Wtf is a deadline? Showtime, missing the bus, time walls, check-ins, &+

If this blog post contains only this paragraph and bullet list, it’s because it was showtime and this was all I’d written. The post is about distinguishing different kinds of things that are often all called “deadlines”. I really like showtime, and I liked the idea of writing being like a kind of showtime, although in practice this is quite hard to do for anything except an exam. I may schedule a time to write this post in full, but for now (Oct 4th) I’m simply writing this and scheduling a time when it’ll be published: noon on Wednesday, October 8th. If you’re reading this text (and only this text) before then, there was a bug with my schedule publish feature 😂

  • showtime – “however prepared we are, the audience is waiting”
  • deadline time wall – go/no-go – “I miss the bus” is the extreme case
  • check-in / estimate – may not be finished by this date, but I want to reorient
  • experiment end – try a thing for a bit, and then reflect on it

(Written the following day, in my personal journal, and added, at the time: Man, I’m excited for the blogging showtime! Fascinating that it took me this long. This is just making it true that something of mine will get published every so often, but not with any sense of commitment or whatever. The consequences are just the quality of whatever’s published. And I guess in that sense it really is a showtime. Hm… yeah, feeling that.)

Okay, here I am, 3h 11mins before the publish date. This is my performance over the next 3h. I’m not going to do this every time, but in this case I think there’s a beauty to simply leaving the above paragraphs there and continuing from them, as they function as a kind of teaser for the topic of the post.

This is a model that has been percolating in my system for years, and it was animated by 2 main questions, that didn’t obviously have any thing to do with each other:

  1. why, as a student, did I usually vastly prefer tests & exams over homework & projects?
  2. what does it mean (in the context of designing the Complice goal-tracking system) to put a date on something you intend to do?

The model, like posts I’ve written about habits, expectations, commitments & accountability, distractions, and explanations, is a model that takes a word and says “you thought this was one thing? this is actually 2 things, and it’s worth knowing the difference.” In this case, there are at least 4, maybe more things. But let’s start with the difference between tests & homework.

» read the rest of this entry »

“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."

How I Learned to Stop Hurrying and Fall In Love (with a project)

I’m flexing my blogging muscle again, for the first time in nearly 2 months. It feels a bit weird, and kinda nice. The break I took also feels both weird and nice.

There’s a trope or something about blogs where half of their posts are just the author apologizing for not posting more often. This isn’t going to be one of those—instead, my absence from this space is something that I want to reflect on, in a similar manner to my normal blog posts. How does it relate to my own growth? How does it relate to motivation? To metacognition?

This reflection ends up spanning 5 years and touching on a lot of what’s core to me (and what was core in the past). » read the rest of this entry »

Don’t get distracted and crash

About half a million people are injured each year from motor vehicle accidents involving a distracted driver. (This post isn’t actually about driving—we’re going to use driving as an analogy to understand something else.)

This article cites research to answer a bunch of FAQs about the dangers of talking on the phone while driving. One of these is:

Q: Is talking on the phone more distracting than talking to a passenger?

A: The cognitive workload for the driver is the same, according to Strayer. In his test, conversing with a passenger rated a 2.3 on the 1-to-5 scale; talking on a hand-held phone, a 2.4; and a hands-free phone, a 2.3. However, having another person in the car generally results in safer driving, because there’s often an extra set of eyes on the road. Also, passengers tend to stop talking when the demands of driving increase, Strayer says. “So passenger and cell conversations have different crash risks because the passenger helps out.”

There are a couple things going on here. One of them is that the passenger has more situational awareness: the phone-based conversational partner may not even know their counterpart is on the road, let alone any of the details. The passenger can observe not only the driver but also the state of the car and the surroundings. They may additionally be aware of the intended destination, and so on. The other main thing that’s going on is that the passenger is going the same place as the driver, in the same vehicle, so they have a natural built-in interest to help the drive go well. They have a shared intent, and aligned interests.

Now, if I’m on the phone with you while I’m driving, you (hopefully!) don’t want me to crash, but psychologically it’s very different from when you yourself are (a) at risk and (b) your hindbrain knows it.

So I think that there’s something important going on with both of these pieces: awareness and values.

Other hazards of distraction

If you get distracted while driving, you might get in an accident. If you get distracted while working, or otherwise pursuing some sort of goal, you might waste time and fail to achieve your aims. And as with driving, other people can totally be distracting.

Given that, what can we learn from the driving analogy, that might inform how and with whom we choose to relate?
» read the rest of this entry »

Needles you can’t move with your hand

What do you want? Great, go get it. Tomorrow, maybe.

This is better advice for some things than others. To use a trivial example, say you’re part of a business that involves selling directly to clients. And your goal is to grow sales by X% this year. Well, you can’t reach out and directly move the dial on how much product the company has sold. What you can do is make more sales calls. Just remember: what ultimately matters isn’t the number of calls but the annual sales.

