How to Achieve Goals – My 12 Principles
I hail from a small North Indian town that doesn’t offer many educational opportunities beyond high school. When I was 15, my father took me to Kota city in Rajasthan. There I was to study for the entrance examination to the well-known engineering university the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).
Settling me in a paying guest house, Papa left for home. That was the first time I was so far from my parents.
For two years, I studied. On my first attempt at the entrance examination, I failed. I continued staying in Kota for one more year. The second time I ranked seventy-eight amongst half a million students.
My success didn’t come by chance. I understood the importance of goals even back then. I knew I had to achieve mine.
My primary goal was to make the entrance exam’s syllabus my second nature. Once a Physics teacher said in the class, “you have to be so thorough that even if someone wakes you up at 3 in the night you should be able to solve the problem.” That line became my mantra.
Away from home and unguarded, I protected that objective like a mother protects her young child. I studied day and night. I solved as many science and mathematics problems as I could. I learned from my mistakes.
I watered my goal with hard work and dedication. Along germinated the tree of my success.
I have tested the principles I had followed to win the test later in my adult life. Throughout the years, I have set and achieved a myriad of goals: getting into finance without any education or industry skills, becoming a chef in an Italian restaurant, joining a big investment bank that hadn’t let me sit in the campus placements, learning Spanish, teaching English as a second language without any teaching degree, and many others.
I can pick up any task because I know how to walk the way. I know how to achieve a goal. I am confident if I hold the finger of the process, it would take me to the summit.
Later I quit my job and chose writing as a profession. I had made my way from zero many times. So why not now?
My principles are not only helpful to cracking an exam, but they are indispensable to achieving any goal. Edging thirty-one years of my life, I still follow them and stand as proof that that fifteen-year-old girl wasn’t wrong. (Update 2022: Close to being 34, I still stand by my methods.)
Here are my 12 indispensable methods on how to achieve your goals.
1. Think about the one thing you want and think about it only
Let that one thing infiltrate your being. If you focus on one thing and let everything else spill over you could win the lottery of your goal. The game of focus ain’t easy, but then easy it is.
Thinking about one thing can make all the difference. (In this open letter to my chaotic mind I question its thought patterns.)
2. To achieve this goal, you have to believe
In the book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes about researchers who studied the Alcoholics Anonymous group. The researchers found that the alcoholics who believed they could manage without alcohol through stressful periods stayed sober for decades. Their belief was the game-changer.
Howard Schultz, the man behind Starbucks, said his mother told him she believed Howard would do a lot of things — ‘You’re going to be the first person to go to college, you’re going to make us all proud.’ Early on, he learned to set and accomplish goals. Howard’s mother told him he had what it takes to succeed, and he believed her.
I never doubted I wouldn’t be able to crack the IIT entrance test. Somewhere inside I knew if I couldn’t, who could? I studied like a winner: someone who does what she has to do without brooding about the consequences.
Tell yourself you can do it, and you will.
3. Don’t follow or wait for anyone, lead
When Forrest Gump ran, thousands of people ran behind him. He stopped, they stopped. When he decided to quit running, the followers didn’t know what to do.
Before the tests, other students would want to study with me. But first, all of them would huddle around, eat Maggie noodles together, and stretch out. But I studied, cracked the coaching center tests, and later enjoyed the noodles with butter.
The path you make is the best path for you. At the risk of sounding condescending, I say run ahead. Else people would stop midway or do other things and you would get confused.
4. Don’t circle around the problem, deal with it head-on
I knew I had to solve a lot of questions in a limited time during the final examination. So, I practiced problems with a stopwatch daily.
In the entrance test, I competed with students some of whom were scared to solve problems under a time constraint even in the absence of test pressure. Of course, I was going to win.
Deal with the main problem — the thing that scares you the most — head-on. If you have to write, take a pen and paper and write. Avoid reading ten articles on writing. If you dream of opening a pizzeria but worry if people even eat pizza around you, get on the street and figure out the demand and competition. Want to swim? Get in the water.
Circling around the problem heightens the fear and blocks the process. We have to face the most difficult task. The sooner we do it, the sooner we realize the step wasn’t that steep. And even if it was, we find ourselves ahead with enough time to learn at our pace.
Reaching goals has a lot to do with starting out.
5. Practice until you bleed
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,” Hemingway said.
I disassembled the Physics problems, devoured the fundamentals, and built them up from scratch. I repeated this process an infinite number of times. In the examination hall, amidst the sweaty students with furrowed brows, I was at home even while solving the toughest questions.
I don’t know how but I knew how to achieve my goal.
Tony Dungy, the football coach who turned a sixteen-year loser team into a Super Bowl winner, told Charles Duhigg, “Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.” Tony had made the team members practice their moves until they became their second nature.
If you do anything enough times, you wouldn’t have to think about doing it; you would just do it, like blinking your eye or walking or running. Practice so the skill becomes an extension of yourself. Master the art of learning.
I told you above that I competed with half a million students. In reality, I only competed with the students who had practiced more than I did.
Innate talent and capabilities matter, but less than we think. Our small habits accumulated over time bring us success.
6. Turn your back to excuses
If there was a power cut in Kota, I rejoiced. But only for two minutes and then I lit candles and studied. If the afternoons scorched, I sprinkled water on my clothes, breathed in the air from the ceiling fan, and continued without pause.
No one was watching over me. So why was I so sincere? Because in the end I was answerable to myself. I couldn’t make it because other paying guests didn’t study or I didn’t get enough samosas sounds stupid.
