“Systems vs Goals” is silly. Have both!

I don’t often pick fights, but when I do, I pick them on Twitter, apparently.

The Law of Viral Inaccuracy says that the most popular version of a meme is likely to be optimized for shareability, not accuracy to reality nor the intent of the original person saying it. On Twitter, this takes the form of people parroting short phrases as if everybody knows what words mean. One of the phrases I felt a need to critique is Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ “systems, not goals”.

This blog post is adapted from a tweetstorm I wrote.

The term “pre-success failure” from Scott Adams’ book is a gem. His related idea that you should have systems and not have goals is absurd. (have both!) Scott cites Olympic athletes as examples. 🤨

Take 3 guesses what goal an Olympic athlete has… 🥇🥈🥉

Systems don’t work without goals.

You need a goal in mind in order to choose or design what system to follow, and it’s literally impossible to evaluate whether a system is effective without something to compare it with. Implicitly, that’s a goal. (Scott Adams uses a somewhat narrower definition, but of course people just seeing his tiny quote don’t know that!)

We know certain Olympic athletes had good systems because they got the medals. They designed those systems to optimize for their athletic performance.

Lots of other Olympic athletes also had training systems, but their systems didn’t work as well—as measured by their goals.

I’m part of a team that runs a goal-setting workshop each year called the Goal-Crafting Intensive (where part of the craft is setting up systems) and the definition of goal that we use in that context is:

» read the rest of this entry »

Make an appointment with your saner self

Most people have had the experience of being able to articulate advice that they themselves do not follow, even though it applies to their situation as well. Usually this implies that there’s some sort of internal conflict present—a competing commitment that gets in the way of doing the thing that the person might consider reasonable. I have written much on transcending and untangling internal conflict (see these posts) and I will write much more.

But transcending internal conflict can be a lengthy, complex, and non-monotonic process, and in the meantime you’re still sitting around with a bunch of great advice you’re not taking. A bunch of untapped potential.

There’s a really straightforward technique that can help with this:

make an appointment with your saner self.

Put an event on your calendar, and treat it with the respect you’d give any other appointment. Which is to say: show up. Or, if for some reason it turns out you can’t, then reschedule for the nearest appropriate time.

Then, when the time comes, take your own advice. You can do this literally—consider what advice you’d give a friend in your situation, then do that—or you can just do the obvious thing. You can do this with specific object-level situations, eg “I need to get around to submitting that application” or with more abstract things like “I really should take more time to reflect on my life.”

Or perhaps you’ve got a technique that you know really helps you, whenever you do it, but you never seem to do it. “If I actually used the CFAR techniques, my life would be way better,” said almost every CFAR alumnus ever. Well, make an appointment with your saner self (the one who does the techniques) and then show up and do them.

Ways this can fail (and some suggestions)

Make sure you’re clear on what the appointment is. It’s okay to leave it open-ended when you make the appointment, but once the appointment starts, don’t take more than 5 minutes to figure out how you’re going to spend it. Or decide “I’m going to spend it prioritizing”. The key is not to let the time slip by while you wonder what the best way to spend it would be. Which of course you probably know on some level. The point of this technique is to tap into what you already know about how you can have a better life.

If you don’t have enough self-trust to show up for an appointment if there isn’t someone else who’ll be left stood-up, then make an appointment with someone else. Feel free to arrange this in the comments below. I’ve done this with strangers and also old friends I hadn’t talked to in years (which was cool!). I recommend just trying a half-hour skype call, with a minute or two of “Hi, this is what I’m going to work on,” then a 25-minute focused work period (aka “pomodoro”) then a minute or two of “Here’s how it went.” Then if both of you want, you can continue for more pomodoros, but you’re not committing up front to doing it for hours.

Even better, you can make a calendar where people can schedule such calls with you, using Calendly or youcanbook.me, share it with your friends, and then little sanity blocks will just automatically appear on your calendar. I did this for awhile and it was great. Each time a call occurred, I just asked “oh, what’s some thing I’ve been putting off?” and I would get started on it.

If you don’t have enough self-trust to show up for an appointment if there isn’t someone else who’ll be left stood-up, but you can’t/won’t schedule with someone else, then you could also try making a self-trust bet on this. Make sure to set a reminder so the thing doesn’t just slip by forgotten.

