Are You Ready to Take Action Now?

After a stock market rally, many investors will sell some of their stock to “lock in their gains.” They cash out and take the rewards they’ve accumulated. Partly this is to ensure that the rewards of their efforts are actually received because in a short period of time the market could very well erase them. The money from the stock sales can be used to pay taxes, to upgrade the person’s standard of living, or to reinvest elsewhere.

This strategy of locking in your gains applies to personal development as well. But instead of converting securities to cash, what we want to do is to convert knowledge into habits. It’s one thing to have valuable how-to knowledge stored in your cranium, but that knowledge does nothing for you by itself, just as stock doesn’t actually do anything for you until you trade it. Sure it’s possible your knowledge or your stocks will go up in value over time, but you can’t access that value until you “cash out” and lock in your gains.

Imagine, for example, that you know how to play poker extremely well. That’s a piece of knowledge that’s gone up in value over the past decade. Today’s top poker pros can earn a lot more money than they ever could before. Living in Las Vegas, I’ve seen this rapid expansion first-hand, as casinos that never had poker rooms have been adding them like mad, old poker rooms have doubled in size, and wait times at popular spots can be more than an hour. Every day there are tournaments where you could win six figure sums (and higher) in a matter of hours. While the old pros now have more competition, their existing knowledge and skills are still worth a lot of money.

But merely possessing knowledge doesn’t produce the real value. The value is created when you go out and apply what you know. For the poker pro, this means s/he must actually sit down and play in tournaments or cash games. And for most people, this can’t just be a one-time event (unless you happen to be capable of winning the World Series of Poker on the first try, which could earn you enough to retire in one week). In order to realize the gains, you have to convert this knowledge into some kind of action, and that action must be repeated over and over again. In other words you must make applying your knowledge a habit.

The field of personal development is vast. That’s one thing I love about it. There’s always more to learn. I never become bored with it because there’s always an interesting new subfield to explore: motivation, emotion, values, goal achievement, business, money, health, interpersonal skills, problem solving, spirituality, education, etc. But it’s very easy to get caught up in surfing the vastness of this field and never ride a wave all the way to the shore. Knowledge is not enough. If you want to realize any real gains from personal development, then at some point you have to lock them in.

So how do you do this?

Basically it comes down to pure repetition. If you apply a piece of knowledge over and over again, you’ll eventually condition it into a habit. At first it takes a lot of energy and conscious effort to repeat the pattern, but after enough repetition, your subconscious will take over for you, and you’ll no longer need to think about it. You’ll find yourself doing it automatically.

It’s said that it takes 21 days of daily repetition to form a habit. I prefer to use 30 days because I want to do more than just the minimum, and 30 days has a more natural rhythm for me because I tend to make plans in 30- and 90-day chunks. It’s also roughly the length of one month, so it’s easy to figure out what date you’ll be done. I especially like to start on the first of the month and go til the end of the month. Then I just think of that particular month as being devoted to installing a particular habit.

If you want to learn how to apply this strategy on a practical level, read 30 Days to Success. That article explains the process of using daily conditioning to turn an intention into a habit.

I’ve found this process to be extremely versatile. One thing I love about the 30-day trial is that I can use it experimentally. So even if I’m not sure if I want to install a particular habit for life, I can try it for just 30 days to see what happens. It’s “try before you buy,” something I learned from developing and selling shareware games. I highly recommend you use this approach as well. After all, 30 days out of your entire life isn’t much to ask. If the new habit is a dud, it’s no big whoop. But what if it leads to a major breakthrough? Then you’ve already locked in the gains for the long term.

For example, I’m a vegan, which means I eat plant foods only. I’ve been a vegan for over 9 years now, and so has my wife. But in January 1997, I wasn’t remotely sure if I wanted to be a vegan for life. I researched the subject in earnest and concluded it would be a major dietary and ethical improvement for me. There were a lot of compelling reasons to go vegan. But I didn’t want to commit to never eating any animal products again. The whole notion seemed too extreme. Yet I was curious. Non-vegans thought the diet was too extreme, but long-term vegans certainly didn’t have a problem with it — to them it was just normal. This is a common human pattern — things often appear extreme from the outside looking in but normal from the inside. I didn’t want to never know what it was like. So I used the 30-day trial to experience veganism first-hand while simultaneously conditioning the habit. If I really hated the experience, it wouldn’t have been hard to go back to eating the old way. And of course, I ended up loving the experience, especially after losing seven pounds in the first seven days. I felt better, I had more energy, and I felt far more clear-headed and mentally focused. I’m technically still on that 30 day trial, which has now been running for over 3300 days. So in a way, I just never got around to quitting. The pattern has been conditioned.