Explaining why you couldn’t do something is like requesting the station master to let you sit on a train that has long left the station. What can he or anyone else do?
Instead of excusing yourself, turn up. Justifying why you couldn’t do something doesn’t do anything more than clearing your conscience. You cannot avoid even the tiniest part of the process. Sooner or later, you would have to do it. So why not now?
Jump over the obstacle. Don’t hide in its shadow.
7. Don’t let your mistakes pull you back
The questions I couldn’t solve or had answered incorrectly were the mountains I had to climb. I didn’t go around those hills; I scrambled up little by little. And when one of those summits I had already scored appeared on the examination page, I rejoiced. Perhaps some of those problems made all the difference between me and the rest.
International chess master and a Tai Chi Push Hands world champion, Josh Waitzkin wrote the book The Art of Learning. It is one of my favorite books. In one of the chapters Josh says, “one should avoid falling into the downward spirals of mistakes. Once you have made a mistake, it is done. Learn from its nuisances and move on.”
Understanding your mistakes is as important as learning something new. By fixing what we couldn’t get right the first time, we make the onward journey easier. (30 life learnings from my 20’s that make my life better now.)
Never let your capabilities be defined by how much you can do right now.
Ask yourself: What would I do to achieve my goals in life? Answer honestly.
8. Don’t fall for the distractions
A friend is calling. You miss home. You don’t feel like working today. The weather is romantic. First you would just get to that movie and see what is to be done later.
Surround sound never leaves us alone.
On one of those rare rainy mornings in the sultry desert town of Kota, I was hanging out with my best friend. After some time, she went home. I started studying. In half an hour, she returned chirping from the lovable hours we had spent together and asked me to accompany her to the bank. I told her I couldn’t go.
She was upset not just because she had to go alone but because my refusal made her realize she had to study too. I wanted to be with her too, but I had another priority.
I shouldn’t be pitied here for working hard. During my three-year stay in Kota, I spent as much time with my friends as I liked. But I fitted those companionship hours around my study hours rather than the other way around.
Do the thing first and then do whatever. (And some other powerful and practical work from home ideas I have collected over the years.)
9. Break off the chains of group melancholy (best way to achieve goals)
This point is similar to the 8th bullet but focuses on group melancholy out of all distractions.
So when someone else is sad, we want to be sad too. They don’t want to work today because climate change is threatening our earth. Let me put aside my tasks too. She feels life has no meaning. Why should I go to school?
Break off from procrastination huddles. When priorities are different, so should be the paths.
Also Read: 12 life lessons from the work ethics of Elon Musk
10. Look for questions, before you fumble for answers
In classes, I avoided embarrassing conversations by not raising my hand when I didn’t understand a question. Later, I struggled to answer the problem. I didn’t even know what it meant.
Acting as if I was Einstein, I wasted time and effort only to eventually ask for help.
Understanding what you have to do and why you have to do it is fundamental to getting to the how.
11. Build Keystone habits, let them flow like blood in your veins
Charles Duhigg concluded in The Power of Habit, “The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns and new structures. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.”
Keystone habits help other good habits to flourish.
Paul O’Neill, CEO of the aluminum company Alcoa, established safety as the primary priority for each employee. When Paul retired, the company’s income had grown five-folds and Alcoa had become the safest employer.
For safety, Paul had ensured the machines worked impeccably and the workers followed the processes to the word. The habit of ensuring safety infiltrated everything and transformed everything.
We don’t have to do everything right, but we have to find certain key priorities and focus on them. They would then shape everything we do.
My habits of not treating mistakes as failures but resolving to solve them, not sitting around with friends when I wanted to study, and getting to the toughest part of the problem quickly spilled over my entire day and year shaping my whole study model eventually coursing my life.
Keystone habits flow into everything and change the way we live.
If you have been wondering how can I achieve my goals by setting the right habits, do read 23 Small Habits to Shift Your Life.
12. Don’t succumb to willpower, let it succumb to you
To do everything I said above, you would need a lot of willpower. I needed it, too.
I don’t know what motivated me toward my goal. Was it the grit to prove myself or did I want to make the time away from my family worthwhile or was it the awareness that I couldn’t afford to lose? But I rotated on the axis of willpower day and night.
Charles Duhigg wrote, “Dozens of researches show that willpower is the most important keystone habit for individual success. Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent. And the best way to strengthen willpower is to make it into a habit. Sometimes it looks like people with great self-control aren’t working hard — but that’s because they’ve made it automatic.”
After reading The Power of Habit, I understood I had made doing the thing a habit early on. By asserting my willpower over and over, I had become habitual to sit down and study. (Read Vincent Van Gogh talk about focusing on one thing and perseverance.)
How would you build willpower? Scientists have agreed willpower is a learnable skill, like learning addition or English grammar.
Start by asserting willpower in tiny things and in tiny amounts. Want to lose weight? Avoid ordering sugary drinks with dinner. Would love to read more? Start reading fifteen minutes every day. Wish to strengthen your relationship? Cook for your partner at least once a week.
As you dispense little willpower, you will get more of it. Soon, willpower would become a keystone habit overflowing into every moment of your life.
There is no switch to success. We need to work to achieve our goals.
If we focus on our objective, set the right priorities, and follow the process, we can get whatever we want.
Which of these ideas on how to accomplish goals did you like the best? Would love to hear from you.
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