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5 Ways to Strengthen a New Year’s Resolution

Strategies and goals

In recent articles I’ve posted about choosing a New Year’s resolution and why New Year’s resolutions often fail. Now that 2010 has begun, here are 5 ways to make a New Year’s resolution stronger.

1. Schedule a regular time to think about it
New goals can tend to get shoved out of the way when things get busy or complicated. To make sure that they always come back into the spotlight, it’s important to take time to think, talk, or write about that goal on a regular basis. This kind of attention helps encourage problem-solving and makes more opportunities to reflect on and reinforce the kinds of behaviors that will support the goal.

2. Set waypoints
If your new goal is a long-term one, getting to the vision you have for yourself may be a long, challenging trek. Setting waypoints makes goals more immediate and rewarding. For example: if you’re decluttering your house, make each room a goal of its own, the entire focus of your attention until it’s done. While working on that room, you deliberately give yourself permission not to worry about the rest of the house. It’s a lot easier to come to grips with organizing a room than organizing a house, and worrying about the whole thing at once will only get in the way of the large job at hand.

3. Read and learn
Find books, online forums, blogs, in-person groups, magazines, articles, or any other resource that will help you learn how to pursue your goal better, or even just inspire you to keep pursuing it. Learning more about your goal gives you more power to move toward it, keeps it fresh in your mind, and often provides a vision of what things might be like as you see more success.

4. Be prepared for a few failures
If habits were the kind of thing we could just switch off, there would be no need for willpower. Trying to change a bad habit, adopt a good one, or make regular progress to achieve something challenging is difficult and is likely to involve some setbacks now and then. If and when these come, unless you’re defusing a bomb or building a card house, all is not lost. It will help enormously to step back and try to recover soon from a problem rather than saying “Oh, I blew it–now it doesn’t matter what I do.” Failure is a normal byproduct of success, and a lost battle isn’t the same as a lost war.

5. Stay inspired
Taking on anything challenging means that there will be times when you don’t feel like working on your goal and are faced with the choice of pushing ahead or giving up. At these times, it makes a real difference if you’re in touch with why you’re doing what you’re doing and have kept your enthusiasm for it alive. Visualize what things will be like as you make more progress; review the things that draw you toward your goal; reflect on past accomplishments; explain to friends or family why you’ve chosen the path you have; or do anything else you can to keep yourself inspired. Inspiration does not automatically create willpower, but it certain does help fuel it.

Photo by Tim in Sydney

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Why Do New Year’s Resolutions Fail?

Strategies and goals

In many past and contemporary world cultures, the beginning of a new year has been a time to repent old mistakes, reflect on choices, and aspire to better things in future. Our own tradition of New Year’s resolutions reflects this. Unfortunately, our tradition of failing to meet our New Year’s Resolutions is almost as strong as our tradition of making them. Why?

There are 4 key problems with the way New Year’s resolutions are usually made. Avoiding these problems can transform what might otherwise be nothing more than a well-intentioned gesture into a personal victory.

1. Only make a New Year’s Resolution if you’re not in the middle of another life change
If you’re already working on fixing your financial habits, don’t try to take on weight loss or learning French or organizing your files at the same time. Every change in habits or substantial project requires attention and focus. Trying to spread that attention and focus too widely typically brings all of the efforts down, because in this situation, there’s not enough brain time to fully support any one of them.

2. Make only one New Year’s Resolution
This is another part of making sure you can focus your attention: to make real progress, hold yourself to one new goal at a time.

3. Plan immediate steps, not just long-term ideals
While it’s important to understand your ultimate goal, it’s also important to define what your first steps will be toward achieving it. A goal of “Write a novel” or “expand sales into the northwestern states” is so large and complex that thinking about trying to achieve it directly is overwhelming and tends to sap motivation. It’s much more effective to focus on what the very first steps to achieving the goal might be, like choosing a novel premise from a list of book ideas or researching demographics for target markets.

4. Set aside a regular time to refocus and do feedback
Any attempted change in habits or push to accomplish a project will falter and fail unless your attention is brought back to it on a regular basis. With some projects and responsibilities, like taking care of a baby, you’re naturally prodded to not forget. On most, though, keeping attention focused means setting aside time–preferably at least a couple of times a week–to review progress so far and plan ways to stay on track and improve.

