How You Can Use Success Spirals: A Tutorial

In my last post, I talked about one of the tricks I use to realize my ideals: success spirals. In this post, I’ll go into a bit more detail of how to create an effective success spiral.

Success Spiral Summary

To recap, a success spiral is a concrete instantiation of the principle of constant improvement: you start small, track your progress, and periodically build on your minimum criteria for success.

For example, if you want to learn how to play the piano but have never found the time to do so, you start with a simple goal that is impossible to fail: For example, hit 10 keys a day. You’ll always have time to hit 10 keys, even if just to fiddle around aimlessly. In practice, you’ll probably be more intentional than that. You’ll also probably hit many more than 10 keys on any given day. The point is that even in those days where everything goes wrong, you’ll still be able to meet your goal.

As you build a daily habit of playing the piano, you will, in turn, build an expectancy in yourself to follow through with your goals. Soon, you will be able to up the ante: require a minimum of 5 minutes of intentional playing per day, then 10 minutes, then 15. Within a few months, you should be practicing for 30 minutes or an hour most days (depending on your own personal goals), and you’ll be doing it effortlessly.

I’ve used success spirals to great effect in my own life. For example, I’ve used them to work out for 5 days a week for 20 consecutive weeks (which I only had to stop because of knee surgery), eliminate added sugar and desserts from my diet, limit red meat intake to just twice per week, stick to an intermittent fasting diet for 4 (ongoing) months, start this blog, learn over 1500 new Japanese words and how to write 500 new Japanese Kanji characters, and write over 8 academic papers in the past year (independent of a deadline; in fact, not all of them have been submitted). And that’s actually only a subset of the things I’ve done with success spirals in the past year and a half.

If you want to learn more about success spirals, either check out my previous post or read Nick Winter’s book, The Motivation Hacker.

How to Create Effective Success Spirals

Success spirals should be simple to put into effect. In fact, I’m hesitant to share my exact strategies in this post because I’ve built up complexity over time. So, I’m going to first share the least complex version of success spirals. Later, I’ll add in some of the complexity I’ve added into my own use of success spirals to maximize their effectiveness.

Anyway, to use success spirals, you really only need four things:

  • A habit you want to build: e.g., write, learn a language, play an instrument.
  • A spiral structure: e.g., the initial goal, the ultimate goal, and criteria for progression.
  • A method to track progress: e.g., an excel spreadsheet or a notebook and a commitment to tracking your progress daily.
  • A reflection day: A day every week in which you look over your progress and decide whether or not to promote your spiral to the next level.

Let’s go over each of these in detail.

A habit you want to build

This is the most straightforward. Presumably you have something you want to do, a habit you want to build, or a goal that you want to meet. Once you’ve figured that out, you need to deconstruct that habit into a simple set of routines.

Want to learn a language? Your routines can be to study vocabulary, read a textbook, or to vlog about your day in that language [1].

Want to learn an instrument? Your routines can be to actually play that instrument, watch video tutorials, or read about music theory.

Want to write a novel? Your routines can be to write, to world build [2], to read a book about writing novels, or anything else you think is relevant to your goal.

The topic of choosing the correct habits is its own beast. I won’t go over that here, but I do have some strategies for this as well. Hopefully in a future post.

A spiral structure

Once you have your habit, you set up your spiral. The first step for that is to pick a starting goal — the “impossible to fail” goal that will start you on your path to success.

Say your goal is to run a marathon. You’ve never ran more than 1 mile at a stretch. You’re pretty confident you can start out by running a mile 3 times a week. Make your starting goal to run 100 feet every day. Seriously [3]. Make it impossible to fail [4]. You can run 100 feet even if it’s storming (though maybe not comfortably). Also, make it a daily win. Making it a daily win will help you reshape your identity. You will become, in your own eyes, a “runner”. That identity, in turn, will motivate you do more things that runners do.

Next, pick a concrete end goal that can be achieved within a reasonable time frame: I suggest within 3 months. In the marathon example this is easy: it’s to run 26.2 miles in one stretch. Some end-goals are less obvious. The main point is to have clear evaluation criteria and to make it doable in the short-term. So, instead of “become fluent in Japanese”, make the end-goal “learn 1000 Japanese words” or “pass the JLPT level 2” [5]. Remember, you can always decide to redouble your efforts after achieving this “end goal”. Your next goal can be to learn 3000 Japanese words, for example. But if you make the end goal too ambitious and abstract, you risk losing interest.

Once you have your end goal, keep it in the periphery. Don’t obsess over it, but don’t forget it. The next step is to pick your promotion criteria and the promotion itself.

The promotion criteria is simply an objective function that allows you to decide when to promote your spiral. It could be successfully meeting your goal for 1 week. It could be consistently exceeding your current minimum goal. My promotion criteria is generally that if I am consistently exceeding the level of my next promotion, then I promote.

The promotion is simply the next level of your goal. In the marathon example, it might be to run 200 feet a day. It should be higher, but not drastically. Remember, you’re still trying to make it impossible to fail. You’re always trying to make it impossible to fail, or damn hard to fail at least. You’re just going to be a little bit better than you were the week before, so you can afford to up the stakes a bit.

A method to track your progress

Tracking your progress is probably the simplest step. Every day, just record how many minutes you spent, feet you ran, words you wrote, or lines of code you programmed. Make sure this is above your minimum. I recommend doing this two hours before you sleep for two reasons: (1) if you’ve lagged on a few of your goals, you should still have time to do the minimum necessary to meet your goal; and, (2) knowing that you’ve done everything you promised yourself you would do in the day should help you unwind.

