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The new year has only just started, so I assume your good intentions for this year still stand. Of course, you are sure it will remain that way throughout the year and that you will reach your goals. Unfortunately, statistics are not on your side: about 80% of good intentions fail, January 12 is a notorious day of withdrawal and January is the worst month to start with good intentions. That’s not very encouraging at all.

Continuous efforts – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.

Winston Churchill

I believe that with the right approach and focus you will achieve your goals this year. That sounds promising but be warned, there’s no silver bullet. You will have to work hard and give it your all if you want to achieve the results you have in mind. If you are willing to do that, this article describes the necessary mindset as well as tips that will help you achieve your goals.


The essence of achieving your goals in 1 minute

With the right approach and focus, you can reach your goals this year. Some specific tips to help you achieve that are:

  1. Hold yourself responsible. All success, but all failure as well, is the result of your own decisions.
  2. Look for the elements you can influence and focus on those. It is of no use to focus on things that are outside of your control.
  3. Move from discipline to habits. Discipline alone is not enough to achieve your goals in the long run. Develop habits that you can maintain in the long run.
  1. Set the right priorities and eliminate the things that do not contribute to achieving your goals.
  2. Look for support. Decide on who can help you make your goals become a reality and get their support.

Finally, let go of how others feel about your goals. If this is what you want to achieve, then go make it a reality!


I am responsible!

If you are not planning on reading the whole article, then at least make sure to read this paragraph carefully. It contains the most important lesson I have learned. Not just for achieving your goals, but for living your life as a whole.

I am now and in the future the result of my own choices and decisions I make here and now.

Remco Claassen

Now read it again and let it sink in.

If you want to achieve your goals, you are in charge. You have to do the hard work. This means not making any excuses, deciding what you are going to give up, and persevering when things get tough. In other words: “No one else but me is responsible for my own success and failure“. It sure makes for a beautiful wall tile.

Internalizing the locus of control

The principle mentioned above is known as internalizing the locus of control. An internal locus of control means you feel that you are in control of your life and the way it is going. The opposite are people with an external locus of control. These people feel like life happens to them and that the future is outside of their control.

I can relate to both the internal and the external locus of control. That is to say, I used to make up a lot of excuses why things weren’t going my way. Obviously, this was never my fault; life happened to me. A telling example are the countless times I got a bad grade on a test. The logical explanation was that the test once again was too difficult or that “everyone got a low grade“.

At some point, I flipped a switch and changed my mindset. I decided to take responsibility for my life. This was very confronting at times. You can no longer blame others when things go wrong. This can be very unpleasant. On the flip side, when things do go your way, you are the one responsible for creating your own success. Somehow people seem to have less of a problem when it comes to acknowledging that…

What I have noticed is that this new way of looking at things has made me more creative and gives me a new perspective on things. If things go wrong, I ask myself what I could have done differently to change the outcome of the situation. These learnings can then be applied in similar situations in the future.

No excuses

The army is a place where this kind of sense of responsibility is instilled at an early stage. A great example is provided at WestPoint, the oldest military academy in The United States. This is the place where students are trained to become officers in the United States army. From the moment they get into WestPoint they are taught that there are just 4 valid answers to any question of a superior. These answers are: “Yes, sir“, “No, sir“, “I don’t understand, sir“, and “No excuses“.

Do you notice anything special?

None of the answers looks anything like “But, I …” or “That’s because of…“. The only valid answer in those situations is “No excuses“. It indicates that you take responsibility for the situation, even though it might not be your fault.

Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody else expects of you.

Henry Ward Beecher

The only thing I can directly influence is my behaviour

Let’s say that you have the right mindset, namely that you alone are responsible for how you deal with the things that happen in your life. Then there is another insight that will help you achieve your goals. That insight follows from the circle of influence.

Circle of influence
The circle of influence

This model that was introduced by Stephen Covey in his bestselling book The 7 habits of highly effective people, consists of two concentric circles. These are the circle of influence and the circle of concern. The inner circle contains everything you can directly influence, the outer circle consists of all the things you are involved in and that concern you. Elements in the outer circle also influence you in a sense.

You can apply this model in everyday life to determine where to focus your time and energy. What do you do for example when you are having a hard time with one of your colleagues? Will you start complaining about him or her to your other co-workers (from a circle of concern standpoint)? Or will you engage with this colleague to initiate a conversation (from a circle of influence perspective)? By continuously asking yourself where your influence lies in any situation, you can start looking for solutions instead of focussing on the problems.

Those who want look for possibilities, those who don’t look for a reason

The circle of influence is about direct positive influence

One should keep in mind that this model is aimed at the things that you have a direct influence on. To illustrate this point, the image below contains some examples of the elements in both circles.

Some examples of elements in the circle of influence and the circle of concern

As you can see, the circle of influence contains just one element, namely your own behaviour. Think about it, can you think of anything for which you can directly determine the outcome, other than your own behaviour?