Our New Year’s Resolutions are traditionally made regardless of what else we’re doing in our lives, in bunches, with only large goals in mind, and without specific plans for follow-through. By bucking this trend and carefully nurturing one new goal at a time with specific, short-term steps and regular feedback, we can participate in the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions without participating in the tradition of  failing to keep them.

Photo by hebedesign

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The Six Basic Requirements of Self-Motivation

Strategies and goals

building blocksIf you’re a regular reader of The Willpower Engine, you may be wondering by now what purpose it’s supposed to serve to keep reading new ways to break down self-motivation into one simple concept or another. In one article, I say that willpower is exactly like owning a dog. In another, I say that willpower is a matter of thinking more of the right things and less of the wrong things. And so on.

There is a point to these different perspectives, even though each is a simplification, because each one comes at motivation from a different perspective. The point is that it’s much easier to find and fix the problems with our self-motivation if we keep examining it from different angles. So for today’s article, here’s another way to look at self-motivation: do your self-motivation efforts have all six of these basic requirements?

In order to motivate ourselves, we need to decide what exactly to motivate ourselves toward. That is, we have to have a clear, attainable goal that tells us what we want to achieve.

Once we see where we want to get, it’s essential to understand what steps are needed to get there. Someone who’s trying to organize needs to learn organization techniques. Someone who’s trying to lose weight needs to learn how much they should be eating each day and how to exercise effectively. Someone who’s trying to renovate a house needs to know how to put up wallboard.

We are very, very unlikely to be successful in achieving goals we don’t care about, for fairly obvious reasons. It is possible to start caring about a goal (for instance, by carefully considering the benefits), but the self-motivation machine groans to a halt when it runs out of passion.

Pursuing a goal means devoting time to it, and if a person hasn’t been pursuing that goal already, the time needs to come from some other activity. In order to pursue a goal successfully, therefore, it’s essential to carve out time to do that and to know what to do less of in order to free up that time.

Even if we have a goal, know what needs to be done to achieve it, desire the goal, and set aside time for it, it will not do itself. At a certain point it’s necessary to make a decision to put out effort. Sometimes this is easy, especially if desire has been stoked up. At other times it requires a conscious resolution, saying to ourselves, “OK, now it’s time to put on my sneakers and run.” or “That pile of papers isn’t going to file itself! Let’s get started.”

Lastly, like a plant that withers and dies without water, goals weaken and get forgotten if they’re not regularly showered with attention. All this means is making a resolution to turn the mind to the goal on a regular basis. One very effective approach to regular attention is a feedback loop. An even more powerful (but more labor-intensive) approach is decision logging.

And that’s it. The reason there’s so much information on this site is that none of these six requirements is always simple. Sometimes it’s hard to choose the right goal, or to know the best way to pursue it once chosen, or to find the time or ignite the desire or to make the effort or to focus the attention. Yet anyone who does all six of these things will make meaningful progress toward their goals: there’s no inborn talent for motivation, no secret ingredient, and no insurmountable barrier. Which is a good thing: just doing these six things takes work enough!

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Willpower Simplified: Choosing Thoughts

States of mind

thinkerSelf-motivation and willpower can benefit from learning a lot of different skills: setting goals, tracking progress, repairing broken ideas, organizing priorities; exercising and eating well and trying to get plenty of sleep and meditating to have energy and support a good mood; making rules … and while it’s possible to have willpower without using every one of these tools, the more of them we use effectively, the stronger our willpower is.

One key theme
And yet there’s one simple principle that underlies almost all of these tactics. It’s much easier to state than to follow, but thinking about it helps us keep focused on what willpower means and on what we can do from moment to moment. It goes like this: Think more about the right things and less about the wrong things.

What I mean is that for any goal I might have (for instance, let’s say I was someone who did project proposals as part of my job and wanted to finish three new project proposals by the end of the week), there will be thoughts I could have that will help make that happen (like “there’s a good chance the higher-ups will be pretty impressed if I can pull this off” or “the next step would be doing that competitive analysis”), thoughts that I could have that will get in the way (like “I couldn’t get my proposals done on time the last time, so I’ll probably screw up again this time” or “I hate this work. I just want to go home and eat Twinkies”), and thoughts that won’t have any impact one way or the other as long as they don’t distract me too much (like “These shoes are getting pretty worn out” or “Wow, there’s an albatross outside my window!”). These are right thoughts, wrong thoughts, and neutral thoughts, respectively. The neutral ones we don’t care about, so that’s the last I’ll say of those.


