How To Calibrate Goals and Explore Obstacles to Increase Motivation

Don't ignore the needle -- decide how you're going to thread it.

Don’t ignore the needle — decide how you’re going to thread it.

Early this year I wrote about how goals should provide (not require) motivation.

Setting the right kind of goal is tremendously important. A good goal is:

1) Purpose drive (the goal helps you express your life purpose, it resonates with your answer to “Who am I?”)

2) Specific (you’ll know, without any ambiguity, if you’ve achieved this goal or not)

3) Energizing (thinking about the goal propels you to action)

A recent post on Eric Barker’s site opened my eyes to two additional factors.

Calibrating Your Specific Outcome

First, Barker points out that imagining a specific outcome for a goal can sometimes decrease motivation.

What??

It turns out that for a specific outcome to increase motivation, you actually have to believe that with effort and a little luck you can achieve it.

A few years ago I was reading a book by a bestselling fantasy author who I will not name. I finished the book, but was left unimpressed by the prose. Somehow, this experience was incredibly motivating. If he can do it, I can do it, I thought to myself. The experience of reading a successful but mediocre novel got me pumped to continue my writing and pursue my own writing career. Write better than Author X became my standard.

On the other hand, when I read an author like David Mitchell (I’m reading The Bone Clocks now), it’s deflating to think about trying to write like that. Maybe, in five years, things will be different, but at the moment shooting for that level of brilliance in my own prose seems unattainable.

Certainly it’s possible to aim too low. You should think as big as you can realistically believe is achievable. How do you know the limit? If visualizing the specific outcome pumps you up, that’s a good sign. Try visualizing the “next level.” Still pumped? Or does the next level feel “pie-in-the-sky”? Not everyone can be an astronaut.

If a specific outcome feels unattainable, that doesn’t mean you should necessarily shoot lower. Consider moving left or right instead, to a specific outcome that is just as (or even more) ambitious, but also a better fit for your particular talents and personality. A great example of this is Peter Diamandis, who abandoned his goal of becoming an astronaut in order to create the Ansari X Prize (which helped jumpstart the private space industry) instead. (Tim Ferriss recently posted a good interview with Diamandis and Tony Robbins.)

Exploring Obstacles

The second post from Barker’s post that resonated with me was that imagining obstacles and roadblocks on the way to achieving your goal (and planning for them) also increases motivation.

The idea is that if you plan for contingencies, when you hit the (almost inevitable) obstacles, instead of deflating and giving up, you think “I knew this was coming” and your plan kicks in.

Gretchen Rubin refers to this strategy as “safeguards” and “planning to fail.” When establishing a new habit, anticipate what will probably trip you up, and decided ahead of time what you’ll do in response a trigger.

The same strategy applies for bigger-stakes games. What am I going to do when I start submitting my fiction work and (almost inevitably) receive rejection slips, or no response at all? I’ll do the same thing as I did when I was a fledgling music producer — keep sending out material and not take it personally if it doesn’t connect. Creative rejection isn’t failure — it’s feedback. Rejection means either 1) your work needs to be better, or 2) you sent it to the wrong person/publisher/outlet, or 3) for whatever reasons your work doesn’t fit into the current zeitgeist/popular taste. Maybe it’s time for revisions, or maybe back to the drawing board with a brand new idea, or maybe it’s just time for a fresh envelope and a new stamp. Whatever your creative pursuit, rejection is going to be part of the game. While rejection never feels good, you can learn to consume it as a sort of food that gives you energy. All obstacles can be used to increase motivation if they are expected, and fit into your mental picture of your path to success.

Daniel Coyle describes how the Green Berets use negative visualization (as well as positive visualization) to prepare for missions. They rehearse a mission with every possible thing that could go wrong, going wrong (the Murphy’s Law version), and a later rehearsal where everything goes smoothly.

Reconsidering Multiple Life Goals

Previously I wrote about the value of having a single goal. I’ve changed my approach somewhat since I wrote that post. I still believe in having a single life direction that defines what you are trying to do or become. I am x becoming y, or I am attempting to to this or that in the world. But after some experimentation I have found that there is synergy and energy created by pursuing multiple goals simultaneously. I would agree with Peter Diamandis’s 3rd Law: “Multiple projects lead to multiple successes.”

In terms of tracking, I still use the same methods described in that post (specific outcome, evaluation date, reward, kick-in-the-butt motivator).

Will Any of This Make You Happy?

When considering goal-setting, it’s important to remember that achievements generally don’t increase happiness (at least not for very long). Achieving your goals will move your life forward and perhaps make the world a better place, but if you want to be happy, there are more direct ways. In fact, happiness helps you be successful more than being successful makes you happy.

