Some tips on getting out of a rut with success spirals.

Success Spirals: Getting Out of A Rut

Success spirals are powerful, but have downsides. As outlined in the book, The Motivation Hacker, you can only fail at success spirals so many times before your expectancy is permanently damaged [1]. While I have not personally experienced this, it is a possibility that can inhibit my using success spirals when I am only half-committed to pursuing my goals.

For example, these past few months, I have not been using success spirals to keep up this blog or make progress on most of my side-projects. So, these goals have stagnated, as you would expect.

Why did I pause my success spirals? The main reason is that I moved to Japan for the summer for the NSF EAPSI fellowship. I made an intentional decision to break out of my routines so that I could enjoy my experience in Japan fully.

Truth be told, I intended to restart the spirals about half way through my time in Japan. But, pausing my success spirals for so long have broken the habits I developed and the thought of restarting at the level I left off is intimidating. An intimidating goal goes against the philosophy of using success spirals altogether, though, so what I really need to do is restart or demote the spirals. But, the thought of restarting or demoting is disheartening. So, I am stuck in a rut — unable to restart or continue.

If you find yourself in a similar rut, here’s a little trick that can help: start building a new spiral for an unrelated, but simple and temporary goal. The one I have successfully used in the past is shredding piles of old letters to declutter my room [2]. It can seem counter intuitive to add an additional goal when you are struggling with the ones you already have, but it is all about building expectancy. Once you start re-building confidence in yourself, it will be easier to restart your more important spirals. Furthermore, as the goal you have selected should be simple and temporary (e.g., there are only so many letters I need to shred), it should be off your plate relatively soon.

There’s another reason starting a new goal can be a great way to get out of a rut: habit chains. If you remember from my previous posts or from the book, The Power of Habit, habits are responses to triggers. For example, you might eat a cookie after lunch (trigger: lunch, habit: eat cookie). You might read before bed (trigger: bedtime, habit: read). You might brush your teeth after you wake up (trigger: waking up, habit: brushing teeth). To effectively build new habits, it helps to be intentional about triggers. The execution of one habit can be a great trigger for another, especially in the early phases of habit building. For example, maybe after you work out you read for 20 minutes after which you clean for 10 minutes. In this way, you can build “habit chains” in which progress in one spiral can inspire or force progress in others.

Of course, there are other ways to get out of a rut. One of the most effective is to implement some form of social or monetary accountability. The example used in The Motivation Hacker is to donate a very large sum of money to a cause you oppose. Beeminder is a tool that automates the process of staking money on your sticking to your goals [3]. I have personally never implemented accountability of any form in my productivity hacks, but it is an option that I would like to explore more in the future.

If you’re still having trouble, shoot me a tweet or comment below. Always happy to help.


[1] I’m not sure I necessarily believe the permanence of the damage, but I agree that if you allow yourself to fail goals that are supposed to be “impossible” to fail, then you risk doing a lot of damage to your expectancy — or your trust in yourself to follow through.

[2] Letters with potentially sensitive information on them, for example, that I may not feel comfortable just discarding. Yeah, I know, a bit paranoid but I am a security Researcher.

[3] It’s an interesting free service, and if you fail to meet your goals you are effectively donating money to them. It creates a bit of an odd incentive structure, though, because they only get money if you fail your goals.


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