By the way, I want to be clear that I don’t mean that the “right” thoughts are “right” because they are somehow morally better than the “wrong” thoughts. We’re just talking about right or wrong for moving toward a particular goal.

The direct approach
People often seem to talk about thoughts as though we have no control over them, as though they just arise in our heads, stay as long as they want, and then leave without any permission or control on our part. Fortunately, this isn’t the case. We can actively choose to think more of the right thoughts and less of the wrong thoughts by reflecting on our own thinking (a process called “metacognition,” which is one facet of mindfulness) and by focusing our attention.

For instance, if I’m trying to play less golf in order to spend more time with my family, and if I then find myself thinking about golf, I can consciously 1) recognize this and 2) select something different to focus my attention on. So when the thought comes into my head “This weather is perfect for golf,” I can then ask myself “Would it be perfect for doing something with my kids, too? What would be fun that we haven’t done in a while?” The more I think about that second, right thought, the less attention I’ll have to spare for that first, wrong thought.

Violence doesn’t solve anything
It’s useful to recognize that “right” thoughts aren’t just negations of “wrong” thoughts. The problem with trying to argue myself out of a “wrong” thought is that the more I mentally struggle with the problem, the more attention I’m giving it, and so the more opportunity the behavior I don’t want has to ensnare me. If I let that thought go and instead focus on letting something else appeal to me, then I can be led away peacefully rather than trying to defeat my own desires in mortal combat.

What tools are good for
With all of that said, thinking more of the right thoughts and less of the wrong thoughts isn’t always easy, and it’s not always clear how to do it. Nor is it always easy to focus our attention on our own thinking enough to recognize when we’re getting drawn into non-constructive thinking. To make things easier, we come full circle to the kinds of skills I mentioned at the beginning of this post, skills for making ourselves more resilient, understanding ourselves better, redirecting ourselves more easily, and so on. Feedback loops, rules, tracking, idea repair, and all the other mental tools I talk about on this site help support the process of thinking more of the right thoughts and less of the wrong ones. Regardless of what tools we use, taking charge of our own thoughts leads in the direction of achieving what we want to achieve.

Thinker photo by Rob Inh00d
Albatross photo by MrClean1982

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How to Support Someone in Pursuing Their Goal

Strategies and goals


Have you ever listened as a friend talked excitedly about a new goal–a diet, an organization system, a new way of talking to their kids–and worried that they might not make it? Since it’s easy for motivation obstacles to derail even the best initial efforts, often someone working on a new goal will soon give up or lose their way.

But motivation is easier when there’s someone supporting you. This post talks about a few effective ways to provide that support.

Work Alongside Them
One of the most helpful things anyone can do to help another person make progress toward a goal is to work alongside them. You’re offering a variety of benefits when you go out and exercise with someone who’s starting an exercise program, or sit down and read or study along with someone who’s trying to learn a new skill or subject, for instance. Doing these things with the person you’re supporting provides more structure, heightens awareness of how much and how often they’re working on their goal, offers someone to talk to if things get difficult, creates expectations they can aim to fulfill, and shows sympathy and support.

Share Goals and Progress
If you’re working on a completely different kind of goal than the person you’re supporting–for instance, they’re trying to declutter their house and you’re trying to start up a part-time consulting business–you can get together regularly to talk about how you’ve each been doing–your successes and failures, insights and questions. In addition to being an excellent way to establish a feedback loop, these kinds of conversations provide a low-pressure way each of you can talk frankly about how you’re doing to someone who understands how much work it can be to change your life.

Ask Them About It–Often
Simply asking about someone’s progress and listening uncritically, not offering advice unless asked and encouraging them to build on any successes or good ideas, can be of enormous value. When someone asks me about a project I’m working on, it forces me to ask myself how I’m doing with it, reminds me of my own priorities, makes it clear that other people care about my goals (usually because they care about me), and helps encourage me to make progress so as to be able to have positive things to report the next time I’m asked.

Help Make it Easier
Particularly if someone has good morale but limited resources, it can be helpful to assist them by providing necessities. They might appreciate help getting space to work in; some uninterrupted time; healthy foods; access to exercise equipment; helpful resources from the library, bookstore, or Web; or even just items that make the effort more pleasant. If they work in a particular area, you could provide something that makes that area more efficient, comfortable, or appealing, like a better chair or some art you know they’ll like, which can help support their motivation by increasing the appeal of their day-to-day work on their goal.

