So I am not saying that goals are bad things and you should avoid them. If goals work for you then go for it
For a lot of us, a goal can be the tool that sets our direction and inspires us to keep going.
But when I look back at the way my career change actually unfolded, it didn’t happen in a series of big tick-boxes.
It happened in micro-moments of consistent actions.
You could call them systems, or you could call them habits.
Here’s why they worked so well:
Habits have a ‘how’
“Habit is the intersection of knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do), and desire (want to do).” – Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Have you ever thought to yourself: “I could make a career change in no time, if only I knew what steps to take”?
It’s the classic career change conundrum – you know the high-level result you want, but you do not know what each specific little step is or looks like, nor do you know the actions you need that is going to get you there.
So you end up with these gloriously intangible goals, much like the ones I listed out in my book, and then you sit and stare at them, and feel bad that you haven’t got there yet, and beat yourself up for not knowing how.
But you can get your hands on a Habit.
Because if it’s a habit, you know what it is and how to do it.
So we tend to get into the Habit of doing things, rather than just setting a goal.
If there’s only so much you can do, you can at least do a lot of that.
We have already established that you are not the boss of everything.
You can not control results, but you can control your actions.
So shifting your attention away from the lofty, the far-off and the at-least-50%-out-of-your-hands and toward the tangible, the manageable, the consistent and the completely-under-your-control is probably a smart move.
7 Habits of Highly Effective People author Steven Covey has a great way of explaining this.
Picture a circle.
Inside it, cram everything you care about: your declining eyesight, the refugee crisis, climate change, the housing market, whether your kid is having a good day at school, what the recruitment agent is going to say in your meeting tomorrow, how good your hair looks today, the location of your car keys, whether or not you’re happy in your future career… there’s a LOT in this circle.
Covey calls it your Circle of Concern.
Inside your Circle of Concern is another circle.
This one is called your Circle of Influence.
And inside your Circle of Influence are only the concerns you can directly impact or control.
Goals tend to live inside your Circle of Concern and outside your Circle of Influence. They rely on factors that are only partly in your control. And they are focused on outputs (what happens next) rather than inputs (what you actually do).
But your hairstyle? The house you choose to buy? The skills you develop or what you spend your Thursday evenings doing? Whether or not you try that new recipe that’s been rolling around in the back of your head for months?
In these matters, you are the boss.
When you operate within your Circle of Influence, you will make the biggest impact.
And the more time you spend working and playing inside of this circle, the larger it grows.
It’s hard to pick a fight with a mouse
Goals can tend to feel high-stakes and paralysing, habits can be as small as you need them to be. A Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg recommends starting with ‘tiny habits’, actions so small that they are almost laughable. Instead of trying to start a habit of flossing twice a day, for example, he suggests just starting by flossing one tooth.
You can find a lot of good reasons why the goal of quitting your job in 3 months’ time, regardless of what happens between now and then, might not be the best idea. You can argue your way in and out of that for hours.
It is much harder to argue with a habit of putting whatever coins you have in your pockets into a savings jar every day when you get home.
Insignificant though actions like this might sound, they are actually incredibly powerful. The hardest part of anything is just getting started, and once you have started getting into action with a habit, they have the capacity to snowball.
Maybe you want to write a novel. You decide to set up a tiny habit of writing just 300 words a day. You figure, to complete a book at that rate, it will take about 300 days. Except… it turns out that writing 300 words is really easy, and even on your busiest days, you are getting it done. In fact, on a lot of days, you find yourself overshooting the 300 word mark and just continuing to tap away, writing 800, 1,000, 2,000 words in a day.
You can’t argue with small.
Slow consistent progress is permanent Progress
Goals can set you up for a jerky journey with little traction.
You create a goal, circle it for a while, make a big leap forward, and then, once you have achieved it, you have to come up with the next one. If you don’t achieve it, you then have to deal with the emotional fallout. Mapped onto a piece of paper, your forward movement looks like a game of leapfrog with a very nervous teammate.
Habits on the other hand are by their very nature ongoing and consistent. They tell you what to do and when, and are active regardless of output. Small steps, taken consistently, move you forward faster.
