Achieving Goals: Maintain an Invariant

In the last month I’ve achieved two fitness goals: doing the City2Surf in under an hour and doing 100 push ups in a row (as of today).

They weren’t new goals. I’ve been working towards each for many months: the former for one and a half years, the latter for six months or so (via the 100 Push Up Challenge.

One key to the success was persistence. But I think it’s more complex than that: the choice of which action is done persistently matters, because it influences your motivation to keep training for long periods of time.

Specifically, I think Brian Marick was on to something when he said in his talk ‘Five Principles for Thinking Less (Expensively) and Accomplishing More’ (some notes here) that a key step was to “convert goals to achieve into invariants to maintain”.

For the push ups, the invariant was simple: every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, I did push ups according to the schedule on the website. If I easily beat the goal, I’d move up to the next level. I also followed a training schedule for the running.

In both cases, I could trust that if I maintained the invariant (attend training and do the required exercises), I would be on track to achieve my goal. I proved that the invariant was appropriate for the goal by tracking my progress to ensure my times were improving, or that I could do more push ups every week.

I didn’t have to think hard. I just had to maintain the invariant.

“Maintain the invariant” isn’t a new idea — see “practice makes perfect”, “Don’t Break the Chain”, etc — but the use of data to confirm the invariant is appropriate is something not emphasised in these approaches.

One disadvantage of the approach is that it requires an action which has quantifiable results and (ideally) fast feedback.

Nevertheless, the ‘maintain the invariant’ approach makes persistence possible because it (a) reduces the number of choices you have to make on the path to success, and (b) allows you to trust that the approach will work by allowing you to measure your progress.

It worked well. I’m really happy with how everything worked out. :)