Goal setting has been talked about as this really big and important thing that we all need to do in our lives to attain success and to reach the dreams that we want. Often goal setting is done with the right intentions and passions at the start but rarely is it ever really and truly followed through with.
Personally, I have spent countless hours and tried varying different methods to goal set and I keep coming back to the same result. I never really follow through with it or achieve my goal. The intentions and the willpower are there. I am excited about my big dream and goal to achieve. I follow the methods I have read about and researched. But time and again it slowly fades, and that big ambitious dream is put at the back of the cupboard somewhere gathering dust. Does this resonate and sound familiar with you also? This may sound bizarre, but it is because I focussed on my goal, I never achieved my goal. Read on to find out more.
The following article is my way to try and present a method of goal setting that is sustainable and impactful. Whether you end up reaching your goal or not. It is my personal system that I now use, and I have found that it is currently standing the test of time. So, to begin with, I am going to redefine goal setting and refer to it now as HABIT and BEHAVIOUR setting. This is the big fundamental shift of perspective for the whole process. You are not going to necessarily try and focus on achieving your goals anymore, but rather you are going to work hard at setting habits and behaviours that point towards your goal. The Navy Seals know and embrace this concept implicitly and live by the creed:
“When under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. Train well!”
Your training IS your habits and behaviours. You will begin to monitor and assess these habits and behaviours continually over time. You will become much more aware in the moment of your habits and behaviours you are or are not performing. You can now take your foot off the willpower accelerator by trying to achieve your goal, which ultimately is out of your control. And you will lean into things that you have full and ultimate control over i.e., your habits and behaviours. You will take control and ownership of your habits and your small decisions each day. Once you realise you have control over the millions of tiny little decisions this is where the real power starts to build. We should strive to not be a spectator of decision making, but rather an active participant. There is never a 100% guarantee for success, but along the way, with incremental positive behavioural changes, you will become unstoppable in all you try and achieve. And you never know, the habits and behaviours you create along the way may just point you towards an even greater and different goal you had in your periphery.
“I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of, you never know where you might end up. Just be aware that your next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.” – Tim Minchin
The contemporary artist Chuck Close is well known for his large portraits of faces that are composites made from multiple small geometric forms. The individual elements of the images are very visible when viewed close up, but merge when seen at a distance. He works in a non-traditional manner by combining many small geometric forms, usually squares or rectangles, to create a portrait. The individual elements he uses in making an image may be termed pixels. We can use this style that Chuck has perfected over the years as an analogy for goal setting. We need to break things down really small into individual pieces, when looked at closely, may not be obvious to the end goal, but when combined and then zoomed out make the picture perfectly clear. Anything can be achieved in life if broken down into small, manageable chunks. We need to begin to create our own real-life pixels and put them together to make a beautiful image.
“If you’re overwhelmed by the size of a problem, break it down into smaller pieces” – Chuck Close
Sport is littered with world-class, record-breaking, hero status, generation-defining athletes who simply mastered the art of marginal gains. You will be hard pushed to find an athlete interview from one of the greats where they attribute their success down to God-given natural talent and just effortlessly turn up and perform and win titles at the highest levels. What these athletes often talk about are their processes and habits. How they zoomed in and looked at the minutia, the pixels, and started to employ these and use them on a daily and weekly basis over a long period of time. Can you begin to break down your big ambitious goals into smaller, more manageable decisions? The types of decisions that need to be made correctly along the way. This is what greatness is. Not the game-winning shot or the last-ditch Hail Mary play. Greatness is being able to set your habits and behaviours, and then to stick to them over the course of time no matter your mood or motivation levels. The greatest have mastered the art of showing up no matter the conditions.
During an athlete’s career, there are rarely huge improvements that occur that move the needle significantly forwards in big leaps and bounds. It’s what is done on a small scale on a regular basis that creates the big breakthroughs. You may have heard the expression, “it takes 10-years to become an overnight success.”? This is a very true and accurate saying and something we all should remind ourselves about constantly. The breakthrough result of an athlete, the amazing performance on X-Factor, the inventor that bursts onto the scene. Overnight success just does not happen! There is no magic wand or silver bullet I am afraid to tell you. It’s the compounding effect of habits and behaviours that allow success to appear as well as to be sustained and stand the test of time.
