With the turn of the new year, parking lots at gyms across the country are crowded again. Yet, in just a few weeks’ time they’ll be back to normal. It’s the same for many of the goals we set for ourselves: we have an initial burst of motivation and activity, but all too soon we flame out as new habits fail to take hold. What keeps some people going when most of us lose momentum? They have mastered the art of the slow burn.
Here’s what that is, and how we can use it to stay motivated long enough to actually reach our goals.
Building the Fire
Long ago on family campouts, my father taught us kids how to build a fire. To begin, we learned that we needed thin, dry tinder to catch the flame from the match; often we would use balled up newspapers or wood shavings. Then we needed kindling – sticks the size of our fingers that the tinder could easily ignite to build the growing flame ever larger. Finally, we needed fuel wood, big logs that would eventually catch fire and burn for hours.
If we did it right, we would end up with a fire with a long slow burn, one that provided warmth and light deep into the night, and required very little effort to keep going.
We also learned how not to do it: holding a match next to a big log was just a good way to waste a match.
It can be that way with the goals we set for ourselves, too:
We get an idea for an ambitious goal, and the match is struck. The idea excites us, and we throw ourselves into making it happen. Like the match catching the tinder, the flame burns brightly and intensely. The promise of a warm cooking fire, or achieving that big goal, seems almost within reach.
But then all too often we try to skip the kindling step and go straight to fuel wood. It’s like trying to go from running 5Ks to Marathons. What happens?
Like holding a match up to a big log, our little ball of brightly burning tinder flames out. It wasn’t enough to take hold. The effort ends in disappointment, injury, or rationalization. That big log, and our big goal, just sit there, inert and unattainable.
To get the flame to catch, and develop the long, slow burn to be successful, we have to gradually increase the size of our fuel.
When it comes to achieving our goals, how do we do that? Three ideas for you.
Tinder: Imitate Atari. Or any of the other gaming companies. They are masters at getting us hooked on their games. One of the techniques they use is to make sure that the new-player experience is simple and easy, at least at first. They walk us through the tutorial, and we negotiate the first several levels with ease. Each step become progressively harder, but as we reach them, we have gained enough experience and interest to stay hooked and keep trying.
With goals, we can do the same. Instead of drastic changes, start with small adjustments. Build on them over time. Keeping it easy and incremental makes the change sustainable, and one we’re more likely to stick with long enough for the flame to catch. Examples and ideas:
- Make one simple dietary change each week – one less soda a day, or one more salad
- Add one new exercise or do five more minutes of one we’re already doing
- Make one more meal a month at home instead of ordering out
- Memorize five new vocabulary words or read just five more pages each day
- Learn one more work skill each week
Kindling: Make friction a friend. We can use friction to start a fire, but when it comes to goals, we can also use it to keep that fire going. Studies have shown that what prompts us to act is not so much knowledge as convenience. We know what we’re “supposed” to do, but we tend to actually do whatever is easiest.
Restaurants do this all the time to get us to increase tipping: at the checkout screen, it’s easier to tap a box that already shows a tip amount than it is to calculate it ourselves, so we just tap and move on with our lives.
We can take the same approach to achieve that slow burn we’re looking for. By removing obstacles that stand in the way of the good habit we want, we take advantage of our natural tendency towards convenience. Likewise, if we make it harder to do the things we don’t want to do, the added friction helps us stick to the plan.
A few examples and ideas:
- Automate deposits into savings accounts
- Pack workout clothes and hit the gym on the way home
- Put fruits and vegetables at eye level in the fridge
- Hide the bag of chips out of sight
- Delete the gaming apps from your home screen
Fuel: Build a Bed. A good cooking fire is one with a deep bed of coals. That thick layer of smoldering embers will provide a slow burn that lasts for hours and requires very little effort to maintain.
Like that fire, we want to get to the point where our own flame becomes self-sustaining, and the habit catches on. To get there, it helps to do things that regularly reinforce our new habits.
- Recognize and celebrate moments of success frequently – miles run, pounds lost, money saved
- Share goals and achievements with friends who will help encourage and support
- Track progress visually with charts; take pride in accomplishment
- Socialize and share the goal by doing it with friends: join a running group, take classes together, form a support group
- Keep a journal, and use it to set sub-goals, track results, and reflect on progress made
Slow Burn – The Takeaway
It’s easy to come up with ambitious new goals. We watch an inspiring documentary, see an athlete in action, or read about an amazing success story. Our enthusiasm flares as we see ourselves written into our own script. Surely, we’ll soon get a text from Morgan Freeman asking to narrate our rise to greatness.
But the hard reality is that those kinds of achievements require lasting behavior change, and that’s where so many of us fall short. Our zeal burns brightly at first, but new habits don’t take hold; the flame doesn’t catch. Soon enough, the parking lot at the gym is empty again, resolutions are rationalized away, and we find ourselves back where we started.
If we want to develop positive new habits that will hold a flame long after the inspirational music and rousing speeches have faded, what we’re looking for is the slow burn. To get there, the best approach is to build into it gradually, the same way we would build a fire.
- Tinder: Start small, so that pursuit of the goal feels easy and sustainable.
- Kindling: Reduce friction so that doing the thing we want to do is easier than doing the things we don’t.
- Fuel: Build a deep bed of small successes so that the fire warms itself and becomes self-sustaining.
Whatever your goals may be for the coming year, I wish you the best in developing that slow burn that will help you achieve them.
Let me know when you get your fire going.
I’ll bring the marshmallows.
Interested in learning more about achieving your goals? This short video explains more about how to reach them through my Goal Mastery Course.