Stop Wasting Time and Effort Developing Fragile Capabilities

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Resilient MotivationWe have reached that point in the new year when those people who fully committed to resolutions will start  losing momentum.  Those people that didn’t fully commit probably never made it out of the first week.   Yet even those people who make a serious effort often don’t last more than two months.  If you are one of those people who genuinely resolves to take action, but then easily loses momentum, then I suspect you are wasting your time on  fragile capabilities.

What is a Fragile Capability?

Fragile capabilities are those skills that abandon us as soon as our willpower wanes even slightly.  Generally these are the things we think we should do.  They are the things that sound like good ideas

It would really benefit me in the future to be able to speak a second language!

I have tried twice to learn Mandarin.  The second time I accounted for my mistakes first time around and really committed to sticking with it.  For several months I methodically adhered to the plan and learned a lot…until eventually, life got busy and other priorities demanded not only my time but also my focus and mental energy.  Once I stopped studying regularly I quickly lost all momentum and shortly thereafter forgot almost everything I had learned.  If I was to pick it up again today I would have to start at the beginning for the third time.

It sure would have been a good idea to learn Mandarin and I am sure it would have benefited me at some point in the future…it was also a huge waste of time.

How Do You Recognize Fragile Goals?

We have all heard the cliche “use it or lose it”.  Fragile capabilities have two characteristics:

  • You have no current use for them
  • Your skill level diminishes quickly without practice or reinforcement

If your resolution fits both of the above criteria then you might as well not bother.  I can almost guarantee you won’t stick with it for the long term.  These are not vague criteria either, “current use” does not mean “potential use”.  If you won’t use it today without an act of willpower then you are probably wasting your time.

Fixing Fragile Goals and Developing Stable Capabilities

The good news is that “potential use” can be made current by deliberately adjusting your context.  A few years ago I started taking yoga classes.  My company subsidized a class on-site once a week and I thought it would be a good idea to be more flexible.  The instructor was great, the classes were both challenging and relaxing, and I did get more flexible.  The only problem was I had no use for that flexibility…if I took a couple weeks off I would return as inflexible as the day I started.

When I started Crossfit I was again reminded of my terrible lack of flexibility.  Workout after workout was harder than it needed to be because with nearly every motion I was fighting the added resistance of my own opposing muscles.  Again I resolved to work on my flexibility, only this time I had a use for it.  Once I fixed a given flexibility problem I would then use the newly available range of motion every day.  Hard earned progress that I once had to maintain through diligence and willpower, I could now put on autopilot.

I realized through this experience that progress comes quite easily once improvement becomes an imperative.  Put me in a competitive environment and you better believe those flexibility issues are going to be addressed quickly.

If you are pursuing fragile goals, ask yourself “Why?” – if you can answer that question with appropriate specifics then adjust your context accordingly:

  • Why do you want to learn a foreign language? – If you plan to live or work abroad then make concrete plans and start the immersion now or stop wasting your time until you get there.
  • Why do you want to lose weight, exercise, or eat healthier? – Figure out what you would be doing if you already were healthy then start doing that today.
  • Why do you want to learn a new professional skill? – If you are looking for a promotion or new job then start adopting the relevant responsibilities today.

Stop humoring the fantasy that developing fragile capabilities represents any kind of progress…start creating the context that will demand and nurture the skills you want to acquire.

Taking it to the Next Level - Self Reinforcing Capabilities

The most successful goals are those that create self-reinforcing capabilities.  In other words, they build their own context.  Self-reinforcing capabilities send you spiraling outward as each new accomplishment is also the stimulus for new growth.  They are the compliment to what Venkat Rao recently called Leveraged Resolutions.

Blogging has become a self-reinforcing goal for me.  As I put in more effort:

  • I connect with more people
  • I have more interesting conversations
  • I encounter more inspiring ideas
  • I receive more feedback and encouragement

All of the above stimulate improvement and further my motivation to dedicate more effort.

If you are chasing big goals you need to find leverage.  Determine one broad goal that can serve as a platform for developing pursuing the specifics.  Start building context around that and everything else will follow.

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  • BrianJAE

    Excellent point. Your ideas regarding leverage are similar to something that I first heard from self-help guru Tony Robbins. Tony suggested that no change was possible without first acquiring massive leverage over your mind.

    As human beings we think very methodically. Our thinking dictates that if we had tools ‘A’ and ‘B’ then of course we could complete project ‘C.’ Since neither ‘A’ nor ‘B’ therefore no ‘C.’
    Unfortunately (or rather, fortunately for those who understand the duality of humanity) as humans we are at once rational and adaptive creatures. The only way to change or improve is to create ‘C’ and then watch as we quickly acquire ‘A’ and ‘B.’

    Personally, I recently purchased a house that was in desperate need of repair. I have known all my life that plumbing, carpentry and wiring would probably come in handy at some point. I never learned how to do any of those things until faced with the reality of living in a dwelling in complete disrepair. Within a year I had become proficient in all of those skills.

    In your case, might I suggest a move to China?

    • GregoryJRader

      Hey Brian,
      Thanks for the great comment…hope you will make a habit of it.

      There is definitely a push vs pull metaphor lurking here. We definitely tend to think in terms of pushing ourselves to do X instead of creating circumstances that will naturally draw it out.

      To your suggestion, I think it is interesting how quickly we reverse the importance of our goals. I wanted to learn Mandarin precisely because I hoped to travel there. Yet, somehow that context gets lost and it becomes a goal in its own right. I still do hope to travel to China at some point but I won’t be wasting my time studying the language until that hope becomes a real plan.

  • Mannix

    A very interesting post. Over a year ago I read Nassims Talebs best selling book the black swan. I was fascinated by his ideas on the importance of robustness in an increasingly fragile world. One of his main ideas is to be ultra conservative with the majority of your resources and gamble wildly with the minority. This allows you to maximize the opportunities of a fragile world. Taleb made all his money by applying these ideas to the stock market and I think that most people try to apply his ideas to areas of high finance and investments. I have been thinking that the principle works far better in my personal life. 

    I have found that by using social situations instead of will power, I am a lot more successful at developing a handful of excellent personal habits. It seems to me that the simple tasks of being a healthy weight, staying in control of your finances and focusing a balanced spiritual / emotional outlook, are all that I need to make sure actually happen. With almost everything else I can take wild risks and experiment. Youth is the main resource that I have and I can’t think of a better way to invest it.

    I’m really enjoying your posts and ideas – keep it up!

    • GregoryJRader

      Interesting thoughts…
      Do you then allocate your time between these goals as you a might a financial portfolio? For example, if 80% of your portfolio is dedicated to ‘conservative ends’ do you then dedicate 80% of your time to health, finances, emotional health, etc? The analogy would seem to get complicated when the inputs and outputs are less standardized than dollars, though I definitely see the appeal of maintaining a ‘core portfolio’ and an ‘excess return portfolio’.

    • GregoryJRader

      Update, you might find the following video interesting:

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