“Happiness cannot be attained by wanting to be happy — it must come as an unintended consequence of working for a goal greater than oneself.” — Viktor E. Frankl
Viktor Frankl survived the Holocaust. The reason he survived, from his perspective, is because he maintained a sense of “purpose” for himself. He saw a future beyond the Holocaust for himself.
Without having a “future,” Frankl’s torture and suffering in the concentration camps would have had no meaning. Without meaning, it would have been unbearable. Hence, Frankl discerned that when people lost a sense of hope in their future, they quickly decayed and died in such circumstances.
It is for this reason that Frankl regularly quoted Friedrich Nietzsche, who said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Dan Sullivan, the famed entrepreneurial coach said something similar but different from Nietzsche: “The bigger your future, the better your present.”
“Better” in this case definitely doesn’t mean easier. A huge future usually means anxiety, fear, failure, and learning in the present. But also, success and achievement that isn’t accompanied by a life going through the motions.
“Happiness” isn’t the absence of pain. It is a radical appreciation for life endowed by a sense of purpose and meaning. You can find deep joy even in your hardest moments because such moments have meaning.
When you have a specific future you are striving for and committed to, your present circumstances and experiences take on a new meaning. You’re able to convert your experience — even your painful experience — into learning, growth, and change.
If you don’t have a future you’re actively striving for, you’ll likely repeat your experiences over and over. Life will become routine and dull, and your personality will become overly predictable and stable over time.
The only way to have a powerful “present” is by advancing courageously toward a specific future. When you’re committed to a bigger future, your present becomes far less predictable.
Rather than living within the confines of your narrow comfort zone, you begin embracing uncertainty. You begin stepping outside of your “known” world and begin approaching the world of your Future Self.
When this becomes your situation, then your past stops being the thing predicting your personality and behavior. Instead, your Future Self becomes the thing predicting your personality and behavior.
This article lays out the key elements that will enable you to commit to and achieve amazing goals. To be absolutely clear: You can achieve incredible things in your life. Your current goals are limited by your current level of awareness and confidence.
As you grow as a person, your perspectives will change. You’ll see that you can achieve so much more than you once thought was possible. You’ll look back on your former goals and smile, seeing how far you’ve come.
1. Define Your Future Self (No More Than 3 Years Out)
Only through imaging a future self with improved skills may we be able to motivate, plan, and execute the honing of skills through deliberate practice. — Dr. Thomas Suddendorf, Dr. Melissa Brinums, and Dr. Kana Imuta
It is fundamentally impossible to live intentionally and “on-purpose” if you haven’t defined your future self. Even more, it’s impossible to actively learn in a transformational way without a clear future self in mind.
Psychologists call active learning “deliberate practice.” You can’t engage in such “practice” or learning unless you have a very clear goal. You need a clear goal and also a clear future identity— the person you plan to become; the person who has achieved the goal you are seeking.
Without a clear goal, you can’t have motivation or hope. Without a clear goal, you can’t have a meaningful identity.
You need to see yourself as the person who has already achieved your goal. That doesn’t mean you pretend to be that person today. But it does mean that you are consistently taking that person’s advice (your future self). Yes, you are taking your future self’s advice and making decisions based on your future self’s preferences and circumstances — not your current ones.
The worst thing you could do for your growth and progress is to be definitive about who you are today. Yet, when you hear most people explain themselves, they speak in incredibly definitive terms:
- “I’m an introvert.”
- “I’m not good with people.”
- “I’m bad at networking.”
The more definitively you describe your present self, the more you stunt your future potential. Your future self is far more important than your current self. Your current self is temporary and should be held loosely.
Don’t hold your current identity so tightly. Instead, decide who you want to be in the future. Then, start becoming that person today, and leaving the past behind.
The number one regret people have on their deathbed is that they didn’t have the courage to be the person they wanted to be. Instead, they lived up to the expectations of those around them. The first step in avoiding the #1 deathbed regret is to define your future self.
- Who do you really want to be?
