There was a time in my life, the majority of my youth, when I was a slacker whose primary skill was to find new ways to avoid anything worthwhile. I vividly remember one semester in school that summed up those years: I took only 9 credit hours and played Halo 3 for the whole semester. Literally, I did little else besides play that game. It was just a terrible waste to devote that much time to a video game. I justified it because I was “making progress” by being in college.
I’ve changed so much since then, and my internal change has created a very different set of results in business and in my personal life.
I’m relatively young at 29 years old and I’ve written two books, one of which has become an international bestseller. My book, Mini Habits, has been the #1 selling self help book in the United States and South Korea, and it’s being translated into a dozen languages.
This bit of success means so much to me because of where I came from. And if the guy who lived to play Halo 3 for several months straight can actually contribute something useful to the world, I believe everyone can improve!
These 7 things are the specific changes I made that created more success in my life:
1. Don’t ask what you feel like doing, plan to do things and do them
We naturally like to do what we are motivated to do, but when our motivation is lacking, it requires willpower to overcome that and do it anyway.
Everyone loves and prefers motivation. If you could have an unlimited amount of one or the other, motivation would be the choice. Wanting to scrub the toilet? Wanting to organize your tax papers? Wanting to go to the gym? Wanting to do grueling research for a project? Fantastic! …but it’s not going to happen every time or even very often. You can never count on feeling like doing challenging things. I’ve seen that successful people are those who do their work even on “down” days.
The way in which you “self-talk” reveals deep-seated beliefs. Do you find yourself thinking of what to do based on what you feel like doing? If you come into some free time, do you “float” into what’s most appealing? If so, you’re relying on motivation. If, however, you think about what tasks you plan to do without much thought given to how “ready” you feel to do them, you’re relying on willpower.
Motivation is a fantastic thing, but you shouldn’t require it of yourself to do things that matter. Do things that matter for their own sake!
The best part about relying on willpower is that it’s like a muscle. Psychologist Roy Baumeister has observed this in multiple studies. Use your willpower more, and it will get stronger. With practice, you’ll develop humanity’s most important skill: being able to do what you really want to do.
2. Trust in proven processes; ignore circumstances and results
What has happened (results) and where you are now (circumstances) are irrelevant. What you do next matters. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of submitting to your environment and letting it push you around, or the self-fulfilling trap of assuming that the past will repeat itself. Thankfully, it’s also somewhat easy to not do this and follow proven processes instead.
My best personal example of this was when I started doing one push-up a day (my first mini habit). Circumstantially, I was out of shape, lazy, and felt defeated. I had poor results from prior efforts to change. I was stuck in every way. But the process of doing one push-up a day was powerful beyond its appearance—it changed my brain as it became habitual. It pulled me out of my lazy funk and gave me a foundation for exercising that enabled me to go to the gym consistently. Today, two years later, I exercise almost every day.
This is the power of process: I’m still getting results more than two years after those one push-up days! Processes, when repeated to become habitual, can last you a lifetime. So trust in the good ones like mini habits! Don’t listen to thoughts like “one minute of piano practice every day won’t accomplish much,” because it WILL.
3. Take smart risks with low downside and high upside
When you’re young, take risks. When you’re old, still take risks. We’re on this planet for a very limited time, and not taking risks means you’re living a boring life if nothing else. Not all risks are equal, however, so it’s important to distinguish between playing roulette and investing in a winner.
It’s simple: choose risks with high upside and low downside. This is also the basis for smart stock investments. If you choose a strong company with a stock that appears undervalued, its apparent upside seems greater than its apparent downside because the market has already undervalued it. It’s like a compressed spring: it could be pushed down further, but it’s more likely to go higher.
Here are examples of high upside and low downside risks:
- Ask for something: Will you go to dinner with me? Will you publish my book? May I have a free foot massage? Hearing “no” is nothing to fear, and hearing yes will have you and your just-massaged feet smiling. Yes, feet can smile, but only after being massaged.
- Bootstrap a business: We have the internet! Starting a business no longer requires massive amounts of starting capital. You can “bootstrap” your business, which means you find inexpensive ways to accomplish your business goals. Marketing is a key example; it’s “free” for me to write this post… other than the blood I sweat in the writing process. I spent less than $1,500 to create my first book, which has earned me well over 100 times that amount (one wouldn’t expect this kind of return, but this is the high upside potential I’m talking about). If you don’t want to quit your job to risk entrepreneurship, why not bootstrap a business on the side and see what happens? Wouldn’t that be exciting? If it fails, you still have a job! The “I quit my job, started a business, and it took off” story is romanticized. For most people with families to feed, that’s an example of unacceptable risk.
- Talk to people: Much of life involves networking with others for personal and business relationships. We may avoid speaking to others if we think they won’t like us. But hey, some people might not like you if you keep to yourself. I remember in high school I was told a particular person whom I had never spoken to thought I was “stuck up,” but I was just shy. You’ll be surprised at the friends and business connections you can make by just being a bit more outgoing.