Learn More About What They’re Doing
Especially if you already talk with the person you’re supporting about what they’re doing, it can help to study up on the subject so as to be able to have meaningful conversations, ask good questions, know what kinds of support they might need, and point them to good information. Depending on what their goal is, there are good materials available on the Web, in the library, from people who are already successful doing what they want to do, and in many cases on this site (like my eBook on Writing Motivation if you want to help support someone with their writing, or my posts on weight loss for people working on fitness).

Photo by Photo Gallery

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Sustain Your Motivation By Tracking Your Progress Daily

Strategies and goals


In this article, I talk about Decision Logging, a practice of writing down each decision, action, condition, or major thought about a goal that’s important to you as it happens to become much more aware of your mental process. Elsewhere, I describe the importance of feedback loops in self-motivation. Following up on Wednesday’s article on how tracking behavior helps weight loss, it’s worth our time to look at a more intense feedback strategy that keeps our goals front and center in our minds, but doesn’t require the high amount of time and attention that decision logging takes: tracking progress daily.

How to Track Behavior for Feedback
For weight loss, daily tracking comes in a particular form: writing down information throughout the day like foods eaten with their nutritional stats, exercise done, and weight. For other kinds of goals, often reviewing once a day in the evening, or twice a day in the morning and evening, provides a similar benefit. Tracking isn’t the same thing as feedback, but it is a key component. Without reliable, consistent information about our behavior–whether that comes from jotting down notes in the moment, reflecting back over the past week, or from some other process–there’s no opportunity for feedback. Once we have that information, we can proceed to the next step in our feedback loop, which is making judgements about our behavior: what worked well, and what didn’t? From there, we can make plans for the future: more of this, less of that, try this new thing, and watch out for this other pitfall. We start with raw information and work our way through to an action plan tailored exactly to our current circumstances and progress.

The once-a-day approach only needs to take a few minutes. With it, you answer a few questions:

  • What did I do today that moved me toward or away from my goal?
  • What do I think about those choices?
  • What would I like to do the same or differently tomorrow?
  • What am I learning from this?

The twice-a-day approach is similar, but with it the morning session has more to do with planning for the current day, and the evening session has more to do with reflecting on the day that has passed.

Tracking and reflecting on progress each day doesn’t need to take more than five minutes, and it’s very effective in keeping a goal alive and moving forward. It’s also instrumental in forming a habit of reflecting on progress, and getting to that level of awareness creates an enormous advantage in pursuing goals in the future.

The Top Obstacle to Tracking
One of the biggest dangers in tracking progress is not tracking whenever there’s something bad to write down. If I’m trying to teach myself French and don’t study at all during the day, I might be tempted not to track on a day when all I can say is “Didn’t do any studying today. Could have studied during lunch and/or instead of watching reruns of House.” When we think about it, though, it’s not really all that traumatic to write down the equivalent of “I didn’t do as well as I hoped today, but I’ll try to do better tomorrow.” If I don’t write that kind of thing down, I’m likely to forget how I got off track, which makes me pretty vulnerable to that problem in future. And tracking the lack of progress keeps up my habit of tracking, which makes it more likely I’ll both think about and possibly even do some French studying the next day. Finally, tracking is a victory in itself: even if I haven’t learned any French, I’ve done my tracking, which means I did put at least a little effort into my goal. This can be a badly-needed morale boost when the more workaday steps toward a goal aren’t going so well.

Not all goals lend themselves easily to being tracked in writing, but with a little creativity, it’s possible to find something meaningful to write down daily about almost any goal. Doing this accomplishes one of the most important steps in self-motivation, which is keeping the goal in mind every day, and it goes a long way toward helping us understand our own behavior better–and therefore understanding better how to change it.

Photo by Bruno Gola

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Why People Who Track Their Behavior Are Much More Likely to Lose Weight

Strategies and goals

notepadMy current reading is Dr. Daniel S. Kirschenbaum‘s 9 Truths About Weight Loss. Kirschenbaum teaches psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, is the director of the Center for Behavioral Medicine in Chicago, has  done a good deal of original research in weight loss, and has consulted for the U.S. Olympic Committee and Weight Watchers–so we could be excused for assuming he has a pretty good idea what he’s talking about. I’ll review the book itself in a near-future post, but for now I want to make use of a point that, he demonstrates, is powerfully supported by research: among people who are trying to get fit, those who track their progress are a lot more successful than people who don’t.

