It's not just the big changes - but the things you do on autopilot that matter
I used to cling to the futile belief that hope and desire were all that were required to change my life. What I didn’t grasp was the cause and effect nature of each and every thing I did, thought and their effects upon the corresponding results in my life.
Like most, I grew to appreciate this fact as life unfolded before me. I’m now at the stage where I’m not just accepting of this fact, but rather I’m determined to make it work in my favour.
There are of course many ways to encourage radical change in your life.
We’re often told that large-scale change is best pursued by defining a vision, strategy and plan before taking massive actions. Incremental improvements at the micro level of life can be just as significant.
Consider one change that many try to make at some point; to lose weight and improve physical health. In principle, the sources of support to assist us in this goal are many, varied and easily accessible. It’s puzzling then just why so many fail at this goal.
How many diet and exercise regimes begin as a wholesale rejection of an old way of life and a heartfelt commitment to the new plan? Cupboards are purged of food that’s incompatible with the chosen diet plan. They’re replaced with specialist items, the approved ingredients and supplements that will deliver results. Gym memberships are taken-up, exercise gear dug out of the wardrobe and commitments made to a new, healthier and more-active way of life.
Without being too cynical or judgemental since I’ve certainly done this myself on many occasions, how often does it stick beyond the first couple of weeks?
Usually we’ll give in to temptation either as it feels too-hard, or as a reward for perceived gains we’ve made in the early days. Alternatively, we’ll convince ourselves that it’s a failing of the programme, that it’s simply not compatible with our lifestyle and commitments, that we’ve chosen a bad time in our lives to start. We resolve to pick it up again at a later date.
Sometimes it works out. Elements of the new way of life will stick, become habit, engrained in our lives but more often we end up back where we started, with the quinoa and walnut oil perishing in the kitchen cupboard and the exercise gear languishing at the back of our wardrobe.
Instead of seeking wholesale change, we may opt for a number of small changes in life, allowing these to compound upon each other as micro-steps to the macro-goal. We’re told that small-habits contribute to big changes and I agree with this sentiment 100%. For those who are impatient for results or lacking in motivation or long-term commitment, such approaches can fizzle out quickly. The results are often lowly and slow to emerge.
An overlooked alternative to pursuing goals and personal-development through either the ‘all or nothing’ or ‘softly-softly’ approaches, is by shifting perspective and focus; when you are committed to changing your life, the simplest kick-start is often in addressing your default actions and reactions.
We all have defaults in relation to each of the daily choices that life throws at us; coffee or tea? Early to bed or night-owl? Watch the news on TV, or wind-down with The Simpsons? Play with the kids or give them the iPad?
Each moment of each day is scattered with the decisions we need to take, either consciously or sub-consciously which shape what we do and what we achieve. Those that are made subconsciously or with little engagement of the brain enable us to preserve our processing power for the tasks, thoughts and considerations that truly warrant it.
The danger comes when our defaults have become so engrained in our life, that their influence is taken for granted, as a given and not challenged, even if they’re misaligned with our overall goals and purpose.
My suggestion for upgrading your life then, is that you need to upgrade your defaults; form and embed new habits, make better default choices, increase your expectations of yourself and make your goal to win every play in the game of life.
This isn’t about striving for perfection, always choosing the path of greatest resistance or refusing to allow ourselves time, space and freedom to relax as we relentlessly strive for excellence. Instead, by making a few subtle shifts in how our default actions are taken and decisions are made, we can expect benefit to emerge in greater progress towards our goals as a result.
Here are a few examples to show what I mean.
In our finances as we pursue wealth and abundance or as we seek merely to get by from one month to the next, it can be a struggle. We recognise the need to budget, maximise our income, minimise our expenditures, live within our means and invest for our future. These goals and aspirations often get forgotten as our money ebbs away from us on coffees, magazines or in-app purchases that we don’t need. We feel torn when we feel we’re due a treat or to spend some money on ourselves in reward for our efforts.
Turning around our attitudes and default beliefs in relation to money can take time depending on how engrained they are within us. However, there are a number of really simple default actions and reactions that we can train ourselves to employ to start to manage our money better.
Direct Debits and regular standing payments are the banking system’s helpful cue for how we should be taking the decision process out of our own hands and automating it as much as possible. We use automated means of making sure that we pay others, the banks who fund our homes, the utilities companies who connect us to water, electricity and the Internet so why wouldn’t we use a similar means of distributing our hard-earned cash to investments that provide for our own financial future?
Set them up, use them and automate as much of your financial life as possible so that you don’t have to devote precious thought to matters which should be routine.
If you’re committed to paying yourself first, investing in your personal growth whether through gym memberships, books, training courses, seminars, and anything that will help you to become the person you want to be and live the life you want to live, then this becomes the barometer against which all discretionary expenditures can be measured. If the item or experience is going to help you in your growth and advancement, then by default it’s worth the expenditure. If it isn’t, then by default it’s not.
In business and work, our ingrained beliefs and styles of working can be the undoing of us, or at the very least hinder us in working towards our goals as effectively as we want to. If your tendency is towards procrastination, difficulty in prioritising a task list or putting off the activities that you find least palatable, then try making your default to pick the most unpleasant thing and get that done first. As a matter of routine. Without question.
If you are prone to second-guessing your work, fearing negative feedback or criticism, or tend to delay shipping a product or publishing an article out of fear that it’s not yet perfect, choose a new default position to counter that trait. With each task, set a deadline (whether a notional date or time, or a guiding principle such as after completion of the second full review) and when that comes around, ship, send or go-to-market with that product.
Your defaults are part of your story (as Tony Robbins refers to it). When we change our story, we change our lives. How we tackle work, relationships and any aspect of life is a reflection of the stories we tell ourselves about how we’ve done these things previously. If your story is of one who procrastinates, delays, fears feedback or adverse commentary then you need to change that story and the default thoughts and actions that go with it if your life is ever going to change.
Back to diet, fitness and health. Instead of constantly debating whether to stick to the regime or not, challenge why the debate exists in your mind. If we know we’re overweight, unfit or facing health issues, then the default decision becomes really easy. There is no debate or choice to be made; the default is the healthy option in each instance. This should be the onlyoption.
This doesn’t always make it easier to win the debate with ourselves or to engage our willpower, but how about if we were to circumvent the debate in the first place? When faced with the choice to eat the snack or the unhealthy food, the default should be engrained in us as NO! There is no debate to be had. Internal questions over whether to go to the gym or not (obviously, YES) and whether to walk or take the stairs over transport or using the elevators follow the same default treatment.
When we take the debate out of the equation, when we don’t open our mind to the options, then taking the right options that align to our goals and values simply become habit. The risk of failure is lessened because the alternatives to the right course of action aren’t even put on the table.
There are countless other examples where we can help ourselves navigate life by making the simple things (or the things that should be simple) into our default reaction. It doesn’t mean taking the easy path, in fact quite often it’s the opposite.
“Discipline weighs ounces and regret weighs tons.”
Anything in life worth doing or achieving will take focus, discipline and effort to achieve, otherwise we’d likely have done or achieved it already, and so would everyone else.
Many things require energy, the apportionment of time, mindful consideration and action to ensure we get the right result from them. Each of us also do many other things on a daily basis on auto-pilot or in a way that we’ve trained ourselves to do over the years, acting and thinking in the same way.
Maybe it’s time to give your auto-pilot a software-upgrade. Make a conscious change to a few of your sub-conscious patterns of behaviour.
In time these will become sub-conscious, reflexive and instinctive again, but will ensure that your default reactions produce far better results for you.
“Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.”
Take the difficult choices, upgrade your defaults and watch as the results come flooding in.