Get back on track with Success Factoring

Short on time or attention?

  1. Skip the story and go straight to the guided walk-through of the technique, OR

  2. Skip both and go directly to the step-by-step exercise at the end

The story

I’m embarrassed. Deeply embarrassed.

The last time I published a post on HabitLab was in late 2014. It’s now mid-2015. Yikes.

Oh, the irony. Person who writes about habits struggles to maintain a writing habit.

Mug that says "#1 Hypocrite"

For part of that time, I had some reasonably good reasons for not publishing. I was trying to unpack my motivations for blogging and whether another activity might better serve those goals. I was struggling to learn how to support a loved one with a complex, poorly understood, maddeningly frustrating illness, and myself through it all.

But those reasons don’t account for all of the time that I put HabitLab on the back burner.

To be totally honest, I was afraid.

Afraid of spending gobs of precious time on something that didn’t end up helping anybody. Afraid of writing in the “wrong” voice. Sounding too inauthentic. Being too personal. Being too impersonal. Being too indirect. Being too direct. Too much story. Not enough story. Too basic. Too advanced. Not original enough. This and that and this and that… and so on.

I got paralyzed by all of the options. By the possibility that this labor of love would be dismissed as adding no value to the internet, soothing no one’s pain, not even my own.

“Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art, be it acting, writing, painting, or living itself, which is the greatest art of all.” – Ray Bradbury

HabitLab stopped being a safe place for me.

Every time I sent an email with HabitLab in the footer, I imagined the reader clicking on the link, seeing the date of the latest post, and thinking, “What a chump. What an embarrassingly navel-gazing post dated from ages ago.”

HabitLab became a place of “should”. Every time I thought about writing, or tried to, I felt my mind flit away to something else. How about taking care of errands. How about checking email?

I couldn’t summon the energy or willpower to get started.

I worried I was getting depressed again.


Then I realized the simple beauty of my situation — that I was not alone.

Far from it.

In fact, in my years of studying behavior change, I’d amassed some powerful tools for getting unstuck from people who had been in my exact same situation.

One of those was the Center for Applied Rationality’s Aversion Factoring technique.

One of those was the Unstuck app.

And finally, one of those was the following simple reflection exercise I created/discovered for myself, inspired by powerful coaching techniques and the teachings of behavior change guru Professor BJ Fogg.

I’m calling it the Success Factoring technique.

Now, some techniques — like Aversion Factoring — have you unpack your failure and examine it in a dispassionate way. “Why did you fail?” they ask. “What specific factors caused you to fail?”

That can work sometimes, and it has for me on some occasions.

But for problems around which we’ve accumulated significant baggage, even just thinking about the things we’ve failed at repeatedly can be too painful.

So what’s a person to do?

Try a different approach!

One that reframes the problem to a position of momentum and strength by having you think about your successes and challenging you to learn from them instead.

Reflecting on past successes is like the mental equivalent of a “power pose” — it can give you the energy and confidence you need to get past the baggage of repeated failures. Instead of focusing on your weaknesses, you focus on your strengths.

Power pose

A guided walk-through of the Success Factoring technique

So how, concretely, did I use this technique to get unstuck?

First, I put myself in a winner’s mindset by recalling times I’d struggled but eventually succeeded before. Sure, I was struggling with this one habit, but many of my other life-enriching habits were alive and kicking.

I savored my successes to fully immerse myself in my winner’s mindset and create a fun, safe space for me to reflect.

Then, I got curious.

I asked myself, what have I learned about creating new habits that I can apply to my situation now?

I thought about why I’d succeeded at building other habits like journaling and meditation. In particular, I focused on meditation — a behavior that I’d felt a strong aversion to and had accumulated some serious failure baggage around, but had managed to convert into an automatic routine, a joyful end to my day.

What made me successful in creating current habits?

For each success, I brainstormed a mongo list of factors contributing to my success.

Here’s a screenshot of my lists and a link to the full set, but please don’t feel compelled to read through them.

Mongo list of success factors

The goal was to surface as many factors as possible — including the seemingly silly, selfish, and embarrassing reasons that I would be less willing to share publicly.

What were the common success factors?

I compared my two lists and tried to see what overlap there was between them. The following success factors stood out, although there are likely many others. Note that they aren’t MECE (jargon for “mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive”) by any measure, but they’re a move towards a unique, deeply personalized framework that I can now use to debug any habits I’m struggling to develop.

