamine tricking me into thinking that this actually “is good” for me. Then I build rules to uncouple my urges from my actions and delay instant gratification. -Examples:
- Do not drink alcohol during the week at home.
- Do not eat anything before 17:00. (I practice intermittent fasting.)
- Only drink coffee (or on weekends: alcohol) only at the full hour.
- All purchases below 100€ need to sit in my Amazon shopping cart for 24 hours before I buy them, stuff over 1000€ needs to wait for a week.
- Only watch TV and play video games on weekends.
“Why should I punish myself?”, you might ask ;-). If we looked out for what most accurately predicts conventional life success in the scientific literature, we would assume to find the usual suspects: IQ, genes and the environment a person grew up in. Surprisingly, it’s rather a simple experiment at age 3: How long can kids resist the urge to grab a cookie on the table to get two cookies later.
#4: Lean Into Discomfort
Denying myself instant gratification is only one half of the coin. The real game-changer is how to handle all hard things and uncomfortable situations in life. I learned not to avoid them or distract myself from them, but rather lean into them. Mindfulness training is really helping here, sharpening our ability to observe what our body is doing.
For instance: The best way to quit an addiction like smoking is not to distract ourselves or find an alternative fix like eating, drinking etc., but the exact opposite: Lean into the discomfort. Recognizing the craving at that moment, accepting it, looking closely at what is happening in our bodies at this moment and noting that those symptoms are nothing more than body sensations. We don’t have to act on them because they will subside over time.
A study published in the magazine ‘Drug and Alcohol Dependence’ in 2011 showed that mindfulness training was five (!) times more effective than traditional quit-smoking-programs which focus on distraction.
The same can be applied in uncomfortable social situations that trigger our fight-or-flight response: the tough talks with our boss/spouse/kids/co-workers/clients where we want to scream or run. Instead, we should lean in and feel the discomfort. Funnily enough, when we concentrate on the body sensations of discomfort, we will find that they instantly get weaker and disappear over time.
#5: Avoid Procrastination
Possibly the most detrimental habit I have is procrastinating on the really important topics. In the past, I ran big projects into the ground and almost brought my company to its knees because I could not face the hard issues early enough and act in time. Instead, I let those issues grow to monstrous proportions and they required huge effort to rectify afterwards.
Procrastination has many faces. Mine is not the type where I rather play computer games than work. Rather I tell myself that other “urgent” stuff is more important right now and I busy myself with it. However: “Urgent” is almost never “important”!
I have been doing a lot of soul-searching why I avoid certain topics and I initially thought it was embarrassing or emotionally charged topics. But I found it’s all about uncertainty. It’s all about missing a clear course of action. Once I have that, any topic just starts rolling.
So here is what I do: I write all actionable items into a list — I personally use Trello for it. Then I decide on all of those items if it needs to be done — sooner or later — or not. All „must-do“ topics land on my todo list (I use the “Star” feature in Gmail for that) and I work them off chronologically. First in, first out. I also try to keep my commitments below 7 days. I want to be the guy that gets anything done within a week. (Currently, I am between 2–3 weeks of backlog.) All „nice to have“ or „maybe/later“ topics, I put into some sort of backlog.
#6: Reduce Distractions
The biggest enemy for reaching our goals are digital “Weapons of Mass Distraction” like social media apps, chats and collaboration tools. Both in your private life and at work, all those hailed tools of unlimited productivity are out to get you. Or rather out to get your attention. With push notifications, unread counts, read status, voice messages and the unwritten expectation that you should respond to every message within a minute.
At Stanwood, we measured how often people change context and switch from one topic to the next in our chat tool Slack: Every 15 minutes. This is a recipe for disaster considering that it takes 30 minutes to get into the flow of a task and most of our tasks (designing, writing, coding) require hours of uninterrupted concentration to create quality results.