How Strong Is the Connection?
In fact, the connection between keeping track of what behavior and actually making progress (in terms of losing weight, which isn’t a perfect measure, but has some value) was very strong. People who were very consistent about tracking their diet, exercise, and weight tended to consistently lose weight; people who were a little inconsistent tended to have just a little weight loss or to maintain their weight; and people who weren’t consistent didn’t tend to have any success at all.

Even a person who is normally very consistent will tend to stop losing weight when they stop tracking, according to the studies Kirschenbaum cites (including his own research). For instance people who were very careful about tracking their progress over the holiday season were much more likely to maintain or lose weight than people who didn’t track their progress. Just to repeat that for emphasis: these people were losing weight over Thanksgiving and the December holidays, no mean feat.

Tracking as Feedback
The value of tracking may not be that surprising when we consider the importance of feedback in self-motivation: after all, if I don’t exactly know what I’m doing, how can I change it effectively to point myself in the right direction? And we human beings tend to fudge things a bit in our favor. If I eat well for most of the day but have a piece of peanut butter pie with lunch, and if I don’t track calories, I may think I did pretty well–while in reality, that one piece of pie is (for me) about 40% of my daily calorie limit, which means it’s a good bet I completely missed my target. My vague impression that I did well, aided by a desire to forget the piece of pie, reinforces the idea that I’m doing well and my frustration when the scale has a different opinion.

How Long and How Often?
Kirschenbaum feels that successful weight controllers (his term) need to track their progress–especially what they eat, whether in terms of calories, exchanges, planned meals, or any other accurate measure–at least 75% of the time. That may be so, but other research also implies that doing something 75% of the time is not enough to make it an ingrained habit. That suggests that tracking as close as possible to 100% of the time is much more effective, since beyond the benefits of tracking itself, you begin to acquire a good habit that can eventually almost automate that behavior for you.

Though it might seem as though tracking everything you eat would be tedious and time-consuming, according to Kirschenbaum “It takes less than 2 minutes to do a whole day of both writing down fat grams, calories of everything eaten, and exercise; less than 1 minute for most people.” I’ve done this myself for some time, and I have to say that Kirschenbaum’s time estimate seems just about right, although it’s easier for me now that I know the numbers on a lot of foods by heart. Back while I was still learning, it probably took me longer–maybe 4 or even 5 minutes a day.

So time to do the tracking isn’t really a barrier: the real barrier (and I’ll talk more about this Friday) is not wanting to immortalize our own bad choices.

Following Up
Interested in what the research has to say? Take a look at The Impact of Regular Self-weighing on Weight Management: A Systematic Literature Review.

As useful as tracking is for weight loss, it can be just as strong a tool in other kinds of self-motivation. In Friday’s article I’ll talk about ways to make use of tracking to get and stay motivated toward almost any kind of goal.

Photo by Eric Mallinson

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Knowing Isn’t Enough: The 4 Steps Between Knowledge and Action

Strategies and goals

crossingKelly McGonigal recently Tweeted about a British Psychological Society post in which psychologists talk about things they still don’t understand about themselves. It’s really interesting reading, but the particular thing that I connected with was University of Texas psychologist David Buss saying “One nagging thing that I still don’t understand about myself is why I often succumb to well-documented psychological biases, even though I’m acutely aware of these biases … One would think that explicit knowledge of these well-documented psychological biases and years of experience with them would allow a person to cognitively override the biases. But they don’t.”

I know why Buss sometimes fails to act according to things he knows perfectly well, and yet I do the same thing myself, for instance a couple of weeks ago when I had a serious communication breakdown that I later saw wouldn’t have been a problem if I’d  used all of the communication skills I’d been learning for years (see Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High or Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life). Actually, that’s the whole point of this post: just knowing something about how our minds work is not the same thing as using that knowledge.

So what’s the gap between knowing and doing? There are actually four gaps. Lucky for us, none of them is very wide.

1. Noticing opportunities to use the knowledge
The first step is a kind of mindfulness: in order to use, say, a communication skill, I need to be thinking about my communication as I’m doing it so that I can notice, “Hey, here’s a great opportunity to summarize my friend’s concerns!” Mindfulness can be improved with tools like meditation, feedback loops, and decision logging.

2. Understanding how to apply the knowledge
It’s good for me to know that I should try to summarize a person’s concerns back to them, but I need to know more than that abstract idea: I need to know how I go about it, perhaps having a step-by-step method I can use to apply the information I have, or some test I can use on my intended behavior to see if it would fit the information.

