The most important skill you can learn

What is the most valuable skill you can learn? Computer programming? Another language? Communication skills?

Instead of these, and other popular answers, I’d like to suggest it’s something we don’t even teach in schools:

The most important skill in life is being able to set goals and make them a reality.

Ask yourself, how often do you get an idea to do something: get in shape, expand your business, learn a new skill, and… nothing happens?

This kind of thing is distressingly common. The gap between most people’s intentions and their actions is frighteningly large.

Instead, most people act on a kind of default mode. They go with the flow, handling whatever challenges and crises fall into their lap. Maybe some efforts are made to improve things in one direction or another, but most of the time those plans fizzle out.

Sometimes you might even get really serious and tell yourself, “this time is different.” Except it usually isn’t. Life gets in the way and you go back to your starting point.

This situation is made worse by the fact that most people don’t even recognize that there is a skill to be learned here.

When people fail at their goals, what do they blame?

“I’m too busy.”

“I’m not sure what to focus on.”

“I don’t have enough willpower.”

“Now’s not the time, I’ll work on that next month/year/never…”

Very rarely do people respond to their mediocre track-record of following-up on their goals with, “Wow! I should really learn how to set goals and make them happen.”

I see things differently. I don’t think the main obstacle to setting goals and achieving them is that you’re too busy (who isn’t?). Or that you aren’t sure what you want to do (who is?). Or that you’re sometimes lazy and lacking willpower (everybody feels this way).

Instead, being able to choose goals that will make your life better, planning how you’ll achieve them, sticking to that plan and making adjustments as life gets in the way are all skills.

Like any other skill, these are skills which can be learned.

These are not always easy skills to learn. However, they’re always valuable ones to have mastered. The ability to set an intention—whether it be for an exercise, career or self-education goal—and to make it happen is the foundation of any other skills or abilities you develop.

I would like to teach this to you.

My team and I have been working on a brand-new course to teach you how to turn ideas for your life into a reality, called Make it Happen! Over this week, I’m going to give you some free lessons drawn from this course to give you a better idea of how it works.

The first lesson comes from a class of academic ideas surrounding the literature on goal-setting: expectancy theories.

The basic idea is this: You put in effort towards your activities based, in part, on your expectations of what is likely to come from that effort.

If you expect success, you’re more likely to pursue it doggedly. If you think failure is likely, or that your effort won’t bring rewards, you’re more likely to give up and lose interest.

Makes sense, right?

Except, now consider that your own effort changes how likely you view success. If you commit to something and work consistently at it for a long time, that itself will increase your chances of success. If you’re sloppy, lose focus and can’t sustain motivation, that will decrease your own expectations of future results.

This has the potential to create a dangerous spiral if you’re not careful. You don’t put in enough consistent effort into your goals because, your experience of the past shows that you are the kind of person who doesn’t tend to stick to things.

If, on the other hand, you start to stick to things better and get better results from those efforts, that too can form a spiral. Except now it’s a virtuous cycle where each example of sticking through with your own goals bolsters your commitment to take on bigger and more challenging versions in the future.

Over the next several days, I’m going to be giving more free lessons on the skill of goal-setting, to try to give you the tools to start your own virtuous cycle of setting and realizing your goals. However, these lessons will only go to my newsletter subscribers. If you are not already on the list, signup here:

After, starting on Monday, I’m going to open my new course Make it Happen! for those who want to go deeper and start the process of mastering this skill.

How Important is Growth?

There’s two common ways you can approach working on your goals and habits:

The first is progressive. This is where you start off easy, but make it a little bit harder each time, until you can eventually do very difficult things, with a lot less effort.

The second is consistent. Do the same thing, with the same expectations, each time. You don’t aim for growth, but maintaining the same, solid baseline.

A progressive plan for getting in shape might have you start by jogging one mile, then two, three, until you’re eventually running marathons. A consistent habit might pick a reasonable goal—say jogging two miles, and sticking to it without change for a long time.

Which is Better: Progressive or Consistent?

I have to admit, I’ve long favored progressive habits for many of my goals. For one, if you aren’t satisfied what you’re capable of right now, progressive is the only way to go. If you’re only lifting a five pound dumbbell at the gym, it’s unlikely you’ll work up to fifty without some progressive training.

Second, plateaus and stagnation is common. In both physical and mental challenges, complacency means we often settle into a routine and give up pushing to our full potential.

However, recently, I’ve started to adjust that view. I now think that a consistent habit can often outdo a progressive one, even if growth is your ultimate goal.

Managing Growth or Decline?

One way of looking at the difference between progressive and consistent habits is that the former are about managing growth, while the latter are about managing decline.

When you set up a progressive habit, you’re putting yourself on a path to improvement. Small, incremental adjustments in difficulty are almost certain to push your level up.

The downside with progressive habits is that they are harder to sustain. Difficulty may not increase linearly with progress, so you may start with a habit which is quite easy, and end up with it being extremely (or impossibly) difficult.

I had this experience personally a few years ago when I was working with a fitness program that had the basic strategy of starting with a low amount of weight, and every time you successfully completed the workout, you increased the weight by five pounds.

Although I did make progress with this approach, it quickly became unsustainable for me. While the workout schedule was manageable in the beginning, it was quickly becoming the case that my body hadn’t recovered from the last workout before the next one was set to begin. Eventually, I was forced to depart from the progressive training schedule it had established.

The reason for this, which I understand better now, is that strength improvements are closer to logarithmic than linear growth. That means that, although the weight is increasing by a constant factor, the difficulty is getting harder and harder.

Progressive training habits, therefore, often end up looking like sharp up-ticks, followed by some kind of failure/adjustment, with a variable amount of decline before another progressive increase can occur.

Consistent habits, on the other hand, are more about managing the decline phase. They don’t increase the difficulty, so progress doesn’t happen at the optimal rate. On the other hand, because difficulty is constant or declining, there’s less falling back to a lower level of difficulty after a failure, because you fail less.

Six months ago, I decided to try a different approach to fitness. Instead of an intensive, progressive schedule, I wanted to try an easy, lightweight one. Just fifty push-ups every day.

This was easy enough for me at the time. Plus, push-ups can be done anywhere. If I were traveling or sick, I could still do the workout. The goal was to engineer a habit that could be sustained regardless of how busy I was getting, rather than trying to push myself.

The result of this experiment has been that over the last six months, I’ve only missed it once. While I haven’t gained as much strength as I did during the progressive workouts years before, the results have been better than I had expected. It turns out, in my case, preventing decline was more important than trying to optimize for growth.

Which Should You Pick?

Progressive habits are less stable, but offer higher growth. Consistent habits offer lower growth, but are more stable.

A progressive habit can be better if you either expect low decline or a continued, long-term focus on growth. If this area of life is going to remain under the spotlight for you for years in the future, and if atrophy is slowed, you can probably keep pushing progressive training habits, despite the occasional need to restart and adjust.

Consistent habits are better when the domain of life you’re trying to improve rarely is your biggest priority. It also works better when decline becomes a bigger concern than progress.

For me, fitness works better as a consistent, than progressive, habit, because it’s not usually the main focus for my life, and getting weaker and fatter is a bigger concern of mine than becoming extremely fit.

On the other hand, things central to my career tend to look more like progressive habits. I usually can’t sustain them forever, but because my work is always a major part of my life, the progress made more than justifies the need to adapt them more frequently.

What about you? What are you working on right now? Would it be better suited to progressive or consistent scheduling?