T’is is the season for setting goals. If you set goals and struggle to achieve them then I have a system that sets a flywheel of momentum going and helps you achieve these goals. The approach was tested in 2020 and has held up fairly well for me. It is easily maintainable (about a minute a day) — takes more time to describe it than execute on it daily.
Challenges on achieving goals
These are the problems that I encountered when setting goals and the solution came about trying to find a fix for these challenges.
- Inspirational goals are hard I push myself and tend to pick goals that inspire me and these goals are lofty (2019-”Climb to Everest Base Camp”). These goals tend to be hard and often do not have a straight line to victory. I need to build an approach to tackle them and I need a mechanism to bring in feedback.
- No “overnight” successes requires long term commitment These hard goals require commitment and a system to keep me on track. I often miss miss a day that turns into multiple days and then I am off the wagon.
- Perceived lack of progress is demotivating Am I making progress? This is the hardest thing to answer on the journey to the goal.
- What is the “unit of progress? I spent 2minutes practicing today while yesterday it was 30m and day before it was none. Did I make progress?
- What does progress in areas without goals look like There are important areas in life that I cannot set a goal for, how should I account for these areas. A good example is “meditation/spiritual” areas in life — one cannot really set goals here but they are important enough to make progress on.
The focus of the method is to help tackle problems 2–5.
The 3% Flywheel Method: Process over goals
The inspiration For years, I have read “trust systems over goals”, even the Bhagvad Gita has a verse that says “Focus on your work and not the end result” but I couldn’t figure out how to apply this in my life. Then I read the incredible story of the British cycling team in a blog by James Clear (Marginal Gains — this coach improved everything by 1% and this happened). The cycling coach, Dave Brailsford, focussed on minor improvements every day and the results were stupendous. As I started looking into bringing 1% improvements, I realized that I needed to map that “1% improvement” into something tangible that I could practice every day. I finally had an approach to map that 1% to daily progress and I was excited.
So here goes…
North Star Goals
Identify the areas of life that I want to make improvements in and set goals for these areas. I think of these are north star — they provide the direction that Here is a simple framework that I periodically look up and see what I need to do next and what processes I need to set to meet them. Once you have them move to the “The Basic Flywheel: 3% progress every day”.
The Basic Flywheel: 3% progress every day
The system asks me to track progress everyday(spreadsheet works best). I call this the 3% method because a day counts as 3% (3.33%) of a 30day month. So if I did an activity (“art”) 10days in a month, I reach 30% progress towards a particular goal. I now need to make sure that I keep at it.
This thinking itself got me tremendous progress.
This is a variant of the Seinfeld strategy (build an unbroken chain of doing things every day). The huge difference is that it takes the emphasis away from building a habit to achieving progress.
The pressure of keeping a daily habit is too much for me to sustain and this undid that pressure. I now come back end of the month to see if I made progress over last month.
The Fancy Flywheel: Improvements to account for real life scenarios
The system held up pretty well for a few months (2019) but I gleaned some important lessons and tweaking the system made it really powerful for me.
Setting the unit of success does wonders for motivation: Answer what qualifies as 3% improvement per day?
The questions I faced while logging my 3% win for the day were:
What is the minimum threshold for 3% improvement? Is doing an activity enough or doing an hour of it enough?
The insight is that this threshold is different for different activities.
Where this really showed up was in my meditation, art or exercise practice. For example, weekends I log an hour or two of meditation but weekdays even ten minutes is a blessing. However, they both got logged as 3% improvement. So if I miss a day, I lost 3% but some weekends I logged in 4hours of meditation and it still counted as 3% improvement.
This de-incentivized me from really going at it for an area of life. I started gravitating towards “shallow” versus “deep” practice and I really want to reward deep practice because thats what achieves breakthroughs.
So I chose a 10minute time block as the smallest unit that will get logged irrespective of type of activity. If I did a 10minute music practice that counts as 3% improvement. If did two 10minute practice for the day that accounts for 6% improvement.
This did wonders for my motivation because I can miss multiple days and do catchup sessions and still show progress. A good example is “writing” — producing content like this blog is an involved activity and a 10m progress everyday doesn’t work as well as blocking 2h-3h in a day and write it out.
Thus, I was now rewarding “deep work”.
Allotting a minimum passing percentage did wonders for the motivation
The Seinfeld strategy (and other such streak strategies i.e. “build daily habits”) are incredibly demotivating when you break a streak.
They just don’t account for realities for life. Long day at work — missed the practice — tough luck!
Asking to achieve 80%-100% coverage across all areas of life is an incredibly tall order. I came to the conclusion that it is impossible for me. I am driven by carrots and not a whip, so I want a system that rewards me for achievements.
I chose a 40% threshold as the minimum bar to meet for every area that I set goals.
This translates to a 10minute practice every day for 12days.
Suddenly, this looks achievable and real — no matter what the activity is. I can miss days and still catch up or prioritize one area of life over others.
In short, I can adjust for real life.
I also use an inverse image of this for activities that I do want to avoid or behaviors that I want to break (browsing social media).
This threshold really did wonders for my motivation.
A heatmap helps track and focus and make improvements every day
Finally, what makes the system stick is a dashboard that up-levels my daily tracking. It is fairly easy to setup once I was tracking stuff daily.
The color codes code mentioned earlier build me a quick heatmap to see how I am progressing.
I can see across the columns to see the following trends:
- Wim Hof Method Breathing has fallen behind in the last 3–4 months. Wim Hof Cold Shower Method resonates more with me than breathing. Should I focus there? How important is it?
- I knocked meditation 1 and 2 (morning and evening out of the park). Should I have higher goals or am I good?
- Visualizing is not much interest to me. Should I drop the goal?
- Social media is really eating into my day! (#$*# reddit!)
The couple of places these lines of questioning that had the most impact was on my music, art, reading and writing goals as you will see in the next section.
Achievements in 2020 with the 3% Flywheel method
Art: I achieved all my art goals comfortably. The Batman picture was on my radar the entire year 2019 and I had zero progress there. Not only did I finish that piece but 3–4 other additional pieces. I also processed all my photographs that have been languishing from the last 2–3 years and now they hang proudly in my house (I like taking pictures but hate processing them and the method helped me power through the pain).
Music: Made reasonable progress on learning music. I have always failed learning music as it doesn’t come as naturally as art does to me. In the past, I have focussed on the goal of learning a song and given up in a few weeks. The method, has allowed me to explore music and enjoy the journey. I am confident that the focus on the enjoyable journey will help me achieve my goal of learning music one day.
I won’t get into the others because you can see the progress from my heatmap.
The 3% Flywheel Method allowed me to quantify and chart bite-sized improvements that I could make every day towards my goals.
This is the first year in all my years of goal setting that I end the year on a high.
I hope the method inspires you to focus on process versus goals.
(I have attached a copy of my spreadsheet to help you quickly start with the method if you so desire)
I was obsessed with self-help methods on achieving goals and likely have read all literature out there. The obsession started because I am inherently undisciplined and while away my time. Goals became the lights on my path to help keep the journey of life adventurous. I deeply practice “Kaizen (Continuous Improvement)” and am a student for life.
What to do if you run into problems
The biggest problem I faced is that the monthly granularity was too broad to adjust if I fell behind. In other words, I looked at the end of month and realized I couldn’t catch up. This happened in Aug, Sept for Music. The fix was to build a “Weekly” view to track this more closely till it was back on track.
The daily tracking, monthly and weekly heatmap are available on this spreadsheet.