If you don’t have a calendar or any other system that you can rely on at all… get one? Assuming you have a smartphone, you can get it to bug you at a time. You then just need to (a) pick a time that you’re likely to be interruptible, and (b) when the timer goes off, actually shift into doing whatever it was you set out to do.

Let’s go meta: maybe you already knew about this sort of technique. Maybe you’ve done it before, or maybe you’ve suggested it to other people. Do you use it as much as you imagine would be optimal? If not, apply it to itself! Make an appointment right now with your saner self, and use the time to try to set up a regular event, or a youcanbook.me like I described above.

If the thing feels burdensome, then… this may not be the technique for you. You want to find a way of thinking about it so that you feel excited to spend time with (i.e. as) your saner self. If you can’t find a way to feel excited or at least engaged about it, then it’s not worth yelling at yourself about it. That defeats the point. Go read my post on self-referential motivation instead, and see if that helps.

Conceptual scaffolds and logistical scaffolds

For New Year’s last year, my business partner Benjamin and I ran an event called the Goal-Crafting Intensive. It was a five-hour online workshop on setting your goals for the year. Ostensibly, the main value of the workshop was the instruction: presentations I made about goal-setting & planning, a 23-page handbook, and chat-based coaching. Certainly, few people would have paid money for such an event if all three of those aspects had been absent.

And yet… I have a suspicion that the main value of the event was the fact that each participant carved out five hours from their schedule and then actually spent it focused on setting goals for the year.

Which is to say, if I imagine two people…

  • Allie buys the presentation videos and the handbook plus the ability to get some chat-based coaching.
  • Barry buys a ticket to “Open Goal Setting Afternoon” which is just a 5-hour solo-work context of some sort.

Who would have a more goal-directed year?

My money is on Barry.

Why? Our goal-setting content is actually quite good, but Allie would probably never actually open the handbook at all, let alone watch the videos. And even if she did, she would be likely to read it partway and then say, “Hmm yeah I really should do these exercises” …but still not actually do them.

Whereas Barry, who only has his own advice to take, is at least taking the time to do the best he knows how to do.

And that’s what counts. That’s why even though the Goal-Crafting Intensive is 5 hours long, only about 10-15 minutes of each hour is presentations. Then I mute my microphone, to give each participant the rest of the hour to focus on whatever seems most important to them—which could be the technique I just described, or it could be something totally different!

We’re running the Goal-Crafting Intensive again this year. So if you think your 2018 could be improved by taking 5 hours to set some goals and design some systems, then come join us on Dec 30, Jan 1, or Jan 7, and we’ll give you both good advice and time to take it.

Click this image to learn more about the 2018 goal-crafting intensive:

Get somewhere next year. "Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a year."

Transcending Blame while Hopping Mountains Together

Another personal learning update, this time flavored around Complice and collaboration. I wasn’t expecting this when I set out to write the post, but what’s below ended up being very much a thematic continuation on the previous learning update post (which got a lot of positive response) so if you’re digging this post you may want to jump over to that one. It’s not a prerequisite though, so you’re also free to just keep reading.

I started out working on Complice nearly four years ago, in part because I didn’t want to have to get a job and work for someone else when I graduated from university. But I’ve since learned that there’s an extent to which it wasn’t just working for people but merely working with people long-term that I found aversive. One of my growth areas over the course of the past year or so has been developing a way-of-being in working relationships that is enjoyable and effective.

I wrote last week about changing my relationship to internal conflict, which involved defusing some propensity for being self-critical. Structurally connected with that is getting better at not experiencing or expressing blame towards others either. In last week’s post I talked about how I knew I was yelling at myself but had somehow totally dissociated from the fact that that meant that I was being yelled at.

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Just Do A Thing (that nobody’s expecting you to do)

This post was co-written with my friend Duncan Sabien, a very prolific doer of things. He had the idea of writing the article in a sort of panel-style, so we could each share our personal experiences on the subject.

Malcolm: At the CFAR alumni reunion this August, my friend Alton remarked: “You’re really self-directed and goal-oriented.  How do we make more people like you?”

It didn’t take me long to come up with an answer:

“I think we need to get people to go and do things that nobody’s expecting them to do.”

Duncan: When I was maybe nine years old, I had a pretty respectable LEGO collection dropped into my lap all at once.  I remember that there was one small spaceship (about 75 or 80 pieces) that I brought along to summer camp, with predictable results.