- What circumstances do you want?
- What attributes and characteristics?
- What relationships?
- What does your typical day look like?
- What are you focused on?
- What do you stand for?
2. Start Getting All of the Information You Possibly Can
When I was younger, so much younger than today
I never needed anybody’s help in any way
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured
And now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors
— The Beatles
In 2015 I decided I was ready to become a writer. I was in my first year as a Ph.D. student in organizational psychology and had dreamed of being a writer since 2010. The “future self” I defined in 2015 was someone who was making at least six-figures as a writer so I could provide for my wife and three foster children. I wanted to be writing books with one of the major traditional publishers. I wanted the freedom to work when and where I wanted.
After clearly defining my future self, I needed a tangible goal or outcome that would make that reality possible. In order to do so, I had to seek tons and tons of advice.
How the heck do you become a professional writer?
How do you get book deals?
These are the questions I was asking myself. In order to get answers, I had to start doing a great deal of research. I started emailing and getting on the phone with literary agents and authors.
Over time, I started noticing a theme in the responses I was getting: You can’t become a professional author without an audience. You’re going to need to start blogging and building an email list. You need at least 5–10K emails to get a small book deal. In one conversation with Jeff Goins, I was told I needed at least 100K emails to get a 6-figure book deal. That was the ticket I needed.
Once you can conceptualize your vision into a tangible outcome, your motivation will skyrocket. According to the Expectancy Theory of Motivation — you need a clear and compelling outcome, as well as a clear path to achieving that outcome. Without these, you won’t be motivated. You’ll procrastinate. Hope Theory argues the same thing: You need a goal and a path to achieving that goal to have hope. Pretty freaking important! Without hope, life becomes torture and meaningless.
Once you’ve defined your future self, you need to start getting information. You need to develop a clear goal and plan to become your future self.
3. Tell Everyone About Your Plan
Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
— Frank Outlaw
Your next step is to begin telling everyone about your goals. This may seem counter-intuitive since many people argue you should keep your goals private. So hear me out.
Look at change like you would an addict overcoming an addiction. The worst thing the addict could do is try overcoming the addiction alone through grit and willpower. Said Johann Hari in his incredibly important TED Talk, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is human connection.”
You know someone is ready to overcome an addiction when they begin opening up about it. You know someone is serious about a change when they go public about that change. They’re no longer hiding from change. They’re no longer fearing or avoiding future failures. Instead, they’re putting themselves out on a limb. They’re saying, “Look, I know who I’ve been in the past. I know there may not be evidence that I can make the changes I want to make. But I’m serious about this. I want your help and support.”
It takes courage to be open about your goals. It takes courage to be open about your failings. Radical candor and honesty are crucial to success. Openness and honesty are essential to moving forward in your life. Dan Sullivan has said, “All progress starts by telling the truth.”
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl quoted Spinoza’s Ethics, which said: “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”
Mr. Rogers said: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”
What do all of these incredible statements mean?
They mean that when you become more open and honest as a person, life becomes far more manageable. You stop needlessly suffering internally about unfulfilled dreams or former hurts. You move forward. And that’s the freaking key! Moving forward! That’s what we are talking about here. Moving forward as powerfully and authentically as possible.
It’s impossible to be “authentic” without being honest. The key to being honest is about voicing what you truly want for yourself deep-down. If you’re too afraid of what those around you think, then you’re not committed to your dreams. If you’re too afraid of what fools or trolls on the internet think, then you’re not committed to your dreams.
Once you become committed, your thoughts will become words. Your words will become actions. Your actions will become habits. Your habits will become your character and personality, which will produce your results and outcomes.
Your identity is the story you tell about yourself. When you start telling people a new story, focused on your future self, then your future, not your past, can be the thing predicting your behavior.
Your future can pull you forward. Your identity and story, and behavior and environment, can start to align themselves to your desired future. Your “dreams” will become inevitable. It’s a purging process, but one you can get increasingly better at.
