August 8, 2017 by Dymphna

How to find your way out of a cluster-fuddle

Radically overhauling your life should be as easy as getting up early and going for a walk.

Sometimes, students come to me and it’s easy. They got their lives more or less on track, and all they need is the right technical knowledge to help them evaluate a good deal and put a plan into action.

If only they were all that easy.

Sometimes students come to me and it’s like their entire life is on fire. Like, every aspect of their life is literally in crisis.

They’ve got a stack of debt and some shocker investments (if they even know what their net financial position is!)

Their relationships with their parents and their partner and their kids are toxic.

And their bodies are breaking down. They’re stressed and over worked. They’re putting on weight, going bald, and growing hair on their backs. And don’t get me started on the men!


Of course, they’re always the ones looking for a magic bullet. As if I could say, “Oh yes, just go and get a 2 into 4 townhouse development. That’ll sort you out.”

If only it were that easy.

Their lives are a total cluster-fuddle. You can’t sort any one aspect of their lives out because of the mess that the other aspects are in.

I try to put on my best bed-side manner, but inside I’m like, “OMG. What has happened to your life?!?”

But there’s always hope. And you know what the first thing I say to them is?

Get yourself a new routine. Set an alarm, get up early, and go for a walk. Start getting a little exercise.

(And they’re always so disappointed. What? That’s it?)

Of course this one habit by itself doesn’t change much. Their parents are still calling up and leaving insults on their voicemail, and they’re still up to their eyeballs in debt. But hopefully, we can set in train a process of change – a process I’ve seen play out successfully time and time again.

It’s something I call the School of Small Wins.

I’m not sure why exactly exercise is such a powerful first step.

Partly I think it’s because at the end of the day, we’re physical beings. If our health goes, our energy goes, and everything is hard.

But when our energy is good, then our mood is brighter, we’re not so daunted by the challenges before us, and we’re simply enjoying life more.

So the truth is, if you want to tackle some serious challenges, getting your health in order is a powerful first step.

But an exercise routine is also what’s known in the literature as a “key-stone” habit. A key-stone habit is something that is small and almost insignificant in and of itself. But it is something that can become the corner-stone of an entirely new habit architecture eventually…

… and through that new habit architecture, an entirely new life.

As far as I can tell, psychologists don’t really know exactly what makes a good keystone habit. But they do know that they work.

Personally, I think when we’re talking about key-stone habits and my School of Small Wins, we’re talking about the same thing.

That is, if you’re entire life is in crisis, then you’ve just got to find one area, no matter how small, that you can take complete control of.

So you say, yes, morning exercise is my domain. I’m taking complete control of it. Every day I will meet the challenge – I will fight the urge to throw my running shoes in the rubbish bin or feed them to the dog. And every day I will win.

And I will use that victory to help me remember what victory is like. And I will use that control to remember what control is like.

And I will use that commitment to my self to remember what it’s like to have and follow through on commitments to my self.

This small and insignificant victory will become my anchor. Even if the rest of my life is in chaos, this is the place where I will feel in control – where I’ll remember what it’s like to be in control of my life.

In time, it becomes a victory you can build on it. You can expand the sense of control and power you have in your morning routine, and express it in other aspects of your life.

Bit by bit.

This is the School of Small Wins.

Or imagine you’re struggling with cashflow – say you’re currently losing $200 a week.

Don’t just try to jump straight to +$2,000 a week, as much as you might want that.

Set yourself a small goal. Aim to go from -$200 to -$150 a week. Get enough control to do this. Get those runs on the board. Get your momentum going before you start reaching for the stars.

It’s like the saying goes:

How do you eat an elephant?

One mouthful at a time.

(Unless you’re at my place at Christmas in which case it’s medium-rare and we’ll need another elephant thanks.)

Over the past few weeks we’ve been talking about how to train ourselves, like a prize dog, in more productive habits.

Focusing on key-stone habits, or the school of small wins, is a very effective way to do that and a fantastic place to start.

Do something positive, no matter how small. Do it again.

Get those runs on the board. Get those wins in the bag. Start remembering what it’s like to be a winner, and to be in control.

In time, as your capacity expands and more and more of your life enters the winner’s circle, you will be able to completely overhaul your life.

And at no point will any of it feel any harder than getting up at 6am and going for a walk.

Just one mouthful at a time.

Nom nom nom.

Ever started with small wins? What did you focus on?