3. Surrendering objections
By definition habits are hard to change, and if you’re trying to act a different way, you’re trying to change a habit. Changing habits usually means giving something up, for example pride, less-than-ideal strategies you’ve been using for years, or defensiveness. In my case, if I want to make sure the person I’m talking to knows they’ve been heard and understood, I have to give up the impulse to do a critique of what they just said and instead be willing to understand first, react second. People are much more comfortable hearing someone else’s ideas when they know for sure that their own ideas have already made it across.

4. Making the effort
Putting a piece of knowledge into play requires conscious effort: there’s usually nothing automatic about it. Effort means a decision to devote at least a little bit of time and attention at the right moments to using the knowledge.

In an article on learning and the brain, I talk about how acting on knowledge helps us learn it better. For this article or any piece of knowledge you gain that might be useful, it can make all the difference to use it as soon as possible, several times, both in order to get used to the specific skill and to fix it in your brain. If we don’t go out of our way to bridge the four gaps between information and action–noticing opportunities, understanding how, surrendering objections, and making the effort–then the knowledge isn’t any more useful in our heads than it is left on the page, unread.

Photo by magnusfranklin


Don’t Be Tricked By Fake Goals

Strategies and goals


In another article on The Willpower Engine I mentioned the useful mnemonic S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound) for checking to see if a goal is a good one. In this article, I’ll get more specific about goals that seem to be good but aren’t: fake goals.

If it’s not entirely up to you, it’s a fake goal
What do I mean by a “fake” goal? A fake goal is anything you want to have happen that you can’t always make happen by your choices and actions. This is tricky, because often people won’t take responsibility for something that really is within their control (like a child saying she didn’t do her homework because it’s impossible for her to remember it), while at other times things are likely to be within our reach but not within our direct control (like being hired to play with a particular orchestra).

It’s important to sort out real goals from fake goals because fake goals screw us up and cause real damage. For example, if my goal is to become first violin in the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, I might practice obsessively for many years to get good enough to play with the PSO and give an awe-inspiring audition, but if they already have a first violinist who is extremely good, happy with the post, and in good health, that dream might never come about, and I might become depressed, frustrated, and anxious while missing out on amazing opportunities because they don’t match my (fake) goal.

On a smaller scale, I might have a goal of winning a local dance contest, then get upset when the contest judge’s sister-in-law wins it instead.

In both cases, the skills and resources needed to achieve the fake goal are in my hands, but sooner or later it comes to a decision that someone else makes, and as I’ve written about in another article, other people are not under our control in any healthy and meaningful way.

Losing weight: a classic fake goal
One very popular fake goal is losing weight. At first glance, this might seem contradictory. Surely getting fit is under our control? And in large part, it is–but losing weight is not necessarily the same as getting fit.

For example, take my own fitness saga. I got serious about fitness in late 2005 by beginning to log how many calories I was eating each day and starting to exercise regularly. Since that time I’ve lost about 50 pounds. So how is weight not a good indicator? Well, there are two main problems with it. First, there’s the fact that weight isn’t the same as fitness (and neither is BMI, which simply uses your weight and height to come up with a number). In the summer of 2007 I went through a transformation from a relatively heavy guy to a relatively fit guy–and didn’t lose any weight, because as I was gradually losing fat, I was also not-so-gradually building up muscle.  And second, weight varies throughout the day and from day to day based on things like water retention, time of day, and the last time you’ve eaten. On the more extreme end of things, yesterday I weighed in several times and found my weight varying five pounds from waking to bedtime!

So if weight isn’t a good goal, why do I pay any attention to it? Because it’s useful information. Often the indications we get of how we’re doing in our progress to our goals are limited or imperfect, but limited and imperfect information is worlds better than no information at all. While it doesn’t convey the complete story of my fitness progress, the fact that I’ve lost 50 pounds so far and am nearing my target weight is one of the clearest indicators I can give myself or others about how things have gone for me.

A bad goal can be a good aspiration
But if winning a contest or losing weight isn’t a good goal, what should we do instead? Give up on goals? Rid ourselves of aspirations?

