Most people follow the Waterfall development methodology when building a new habit:
- Determine the end goal and deadline (e.g. I will lose 40 pounds by 2019).
- Write the goal down.
- Design the habits that will lead up to that goal (e.g. I will stop eating anything that tastes good, and I will exercise five times a week).
- Assemble the necessary motivations (e.g. accountability buddy, FitBit, bathroom scale, gym membership, workout routine, diet plan).
- Start the habits and do them until the goal is achieved.
- Invariably show up to the deadline way behind schedule, and start the process over again.
What was wrong with the Waterfall methodology? Ah, I remember, it didn’t work very well for modern software (especially with the advent of the Internet). That’s why the development world converted almost wholesale to Agile. The problems with Waterfall include:
- Not flexible enough: when technologies or requirements change, there are no allowances for redesigning on the fly.
- Not error-tolerant enough: if your deadline is unrealistic or there’s a flaw in your design, you don’t find out until it’s too late.
- Under-focused on regular milestones: your goal is to ship a working product in two years. How do you know, on any given week, if you’re on target? You probably don’t.
- Prone to catastrophic wrong-solution-itis: if your software doesn’t actually solve the user’s problem, then it’s useless—even if it’s well-built and ships on time. You won’t find out about this until it ships, which is at the very end of the process.
- Doesn’t scale: if you build your software to handle 5,000 users, the one thing you can guarantee is that you won’t have 5,000 users. You’ll be off by an order of magnitude, and either waste resources or deal with constant overload.
These are just a handful of the reasons why Waterfall isn’t the standard any more.
The same problems manifest with goal-setting and -achieving:
- Flexibility: if you get sick, your accountability buddy moves, your gym goes out of business, or you find yourself starving to death within arm’s reach of a #9 with extra mayonnaise, what will you do? As any seasoned New Year’s resolution breaker knows, the slightest disruption can throw off the whole process.
- Error-tolerance: do you really have the motivation to go from zero to hero in the diet and exercise departments simultaneously? I doubt it. In fact, just fixing your diet probably takes more willpower than you have available. You’re gonna slip up. Maybe several times in the first week. And if you’re like me, eventually you’ll give up.
- Regular milestones: how much weight do you need to lose per week in order to achieve your goal? Even if you can do the math in your head, you’re more focused on that magic number (40 pounds) and it’s too easy to say “I didn’t lose any weight this week, but I’ll just do double next week.” By the middle of the year, you probably have no idea if you’re on track or not. Probably not.
- Wrong-solution-itis: what if you lose 40 pounds and discover that you don’t feel better about yourself? What if you discover that what you really want is a more muscular physique? What if you lose the weight too quickly and get sick?
- Scaling: You’ve set a goal two years out. What about four years out? What about ten? Once you achieve your goal, it will be all too easy to have a “cheat year” and end up back where you started.
You know what I’m about to suggest: Agile for your personal life. And if your first thought was “standup” or “sprint planning,” I command you to go study The Agile Manifesto until you are cured of this knee-jerk reaction. Standup is not part of the Agile manifesto any more than a muffler is part of a bicycle.
The heart of Agile is building very small, complete, high-value features and shipping them frequently. When it comes to your personal life, habits are like features, and as soon as you become accustomed to them—as soon as they become weightless and no longer require significant self-control in order to maintain—you can consider them “shipped.” And in this analogy, you can see why it doesn’t make sense to expect yourself to ship an entire lifestyle between midnight and 12:01 AM on the New Year.
So consider approaching your goals like this:
- Determine the most valuable habit you can build. This probably emerges from your worst bad habit. If you eat a donut for breakfast every day, your best opportunity to improve your health may be to start eating a healthier breakfast.
- Design the smallest effective version of this new habit: the Minimum Viable Habit, as it were. Maybe six days a week you can eat fruit or eggs for breakfast, and still eat a donut once a week.
- Assemble only the necessary tools to help you stay on track—hopefully you won’t need many, since it’s such a small goal. Still, you may need a frying pan for your eggs or a daily accountability check-in from a friend.
- Start in on the habit right away, and schedule some time a week or two from now to reflect on your progress.
- Remember, the habit isn’t shipped until it doesn’t consume gobs of willpower any more. Once you feel that you can sustain this habit forever, move on to the next one.
- If the habit isn’t working, isn’t getting you where you want to go, or is sapping too much willpower, iterate on it. Keep trying something a little different until you find your zen.
- Once the habit is shipped, start from step 1 again, adding another habit to the first one.
Small, incremental changes to your life are far more likely to be effective than all-in spurts of commitment. I’m not the healthiest guy I know, but I’ve been to the gym more times and eaten more healthily this year than any other year of my life, and it’s all happened very gradually, on a week-to-week basis.
Try it out. Let me know how it goes for you.