When you are with a person or working on a task, you should give it 100% of your attention. Unfortunately, all those digital productivity and collaboration tools are built to hijack your dopamine cycle and pull your attention from whatever you are at into their tools. -How I avoid distractions:
- I removed all social media apps from my phone. (hello, discomfort! ;)
- If I really, really, really need messenger: I disable push notifications and unread counts and check them at allotted hours — say every 3 hours — only.
- I disabled all push notifications from all my apps.
- I check emails only once per day and never before 12:00pm to get my must-do things done first.
- I bought a loading station for my phone, put it on my desk and left my phone there as soon as I came home.
The biggest source of interruptions is not external, though. It’s our own thoughts taking our focus from important things. Studies have shown that we spend 60% of our waking time daydreaming or worrying about something in the future.
To tame our “monkey minds”, mindfulness training helps (unfortunately it takes 10,000 hours again to master it, so we’re in for the long haul here ;). I started my meditation routine with 10 minutes a day and built it up to an hour every day. I tried various apps in this process and can recommend those three:
- Headspace — If you like kind people being gentle and sweet with you
- Waking Up — If you are interested in Neuroscience and Buddhism
- 10% Happier — If you hate all the New Age stuff -Pause and reflect
We so often try to get stuff behind us that we literally sprint through our lives instead of enjoying each moment. An exercise I love comes from the Stoics: Whenever I catch myself in a situation, I ask myself: What could possibly make this moment better? Especially in quiet moments like playing with the kids, cooking a meal or eating dinner: I usually recognize that there is very little that could make this moment any better.
#7: Get Healthy
Forming new goals, fighting the ego, delaying instant gratification, forming new habits: All those topics require deep thought (called System 2 Thinking in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”) and active cognitive engagement with the world. There is an easy way to sabotage all our effort: And that is being stressed, sleepy, in pain or out of shape.
When we are stressed, low on energy or sleepy, we will always fall back to our old default routines. But those goals are all about breaking old routines by building new ones. So we need to take care of our bodies! In 2019, I was caught in a cycle of eating junk food all day, drinking heavily, not doing any sports and weighing in at 105 kg. I felt terrible and I knew something needed to change. -That’s how I did it:
- We built a small home gym into our basement where I do weightlifting 3x per week and 20 minutes of yoga-like stretching every day.
- I walk an hour each day — mainly during calls — and take the bike to get the kids from kindergarten.
- I go to bed at 9 pm (reading until 10 pm) every day — and get up at 5 am in the morning.
- We order food from HelloFresh and I cook a healthy vegetarian dinner for the family three nights a week.
- Finally, I stopped drinking during the week and limited my daily alcohol units on weekends to 5 beers per day (by not having more in the house).
I lost 10 kg in the last year doing this.
#8: Get A Hobby
Establishing new goals is not about setting them first and then breaking them down into todos and building Gantt charts out of it. Believe me, I’ve tried ;). All seven prior goals rather require constant practise in order to become habits that will get deeply ingrained in our beliefs and thoughts over time.
A great way to practise continuous improvement and to focus on the input rather than on the output (see intro) is to get a hobby. And I do not mean “listening to music” or “meeting friends”. I mean activities where we can learn and improve in small incremental steps through years of practise.
That can be sports, arts or any other craft that we can master over time and with continuous effort. The key is to find something that brings us to a near meditative state and that we can pursue happily for hours.
According to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hours-rule, in order to become a pro in any endeavour, you need to break it down into small, atomic tasks that you can repeat relentlessly and get feedback. Like shooting free throws in basketball or practising scales on the piano. You shoot. You miss. You try again. -By practising a hobby over the years, we will
- become a learner, as we need help from others like a trainer
- learn to reign in our ego as we are really bad in the beginning
- avoid procrastination because we will have a practising schedule
- delay instant gratifications because there are no hacks to a great golf swing or any other sports
- lean into discomfort and feel the pressure when we compete in tournaments
- get healthy when we practice a sport that physically challenges us
- reduce distractions and learn to focus — so DO NOT bring your phone to the basketball court or golf course
Having a hobby (next to our profession, family, and deep friendships) is another leg on our “chair of happiness”. If one of those legs breaks away temporarily, we still have three more legs to keep us upright and happy.