Definitely not. To motivate ourselves, aspirations (like winning a contest or losing weight) can be powerful tools. In addition to providing valuable feedback, aspirations can fuel our visions of what we want the future to be like, which can be powerfully motivating. However, we need to treat aspirations less seriously than goals. If we’re not achieving our aspirations, there comes a crucial moment when we have the choice of either getting attached to it in a way that will hurt us or surrendering it so that we can focus on other opportunities that might pay off better. What this means is being willing to look at the scale that says I just gained two pounds, reflecting that my diet and exercise have been excellent over the past couple of weeks, and shrugging it off with the thought that unless I’m confused about what I need to do, my progress will show up on the scale sooner or later. It also means looking at the contest I didn’t win or the orchestra position I wasn’t offered and recognizing that there are other contests and other positions, and while the loss or the lack of a job playing violin might be valuable information for me to think over, it isn’t the end or the goal.

Real goals are about what we do, not what we’ll get
The most powerful and productive goals are ones that are connected with a change in habits and the immediate, reliable benefits of what we’re doing. (For example, read about this related research finding.) Instead of having a goal to lose weight, I can (and did) strive to get in the habit of eating more healthily and mindfully and to exercise regularly. My goal in doing these things is to constantly become healthier, have more energy, and improve my mood. I certainly had aspirations of looking better, being strong, and winning Taekwondo sparring matches, but if I had focused on those instead of on progress, I would have been disappointed when I didn’t look much different after the six months, wasn’t noticeably stronger for some time, and lost at my first Taekwondo competition (though I won at my second).

The violinist would be better served by a goal of getting in a certain amount of good practice every week, and the dancer by the goal of perfecting a new dance routine for every competition that comes down the line. Both people are likely to have a lot of aspirations about things they can’t entirely control, especially other people’s opinions of how well they do, but can take these in the context of their specific goals.

When several small goals = one big goal
A note here about multiple goals: in other posts, I’ve talked about the importance of focusing on only one new goal at a time. It would probably be more precise for me to suggest focusing on only one new area of accomplishment at a time, since a violinist could simultaneously be working on the related goals of practicing twenty hours a week, mastering a particular piece, and making certain bowing techniques available by reflex. At the same time, it’s worthwhile to consider whether some goals would benefit from being broken down. For instance, eating better and exercising are complementary parts of an overall fitness goal, but both of them can take a lot of learning, planning, and effort to achieve, and it might work best for many people to get one on track before really digging into the other.

Photo by Dennis Sylvester Hurd.

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How emotions work

States of mind


From Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

How exactly do emotions work? From a scientific point of view the answers to this question are still in the works, but research over the last couple of decades has given us a much clearer sense of how they emerge. In her 2005 book Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, Jenefer Robinson digs deep into various theories of emotions and into the neurological and psychological findings that can help us figure this question out and offers a model for understanding the important pieces. Her basic model, added to research and analysis from other sources, is what drives this post. There’s a lot of research still to be done, though, so consider the information here to be more of a glimpse at the best insights we currently have about emotion instead of something complete and set in stone. Even taking it tentatively, though, Robinson’s model gives us some seriously useful information.

The gut reaction
Emotions start (Robinson argues) with a gut reaction to something: a face, a sound, an idea, a conclusion, or even some change within our bodies. She calls these reactions “non-cognitive appraisals,” whereas I think for our purposes here, “gut reaction” works just as well, but it’s helpful to realize from that term that these reactions themselves aren’t anything we think through: they happen in hardly any time at all, automatically. That doesn’t mean the whole process of having an emotion is automatic, though, as we’ll see.

The high road and the low road
There are two paths our brain can take to get us to a gut reaction, the high road and the low road. The high road is about what you’d expect: we see or hear (or taste or feel or smell or think or remember) something, we figure out what it means to us, and then we react emotionally. For instance, while driving toward our house we might see blue lights up ahead, realize that they are probably coming  from a police car, and begin to feel worried that something bad has happened.


The low road is a bit more surprising (unless you’ve read my post How to overcome specific fears and anxieties or another source with some of the same information): it still starts with some kind of sensory information, like a sight or sound, but in this case the amygdalae (a primitive part of the brain that we have on both the left and right side) flag it as something that has been associated with a powerful emotion or traumatic event in the past and sets off our gut emotional reaction before we even recognize what the thing is. For instance, if a person has been in an explosion caused by natural gas, the person may experience terror when smelling gas even before realizing that it’s a smell, or what the smell might be. Our brains seem to have evolved this trick of firing up emergency systems first and asking question later in order to help get us away from life-threatening situations as quickly as possible.