So what are the essentials of happiness? That’s worth another post, but I think the pillars are gratitude, social interaction and inclusion, and neurogenesis/chemical brain health.

Another Reason to Send Your Child to a Less Affluent School

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A while back I wrote about why we chose to send our daughter to an under-performing, high-poverty public school in our neighborhood. Basically, a high rate of parental involvement and good teachers allayed any fears we had regarding low test scores (the concept of relative rank¹ was also a factor). Our daughter is now thriving in first grade, both academically and socially. School standards are high, and PTO fundraising has helped develop programs in art, poetry, and science (ideally tax dollars would pay for these things, but California schools are still struggling financially).

Yet Another Reason to Avoid the Affluent Schools

Recently Kia forwarded me this article which points out that vaccine opt-out rates in California have been on the rise for the past seven years. This had resulted in both measles and whooping cough epidemics. Research clearly showed that higher vaccine refusal rates fueled the epidemics.

Why are parents opting out? Fears linking vaccines to autism is the most likely reason, even though such research has been completely refuted. We still don’t know definitely what is behind rising autism rates in the U.S. (rates vary significantly by state). SSRI use during pregnancy is one possible factor, though a Danish study noted that depression itself is a risk factor, and that there was no difference in autism rates of children born to depressed mothers who had been taking SSRIs and those who had not. It’s also possible that more children are being classified as being on the autistic spectrum — a change in diagnostic trends. Bottom line, we still don’t definitively know. But vaccine avoidance isn’t helping anything, and is having devastating effects on herd immunity.

What’s herd immunity (or community immunity)? If your child is vaccinated, they’re safe against that disease, right? Unfortunately not. While being vaccinated reduces the chance of infection if a child is exposed to a disease agent, an additional benefit come from not being exposed in the first place. In other words, the protective effects of vaccines are cumulative, depending on what percentage of the kids are vaccinated.

Notably, wealthier communities, and wealthier schools within those communities, tend to have higher vaccination opt-out rates via the “PBE” (personal belief exemption). Marin county, the wealthiest county in the Bay Area, had an average 8% PBE opt-out rate (San Geronimo Valley Elementary in Marin had a whopping 79% PBE rate). Private schools also have higher PBE rates than public schools (on average).

Less affluent public schools (like our daughter’s school), tend to have a PBE rate of only 1%. Now there’s some community immunity!

Does Affluenza = Influenza?

Not all wealthy communities have high PBE rates. The San Francisco average is quite low (1.64%). Maybe Marin County, the land of crystal healers and psychics, just has lower scientific literacy.

Vaccines are not entirely risk-free. [CDC.gov] But in terms of cost-benefit analysis, the tiny risk of most vaccines is worth the protective effect against the disease. Just as importantly, you’re not only protecting your own child, but your child’s classmates.

If you’re considering NOT vaccinating your child, I can empathize. I considered it too — there are scary stories out there on the internet, real (but rare) cases of children being injured by vaccines. But please ALSO consider the risks of the diseases themselves, and check the published research in terms of the actual probability of serious injury. It’s far more probable a vaccination will save your child’s life than cause them any harm.

 

¹ On relative rank … sending your child to a school comprised mostly of elites can negatively warp their confidence and self-worth. If most of your child’s classmates are richer, smarter, more socially connected, more sophisticated, and/or more competitively oriented, your normal or above-average-under-normal-circumstances child might end up feeling a bit beaten down. Relative rank matters. On the other hand, if your child’s school is comprised of a more diverse cross-section of society, it’s more likely they’ll get a chance to shine in at least one area.

 

DNAFit Review

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Recently I was offered a trail membership to the DNAFit service. The service provides specific health recommendations (exercise and diet) based on access to your 23andMe SNP data. This kind of thing is right up my alley so I jumped at the chance to try out the service. Unfortunately 23andMe has been prohibited from providing health results to customers by the FDA, but for people who have already obtained health data from 23andMe, it’s still possible to get recommendations from DNAFit.

The Trial

I was offered a coupon to apply to various DNAFit services on an a la carte basis. I chose to apply the coupon the diet recommendations as that interests me more than exercise recommendations. Thus, this review only applies to the Diet recommendations on DNAFit, and excludes the Fitness section.

The Interface

The DNAFit is attractively designed, but I found the interface to be a little confusing. There is a collapsed view of your results that looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 11.29.44 AMand an expanded view that looks like this:
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So you can click on one of thirteen boxes in various shades of burgundy, and that box expands to fill out the three panel row (with vertical scroll bars on the rightmost two panels). Maybe I’m just slow to pick up on new interfaces, but it took me a minute to figure out how to get to all the data. I would have preferred a single large pop-up screen or panel without any scroll bars.