I use a spreadsheet to track my progress. Each goal is in its own sheet, but all goals are in the same spreadsheet file. Each day is a row. One column is the minimum criteria for success that day. The adjacent column is my contribution for that day. I also render a little graph that shows me two trend lines: one is the cumulative “minimum” line, which is just a visual depiction of how much I should have done to meet my minimum success criteria by a certain date. The second line is how much I’ve actually done, also cumulatively. Because the minimum criteria is impossible to fail, the second line almost always overshadows the minimum line, which reinforces my sense of accomplishment.

Here’s an example of what this spreadsheet might look like. This is my spiral progression for this blog in October:

spiral_spreadsheet

You can also just use pen and paper if you prefer. Really, it shouldn’t be complicated. Just make it something that is totally frictionless and easy for you to remember to use (e.g., if you only have Excel on an ‘office’ computer, don’t make an excel spreadsheet).

reflection day

Finally, you need a day of reflection. I like every Sunday. On this day, you will decide whether or not to promote your spirals, leave them as-is, or demote your spirals. Let’s cover each of these.

Promotion: For each spiral, look over your promotion criteria and observe if you’ve met that criteria. If you notice that you have met your promotion criteria, then it’s time for promotion. When you promote, pick the promotion criteria for the next level as well as the minimum goal for the next level. For example, if you promote to writing for 10 minutes a day, you should decide what your next level of promotion will be: maybe 15 minutes a day. Knowing the next phase of your progression keeps you motivated by accomplishing smaller goals in your pursuit of larger goals.

Leave as-is: This is pretty straightforward. Maybe you haven’t met your promotion criteria, so you just leave your spiral at its current level. I will advise, however, that if you leave your spiral at its current level for too many consecutive weeks, it may be time to either re-evaluate whether you actually want the goal. If you decide that you do, it might be time to use other motivational tricks to help your grow your spiral.

Demotion: In practice, this should not really happen. But, it might. You might notice that you are consistently underperforming — i.e., not meeting your minimum criteria. If that’s the case, you may be taking a serious expectancy hit. If you notice this trend, first re-evaluate whether you really want this goal. Clearly, other things in your life seem to be taking priority. If you decide that you still want to pursue this goal, then you should consider “demoting” your spiral to its previous level so you can start building up your expectancy again. If you have to demote more than once, you might consider dropping the goal for now. I’ve actually never done this myself. But it’s an option.

Call-To-Action

I know this was a lot of content. But I hope it’s all useful content. You don’t have to read every word. The important thing is that you just do it. So here’s my challenge to you: pick a goal you’ve always wanted to pursue, and create a success spiral for it following the steps I outlined in this post. If you’re so inclined, post what you decided to do in the comments. I promise to help if I can.

Footnotes

[1] This is endlessly entertaining to look back upon, even if embarrassing.

[2] I’m actually writing a novel, and a big component of it is world building. Maybe one day I’ll write a post about world building. For now, this is a good reference I’ve been using.

[3] If you’re anything like me, you’ve let yourself down. So much so that you don’t really trust yourself to do the great things you want to do. It’s time to rebuild that trust, slowly but surely. A good way to do so is to start at a point that is so comically low that, rationally, there is no challenge. Yes, if you ran 100 feet a day for the rest of your life you would not be able to magically run a marathon. But you won’t be running 100 feet every day for the rest of your life. You’re just starting there to make it effortless to build a habit.

[4] Some other advice I would give: Don’t make this too complicated. One way to keep it simple is to focus on input instead of output. In other words, your criteria for success should be based on the time and effort you put in rather than the outcome of that time and effort. Minutes instead of pages, dollars, and lines of code. This has the nice secondary effect of allowing you to focus on investing in yourself, rather than being let down by not seeing immediate results.

[5] The JLPT is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. There are 5 levels, with 5 being the easiest and 1 being the most difficult.

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9 thoughts on “How You Can Use Success Spirals: A Tutorial

  1. Hey Shakkun, just wanted to let you know that (a few months later), I’m actually reading this and appreciate it! These sorts of strategies and schools of thoughts are ones that I also study a lot personally, and I think (despite the length of the articles that I’ve read so far) you’re doing a great job of explaining your thought process fully, “concisely” (read: as concise as one can without skimping on detail too much), and concretely. Definitely keep it up, I’ll be reading! Seriously, I eat this kind of stuff up.

  2. Hey, great post. I just read The Motivation Hacker so I’m trying to build a motivation plan for myself. I have an idea for a good goal to have a success spiral towards (eating 9 cups of vegetables a day, starting with 1 cup a day and promoting it by 1 cup each time I can succeed at doing it for a solid week). I’ve already been doing it for a couple days with the help of Beeminder and it’s working. But I’m not sure if I should add other tiny goals to do, or if I’ll overwhelm myself by doing that. What do you think?

    1. Hey Danielle,

      Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. I guess I’m unclear on what you mean by other tiny goals?

      If you mean related to your vegetable eating habit, you might consider incorporating those tiny goals into your evaluation criteria in the next promotion (again, you want to keep your initial goal as simple as possible).

      If you mean an unrelated goal that you would also like to pursue (e.g., running), I think the answer can be more nuanced. I think if you’re just starting on a transformative path, it might be best if you start very small and simple until you build up your expectancy. If you have some experience with it, though, there are benefits to doing multiple goals at the same time. I personally find that multiple goals excite me more, so I’m more inclined to excel in multiple goals at once than I am to excel at just one goal. Also, one goal can be a trigger for another, so you can sort of build a habit chain. For example, I have a built a habit chain to clean, then stretch and then work out. Cleaning “triggers” my stretching habit which then “triggers” my working out habit. In this way, having multiple goals can actually be a good way to keep you motivated.

      I hope that helps!

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