4. Invest at the Level of Your Future Self
The unconscious will allow us to have only what we believe we deserve. The more we hang on to our negativity and small self-image that results, the less we think we deserve… If we have a small view of ourselves, then what we deserve is poverty. And our unconscious will see to it that we have that actuality.
—Dr. David Hawkins
Your subconscious will keep you stuck. Your subconscious and your current personality are your comfort zone. Yes, your personality and comfort zone are the same thing. Stepping outside of your comfort zone creates feelings of uncertainty, and often fear. That’s also where change occurs. That’s where growth occurs. That’s where you want to be if you want your future to be greater than your past.
You need to shatter your subconscious limitations by making bold actions toward your future self. Beyond telling people about your goals, which can make a powerful impression on your subconscious, you need to take action.
Investing money into your future identity is one of those essential actions you must take if you’re committed to your goals. There are a few ways to look at “investment.” I’ll briefly detail them here:
- Invest in your future identity: Investing money into your identity allows you to believe it’s possible. It builds confidence by proving, through your own actions, that you’re serious. You’re putting your money where your mouth is. The most important person you need to convince of your commitment is yourself. This is how you do it.
There’s a story Zig Ziglar used to tell of a guy named Tom Hartman. He was extremely overweight and depressed. He learned the importance of self-image and committed himself to become fit and thin.
An important action he took on this path was going to a men’s suit store and buying two tailor-fitted suits. He dropped over $700 on those suits, which for him was a huge and scary investment. The man at the suit store asked who the suits were for. When Tom replied, “For myself,” the man was surprised, given that they were fitted for a skinny person.
That investment, and the bold, vocal, and public proclamation, were further evidence to Tom that he was serious. He was consciously forcing his subconscious forward toward his dreams. These bold actions shocked his subconscious in a good way, creating an upward spiral toward his goals.
It took 18 months but Tom lost well over 150 pounds. He became fit, happy, and successful. He did so because he was incredibly committed to his future self. So committed that he was investing big in his future self (I break this story down even further in my TED Talk).
- Investment in your relationships: According to the Self-Expansion Model, humans have a primary need for expansion, which is the desire for greater “efficacy.” Efficacy is not innate or absolute. Rather, efficacy refers to your obtaining resources that make the attainment of your goals possible. The way you increase your potential efficacy, or self-expansion, is by creating close relationships, which in turn, increases material and social resources, perspectives, and identities.
Investing in yourself, then, is also about your network of relationships. You are only as good as your network. The more successful you become, the more life becomes about “Who” instead of “How.” The worst thing you could do is trying “going it alone” on your goals. Going it alone is a demonstration of a lack of commitment.
The more committed you are, the more you’ll invest in mentorships, networks, coaches, consultants, employees, etc. You’ll want to expand your “efficacy” so that you can utilize the resources of many other people to ensure your goals become a reality.
Investing in “relationships” also means you focus on the people you want to help. You invest yourself in other people. Who are the people you want to learn from? How can you help and support their goals? Proactively supporting the right people is how you build a powerful network.
You can get access to almost anyone by being relevant, which means you know what they’re about, what matters to them, and you can help them without requiring much thought on their part.
5. Eliminate Everything that Discourages Your Future Self
If you do not create and control your environment, your environment creates and controls you. — Dr. Marshall Goldsmith
When you tell everyone in your ecosystem about your goals, you’ll quickly see who encourages and who discourages your future self. Those who discourage you from becoming your desired future self are probably not going to help you get there.
Stepping out of the comfort zone of your current persona and subconscious is risky. It involves uncertainty and courage. Given this fact, you need the stability and support of encouraging friends and loved ones.
If you don’t have encouragement and support, then at some point or another, you’ll hit some obstacle and it will become a glass-ceiling. Failure will become a defining trauma, your future identity will be shattered, and you’ll give up. Hence, Robert Brault has said, “We are kept from our goal not by obstacles but by a clear path to a lesser goal.”