Health Recommendations

Most of the health recommendations seemed reasonable to me, and matched up with my own trial-and-error results regarding what works for me in terms of diet and nutrition. However, some of the recommendations (like limiting my saturated fat intake to 10% of my total caloric intake) seemed off-base, and made me wonder what studies the recommendations were based on. Human or animal studies? One-off or well-replicated studies? Tiny or large sample sizes? Unfortunately this information does not seem to be included.

Maybe the designers wanted to keep the interface simple and clean and not overwhelm their customers with data. However, since 100% of their potential customer base are early 23andMe adopters (health nerds), I strongly believe they should be erring on the side of providing too much data. 23andMe provides detailed citations for each health result (see below). Why not do the same?

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The complete list of diet results includes:

  • Ideal Diet
  • Carbohydrate Sensitivity
  • Saturated Fat Sensitivity
  • Detox Ability
  • Antioxidant Needs
  • Omega-3 Needs
  • Vitamin B Needs
  • Vitamin D Needs
  • Salt Sensitivity
  • Alcohol Sensitivity
  • Caffeine Sensitivity
  • Lactose Intolerance
  • Coeliac Predisposition

The most interesting results for me were that I supposedly have an increased need for anti-oxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and vitamin D. According to their results I am also susceptible to high blood pressure if I consume too much salt, possibly gluten intolerant, and have no trouble with digesting milk products.

I’ve come to many of the same conclusions from my own experiments (for example, I got rid of my asthma by reducing gluten and supplementing with vitamin D and fish oil). However, some of the recommendations seem premature, or too vague. DNAFit recommends that I consume a certain amount of B vitamins based on my heterozygous MTHFR, but they don’t specify if I should get those vitamins from food or supplements.

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My MTHFR results show that my body methylates inefficiently; thus I’m less able than most to convert supplemental folic acid to its methylated, biologically available form (folate). And if I consume too much folic acid that could even make folate less available. Folic acid supplementation has even been associated with increased cancer risk. Vitamin B6 and B12 are also only useable in their methylated forms (and most vitamin B supplements are not methylated). In addition to all this, I have personally noticed negative effects from supplementing with B vitamins (asthma, insomnia, agitation). B vitamins are complicated, and I think DNAFit would be better off specifying food-based sources. To their credit, DNAFit does provide a lists of foods high in the various B vitamins they are recommending.Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 12.16.26 PM

Users are able to download a PDF of their complete health report. The report is attractively designed, well-written, and includes detailed health recommendations which seemed for the most part reasonable. My only complaint is that I wanted DNAFit to “show their work” (include citations) so I could drill down and decided for myself in regards to some of their recommendations.

Pricing

If it were my decision I would provide all the health reports for a single flat fee. This might reduce early revenue, but it would almost certainly build the customer base and increase word-of-mouth marketing.

Privacy

Obviously, to use the DNAFit service, you need to provide the company access to your genetic data via 23andMe. This is a personal decision — it’s perfectly understandable if you’re not comfortable doing this. For me, curiosity usually outweighs caution. Here is the company’s privacy statement.

Would I Recommend This Service?

I like this service, but I’m not quite ready to recommend it. With a few easy fixes I would be happy to recommend DNAFit. Here’s a summary of what I think needs immediate fixing:

  1. Offer a flat, reasonable pricing plan (pay once for all reports).
  2. Provide citations (even if buried at the end of the health report).

I also think the interface could be made more intuitive, and I would change the B vitamin recommendation as described above, but those are minor quibbles.

My guess is that 23andMe will eventually gain FDA approval (the company is based in the UK so I suppose they are not subject to FDA regulations re: health recommendations), and at that point DNAFit may see their potential customer base expand significantly. I think the company is offering a valuable service and I wish them the best of luck.

 

Improving Gum Health — Commit to a System

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About a year ago my OralB 3D electric toothbrush died. I went to the store intending to get a new electric toothbrush several times, but each time I was put off by both price and the sheer number of options available. I decided to just use a regular toothbrush for awhile and see how it went.

Well, it didn’t go well. After six months or so using a regular soft bristle toothbrush (twice a day, with reasonably good brushing technique), I got bad marks from the dental hygienist. My tooth enamel was hard and I didn’t have any cavities (previous adjustments to my home care routine were still working in this regard), but she accused me of not flossing (even though I’d been flossing daily), and noted that my gums had bled slightly during cleaning. I had some deeper pockets around some of my molars that indicated gingivitis and a risk of periodontitis. Also, the cleaning process itself was uncomfortable, which indicated some sensitivity and inflammation. I was surprised by this — I hadn’t noticed any gum bleeding when I was flossing, my gums looked healthy (at least the parts I could easily see in the mirror), and I hadn’t had any pain or discomfort. But I believed my dentist and I found the news to be alarming.