Now the habit of being vegan is so ingrained in me that I can scarcely stomach the thought of putting animal products into my mouth. A piece of steak is less appetizing to me than a bowl of sawdust. Seriously. I get a sick feeling in my stomach just thinking about it. It’s very hard for me to eat at a steakhouse, even if I just order vegetables, because the smell of the rotting flesh makes me nauseous. To me the thought of eating animals creates the same emotional reaction you might have towards slaying and eating one of your own family members. Total disgust. What fascinates me is that this negative emotional reaction to eating animals isn’t something I ever consciously conditioned. I only focused on changing my actions, but as a side effect, my thoughts changed as well.

A change in your actions will induce a change in your thoughts too. That’s a powerful concept, and keep this in mind when you begin a new 30-day trial. For example, if you never exercise, you may think that exercise is hard and not worth the effort. But when you’ve been exercising for a long time, your thoughts about exercise will be very different. You’ll probably think that it feels good, it’s invigorating, and it’s easy and fun. Many people look at others who are getting great results in some area and assume they must be stressing themselves out to get those results. But that’s rarely true. It certainly isn’t true for me. I’m one of the most relaxed people you’ll meet. So don’t assume that the thoughts you have now will be the same ones you have once the habit is conditioned. Starting a new habit is often hard, but maintaining a habit is much easier. Do you think walking is hard? Hopefully not. But there was a time in your life where it was very difficult for you, and you may have found the experience very frustrating. Today it’s just a habit that you don’t even think about.

By taking your existing knowledge and turning it into 30-day trials, you will lock in the gains. This is how to translate “knowing how” into “actual doing.” I don’t just know about the vegan diet. I eat a vegan diet every day. I don’t just know how to write. I write thousands of words every week. I don’t just know how to speak. I get up and give speeches on a regular basis.

And of course it’s that action part that generates real results. Your results will show you if your actions are effective or not. I can see that my diet is effective because I have a lot of energy. I credit my diet as one of the reasons I feel so good and have an easy time managing my emotions. If I were to eat a meal like most Americans do, I’d probably feel lousy, and my health would suffer for it. But if I enjoy a simple meal such as five delicious tangerines (as I’m doing right now… and getting juice all over my keyboard), I feel terrific and energetic for hours afterwards. And what could be simpler than peeling a tangerine? There’s no cooking, no utensils, and no dishes. I don’t even need to take a break from writing to eat them. And tangerines are filled with thousands of beneficial substances that no pill or powder on earth can replicate. Best of all, eating a really good tangerine is pleasurable. That’s probably why I buy them by the sack. By comparison the way most people eat is way too complicated. I prefer to let nature do most of the work.

If a habit is effective, you should see it produce measurable results. If you aren’t getting effective results, then you know your actions aren’t working, and you need to return to the knowledge stage to improve your model of reality. For example, parenting a 5-year old (actually 6-year old now, since today is her birthday) and a 2-year old is an area of my life where I don’t seem to be getting the results I want. My current habits appear ineffective. So this means it’s back to the drawing board to acquire more knowledge, make some adjustments, and try again. Eventually I’ll figure it out, hopefully before the kids become teenagers. 🙂

Nobody’s perfect. We all have weak areas, and sometimes we don’t even know how to correct them yet. But there are plenty of situations where we know how to make an improvement, and we just aren’t doing it. For example, it’s possible that you or someone you know is overweight, but you already know how to lose weight. Reading another diet book isn’t what you need. I can save you time there, because knowing how to lose weight is easy. Just eat more super-healthy foods (fresh fruits and vegetables, especially green vegetables), eat fewer unhealthy foods (animal products, sweets, high-fat foods), and exercise regularly. If you simply do those three things and take them far enough, you’ll lose weight. Guaranteed. And if you turn those actions into long-term habits, you’ll keep the weight off for life and feel great. A simple and effective solution, but one that requires action, not merely knowledge. A few words is all the knowledge you need: eat plants and exercise. I’ve read more health and diet books than I can remember, and all of that knowledge is worth very little compared to the simple habit of eating plants and exercising. Even a child can do that.