- Create things: I’m a writer, so I love to create books and blog posts. It only costs my time, so the downside (if the world hates it) is minimal. Actually, the downside is zero, because I enjoy writing and it’s beneficial for me to practice it. The upside has changed my life! For you, maybe it’s attempting to create furniture, music, or new clothing styles. When you create something, you only pay with your time and the cost of materials for a potentially high reward; one of the best parts of creating something is the feeling of accomplishment, a reward you’ll get every time!
- Try something new: I get it. You already know watching Seinfeld reruns and eating ice cream is fun. But what if you explored the maze that is Venice? What if you ate crocodile meat? What if you spent a whole day complimenting people? What if you tried pilates or archery or a combination of the two? We all have dormant passions that are waiting for us to find them!
“Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash.” – George S. Patton
4. Be consistent, and good things will happen
I used to aim for the most impressive goals, and I was below average. Everything changed when I started my unimpressive mini habits of doing one push-up a day, writing 50 words per day, and reading two pages per day. Practicing these small behaviors allowed me to be remarkably consistent. No single day was mind-blowing, but every day was a success that built upon the last.
Anyone and everyone can write 50 words a day, which is about a paragraph. If you do that for 2 years, you’d have a short book of 36,500 words! And that’s only if you never decide to do more than that. This goes along with showing up on the “down” days. Successful people always show up, even if they know they’re not at their best.
5. Know when to bunt and when to swing for the home run
Learn to bunt before you try to hit home runs. In other words, mastering the basics first can fuel grander efforts later.
I started a blog and practiced writing over 200 articles before I wrote a book to sell. Now that I have more followers and improved writing skills, I’m better equipped to swing for home runs, which in this case means investing more money (taking more risk) and making products. Don’t be afraid to bunt while you’re learning and then when you’ve honed your craft, swing for the fences!
6. Accept that your success isn’t 100% up to you
I love people, but I have been as much as a lone wolf as you can be when it comes to my career. That is to say, I’m terrible at networking! I’ve been fortunate enough that some people have networked with me, and have greatly helped me. And without people to read my blog posts and books, I would have nothing. It’s humbling.
This goes for every person alive. What if nobody cared to watch Michael Jordan play basketball? What would happen to Chipotle if people didn’t need to eat anymore? I’d probably still eat there, but that’s beside the point. Success is impossible without the assistance or interest of other people.
I find this perspective is helpful in two ways. First, it points to the importance of seeking help when you need it (useful for business and personal life). Second, it keeps you grounded in good times and bad times. Back when I was an unemployed college graduate and nobody would hire me, I realized that it wasn’t completely my fault that nobody would give me a chance, which helped me feel like less of a failure in what was a difficult time. Now that times are better, I understand that I had help getting here and will need more if I am to continue to ascend.
So whether you’re at the bottom, the middle, or the top of the mountain, knowing that you need others to reach or stay at the top can help you in all phases of your journey.
7. Build up your self-efficacy
As one of the most underrated self-improvement concepts, developing a healthy sense of self-efficacy can change your life. If you don’t already know, self-efficacy is your belief in your ability to influence outcomes. It’s a combination of self-confidence and trusting in the process: it means you believe in yourself and that your efforts will be the difference between winning or losing.
Self-efficacy can be explained in a mindset:
- Low self-efficacy -“Going to go to the gym today won’t make much of a difference.”
- High self-efficacy – “If I consistently go to the gym, I will improve my health and physique!”
High self-efficacy means you trust yourself. You trust what you’re doing will matter. Without it, life is hopeless. With it, you can do amazing things. The old me playing Halo? He didn’t really think his behavior mattered. He just existed and tried to enjoy it. The new me has learned that my decisions, especially the small ones, create vastly different results.
If you’ve been a serial goal quitter, you will struggle to have self-efficacy. Every time you fail to reach a goal, your self-efficacy naturally drops. Why? A failed goal pursuit is a piece of evidence that you do not influence outcomes in your life. You tried to do something and not much happened. It’s hard to argue with that when it happens repeatedly. Successfully completing a goal shows that you do influence outcomes.
What is the best way to build self-efficacy, then? Rather than setting goals that you might not reach, try setting goals that you can absolutely crush. Repeat this often! It’s smarter to attempt two push-ups 50 times than to attempt 100 push-ups one time because it’s a high chance at 50 wins versus a much lower chance at one win. At first, your self-efficacy might be like this: “I can meet this requirement every day with just a bit of effort.” Later, it will grow into something more significant: “I actually feel a bit stronger from doing these push-ups every day. This is working!” And from that point, it can snowball further into even better things.
“If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.” – Mahatma Gandhi
This doesn’t mean to dream small. I aim to redefine entertainment, but I employ these small steps as my productivity weapon of choice.
These 7 factors have been the difference between “Halo 3 Stephen” and “Bestselling Author Stephen.” I hope you found something useful in this to apply to your life and I wish you great success in your pursuits.