Beyond relationships, you need to remove the information and experiences that are triggering your current and former selves. Zig Ziglar said, “Your input determines your outlook. Your outlook determines your output, and your output determines your future.”
Your “input” is everything coming “in.” The food you eat, the information you consume, the environments you’re in, etc. If you’re committed to your dreams and goals, you must change your inputs. You must become strategically ignorant of all the myriad of distractions on the internet and elsewhere.
You need to train your environment to support your goals and future self. If you don’t train your environment, your environment will train you.
6. Write in Your Journal Every Morning About Your Future Self
In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself. — Susan Sontag
I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn. — Anne Frank
I often hear that people don’t have “time” to write in their journal. This is equivalent to saying, “I don’t have time to have a clear mind. I don’t have time to resolve my suppressed emotions. I don’t have time to live intentionally.”
Taking 10–20 minutes every day, ideally at the start of the day, to express your thoughts and feelings is how you reduce your internal sufferings and make life manageable.
There’s a lot going on in your world. If you don’t give yourself the space to think, reflect, and strategize, then you’ll be living reactively to your environment and subconsciously. You’ll be on autopilot and without purpose. You’ll stop learning and advancing.
Once you get committed to a dream and begin living life “on purpose,” then each and every day of your life needs to become intentional. Pulling out your journal first thing in the morning allows you to connect with that intention. It allows you to clear the internal fog that could keep you stuck. It allows you to write about your dreams, trigger the mindset of your future self, and strategize action items you could do TODAY to move forward.
Every intentional action you make is a huge victory. By living intentionally and consciously, you are upgrading your subconscious. You’re creating a new future for yourself. You’re choosing to learn from, rather than repeat, the past.
Writing in your goals every day is essential to optimizing your life. If you want the best possible results, write about your goals and dreams every day. When you’re struggling emotionally, write about your emotions. By giving them form, you’ll stop suffering and be enabled to move forward.
Write in your journal. This is incredibly essential. Write in vivid detail about your dreams. Commit in your journal that you will move forward. Report in your journal how you’re doing. Be incredibly honest with yourself. At the same time, use your strategic writing to train your identity and mindset in the direction of your future self.
7. Define 1–3 Actions You Can Make Daily Toward Your Goal
If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any. — Jim Collins
There is a fundamental difference between urgent and important activities. Life is filled with urgencies. But your future self is in the “important” category.
Anything that is “important” can easily be procrastinated and put off. The urgency of your life, bills, relationships, and schedule can postpone what is important.
It is for this reason that you must prioritize the important. Do the important before the urgent. Remove every urgency that isn’t producing a result. 80/20 your life. The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of outputs come from 20% of inputs. 80% of results come from 20% of activities. The activities that produce big results and move your life forward are the “important” ones, not the “urgent” ones.
When you’re focused on your future self, you don’t need a big to-do list. Instead, you need a focused and short list. Just 1–3 items each day. Count your wins. Make meaningful progress. Focus on the most important action, not the easiest action.
8. “Eat the Frog” Every Single Day
Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day. — Mark Twain
Speaking of focusing on the most important action, you need to do the absolute most important thing first. Ideally before 8AM. The sooner you knock out your most important task, the better you’ll feel about the rest of your day.
Given the COVID-19 situation, we have five kids at home. My wife is a saint, doing most of the homeschooling. Our son Kaleb has recently learned the importance of “Eating the frog.”
There are a few school activities he avoids like the plague. When he avoids them, he stalls on everything else. The day gets long. Eventually, it’s time for our other kids to play and Kaleb is left with his least favorite activities left.
Recently, though, Kaleb has been eating the frog. He’s been “doing the worst, first.” And as a result, his days move a lot faster and more productively. When you get big wins in the morning, the rest of your day goes incredibly smoothly. If you don’t get those wins at the beginning, then the rest of your day is spent feeling behind.
If you eat the frog every morning, you will live your dreams. There is no question about that. But don’t mistake “activity” with “progress.” Eating the frog means you’ve done the right thing to move forward. It’s not doing something just because you enjoy doing it.