The circle of concern contains many more elements, examples of which are shown in the picture. It might come as a surprise to see my health in this place. You would think that this is one of the things you can influence, right? This line of thinking makes a lot of sense, but you should remember that the model focuses on direct influence only. No matter how healthy you live your life, you could still become ill. That’s something you have no direct control over.

From a negative standpoint, you can often influence a lot of these things. I am sure you can imagine what that would look like regarding your neighbours’ mood. To put it another way, destruction can be achieved directly, but growth, improvement and recovery are the results of indirect efforts.

This perspective is one of opportunity. Once you apply it, opportunities pop up everywhere. Don’t be too quick to think that you cannot make change happen on your own:

Three tips for achieving your goals

Now that you are aware of the required mindset, you can go and achieve your goals. The remainder of this article contains three practical tips to help you along.

1. From discipline to habits

The chances that you will achieve your goals on discipline alone are very slim. Discipline is like a disc brake that wears a little every time you use it. As a result, you have to put in more effort the next time to reach the same result. The paradox here is that the better you are at resisting temptations, the harder it becomes to resist them in the future.

Let me illustrate this with a simple example. Let’s suppose you want to snack less. The first time someone offers you a piece of cake, you decline it nicely. When after some time someone else offers to go get ice cream, you already start having some doubts. Once you get home you decide to open a bag of candy as a reward for resisting all of the temptations throughout the day. You deserve it.

It is the same reason why fruit and vegetables are often located at the entry of the supermarket. Once you get to the sweets and other delicacies, your shopping basket is filled with healthy products. Surely you can allow yourself a treat after the level of discipline you have already displayed. In other words, once you get to the sweets the brake is already worn.

Create habits

Discipline alone is thus not enough. You have to create habits. Once a habit is created the desired behaviour no longer requires making a conscious choice. You do it on autopilot.

Habits don’t just appear. It’s a matter of perseverance and persistence. Research in the field of nutrition and exercise indicates that it takes on average 66(!) days to form a habit. It should be noted though that the spread in the results is significant. The point remains: don’t give up too soon!

Kaizen

There is a Japanese principle known as Kaizen, continuous neverending improvement, which holds the key to building habits. It involves breaking up your goals into steps that are so small that it would be ridiculous not to take them. Every time you take one of these small steps, you are rewarded with a shot of Dopamine.

Imagine you want to save a specific amount of money, say € 10,000. One approach would be to put aside half of it this month and the other half in the coming month. For most of us, that’s an unrealistic approach. How could you make the steps in saving €10,000 so ridiculously small that there is no barrier to taking them?

You could put one euro in your piggy bank every day. It could even be 10 cents, the important part is that you start. By doing this consistently every day, there’s a good chance that you will get a good feeling about saving. It might not go as fast as you initially had imagined, but it could just become a small competition with yourself: how much money can you put aside today? You are building a habit in which you take small steps to work towards your bigger goal.

The secret to getting ahead is to start walking.

Dag Hammerskjold

2. Set the right priorities

Plotting your tasks in the Eisenhower matrix allows you to spend more time on the priorities that matter to you. This method also helps in keeping focussed on your personal goals.

Setting the right priorities means saying no to the things that do not contribute to reaching your goals. This goes for both priorities of others (that are described in the article I referenced) as well as for your own distractions. For example when you want to watch TV while your goal is to exercise more often.

The main question is: What are you willing to give up in order to reach your goals? Some years ago I set a goal to become more vital, for which I decided to only consume alcohol and snacks during weekends. It certainly wasn’t always fun, but I was so eager to achieve this goal that I was willing to make this concession during the week.

The positive side to having these kinds of standards or rules for yourself is that it helps limit the number of choices. That way you can focus on making decisions that actually matter.

The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule you priorities.

Stephen R. Covey

3. Provide support

The third and final tip is to ensure the right type of support. Set up your environment in such a way that it is impossible not to change. There are many ways to do this. It ranges from not bringing candy into the house when your goal is to lose weight or hiring a personal trainer that helps you achieve your goal of exercising more often.

In every change, there are two forces at play. A driving force and an opposing force. The crux is not to focus on increasing the driving force. instead, put your time and energy into reducing the opposing force. If your goal is to go for a run more often you can come up with hundreds of reasons why that is beneficial. However, without the proper shoes and clothing, all these great arguments will – literally – not help you move forward. So reduce the opposing force (in this case not having the proper equipment) and go for it.

The best tip in this respect is to find others who share a similar goal. Working with others helps with keeping yourself accountable and keep focussing on your goals. Your companions can share your struggles and together you can celebrate your achievements.

Every man I meet is my superior in some way. In that, I learn of him.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Some final thoughts

Finally, here are some final thoughts to keep in mind while you are working towards your goals:

  • Don’t take on too many goals at once. Instead focus.
  • Are things not working out for you and have you given up? Analyze what went wrong and start over.

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

Chinese proverb
  • Let go of the opinions of others. If this is what you want, go for it and do so with enthousiasm.
  • Motivation leads to action, but action also leads to motivation. In other words, just get started!

I do what others don’t, so I achieve what others won’t.