1. Starting small and leveling up very gradually

For both habits, I started with BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits program and then gradually leveled up with a success spiral approach.

My success criteria in the beginning were laughably small. I designed the rules of the game to make it easy for me to win from day one and leveled up at a pace that was sustainable for me. I also relaxed criteria during periods of stress by falling back to pre-established “checkpoints” when life got crazy (e.g., an urgent health issue, a critical family situation, a stressful day at work, travel).

2. Operating in a safe space

While I would love to be a strict practitioner of growth mindset, the truth (as with many people) is that I’m not completely there yet in all areas of my life. I still struggle with self-criticism and perfectionism, particularly with regard to work I showcase publicly. As a result, it’s better for me to recognize this personal limitation of mine and work within the constraint while I’m still developing my growth mindset skills.

Not surprisingly, I succeeded at developing both my meditation and journaling habits in a safe space. To me, that meant being free from potential scrutiny and judgment by others while my habit was still fragile and developing.

I didn’t publicly announce my goals or use public shaming as a motivator (negative reinforcement, or what I call a “stick-based” or “fear-based” approach, which many experts on behavior change consider to be an inferior motivator for establishing a positive habit). Rather, I tried to develop a deep, intrinsic joy in the process (what I call a “carrot-based” or “joy-based” approach). I plan to write more on this later.

3. Feeling that I’m doing it for me

For both my meditation habit and my journaling habit, I have the distinct sense of doing them for me, first and foremost. No feeling of “should”, “must”, or “hafta”.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this success factor doesn’t appear in your list. I’ll bet for some people, feeling that they’re doing something for others may actually be more motivating than doing it for themself.

While my long-term work is strongly motivated by wanting to help others, I learned a hard lesson in high school about over-committing myself and undermining my ability to actually achieve my goals. So my desire to help myself before helping others might be an internalization of this lesson in sustainability.

4. Crystal clear benefit

Although I had tried meditating and journaling before, I didn’t succeed in making them into daily habits until I was completely sold on the benefits to myself. With meditation, that came in the form of accumulated exposure to compelling evidence that it could help with anxiety and physical health problems. With journaling, I noticed an immediate catharsis from processing hurt and angry feelings in writing.

Put another way, I understood the link between the behavior and the reward at a visceral, automatic level. The shorter the delay between the behavior and the reward, the easier it will be to create this link and establish a new habit.

5. Cultivating a desired identity

Both my meditation habit and my journaling habit became intertwined with my identity. The more I journaled and meditated, the more I thought of myself as someone who is committed to being self-aware, consistent, calm, clear-headed, emotionally stable — traits I had always wanted but didn’t find came “naturally”.

Once I had established the new identity, ego and inertia motivated me to defend it.

6. Feeling “ahead of the pack”

Finally, it’s embarrassing to admit, but I’m currently still motivated by feeling like I’m “ahead of the pack” and part of an elite few.

This is an example of a success factor that you might be tempted to censor. It’s OK to be motivated by less-than-saintly things. The important thing is to keep trying to understand and unpack what drives you. (And by the way, motivations can evolve and grow with time, so don’t despair if your list is currently filled with seemingly petty things.)

It’s better to design for you as you are today than to try to design unrealistic plans for some ideal self. Remember, nobody’s perfect.

How did my approach with blogging differ?

I then went through each of the success factors and checked how much they were present in my attempts at cultivating a blogging habit.

1. Starting small and leveling up very gradually

I didn’t quite use a success spiral. Even starting with a input-based goal of writing for 15 minutes a day was, for me, too big, given my past baggage around creating public artifacts.

2. Operating in a safe space

I did attempt to create a safe space by publishing several blogposts before I told anybody I was blogging, but my expectations for myself were still way too high.

3. Feeling that I’m doing it for me

It didn’t feel like I was doing it for me. I made the mistake of asking for feedback too early, before I’d developed confidence in myself and direction with where I wanted to go. I felt stifled by people’s expectations of me and whether I would come across the right way, whether my efforts to teach my hard-earned lessons (which I could easily just keep to myself!) would ever help anybody and have a reasonable ROI (return on investment). Journaling, by contrast, was 100% for my own benefit and a much safer space to document what I’d learned.