Now that we have covered our inner demons, let’s have a look at what we can do with and for other people. Unsurprisingly, the biggest source of stress is other people. We are social animals after all. In addition, humans are hardwired to keep up a positive self-image. We see this when watching a movie or reading a book. We always sympathize with the protagonist we first meet. Even if he is lazy/stupid/evil.
This “fundamental attribution error” leads to four interesting biases.
In our opinion:
- All our achievements are due to us being awesome.
- All our fuckups are other people’s fault or due to circumstances.
- Other people’s achievements are due to luck or circumstances.
- Other people’s fuckups are due to them being lazy/stupid/evil.
Logic dictates that this cannot be true if everyone feels this way. So where does that leave us?
Our lives will be so much more harmonious if we always assume ignorance before malevolence. If we find ourselves annoyed by another person, let’s assume that we do not know the circumstances of that person or we don’t understand them properly yet. Let’s try channelling our annoyance into curiosity: “I wonder why X behaved that way?”
In discussions, I like to use a handy technique that works for any argument: I repeat and summarize the other point until they respond with: “Yes, that’s right”. Not only will I make the other person feel truly heard and understood, I also improve my understanding of their perspective and can find a solution that works for us both.
#10: Help Other People
That takes care of our mindset towards other people. Now comes the kicker…
First up: We need to make ourselves happy. We covered that with the first nine goals. We also try to find an occupation where we work 80% of the time in “flow”. This amazing condition where we can spend hours without distraction and feel like minutes have passed.
I deeply believe we need to take care of our kids more. From an evolutionary standpoint, that is literally why we are on this planet: “Ensure our genes get passed down.” So I want to instil the same values and goals in my children. Being a dad of two boys (3 and 5) I cannot tell you how often I sit watching them and crying silently in joy, gratefulness, wonder and awe. I don’t want to outsource my kids’ upbringing. Full-time kindergarten/school, nannies, vacation camps or holidays with the grandparents would allow me to focus more on my work, sure. But how would I evaluate my life on my deathbed: “Gee, I wish I would have spent more time in meetings”? I would swap any meeting I had at work 10:1 with just another hour with my kids when they were six years old.
We also need to take care of our relationships and marriages a bit more. Every third marriage ends up in divorce. Even if you think your marriage is 100% perfectly fine, I recommend getting a coach (for instance a marriage counsellor) to speak to every month for an hour or so. You will be amazed at how much issues and misunderstandings get resolved just talking about how you both feel and think to a third person while your spouse is listening and vice versa. It brings you even closer together and strengthens the foundation of your relationship for the next 10 years.
You remember this whole new goals thing started because I was stressed out about my company? To reflect that change and we rebuilt our goal system (OKRs). We ditched our revenue and size goals to just moderate profitability (20% profit margin) and a sales funnel goal (6 m€) to give us enough freedom of choice so all projects are fun (and we do not have to take on a-hole clients) and not having to fire anyone.
We kept the two goals “Delight Clients” and “Become the Authority on Remote Work” in our company, and we added a fourth objective: “Wholesome Work”. As key results, we are looking at self-reported stress and number of interruptions per day. With regards to stress: We aim at nobody in the company reporting feeling stressed “often” or “very often” on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (very often). By means of our time tracking tool, we shoot for only 40 entries per week. This equals 1-hour-blocks of work for each of us.
So, what now? How can we change our life and business goals to healthier, wholesome ones? How can we change our behavioural patterns that are deeply ingrained into our brains? Or even worse, which are based on thousands of years of cavemen dopamine cycles?
Again, I dove deep into literature and experimented with a few methods. In the end, I found three methods that worked especially well for me. If you’re interested in what they are and how they can help you practice your new goals as well, just keep reading. I share them with you in part 3 of our goals series: Three Methods To Change Our Life Goals And Lead Happier Lives