I know that sub-par gum health is bad thing. Gum inflammation and gum disease are associated with heart disease, and some studies indicate that gum disease may actually cause heart disease. I’ve probably mentioned this a dozen times on this blog.

So I knew I needed to make a change. The day after that dental visit, I bought a Sonicare toothbrush and a Waterpik, and instituted the following program:

1. Brush with Sonicare first thing in the morning, before eating or drinking anything. Mouth pH is neutral at this point so enamel is not disturbed by brushing. Also any plaque accumulated over night is not injected into bloodstream by eating.

2. Floss and use Waterpik after breakfast. Also clean tongue with copper tongue cleaner.

3. Quick brush with regular soft bristle toothbrush 20+ minutes after lunch.

4. Before bed: floss, thoroughly brush with Sonicare, and rinse with mouthwash (fluoride and/or antiseptic). Several times a week gently clean between teeth and along gum line with Stim-U-Dent plaque remover (basically a big blunt toothpick).

I found the new routine easy to stick to. It took a couple extra minutes each day, but I rationalized this easily in terms of the prospects of improved longevity. Time spent caring for your teeth and gums is similar to time spent walking; it adds at least that much time to your lifespan. Dental hygiene time is free time!

After only a week I noticed that when I cleaned my teeth with the Stim-U-Dent (toothpick) I was hardly getting any plaque. The Sonicare product seemed to be doing an excellent job of keep my teeth clean, especially along the gum line.

Last week, somewhat reluctantly, I showed up for my dental cleaning and exam. My mood improved when my hygienist noted that my gums looked great, the pockets had reduced in size (my gums had tightened up), and there was no bleeding during cleaning. There was hardly any accumulated plaque on my teeth. Also, the cleaning process itself was not uncomfortable, and at times even oddly pleasant. Four months of the new system had worked.

Commit to a System

The experience strengthened my conviction that creating and implementing systems is a key aspect of maintaining good health. Sometimes to get the same result (healthy teeth and gums) it’s necessary to step up the system. What worked before may no longer be sufficient. Unfortunately, that’s just part of aging. The good news is that a few extra minutes of the right kind of daily maintenance can restore your health to a level as good as or even superior to what you experienced in your carefree youth (and if you’re young, you can prevent health problems and save a ton of money on health and dental care by implementing good systems early in life).

Ten years ago I was asthmatic, had a 32 inch waist, was prone to severe mood swings. Today, at age 45, I breathe easily (vitamin D, fish oil, paleo-ish diet), have a 29 inch waist (lower carbs, better sleep), and feel happy and motivated on most days (exercise, turmeric, life purpose). Poor health can be reversed, and many symptoms attributed to “aging” may in fact be simply due to substandard maintenance routines.

Commit to a system that works for you, and get healthy. Don’t accept poor health. If you need help getting pointed in the right direction, or have a story to share, feel free to comment below.

 

No Rest Days (Until I Crashed)

Turns out I do need rest days.

Turns out I do need rest days.

Over the past few months I’ve been experimenting with writing fiction every day. Sometimes, because of work and family obligations (and/or my own procrastination), I’ve missed a day. But most mornings, I write.

Writing every day — benefits:

  • Writing every day keeps my subconscious mind engaged with my fictional characters. Ideally I wake up thinking about them, knowing what they’re going to do next.
  • Writing every day keeps my momentum going. If I hit a roadblock I’m forced to find a way to blast through it (instead of pausing progress to “think about it”).
  • Writing every day becomes habitual. It’s easier to write every day at the same time and place than it is to “find time to write”.
  • Writing every day creates the expectation among my family, friends, and clients that I will be unavailable for a certain amount of time each day.
  • Writing every day means that I will be writing from a variety of different emotional and energy states … not just energetic inspiration. Ferrett Steinmetz has a good post on this topic.
  • Writing every day provides me with a daily sense of accomplishment, bolstering my self-worth.

My writing routine looks something like this:

  1. Get set up at my standing desk (laptop, coffee*, water).
  2. Meditate for a few minutes.
  3. Turn off wi-fi.
  4. Start entry in writing log.
  5. Open current work document (I use OpenOffice). Revise previous day’s work.
  6. Write until quota is met (my current quota is 808 words). Take breaks only to exercise (free weights to generate lactic acid which in turn adrenalizes the brain) or to use the bathroom.
  7. Complete entry in writing log.
  8. Backup work to DropBox.

