The principles of leading a ‘good life’ are not subjective. Honesty, taking action, giving without expectation of return, regular exercise, clean diet. They are the same now as they have been for thousands of years. Call it dao, call it logos, call it the seven habits of highly effective people. These strategies lead to the conditions for success. We know what we must do. We have known it for a long time.
And yet, we struggle to commit to these strategies long term. Any tactic we discover never seems to be ‘the one’. Why? Because our circumstances are changing all the time. A tactic works for a while because it matches the moment. As soon as the circumstances change, the tactic has to change too. But too often we make the mistake of thinking the tactic is the strategy.
When you consider the tactic and strategy to be the same, the failure of the tactic hinders progress. A natural cue for change becomes an abandonment of principles. Circumstances will always change. Thus, tactics will always fail. To maintain strategy over the long term we must change tactics, but not strategy.
Strategy represents the desired principle that we wish to embody. It is a 10,000ft view of who we are, and what we intend to achieve. Tactics are the implementation of strategy. The strategy determines the tactics.
Eating well is a strategy. What food you eat, when you eat it, how you prepare it, where you source it? These are all tactics.
When defining strategy we do not consider the practical implications of it. A strategy is always a high level concept. By design, it lacks a specific endpoint. There is no end to honesty, or proactive action. A strategy develops as a practice, a lifelong pursuit. One of the reasons tactics has to change is because of a growing adeptness in our practice. First a strategy is aspirational, then it is habitual, and finally it is as much part of us as our name.
A tactic is concrete. It has steps, processes, metrics, goals. Our current circumstances define the available tactics. It reflects our available resources and current priorities. Where a strategy is not informed by the funds in your bank account, a tactic must be. If you can’t execute a tactic, it is useless to you.
A tactic only works when designed for a specific moment in time. It must reflect your specific needs at that time. And this is why all tactics fail. It is a natural side effect of your personal development. Even when your resources remain the same, your commitment to a tactic has changed who you are. As you change, so will the tactics that are effective. What gets you from 0% to 50% will not be the same as what gets you from 50% to 60%.
Imagine you have been going to the gym four times a week. Your new energy and health has changed your life. Your Boss has promoted you because of your improved performance. It’s a thrilling role but your time has become much more limited. You aren’t getting to the gym four times a week anymore. Workouts are being skipped and the guilt is building. The tactic no longer brings any joy, instead even thinking about it fills you with dread. As the tactic fails, so too does the strategy.
Separate tactics and strategy, and you avoid this pitfall. In this case, the original tactic has broken down due to a new limitation on resources - time. A tactic starved of resources will result in strategic failure. Instead, adapt the tactic to the new restraints. For example, a low-equipment, time-efficient home workout. The tactic has changed, but you’ve retained the strategy.
The uncomfortable truth is that the specific tactic is rarely that important. The determinants of success are invariant - determination, discipline, quality, organisation, appropriateness, commitment. The majority of tactics for the majority of disciplines will get you 80% of the way there. Good enough for 80% of people. There is no need to be dogmatic to any particular tactic. Don’t flit around at random, but don’t let ‘time spent on X/Y/Z’ become a vanity metric.
Change tactic as soon as your circumstances change. Time available. Money available. Equipment Available. Skill level. Location. Curiosity. Interest. Friends. Family.
But sometimes nothing has changed and a tactic still fails.
What have lottery winners, the recently married and quadruple amputees, have in common?
They are all as happy as each other. Which is to say, an average, mundane amount. How can this be true? Hedonic adaptation is the tendency for humans to return to a base level of happiness after major events. This is why an increase of wealth rarely makes you happier. Even in extreme cases this is true. People have lost all motor function after a car accident, and six months later their happiness is back to base levels. Take solace (or sorrow) in that no matter what happens to you, good or bad, you will almost always feel exactly as you did before.
Usually hedonic adaptation is a warning against chasing wealth or buying that new watch. But in the context of long term strategy, it is the reason tactics sometimes cease to work for you. The tactics has lost any sense of joy, and become so boring as to become unbearable. Switching tactic exploits the lag-time before you become re-habituated to a tactic. Switching on a consistent basis means that interest and motivation remains high.
We all know what we must do to have a good life. We’ve been reading and writing about it since before the greeks. But we do not know how best to do it. To choose one tactic and stick with it forever is arrogance. We are unable to predict the path forwards, we are only able to take one step along it at a time. Who is to say which tactic is best? We can only say which tactic is letting us take the next step. As soon as we can’t step forwards, we must find a new way to keep moving.
It’s worth remembering that very big ideas take action in very small moments. A tactic is a way of controlling more of those moments. A moment is tiny, so the step forward is tiny too. But make enough tiny little steps, and you can move a very long way. Keep your eyes on the horizon, keep your feet shuffling forwards, and change your tactics, not your strategy.