One of the best things about locking in personal development gains is that you don’t lose the knowledge after you condition the habit. When you cash out your stock investments, you must surrender ownership of your stock. But with personal development, you add the habit on top of the knowledge. How can you possibly lose? Imagine what it would be like if you could cash out your stock and still keep the stock too, so then you could sell it again to someone else. With stocks this is illegal, but with personal development you’re free to do this. If you know how to communicate well, for instance, you can condition good communication habits with your romantic partner, your co-workers, your family members, your friends, total strangers, and so on. And after each bit of conditioning, you still retain the knowledge, ready to be applied again whenever you see the need. But if you don’t apply it, that knowledge is worthless.

Application is hard work. Reading a book or listening to an audio program is easy. Doing nothing with that knowledge is even easier. Doing nothing is the default. Again, it’s like owning stock. Sitting on a stock you own is what happens by default. Selling your stock requires action. And the downside of personal development knowledge is that while some of it will increase in value over time, much of it will depreciate. Human memory isn’t as reliable as a stock trading account (assuming you have an honest broker). You’ll soon forget what you’ve learned. And domain-specific knowledge, like anything technology-related, can quickly become obsolete. So if you don’t apply your personal development knowledge now, not as a one-shot event but as an ongoing habit, the value of your portfolio may very well decline.

I’ve lost count of the number of habits I’ve consciously conditioned. They run on autopilot, so I don’t even have to think about them. If I were to list them all out, it would make my life look very complicated. But in practice it’s very simple because my subconscious runs the whole show. Once a habit has been conditioned, I can forget about it. For example, I don’t normally think about being vegan. I just eat what’s in my kitchen. When my wife and I go grocery shopping, we don’t even notice the non-vegan foods in the store. It’s like they’re invisible to us. If I look at a restaurant menu, my eyes just glaze over all the non-vegan items and look for the veggies I can order. I don’t even have to think about it. So the cognitive load of eating this way is no greater than it was when I used to eat a much less healthy diet. My subconscious simply directs me to what it now considers food, and anything else gets classified as non-edible, so my brain automatically dismisses it as irrelevant background noise, just like you’d tune out other conversations in a crowded room.

What do you know that you aren’t yet applying? Think of something simple. You probably even have a lot of common sense knowledge that you aren’t applying. Is your home a mess? Do you know how to clean it up? Is your body a mess? Would you like to clean it up too? What about your goals? Do you have them in writing where you can see them each day?

Reading sexy new personal development books is all well and good, but how about using what you already know? You might be able to realize massive gains just by taking action on the most basic common sense knowledge. Organize your stuff. Throw out junk you don’t need. Write down your goals. Eat healthy food. Go for a jog every morning. Join a club to make new friends. Give your mate a hug, and tell him/her what you love most about him/her. Simple things. But when turned into lifelong habits, simple is huge.

What I want you to do now is to pick one piece of knowledge you have in your head that you haven’t been applying, and commit to applying it daily for just 30 days. Keep it simple, but choose something that would really make a difference over the next five years if you were to make it a daily habit. Don’t try to resculpt your whole life at once. Just pick one simple habit in an area that’s been holding you back. For example, if you’re wasting too much time checking email each day, consider the habit of not checking your email until the last hour of your workday. Nothing too complicated. Start small, and pick something where your odds of success are high.

Read 30 Days to Success, and then get started as soon as you can. If it’s appropriate to do so, tell other people what you’re doing — even ask them to join you. This is a great thing to do with your co-workers, especially if you work on a lively, competitive environment. Write your first line of code within 10 minutes of sitting down at your desk. Make your first sales call before you say more than 10 words to anyone else. Write that first paragraph before breakfast each morning. Remember that it’s only 30 days. If you don’t like the results, you can always quit at the end, but not before. But if you like the results, you’ll have locked in the pattern, and it will be much easier to continue. Go for it!