Even though the gut reaction is immediate and automatic, it can come down the high road as the result of thinking. For instance, I might spend hours going over my small business’s accounts before having the sudden realization that my accountant is stealing from me. As soon as I’ve had that realization, I’m likely to have a gut reaction (for instance of anger at the accountant, or fear of what will happen to my business, or happiness that I have found the reason for the cash flow problems, or even a combination) that’s automatic in the sense of reacting immediately to a thought that has been a long time coming.

Emotion is a process, not an unchanging state
But if we have that gut reaction, that doesn’t mean that we’re stuck in the corresponding emotion: instead, it seems to make the most sense to think about the emotion being a process that develops in several different ways at once, started by that gut reaction but subject to all kinds of changes. An emotion develops through:

  • Body chemistry:An emotion will spur a physiological reaction through chemicals like dopamine (associated with pleasure), adrenaline (associated with fear and anger), seratonin (associated with serenity), oxytocin (associated with feelings of love), cortisol (associated with stress), and so on. These chemicals have a lot to do with the physical feelings emotions create, like butterflies in the stomach or a thrill of delight, and they also tend to sustain whatever emotion we’re having.
  • Thinking (cognition): Once we start having an emotion, we tend to think about it and monitor our surroundings. For instance, we might see flashing blue lights and initially feel anxiety, thinking they’re from police cars, then round a corner and discover that they’re lights from a party a neighbor is having on their lawn.
  • Body language: It won’t be news to you that happiness can make you smile and depression can make you slump, but it’s more surprising to realize that smiling can make you happy and slumping can make you more depressed. Fascinatingly, our own expressions, posture, and maybe even tone of voice can stimulate the same body chemistry that the corresponding emotion would create. Smiling can make us feel happier, and sitting up straight can help us feel more alert and positive.
  • Being ready for action: Certain emotions tend to prime our bodies to be ready in certain ways: to focus our attention in a certain way or to be ready to move quickly. An example of this is flinching away at a sudden loud noise: our body is ready to act before we can even come up with a plan of how to act.

Different emotions at the same time?
These pieces of the emotional puzzle all go forward when we’re experiencing an emotion, and while they can work at the same time and in similar directions, they can also be out of synch or in conflict with each other. When that happens, they begin to influence each other, so that they tend to converge over time. For instance, if I am thinking something about something that makes me happy and my body is putting out oxytocin, but I decide to frown and turn my attention to things that upset me, the oxytocin will be cut off and replaced with other chemicals, my brain will conjure up memories of things that upset me, and my body will more and more begin to reflect the bad mood I’m creating.

It can be especially confusing to experience emotions that are out of synch. In the blue lights example, once I realize that it’s a party and not a crime scene, I may immediately feel intellectually better about the situation but still be feeling anxiety beneath that, because our thinking can change directions more quickly than our body chemistry. Fortunately, if we keep our thinking in the channel of the new emotion, our body chemistry will soon catch up.

Simple words for complex feelings
To make sense of emotions, we have a wide variety of labels for different ones, especially in English: terror, awe, euphoria, ennui, indignation, fury, and so on. When trying to reflect on how we’re feeling now or how we felt a while back, we tend to try to characterize our emotions to fit these available labels (although we also have emotion-charged memories that may give us more detail), and therefore tend to talk about emotions in a simpler way than we experience them. For instance, in the blue lights example, we might say “I was worried when I saw blue lights, but when I saw it was just a party, I was relieved.” This doesn’t capture that temporary conflict of thinking and body chemistry, nor the subtle details–perhaps the initial worry was mixed with indignation that a crime was happening in our neighborhood or guilt at something we ourselves had done; maybe the relief that the blue lights meant just a party was mixed at different times with irritation at the likely amount of noise, excitement that we might be invited to the party, and/or surprise that the neighbors thought blue lights were decorative. To put it another way, our emotions are not simple, exclusive states, but instead an evolving process that can include parallel and conflicting pieces that are hard to easily summarize in words. Fortunately, we have poets, artists, musicians, and others to help us communicate about emotions without resorting to simple summaries.

How idea repair can help drive emotion
A last note: in posts on idea repair, I’ve talked about thinking causing emotions. In light of this article, that idea may seem oversimplified, but to put things in perspective, idea repair is the process of thinking and directing attention that begins immediately after we have that initial gut reaction. Idea repair can’t directly affect the gut reaction (although over time it might train habits that will change initial reactions), but modifying our thinking is probably the most powerful single thing we can do to turn an emotion in a positive direction once an emotional process begins.

Police lights photo by Sven Cipido.

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