“The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.” – James Clear, author of Atomic Habits
And good news for your achy willpower muscle: once you have formed them, habits pretty much operate automatically.
In fact, once we have got going with a habit, our brains actually adapt to make it easier to complete. After about 30 days of practice, carrying out a habit becomes easier than not doing so.
As Charles Duhigg wrote in The Power Of Habit:
“Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realise – they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”
The nature of your life is dependent on the nature of your habits
Philosopher William James described habits in this way:
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organised for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”
Habits, not goals, shape your daily experience of the world.
The time of day you wake up. The way you brush your teeth. How you get to work, the turns of phrase you use, the way you automatically respond to certain events.
Goals are interruptions to your status quo.
Habits, on the other hand, build, shape and create the form and direction of your life.
And if that is true, then whether or not you shift into fulfilling work is entirely dependent on the habits and consistent behaviours you choose to cultivate.
On other words, choosing and building a powerful set of habits can help you move into fulfilling work inevitable.
Now that sounds pretty good, no?
How to build helpful habits in career change
Create opportunities to be gloriously surprised
All you can control is what you do, not what happens next.
So, as you start designing some new habits and behaviours, let go of any thought of whether or not it will ‘work’ or be ‘worth it’.
Perhaps you consider starting a new habit of going to one new, interesting event per week.
But then the doubts come in: By the way these are also know as Limiting Beliefs
“There probably won’t be anyone interesting there.”
“You don’t WANT to work at the circus – why go to a workshop?”
“You’ve had a tiring week – no point going if it’s just going to be a waste of time.”
Your job is not to make it worth it.
Your job is not to know the outcome.
Your job is just to keep opening the door to the possibility of something fantastic that you didn’t see coming.
You can’t control whether it happens or not.
But one thing is for sure: without an open door, it ain’t coming in.
Choose pleasure, not pride
Intrinsic motivation is far more effective than extrinsic rewards.
In her book Better Than Before, author Gretchen Rubin uses this example:
“If I tell [my daughter] that she can watch an hour of TV if she reads for an hour, I don’t build her habit of reading. I teach her that watching TV is more fun than reading.”
So where possible, set up habits that will feel good to do and give you a sense of accomplishment when completed.
This does not mean it won’t take any effort to get started with them. Setting up a new habit involves some change, and it will take willpower to get the ball rolling.
Perhaps you know that talking to new people often feels a bit awkward to start with.
But once you’ve opened a dialogue, you always enjoy the conversation, and you are thrilled to have made a new friend you can learn from.
It will take some effort to push past the initial hump of always reaching out to people you encounter who do interesting work. But the more you do it, the smoother that initial hump will become, and the more enjoyment (and great conversations, and new insights) will follow.
Following a pleasurable feeling and setting up a system to do more of it, is always going to reap greater rewards than fighting against an unpleasant one. Besides, if you want to find fulfilling work, doing a lot of things that feel unfulfilling is unlikely to get you there.
Follow the hints and the feelings that tell you what you love, what comes naturally, what elicits a sense of flow.
Do more of what works
Often times, habits are pitched as things to be changed, to quit, or to fix.
You are giving up your smoking habit.
You start running every morning (to fix your low fitness levels).
You stop drinking coffee in the mornings.
However, when you are trying to create a habit in order to fix or stop something, it takes more effort, and reminds you of the negative element you are trying to get away from.
Stopping something gives you the sense of having less of something in your life, but it does not necessarily replace it with anything else. You want the good stuff, and more of it.
The most effective habits start with the questions:
“What do I know works well for me?” and then: “How can I do more of it?”
So take a look at the things you have done in the past that have given you more clarity or more progress when it comes to your career change.
When have you found new insights to explore, and how did you find them?
What was different about that conversation that led to a new opportunity, from the other conversations that fizzled out?
Sure, you know that for extroverts, going to networking events works brilliantly. But you are way better in 1-1 environments. So how do you have more 1-1 interactions with people in your day-to-day?
Look for what works, and then focus on building a habit that has you do more of it.