Sir Dave Brailsford, the director of British cycling, has become famous for his concept of the aggregation of marginal gains to make British Cycling and Team Sky one of the greatest cycling teams ever! Winning multiple Tour De France titles as well as multiple Olympic and World Championship medals. Marginal gains asks the question, “what can be done, even to the smallest percentage, to make us better?” Once you add all these percentages up over the course of a race, an event, a season and ultimately a career, the results are mind-blowing! Can you make a small change in your life? The answer is often a resounding YES. Ok, then, once you have identified the small changes you can make, then you need to become very good at delivering on those small changes. These marginal gains are not the cherry on the top of your process, they are the ultimate key to unlocking your full potential. These marginal gains compound massively over time, but only if you give them time to compound by sticking at them.
“Because of the continuous and compounding nature of millions of decisions we face on a regular basis, even a marginal improvement in our process can have a huge impact on our end results” – Stephen Duneier
Novak Djokovic rise from 2004-2016
There are some amazing statistics about Novak Djokovic and how he was able to reach the world no. 1 position in tennis and be talked about as one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. Maybe put aside some of his questionable personal life choices for a second and look at the below table and see how the data stacks up. It has been possible to quantify Novak’s rise to the top of the world rankings.
What this table presents is the small improvements in his % of points won during matches. This is by no means easy of course. But when Novak was able to make slightly better decisions in a match and improve his points won by just 3%, he catapulted up to world no. 3. Then building on this further, with an additional 3% improvement on his decision making and points won, he was able to achieve and sustain the world no. 1 slot and was earning north of $14 million per year in prize money alone.
In summary, we need to take these big complex ideas, these dreams, these ultimate goals, and we need to break them down to much more manageable tasks. And then along the way make marginal improvements to the process. If done steadily and consistently it ups the odds of success in your favour. By making a marginal adjustment to your daily routine and to your process, when compounded over time, the results can become astounding. What are you waiting for? Get to work! See below for the process on how to do this and my own personal examples of habit and behaviour setting.
“Habits are not a finish line to be crossed, they are a lifestyle to be lived” – James Clear
The habit and behaviour setting process
Below are a list of steps and processes, that if followed and stuck to, will increase the surface area for success in your life, both on and off the squash court.
- Buy yourself a dedicated and stand-alone notebook that will be used purely for your habit and behaviour setting. This notebook needs to be sacrosanct to the process. Only use this notebook for this one purpose.
- Ask yourself what do you want? Write it down. Then ask yourself HOW? 5 times in a row. You can use a friend, coach, or an accountability partner for this process as this often helps. If not, do it yourself but be sure to get deep into the 5 HOW? questions and answers. You will find that near the final HOW? you will begin to have your process, your pixel, your habit and behaviour. You can repeat this process for different things you want to achieve. We will come back to this step a little later on.
- Next, log onto the website FutureMe.org. Draft a letter and send it to yourself 1-year from now. Talk about where you are right now and what you are doing and thinking. Also, tell yourself where you see yourself in 1-year from now and some things you may want to achieve both in a personal and professional capacity. The writing should be quite relaxed, open and fun. Nothing too heavy or complex. Just getting some thoughts down. Take time to draft this letter. I usually take about 45-60mins to sit down and really write it out once per year and then press send. When it comes to 1-year later it is a huge and happy surprise and very often I have forgotten about it. I read it, assess how far, or close I am to what I wrote and then repeat the process again for the next year. You can try this method, or you can come up with your own version of this, maybe slightly shorter or longer time scales, but commit to it and stick at it. It is a very rewarding and empowering activity and is enjoyable and fun.
- Now it is time to go back to your journal and begin to set your habits and behaviours. These need to be things you can do on daily and weekly basis that point towards your big ambition life goal and your dream. This should be linked very closely to the question in point 2 above. Write down on a new page just 1 new habit you are going to do for the next week. It can be something that may only take 2-minutes, and I would recommend starting small. Not to overreach and fall short. We are trying to create habits and behaviours over the long term. Going too big too early very often leads to failure. You can start to add a few more small but achievable habits in over the next few weeks but please do trust me on starting small and not overreaching. It may be tempting to think you can get down several new habits and be sure of success but put your ego aside for a little and start small! Think Sir David Brailsford and the aggregation of marginal gains.
- Now you will need to set up a very strong and solid monitoring system for your habits. This is going to be key to the whole process and needs to be taken very seriously. This is where 90% of people fall short and slowly drift away from their good intentions at the start. Weekly, quarterly, and yearly reviews will be conducted. You need a dedicated and set system in place to make this work and this is how:
- Use what you think will be most impactful for a reminder. I simply use my phones built-in reminder system and find it works perfectly. You can come up with your own one if you want.
