The ACE technique for starting new things

If you’re like me, you often find yourself in situations where you’ve identified good long-term goals but find it daunting to take short-term actions toward those goals.

“I want to get in better shape, but the idea of getting up an hour earlier for the rest of my life sounds terrible.”

“I know I need to talk to my customers, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life writing cold emails."

In your head, you can viscerally understand the sacrifices of doing the right thing. In contrast, the long-term results seem vague, theoretical, and distant. How do you muster the motivation to get started?

One useful mental trick I’ve found in this situation is something I call the ACE technique. There are three simple steps:

  • Advice: imagine you’re giving advice to someone else in your position. What are the concrete next steps you’d recommend they take?
  • Commit: identify how long each day you feel comfortable taking your own advice. I usually find 30 minutes or an hour is good. Some activities also have a natural “increment” that you can use as your commitment, like “I will send one cold email to a potential customer every day.”
  • Exit ramp: give yourself an exit ramp by identifying a date when you’ll reevaluate your commitment. This date needs to be soon enough where the commitment feels like a sacrifice but doable. “I’ll get up early to exercise for two weeks: if I want to stop after that, it’s okay.” Put this date on your calendar so you don’t miss it.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find it significantly easier to take the right next steps because you’re not committing to that decision forever.

This technique takes advantage of the fact that the idea of doing something is often scarier than the reality. By the time you reach your exit ramp, you often find yourself saying things like “I can’t do this forever, but I can do it for another two weeks.” Once you’ve stacked a few of those commitments together, you’ve started to build a habit so the activity requires less motivation to sustain.

If you reach your exit ramp and want to give up: that’s okay! A genuine willingness to reassess or postpone work towards your goal is what makes this technique work. Put another date on the calendar to reevaluate if you can fit the goal into your life.

There are times in life when it’s genuinely impossible to take steps towards long-term goals: you just had a baby, or your parents are sick and you need to take care of them, or you’re moving, or you’re wrapping up your thesis. During those times, take solace in the fact that you have a date on the calendar when you can reassess what feels right. When the time is right, this technique can help you take the right first steps.

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