4. Crystal clear benefit

I wasn’t 100% sold on the benefits to myself and was still trying to unpack my original motivations for blogging and whether they might be better served by some other pursuit.

5. Cultivating a desired identity and 6. Feeling “ahead of the pack”

I didn’t have an identity around it yet, which was exacerbated by comparing myself to established bloggers who were impossibly better than me and to peers who were blogging more consistently and had bigger audiences.

So, based on this analysis, what am I going to try doing differently?

Success factor Experiments I’m going to try
1. Starting small and leveling up very gradually At the beginning, my only criteria for success will be whether I tried to get started, to follow the “just get started” principle espoused by procrastination researcher, podcaster, and author Dr. Timothy Pychyl.

I’ll start writing sessions by starting a Pomodoro timer and playing dance music to boost my motivation. Even though the dance music will probably lower my writing quality initially, the trade-off for the energy boost and positive association is worth it.

I’ll reward myself by treating myself to two snacks I love (pieces of Trader Joe’s chile-spiced mango and sips of Oi Ocha Dark Green Tea — because I know you’re just dying to know), but only while I’m on-task.

2. Operating in a safe space I realized that I’ve somehow managed to create a “safe space” through a few perspective shifts. One such shift: I started paying attention to advice from friends and fellow bloggers that consistency matters more than quality in the beginning. Quality will come once the consistency is established.

Some articles that have helped me:

“Isn’t it obvious?” by Jordan Scales, Khan Academy developer and “grizzled ex-cop with a heart of gold”
“Before Seth Godin was Seth Godin” by Ailian Gan, product manager at BloomReach and wonderfully thoughtful writer

3. Feeling that I’m doing it for me, and 4. Crystal clear benefit Initially, write only about topics that I’m interested in and am actively exploring to solve my own problems.This may seem ridiculously selfish, since I may avoid “beginner” topics more relevant to a broader audience, but I think it’s the right thing for helping me build momentum.

If I viscerally grok the direct connection between writing and my problems getting resolved, I’ll do more of it.

5. Cultivating a desired identity and 6. Feeling “ahead of the pack” Focus on people who are just getting started and who haven’t gotten started yet.

Putting it into practice

The Success Factoring technique (step-by-step exercise)

  1. What’s the thing you feel you’ve failed at?
  2. Now, switch gears. Think of some past times you’ve struggled but eventually succeeded. If you can think of related struggles, great. But if they’re not super related, that’s okay too.
  3. Take the time to savor those successes to immerse yourself in your winner’s mindset. Remind yourself that they were serious wins, that because you’ve won before you can win again.
  4. With each one, brainstorm as many factors as you can that may have contributed to your success.
  5. Identify common factors contributing to your success.
  6. Analyze your current struggle and ask whether or not the success factors are present.
  7. If not, why? How could you change your approach to use what you’ve learned about your success patterns?

Huge thanks goes to the extraordinary David Hu and the endlessly entertaining Jordan Scales for giving feedback on drafts of this post.

  • aileykoshy

    Your decision to focus on success rather than failure is reflected in the book ‘Now – Discover Your Strengths’, which was pretty much the first book to articulate that personal development is only tangentially about addressing your weaknesses, though that is needed too – but it’s most important to develop your strengths

    • Thanks for your comment, aileykoshy!

      Definitely — I think it can be really value to focus on your strengths when starting personal development, in part because it can help you build momentum and courage to tackle other things (weaknesses or completely new ground).

      At the same time, I’m a big proponent of growth mindset — I do believe that, ultimately, it’s the most superior approach to develop long-term. Short-term, though, many people can be too self-critical to fully internalize growth mindset, so starting with strengths makes sense.

  • Eric Thorne

    Hey Steph,

    Thank you again for sharing your findings, and having the guts to expose some of your deeper motivations. There is a wealth of other information here, too. I checked out the TEDx talk on aversion factoring and must admit that even the first “trick” he outlines is really useful. Writing down our motivations can help us discover that we might not be motivated at all, or might be motivated by things that we’re not necessarily proud of.

    In the context of “hacking yourself”, and among phrases like “training yourself to like something you previously avoided”, I’m curious if there are things that are immutable in the self. Or things that are so deeply seated that they are impractical to try to change, or impossible to change by yourself. To make it more concrete: when do we give up on things, even though we feel compelled to do them?