- Set a repeat reminder each week at the same day and time where you know you can dedicate to reviewing and monitoring your habits and behaviours. Use this time to look over your habits you have set in point 4 above and keep this time sacrosanct to reflecting on what you have set and honestly assessing if you have achieved your habits and behaviours this week. This process should take no longer than 5-minutes and should become one of your key habits and behaviours you perform without fail.
- Set a reminder for 3-months ahead. This is the time to look closely at the habits you have set for yourself and honestly assess if you are following through on them. This is your time to maybe either trim back or to bolster and make stronger some of what you have written down. This is not necessarily the time to make huge wholesale changes to your habits and behaviours but to review them a bit deeper. You want to reflect honestly and deep at this moment and you may either need to give yourself a stern talking to if you are failing on some habits or to take a moment to be proud if you are knocking them out of the park. This process every 3-months should take at least 10-minutes.
- Set a reminder for 1-year ahead. This is the time to now go a lot deeper with your reflection and to honestly look at what habits and behaviours are working and pointing you towards your main goal. This is also the time for you to assess and ask the question, “what do you want?”. You want to highlight and stick with the key habits and behaviours that you have now embedded and ensure they are now part of your identity. You also want to look at what habits and behaviours are not serving you so well and look to either remove them or to adjust them, so they are aligned with the answer to point 2 above. Also, be sure to revisit point 2 in this 1-year review to honestly ask yourself what is it that you want? This process should take at least 20-minutes and can best be done with a friend, coach, or accountability partner.
- You can add in small new habits at any time along this process but be sure to start small with achievable habits and stack them up. I would avoid going for the big fundamental game-changing shift, as this is unlikely to stick past a certain time. Whereas the small, marginal, incremental gains stick and become part of your pixels. As Stephen Duneier says, “even a marginal improvement in our process can have a huge impact on our end results”
- Find an accountability partner. Tell people about the habits and behaviours you are performing. Ensure your environment is attuned to your habits and behaviours. You want to have as little friction to perform your habit and behaviour. You need to become an expert at cultivating your environment around you for these habits and behaviours to take place. This is not just your physical environment, but also the people in your life that have a positive or negative influence over you also. For example, if you want to meditate in the evenings, tell your spouse or loved ones you live with about your intention so they can respect this and help you achieve this habit and behaviour by giving you the time and space to perform it.
With the above process, you should always have a level of flexibility built in to make the habits and the behaviours stick over time. You do not want to be rigid and brittle (as this snaps when enough pressure is applied) but rather be malleable (“be like water” – Bruce Lee). You will very likely not be able to execute each habit every day to perfection. Don’t beat yourself up. Be kind to yourself. You are doing your best. It’s about being aware on a regular basis what you are doing with your habits and behaviours and getting back in the saddle immediately. If you fail on a habit on a certain day, this is now your time to start again the next day and begin a new longer and better streak. Use this now as an opportunity for something greater and not an excuse to quit. Don’t let 1 day turn into 2 days. And equally so, don’t let 2 days turn into 3. You can stop this negative streak at any time, so be sure to do so.
Below are some examples of what I am doing on a daily and weekly basis regarding my habits and behaviours that are aligned to my goal. These work for me and may look very different for you. The point of sharing these is not for my own inflated sense of getting it right or showing off (far from it), but rather to maybe help and inspire you with some of the key things in my life I have tried to cultivate and that I know are compounding and having a positive effect on all I do.
It all starts with the night before. I prioritise sleep as my number 1 health benefit. I have written about the superpower of sleep, and I would recommend reading this article on the subject. I know if I am not prioritising my sleep, my decision making and choices the next morning are severely compromised. When they are compromised the negative knock of effect to the rest of my day is then compounded also. I get into a negative domino effect. In the evening I ensure I am reducing my screen time at around 9.30-45pm and by 10 pm I am journaling and reflecting on my day for about 10-mins. I then do a short meditation to be aware and present. I need to ‘close the book’ and ‘balance my accounts’ for the day so my mind is not ruminating on anything I need to do. I am clear and free to get my head on the pillow and sleep. I often read for as long as it takes for me to feel sleepy and usually by around 10.30 pm I am asleep.
The morning routine for me is sacrosanct and is linked closely to quality sleep, if I win the morning, I win the day. I am up by 6 am (this is hard and tends to take willpower!). I make my Athletic Greens vitamin drink and take my Omega 3 capsules. Whilst drinking my vitamins I open my Daily Stoic book and read the chapter for the day. I then journal in my Daily Stoic journal usually linked to the chapter. I also have a second journal which is more open and freestyle and is for gratitude as well as setting my intentions and outcomes for the day ahead (I can hand on heart say that journaling for me has been a game-changing habit and I encourage everyone to look into doing it). As soon as I have done journaling, I go onto the SquashMind app and listen to the Daily Check In as well as read the daily quote. I then open the Waking Up app and do a 10-minute meditation. Now I set a timer for 20-mins and read a self-development book of something that is interesting me and that helps me with where I want to go and tends to be aligned with my goals.