I found myself trying to piece the thing back together again, and succeeded after a long and frustrating hour.  Then, to be absolutely sure, I took it completely apart and reassembled it from scratch.  I did this maybe forty or fifty times over the next few weeks, for reasons which I can’t quite put my finger on, and got to where I could practically put the thing together in the dark.

These days, I have an enormous LEGO collection, made up entirely of my own designs.  My advice to pretty much everyone:

» read the rest of this entry »

Causal Explanations vs Normative Explanations

If somebody asks you why, there are often two markedly different kinds of explanations you could give.

Their differences are psychological & social in addition to being semantic.

Two kinds of Why

“everything is the way it is because it got that way”
— D’Arcy Thompson

I run a software company, and sometimes users will email me asking, “Why is feature X like this? It should be like that.”

My response, which I don’t necessarily write out: if you want to know “why feature X is like this”, well… I could tell you the long history of how Complice mutated its way to being what it is today, which would contain a causal explanation for why the feature is the way it is.

…however, if you’re looking for not a causal explanation, but rather a normative explanation, or justification of “why it makes sense for feature X to be like this”, then I don’t really have one. I basically agree with you. All I have to offer is that it would be work to change it. And that I probably will at some point but it hasn’t been a priority yet.

We might say that causal explanations explain “why [proposition] is true” whereas normative explanations explain “why [[proposition] is true] is ‘reasonable,’ or ‘acceptable.'”

I think we want to be a little wary of the second kind of explanatory process. » read the rest of this entry »

Structures of accountability

In my 2013 review, I wrote:

What broke me out of [my despondent unmotivated funk mid-summer-2013] was when I realized that sometimes even things I really enjoyed doing, like blogging, I wouldn’t bother to do if I didn’t kind of force myself to do it. Turns out motivation is complex.

I have once again found myself blogging right now because if I don’t, I owe beeminder money. I feel frustrated—I have only an hour or so left at this point and while I have many posts in progress and many others that I want to write, none of them will be ready in an hour. So instead here’s a brief rant on accountability.

The E-Myth on org structures

I’m listening to a fantastic audiobook right now called The E-Myth, E being short for Entrepreneurial. It’s all about how to do a small business as an entrepreneur, rather than a technician. There are some other insights from this book that I’m excited to blog about, but those are on the longer-than-an-hour list.

One of the chapters I was listening to today was talking about the importance of accountability when setting up a business. The author describes two brothers who start a business together. In one version of the story, they take turns doing everything and it’s great for awhile but then it breaks down because nobody is responsible for anything. In the other version, the two of them sit down at the beginning of their business development process and lay out a basic yet fairly extensive organizational structure, including a COO, VP of Marketing, salespeople and accountants. They write a description for each position.

Then, they assign an employee to each of those roles and have that employee sign off on their position contract. Of course, the only options available are themselves. So they each have multiple roles, and report to each other and themselves. But the key is that now they’re accountable for several distinct outcomes. Then, the process from there is to systematize the lower-level roles and hire someone into them, promoting themselves as they go along.

I think this is really cool and makes a lot of sense.

One bit I thought was strange though was a remark the author made, which was “all organizations are hierarchical”. I actually blurted out “pfft, what?” when he said that.

» read the rest of this entry »

The 40-Hour Work Weekend

I’ve experimented with focus blocks before, where I’m working a large percentage of the time and when I’m not working I’m only engaging in distractions that are centering, rather than divergent. Following in the footsteps of some other entrepreneurs that I admire, I decided to make this entire weekend a focus block. I closed out my email inbox friday afternoon, and didn’t open it again until sunday. And I got a lot done.

The video!

Like the others, I made a timelapse video. I’m kicking myself now, because I didn’t confirm that I had a functional system on Linux for recording my webcam and then turning it into a timelapse. Meaning it took me way longer (read: several hours today pulling my hair out while staring at my screen) to create this video than would have been reasonable, and it’s not even sync’d the whole time. But I know how to do it better next time, and can probably push out a video with 30mins at most of post-processing, provided I set things up well at the start. I learned a bunch about the ffmpeg and sed tools though, which was helpful. I’ll post my scripts once I fix the aforementioned problem.

The stats!

TagTime

An app that pings you at totally random intervals and gets you to tag what you’re doing. The pings are on average every 45 minutes, but sometimes will be within seconds, or hours apart, so you never know. tagti.me »

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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