Lead & Lag measures

The 4 Disciplines of Execution (great pdf summary here) calls this distinction “lead measures” vs “lag measures”. Lead measures are the ones that you can influence directly, in the short term. They tend to be relatively “instrumental“—not things you want intrinsically, so much as things you want because they help you get things you do want intrinstically. The lead measures that you choose for a given situation represent a belief you have about the best way to influence the lag measure. For the most part, you’d happily choose a different lead measure if you thought that’s what could get you closer to the goal.

Briefly, some examples that follow this pattern:

  • # of pushups done is a lead measure… max # of pushups you can do is a lag measure
  • caloric intake or other dietary numbers are lead measures… your weight / health is usually relatively laggy
  • hours studied is a lead measure… grades are a lag measure
  • number of people messaged on okcupid is a lead measure… actually getting dates or a relationship is a lag measure
  • » read the rest of this entry »

Why I blog

This image from some goal factoring I did 2 years ago basically sums it up. It’s worth noting that this was originally part of a much larger graph, with hundreds of nodes and edges, and I just clicked on the action node “write blog posts” and exported all nodes that it had an arrow to. Also: despite the hundreds of nodes, this goal factoring chart wasn’t at all complete—for instance, it seems from the post that “have a successful blog” is a terminal goal of mine, i.e. something that I just want, no matter what. This is… not quite true :P. Also there are definitely reasons I want to become smarter beyond seeming smart. That’s not even the main reason.

Anyway, I figure (in part because I need to write more words for my blog post writing month (this post was written in November)) that it’s worth elaborating on various pieces of this.

blogging goal factoring

Why I write

I enjoy writing

This is a pretty simple one, but important to include because when I forget that I enjoy writing I often tend to feel more angst about trying to get myself to do it. » read the rest of this entry »

Shoals: what do you know you don’t want?

Shoal, n. an area of shallow water, especially as a navigational hazard.

a photo of waves crashing on rocks near a cliff face

There are lots of questions that it’s helpful to know the answer to. One of these is “What do I want?” But this is a hard question to answer… which means despite its theoretical value, it’s not particularly practical. A question being worth answering doesn’t make it a good question. If it’s a hard question to answer, then asking it might be fruitless and frustrating. So one generally effective tip is to consider what other questions you could ask that will be more tractable than a hard question but yield similar insights.

In the case of “what do I want?” which is often a scary question, one great alternative is “what do I know I don’t want?” In particular, in a given domain.

My friend Shane Stranahan calls the answers to the second question “shoals”. The idea is that if you’re on a ship, and trying to land it ashore, then the shore is the goal… but the water may be treacherous, containing a bunch of shallow water that you can run aground on. These are the shoals: they’re close to the goal, they’re made out of the same stuff as the goal (land) but they’re not the goal, and they represent a risk to you reaching the goal.

And, if you have a good map of where they are, you’re much more likely to sail safely to shore. » read the rest of this entry »

Announcing the Effectivity Habits Project

In 2014, instead of trying to change 50 things at once for New Years’, I decided to try a serial approach, changing one thing each week. I made 47 such attempts (took most of August off) and had 13 wins and a bunch of other good stuff come out of the not-wins.

This inspired my friend and collaborator Brienne Yudkowsky to do her own version of this for 2015. She came up with a number of changes that I really like, and so I’m going to merge most of her fork back into my branch. But with one key change: a focus on effectivity.

I’m deliberately calling this project “effectivity habits” rather than “productivity habits” because I want to imply a focus on achieving important results, not just on producing a lot of stuff. Productivity is a really key component of effectivity, but loses sight of the end result in its heads-down focus on the process of d. Which is fine! Process is important. But I also want to deliberately install some habits that will make me pay more attention to whether or not what I’m doing is truly moving towards the goal. Nate Soares, in the linked article, writes:

My advice, if you want to be effective, is always be solving the problem.

Note that he says “effective,” not “productive”.

My original Habit-a-week project was totally random. That was fun! Each week, I chose a new habit to install based on whatever felt most juicy. » read the rest of this entry »

Self-Authorship: writing your own story

Growing up, you make decisions, but it’s kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book.

Finally, you reach grade 12. It’s time to choose which university to attend after high school!

  • To check out the prestigious university where your dad went, turn to page 15.
  • To visit the small campus nearby that would be close enough to live at home, turn to page 82
  • To take a road trip with friends to the party college they want to go to, turn to page 40.

That’s a decent set of choices. And you know, there exist hypothetical future lives of yours that are really awesome, along all pathways. But there are so many more possibilities!

The Paradox of Choice

Both personal experience and principles like Analysis Paralysis agree that when you have tons of choices, it becomes harder to choose. Sure. But, to the extent that life is like the hypothetical Choose Your Own Adventure Book (hereafter CYOAB) above, I don’t think the issue is that there aren’t enough options. The issue lies in the second sentence, which contains a huge assumption: that in grade 12, it’s time to choose a university to attend. Sure, maybe later in the book is a page that says something about “deferring your offer” to take a “gap year”, but even that is presented as just an option among several others. And so it goes, beyond high school and post-secondary education and into adulthood.

What you don’t get to do, in a CYOAB, is strategize about what you want and how to get it. » read the rest of this entry »

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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