As part of my morning routine, the next hour is all about Deep Work. An amazing concept and way of thinking and doing presented by Cal Newport. This usually takes place for me between 7-8 am and is done when I know the rest of the house is asleep and I can really dedicate to this process. This Deep Work phase of my morning can take any form really, but it is all about doing something for myself and not others. It often can be writing an article about the mind or squash, cutting up podcasts for the SquashMind app, watching recent matches of squash, or trimming videos and looking at the fine details of technique, movement and shot selection.
As you may have noticed, I have not looked at my phone or email yet and I have had to work hard to not let any outside distractions come into this part of my day. I find as soon as I look at my phone or email my mind is taken off task and I start to think about my responses and the rest of the day ahead. I only tackle this after I have completed my bout of Deep Work. Distractions are the biggest killer of creativity and quality work.
Light and exercise
From 8 am I am outside for at least 30-minutes without my phone or other distractions. This is time to walk the dogs and get light into my eyes to set my circadian rhythm for sleep. Getting light early in the day is imperative for sleep and starts the timer on when melatonin is released into our systems about 12-14 hours later to induce sleepiness. All is explained in the sleep article I have referred to. Again, this is time for myself and my mind to wander and reflect. I am not trying to do any “work” as such at this moment and I allow myself space to let the mind go to where it wants to go.
Getting back at around 8.30/45 am is when I need to check my phone and email and get to replying to these and fulfil obligations to others. I know that the rest of the day can throw up a whole range of difficulties and challenges that I may need to face. I have full control over my morning and habits and behaviours, but the rest of the day will involve and include other people so there will always be uncertainties and unpredictability because of this. But I am safe in the knowledge that my habits and behaviours in the morning have helped to set and ground me, and I am ready to adapt and flex if unexpected challenges present themselves. At this part of my morning, I often make myself a yerba mate tea and the benefits of this amazing drink can be read here. I find this really helps with my focus and attention for the rest of the day. It’s a very natural and clean form of caffeine that doesn’t have the negative side effects of coffee.
Other daily habits
There are several other daily habits and behaviours I perform during the day that are linked to my goals. I am often out of the house by 9.15 am and getting on court giving lessons. These habits and behaviours are as follows but are not always executed on:
- Only eating between 11 am – 7 pm during the day
- No sugary snacks or sweets after 1 pm each day
- 1 form of exercise daily, usually a run or if not yoga and circuit
- Small 10-15 second micro mediations during the day, I try and do at least 3 of these but aim to get up to 10
- Reducing my distractions by scheduling Do Not Disturb on my phone during certain blocks of each day
All these above smaller habits and behaviours are pointing me towards my big goal, these are my pixels. These have changed, and are likely to change again, over time. Every day is not the same and I know to be kind on myself if I fall short or do not achieve the habits and behaviours I want. I often journal and reflect on this in the evening to close my day and I know that I am aware of what I have done and have not done. Cultivating awareness of the habits and behaviours is fundamental! If you are not aware then you have little hope of building and sustaining these habits. This is where the power of journaling really comes into its own. It can heighten your self-awareness and forces you to slow down and reflect.
The above examples are by no means perfect and as mentioned I was cautious to share these for the risk of coming across as egotistical. I hope they have been received by the reader in the spirit they were written, and I hope they may help a little with your reflection of your habits and behaviours that should always link and signpost to your goals. I know that if I focus on and keep performing these habits over time, they will take me on a path and journey close to where I want to go. I am not even focussing on achieving or arriving at the goal per se, but rather, I am enjoying getting wrapped up in the process of cultivating these habits and behaviours and then letting fate, amor fati, direct me. The Tim Minchin quote referenced earlier reminds and guides me to love the process and the moment I am in.
If you liked this article, please do share with others that may be interested and find it of use. I work closely with players on their habit and behaviour setting. If you feel it would be of benefit to you also then please do get in touch. I offer lessons and become an accountability partner on this subject and find it one of the most powerful and effective parts of working on the mind and creating mental toughness for squash and for life. The payoffs are staggering once the compound effect of habits and behaviours take hold!
Founder of SquashMind
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