If you’re committed to your dreams, make progress on them before you do anything else. Even if that means you must get up early. If you make progress toward your “important” dreams, you’ll be a better person throughout your day. You’ll be happier in your relationships. You’ll have better energy. You’ll be congruent. You’ll be hopeful and happy. You’ll energize others in a powerful way. You’ll get out of your head with feelings of regret. Thus, you’ll be more present.
9. Report Your Progress Daily to Your Accountability Partner (This Takes 1 Minute/Day)
When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported back, the rate of improvement accelerates. — Pearson’s Law
Accountability is crucial to achieving your dreams. Most people avoid accountability becomes most people are not committed to their dreams. Instead, they’re committed to their excuses.
Accountability doesn’t need to be difficult or complicated. On the contrary, it needs to be simple in order to be motivating. Simplicity is key for motivation.
I enjoy 1-minute daily accountability where I send a text message to my accountability partner at the beginning of the day. That text message has 3 bullets (my “Big-3” for the day). My “Big-3” are the 3 “important” things I want to accomplish that day. At the end of the day, you send a simple text reporting how you did (e.g., 0/3, 1/3, 2/3, or 3/3).
Here’s an example that simplifies this even further:
The above picture turns accountability into a single text message each evening. You report how you did on your Big-3 and list your Big-3 for the next day. There’s an added benefit to listing your Big-3 the night before, and that’s that you get to go to bed with a purpose.
By going to bed with a purpose, you can wake up motivated and with a plan. This allows you to avoid needless decision fatigue the next morning. Decision fatigue comes from not knowing what you’re going to do. It comes from having to weigh in your mind what you should do, like say, when your alarm goes off. If you don’t have a plan laid out (your Big-3), then when your alarm goes off, you’re sitting there thinking to yourself: “Should I get out of bed?”
Don’t do that to yourself. Make the gameplan the night before and report your progress. This is how you get momentum.
10. Completely Unplug Every Single Day
“Wherever you are, make sure you’re there.” — Dan Sullivan
Last but not least, you need to fully “unplug” for large intervals throughout your day. There’s a lot of research on Psychological detachment from work. True psychological detachment occurs when you completely refrain from work-related activities and thoughts during non-work time.
Research has found that people who psychologically detach from work experience:
- Less work-related fatigue and procrastination
- Far greater engagement at work, which is defined as vigor, dedication, and absorption (i.e., “flow”)
- Greater work-life balance, which directly relates to quality of life
- Greater marital satisfaction
- Greater mental health
Research has shown that only 16 percent of respondents reported getting creative insight while at work. Ideas generally came while the person was at home or in transportation, or during recreational activity. “The most creative ideas aren’t going to come while sitting in front of your monitor,” says Scott Birnbaum, a vice president of Samsung Semiconductor.
The reason for this is simple. When you’re working directly on a task, your mind is tightly focused on the problem at hand (i.e., direct reflection). Conversely, when you’re not working, your mind loosely wanders (i.e., indirect reflection).
Put simply, by taking time off and actively recovering, you’re going to have a better mind. You’ll be more connected as a person. You’ll be able to get into a flow state much easier next time you work. You’ll be rested and aligned. And through that process, your brain will solve all your problems for you, while you’re focused on the other areas of your life.
Creativity is a skill you can develop. As is clarity and insight. You’ll get much more when you take time to rest and recover. You need to fully unplug and be actively engaged in other areas of your life.
Dr. Benjamin Hardy is an organizational psychologist and bestselling author of Willpower Doesn’t Work. His blogs have been read by over 100 million people and are featured on Forbes, Fortune, CNBC, Cheddar, Big Think, and many others. He is a regular contributor to Inc. and Psychology Today and from 2015-2018, he was the #1 writer, in the world, on Medium.com. He and his wife Lauren adopted three children through the foster system in February 2018 and, one month later, Lauren became pregnant with twins, who were born in December of 2018. They live in Orlando.
Image courtesy of Karolina Grabowska.