*As per this post, I don’t start drinking coffee until I’ve started writing.

Harnessing the Subconscious Supercomputer

We all have access to supercomputer that is constantly churning the available data looking for solutions to problems, new possibilities, and potential realities. Our conscious-awareness is a tiny spotlight that only captures a small fraction of what our brains are “doing.”

If you wake up with an idea or a solution, that’s your subconscious mind at work. Salvador Dali went so far as to develop a ritual to capture the surreal images of his subconscious imagination.

But it’s easy to waste this brainpower. We can waste it by overthinking disputes that are not important, or trying to control situations that are clearly out of our control (like what other people are thinking or feeling), or by obsessing over scenarios that are unlikely to occur.

How can we get the subconscious mind to work on behalf of the interests of the conscious mind? In other words, how can we direct the supercomputer to work on relevant problems and scenarios?

I think the most reliable way to do this is to take up a daily practice that is relevant to our major life goal or vision.

All Good … Until I Crashed

My daily writing system worked well for a long time. But gradually I began to notice diminishing returns. Though I always felt a sense of accomplishment after writing, sometimes I was feeling a sense of dread before starting, a feeling not unlike starting a long work day at a job you don’t like. Once again, Ferrett Steinmetz describes the feeling well:

Since I have arranged my entire life around avoiding that feeling, I knew this wasn’t a good sign. I don’t mind hard work, or giving myself a little kick in the butt to get started, but I didn’t want writing to feel like drudgery.

Last Thursday I went on vacation with my family to Camp Towanga (near Yosemite). Arriving in the mountains, I realized I was exhausted. Not just mentally, but also physically — I’d been lifting weights every day as part of my writing routine, and my entire body ached. I decided it was time to end the experiment and take a few days off.

Judaism takes Shabbat — the day of rest — very seriously. As I participated in the rituals surrounding the Jewish sabbath, I reflected on what a “rest day” means to be me.

What I concluded is that even though I thrive on structure and discipline, rest and relaxation and unstructured time is just as important. I’ve learned that waiting for inspiration is unreliable, but this doesn’t mean that I should always be driving myself hard. It’s OK to rest, to come down, to lie fallow. For me, it’s probably essential.

Not every successful writer writes every day without fail. And those that do pay a price. Stephen King, sticking to this 2000-words-a-day-no-matter-what writing habit, fueled himself with copious amounts of drugs and alcohol (as he describes in gory detail in On Writing). Correlation is not causation; not every drug user is a best-selling fiction author. But there is always a price to pay if you don’t rest.

Fear of Getting Out of Shape

From November to mid-March I took time off of fiction writing to wait for feedback from readers, revise my first draft, and work on music projects. During this time my writing “muscles” atrophied. Despite plenty of ideas, it was a real struggle to get back into a productive flow on the next novel. Now that the flow is back, I’m scared to lose it.

But there’s a difference between taking a day or two off every week, and taking a few months off. If I don’t let myself rest on a regular basis, I might end up with a dry well for years. Bill Hayes has a great essay on this topic.

I’ve made a five year commitment to developing fiction writing as a skill and a new career. That doesn’t mean I have to sprint the entire five years.

Going Forward

Basically, I’ll be observing weekends and holidays. This doesn’t mean I won’t produce on Saturdays and Sundays, but it won’t be quota-driven production. I’ll work on whatever I want to, as inspired.

When I’m writing a first draft, I’m going to aim for 15,000 words a month. That should give me a first draft in six or seven months. With editing, revisions, and breaks to work on other projects, it might take me 18-24 months to complete a novel. Since I’m also working for living, running a music label, blogging, and being a parent, this seems like a good pace. Any faster and I think I’d risk burnout.

Buyer’s Market

Kurt Vonnegut, in the intro to Bagombo Snuff Box, mentions that there was a strong seller’s market for short stories in the 1950’s. These days, there isn’t. For various reasons we now have a glut of fiction writers at the same time the publishing industry is struggling. It’s a buyer’s market for fiction of all kinds.

What this tells me is that it’s more important than ever to focus on quality over quantity. Of course, you have to produce huge quantities of work to get to quality, but at some point you have a choice: work more selectively and carefully, or churn.

Churn has its place. Churn can break you out of inaction. Churn can make you realize you are capable of producing far more than you ever thought possible. But churn won’t get you to great. Great requires multiple drafts, throwing out bad work and starting over, and listening to that annoying whisper in your head that lets you know you can do 10% better if you’re willing to put in 100% more time. Heck, good might even require all those things.