When we think about coming up with a New Years resolution it’s because we want to make a change. Of course there are year long challenges, like Adam Sultan's LifeYears, which are great for making life more adventurous. But when we want to make a long term change to how we live on a more day to day basis or change how we approach a particular problem, we're more likely to come up with a resolution to give something up or taking on a new routine. The issue is we’re assuming we know what the solution should be to that particular problem. We often come up with a big grand plan to solve it, with no mechanism for looking at whether this new approach is actually working for us. We’ve either kept at it, or we’ve failed.
I challenge you to make 2017 your year of little failures and little learnings and have a go at iterating your way to something new.
Failure is an essential part of life. It enables us to learn and to find better solutions. If we ignore or even avoid failure, we’ll miss the biggest opportunities to find a better solution — whether that’s a way to get healthy, a new approach to finances or a different mindset to change how we view life. It’s only through embracing our failures that we can start to learn what works better, not just in general, but specifically for us.
So then, how can we create a situation where we’re setting ourselves up to actively learn from failure as a part of making progress?
Research has shown that the best way to improve a product is not through a top down approach of dreaming up a big cleaver plan. But rather, to keep testing little incremental improvements that, added together, make a big difference. This bottom up process of making a slight change and testing it to see if it improves the outcome or not, is far more successful than implementing a thought through grand plan or resolution (there is no plan!). Instead we need to aim to fail, often, and view all these little failures, not as a judgement on our character or ability, but as a vital part of the process of moving towards a better solution.
So why not take a similar approach to personal development as to product development. Make small failures, and importantly, the learning you can get from them, a key part of how you approach the year to come. The more often you fail, the more you learn about what works for you and what doesn’t.
My favourite example of this approach is Takeru Kobayashi, who was living on a low wage and need a way to earn more income. He looked at the main hot dog eating competition in the US and its prize money, and decided he would win it. Being a slim built Japanese guy you’d think he’d stand no chance against the Goliaths of the hot dog eating world. But he took an iterative approach. He broke it down and ran lots of little tests to find the best way of approaching the competition. From whether to eat the hot dog or the bun first, to dipping the bun in water and even what temperature of water worked best. And boy did it work. He entered the competition and blew the world record out of the water. It previously stood at 25 hot dogs in 12 minutes. He ate 50!
This approach can be applied to everything from trying to win competitions to growing a new business or making a career transition and even figuring out what kind of adventures you want to go on.
To help you get started here’s my ultra simple guide to failing — and learning — fast in 2017.
1. Break it down
Whatever you’re looking to achieve, try breaking it into small bite size parts. Maybe you want to cycle the length of the country in a record time, well we can break that down into numerous elements. Here are just a few; cycling technique, clothing choice, diet on the road, what time of day to eat, motivation, sleep and mind set etc etc.
There are endless little elements that, if you want to achieve a certain goal, you can iterate to find the best solution. This is exactly what the British Cycling team did in 2010, when there had never been a British winner since the Tour was started in 1903. They went on to win the Tour de France with in 2 years, in 2012 and 2013.
But you don’t have to go this in depth. Maybe all you want to know is how to improve one small element of something you're working on. If so, just pick one or two things to focus on.
2. Create little tests
How do we know if changing any one of those smaller elements makes any difference? We need to run a test. What if I eat three big meals a day or eat little and often while on the road, which enables me to cycle the furthest each day? These little tests will help you make small adjustments, that overall will maximise your impact.
3. Measure it
How will you know which test worked? Think about what you want to find out; distance v.s number of food breaks. Run several tests, keeping other variables the same, and measure the outcome.
Pick a way of measuring the outcome of the test that is appropriate for whatever it is you’re looking to find out.
4. Did it work for you?
Just because you got a slightly better result doing something one way doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. Don’t forget, this is all about you. If you find an improvement but hate doing something that way, drop it. There’s never only one way or a ‘best way’ to do anything. It’s your life, it’s your adventure and you can choose whichever solution feels right for you.
Extra step: what have you not even considered?
Maybe you make lots of little changes to what/how you eat and nothing seems to get traction.
A. remember you’ve learnt a lot from this. You now know it doesn't make much difference for you and instead you can look for more productive ways of spending your time.
B. what have you not yet considered? Maybe you’ll get more impact from looking at where you're going to sleep each night to maximise recovery. Maybe you could look at your route planning for optimal speed based on finding the most down hill sections. Maybe you need to collaborate with people or organisations that are able to support your ride. Think about the opposite of what you’ve been trying so far and see if there might be another opportunity to test something new there.
Of course, I’m a huge advocate for just doing it. Whatever it is you want to achieve you don’t need to have it all figured out first, starting is the most vital part. This is why iterating is such a great approach. You can just have a go and see what you learn.
Need support to help you make lots of little changes? Apply for one of the last few places on my Action Accountability group starting in February and make 2017 the year you take consistent small actions to change your life.