If in doubt, change your environment
Stanford behaviour scientist BJ Fogg says he has learnt that only three things will change your life in the long term.
Option A. Have an epiphany
Option B. Change your environment (what surrounds you)
Option C. Take baby steps
Epiphanies are hard to come by, and they are out of your control.
Baby steps are the mouse-sized micro-habits you can build with very little effort over time.
And if you are not sure what baby steps to take, create the habit of taking them into new environments. If you are struggling for ideas on your future career, or struggling to find the right steps to take, remember one of the simplest principles of systems theory:
New inputs = new outputs.
If you want new ideas, new insights, new possibilities, build the habit of filling your environment with new experiences.
Widen your social circle by adding new people with new perspectives into your social circle.
Take yourself into new places and surroundings.
Giving yourself new experiences.
Build habits that change what surrounds you, and you will watch your perspective on the world, and the opportunities you can see, change along with it.
One thing at a time, and one thing only
Set yourself up for success.
Overcommitting to a whole bunch of new habits has the same impact as setting yourself a scary goal. It feels overwhelming, paralysing, and invites fear of failure and procrastination.
Get into the habit of just one small, consistent new behaviour.
Get curious about it.
A tiny drip of water, over time, can crack open a whole boulder.
Do not underestimate the power of one thing done consistently over time.
“The best thing I ever did was to commit to one small action each day (less than five minutes). Sometimes this lead to further leaps, other times that was all I did. This might have been making a list, sending an email, commenting on a post, a bit of research, etc. When I combined that with trying to make the small action something that was slightly out of my comfort zone as well, good things started to happen.” – Amy G.
New habits are often difficult to get going because they require Two things #1 that you change your behaviours, #2. that you remember to do them.
According to Zen Habits writer Leo Babauta, the often-overlooked key to building a new habit is to tie it to a trigger – an event that will remind you (eventually automatically) to carry out your habit:
“Habits become automatic after we have created a bond between the trigger and the habit. The stronger the bond, the more ingrained the habit.”
Babauta recommends finding an action or event that is already ingrained into your routines in life.
For example, if you need to remember to take a daily medication, keeping the box on top of your toothbrush will help you tie the action of taking your pill to your already-automatic (we would hope) routine of brushing your teeth.
If you want to build a habit of staying in touch with old friends, use an already-ingrained habit (opening your email client for the first time in the morning, checking social media on your commute) to act as a trigger to send one checking-in message to someone you haven’t been in touch with for a while.
Need to start injecting your weekly routine with something fresh and new, to inspire new ideas and broaden your experience of the world? Every time you see a vaguely interesting event coming up in your local area, put it into your calendar.
Consistent triggers make new habits feel natural, faster.
Work with the way you work
A habit is an expectation you have set for yourself (or, sometimes, that someone else / society expects of you).
Gretchen Rubin suggests there are four primary ways, or ‘tendencies’ with which people respond to those expectations.
Knowing your ‘tendency’ (Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel), you can pre-empt the ways in which you might get stuck building or maintaining your habits, and set up systems and approaches that help you get things done.
You might, for example, need to rely on accountability more than others, and tell multiple people about the habits you are trying to build.
Reminding yourself of the greater good you are trying to achieve might be the primary kick you need.
Or perhaps deadlines are the only thing that will get you out of analysis paralysis and moving forward.
Take the Four Tendencies Test here, and use the results to craft your approach to habits in the way that works for you.
Finding fulfilling work is a revelatory process
It is what makes it magical. It is what makes it nerve-wracking, too.
If only a career you love was the output of a nice, neat algebraic formula, setting goals and project-managing, the whole thing would be smart and simple.
But it’s not.
It’s messy, and full of surprises, and it requires you to be in a space of not-knowing for far longer than most human beings are comfortable with.
What will anchor you, keep you grounded and making forward progress, are habits and systems.
Consistent, forward nudges that you actually do, that keep you feeling proud and motivated, and that opens the door, over and over again, to the possibility of being gloriously surprised, to the unexpected and the new.
What habit could you start cultivating in your own career change? Let me know in the comments below.