4 Simple Steps to Massive Success with Symbiotic Goals

by The Darwinian Doctor

In today’s post, I’ll teach you the four simple steps behind using symbiotic (self-reinforcing) goals to greatly increase the chance of achieving your goals.  

This post may contain affiliate links.

Last month, there were two things that were pissing me off.  

  • I had no time to work out except for the weekends.  
  • I had no time to work on my blog except for late at night.

These things were combining to make me unhappy, tired, and unhealthy.  I needed a solution to this situation to prevent a downwards spiral of burnout, diabetes, and blogging failure.

After a lot of brooding during my daily commute, I decided that the only way to fix the situation is to carve out time before my workday to do both of these things.  But easier said than done, right?  

Last year’s attempt = failure

Last year, I led a similar campaign to try to revamp my morning routine.  I read “Miracle Morning” by Hal Elrod, set my alarm for 5AM, and forced myself out of bed when it went off.  

I lasted all of 3 days before I was back to my usual rushed morning and late wake-ups.  I ended up exhausted and defeated.

That experience was instructive, and clued me into the challenges of trying to change something as ingrained as a morning routine.

Symbiotic goals

Necessity is the mother of all invention.  Because of my need for a solution this year, I developed a technique to greatly improve my chances of success with my early morning wakeups.  I call it symbiotic goal setting.

There are 4 elements:

  1. Identify the main goal
  2. Identify the barriers to achieving the goal
  3. Set symbiotic (self-reinforcing) goals to overcome all barriers
  4. Set a reward and timeline for achieving the main goal

Let’s break down each of these elements.

Identify the main goal

For me, my main goal was to wake up with enough time in the morning to do a quick workout or work on my blog.  I first aimed to get up at 4:30AM so I could be out the door by 5AM. After hearing about this, the Dr-ess threatened my life, so I decided to aim for a 5AM wake up time instead.  Marriage saved!

So the main goal was:  Wake up at 5AM and either get in a quick workout or spend time writing before work.

Identify the main barriers

This part took some thought.  I came up with a number of barriers.

  • I’m tired in the morning and my bed is cozy.  
  • I regularly stay up late at night watching endless shows on my phone
  • Staying up late makes me tired and less able to get up early

Set symbiotic (self-reinforcing) goals to overcome all barriers

When I thought about the barriers, I realized that I would never achieve my goal if I just tackled one of the barriers in isolation.  I needed to conquer them all at once if I wanted any chance of success.

So I set specific goals that each reinforced the likelihood of achieving my goal.  The goals reinforced each other and were “symbiotic.” Achieving one goal made it easier to achieve the next goal, and vice versa.  

  • Symbiotic goal #1:  No phone in bed
    • Prevents the endless Netflix and Youtube binging death trap
    • Keeps my blue spectrum light to a minimum in the evening
    • Improves my quality of sleep
  • Symbiotic goal #2:  Read real books before bed
    • Helps me get sleepy naturally
    • Keeps the temptation of my phone at bay
  • Symbiotic goal #3:  Strict 9PM (ish) bedtime
    • Helps me get about 8 hours of sleep
    • Prevents morning zombie fatigue

Set a reward and timeline

I decided that if I could stick to the symbiotic goals and achieve my main goal for at least 2 weeks straight, I’d give myself the green light to buy some wireless headphones.  No more earbuds getting ripped out of my ears by the jogging stroller!

So how did it go?

I succeeded!  For two weeks, I alternated between jogging or writing in the morning.  I dutifully went to bed around 9PM after reading a book, got up at 5AM, and hustled my butt out of bed.

Obviously morning people

I felt incredibly productive and more energetic.  I felt successful. I could feel myself evolving into the shiny happy morning person that I’ve always wanted to be.  

But then I got a nasty cold and needed cough medicine.

Nasty cold + NyQuil

Nasty cold + NyQuil = morning zombie fatigue disaster.  

Soon afterwards I had an awful call night at the hospital and was operating or seeing consults for 24 hours straight.

This all threw me out of the saddle and my mornings have been inconsistent since then.  

I haven’t bought the wireless headphones yet either.  I suppose technically I met my goal, but I was so disappointed that it didn’t last that I didn’t follow through on the reward.


Despite my recent setbacks, symbiotic goal setting has been the only way that I’ve even come close to a productive, “Miracle Morning” style week in my entire life.  It was incredible while it lasted.

I’m convinced of the power of symbiotic goals, and I’m going to make another attempt at using this technique to once again optimize my morning. If it worked for 2 weeks, I’m convinced it can work for longer.

Shiny happy morning person, here I come!

Do you have any goals that need the symbiotic goal setting approach?  Comment below! Share and subscribe for more great content!

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5 years ago

I hear you on trying to find quality time to carve out and accomplish things you want to do.

For me it is a bit tough with blogging because I have kept it a secret from my daughter so I only can work on it when she’s either asleep or at school when I’m on my off days (as well as downtime at work which is unfortunately getting shorter and shorter).

I have developed a little bit of a morning routine where I wake up earlier than I need to and read the blogs I follow and comment, etc.

Good luck on your symbiosis experiment.

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