5 Actions to Achieve Goals: Less Dreaming & More Doing

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Personality Isn't Permanent" by Benjamin Hardy. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is it so difficult to take action to achieve goals? Why do we tend to fall back into old patterns, no matter how hard we try to change?

Most people set goals for themselves, but they fail to consistently show up and do what’s necessary to achieve them. Sooner or later, they slip back into their old, self-sabotaging patterns—listening to their impulses, doing things that feel agreeable, and ultimately, giving up.

Here are some tips on how to align your actions with your goals and avoid slipping back into your old patterns.

1) Go to Bed and Wake Up Earlier

If you wake up earlier than usual, Hardy says, you can use the extra time in the morning to work toward your goals. Since making progress gives you a sense of momentum, doing so first thing in the morning will help you feel motivated for the rest of your day. 

At the other end of the day, if you commit to going to bed earlier, you’ll have less free time in the evening. This will pressure you to use your downtime for more restorative and rewarding things like spending time with family rather than watching a mindless TV show.

(Shortform note: While this advice may be helpful for most people, some individuals may not benefit from sleeping and waking earlier. In Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker says that some people focus better in the evenings and worse in the mornings, and that it’s strongly tied to genetics. This is the result of evolution; it was adaptive for our ancestors to have some people awake later than others so that there were always people watching out for predators. Unfortunately, it’s extremely challenging to change when you feel naturally most rested. If you are someone who focuses better in the evenings, modify Hardy’s advice to suit your specific needs.)

2) Surround Yourself With Reminders of Your Goals

Hardy also advocates that having small, frequent reminders of your optimal future in your environment helps you stay focused on your primary goal. This translates to more motivation and self-control. Thus, it makes it easier to continue living your new lifestyle and prevents you from lapsing into unhealthy habits. A reminder could be a certain book that’s always on your nightstand or getting a tattoo related to a commitment you’ve made.

Remind Yourself of Your Goals by Choosing Different Environments

While Hardy does touch on the idea of altering your overall environment in the book, he mainly focuses on adding small token reminders to your environment—such as symbolic items to help you remember your primary goal. An additional way to consistently remind yourself of your new identity and lifestyle is making commitments that change the environments you’ll be in on an ongoing basis

For instance, enrolling in therapy and joining a sports team are commitments that involve regularly spending time in new environments. When you commit to spending time in environments that help you reach your goals—for example by helping you become more fit or attain new skills—the environments themselves can serve as constant reminders of your primary goal and optimal self.

3) Limit Access to Temptations and Distractions

The more accessible temptations are, the easier it is to give in to them. Therefore, Hardy says that increasing the difficulty of seeking out temptations—things that would distract or impede you from meeting your goal—helps you resist them. For example, if you’re trying to eat healthily, not keeping unhealthy food in the house makes it a lot harder to cave to temptation—doing so would require a whole trip to the store. 

Additionally, limit reminders of temptations so that you think about—and therefore give in to—them less. For instance, if you’re trying to use your time more intentionally, turning off notifications on your social media means you won’t be constantly reminded of this potential distraction and will thus be less likely to indulge in mindless scrolling.

(Shortform note: Since you can’t always avoid being around temptations, it’s important to know how to resist them when they’re easily accessible. In The Willpower Instinct, psychologist Kelly McGonigal suggests a strategy called “surfing the urge” for handling feelings of temptation as they arise. Rather than trying to ignore your urges, she argues you should accept urges as they come up—but choose not to act on them. She argues this is because trying to resist a thought makes you obsess about it, while allowing yourself to have the thought helps you let it go.)

4) Journal Intentionally to Change How You Think

Hardy recommends regularly writing about your goals and optimal future as a way to keep yourself in touch with your ideals and your vision for the future. Not only does it remind you of your commitments, but it also can be a helpful way to process information and change the way you think about your life and yourself. 

By setting aside time to intentionally write and think about things from a more intentional perspective than your habitual one, you practice and get better at new ways of thinking. For example, journaling as your future self can help you learn how to think more like them, and journaling about things you’re grateful for can increase your overall gratitude in life.

(Shortform note: Science bears out the idea that journaling about your future self and your goals helps you achieve goals. One study showed that college students assigned to write down their future goals experienced higher academic achievement and were less likely to drop out. Additionally, writing your goals down helps you internalize a more vivid image of what your goals are, and people whose goals can be described specifically and vividly are 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to complete their goals than others.)

5) Use Pressure Strategically

Hardy argues that increased pressure to complete your goals helps you build motivation and become more flexible and creative in the way you overcome obstacles. By strategically subjecting yourself to increased pressure, you can force yourself to quickly meet goals that you would otherwise never achieve or that would take a much longer time. One way of increasing feelings of pressure is by putting yourself under strict time constraints (like telling your boss you’ll have an important project completed by a challenging deadline). Another way to do this is by putting yourself under financial constraints (like having a friend hold onto a large sum of money that you don’t get back until you complete a goal).

Acting Before Feeling Prepared Helps You Accomplish Goals

In The 50th Law, Robert Greene and rapper Curtis Jackson (better known as 50 Cent) discuss a similar way to take actions to achieve goals: acting before you feel prepared. Committing to actions and decisions before you’re actually prepared to heightens the pressure to meet your goal: You’ll feel like you’re at greater risk of failure than you would if you felt prepared before starting. And, they argue, this increased pressure—by increasing your spontaneity and motivation to succeed—helps you accomplish a goal more successfully than if you wait until you feel ready.

Robert Greene gives an example of this concept from his own life: He decided to move to France despite having limited savings and not being fluent in French. His limited savings meant he needed to get a job quickly, and his lack of fluency meant that this would be challenging to do. 

Because he had no choice, he began trying especially hard to learn French, going out of his way to ask strangers to explain vocabulary he didn’t understand. According to him, by putting himself in this position before he felt ready, he was able to creatively problem solve and become fluent very more quickly than if he had a basic understanding of French prior to moving.
5 Actions to Achieve Goals: Less Dreaming & More Doing

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  • How personality is not fixed, but fluid and changeable
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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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