“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 »

Dispel your justification-monkey with a “HWA!”

Justification—ie a normative explanation, as opposed to a causal one—is sometimes necessary. But, for many of us, it’s necessary much less often than we feel it is.

The reason we justify more often than we need to is that we live in fear of judgment, from years having to explain to authorities (parents, teachers, bosses, cops (for some people)) why things went differently than they “should have”. This skill is necessary to avoid punishment from those authorities.

We often offer justifications before they’re even asked for: “Wait I can explain—”

With friends, though, or in a healthy romantic partnership, or with people that we have a solid working relationship with, it is quite apparent that this flinch towards justification is actually in the way of being able to effectively work together. It is:

  • unhelpful for actually understanding what happened (since it’s a form of motivated cognition)
  • an obstacle to feeling safe with each other
  • a costly waste of time & attention

And yet we keep feeling the urge to justify. So what to do instead? How to re-route that habit in a way that builds trust within the relationships where justification isn’t required? How to indicate to our conversational partners that we aren’t demanding that they justify?

There are lots of ways to do this—here’s one. » read the rest of this entry »

Building self-trust with Self-Referential Motivation

Noah asks:

I feel so incredibly much better when I don’t procrastinate, and yet I still procrastinate regularly. Why am I so resistant to classical conditioning in this context? What further questions should I ask myself / demands should I make of myself, to attack this problem?

I suspect that this is a paradox that almost everyone has encountered on some level. People want to be productive. It feels good to have a really fruitful day.

This is something we often forget, when we frame our self-improvement efforts as a fight between what we should do and what we want to do.

And note that it’s not just that people want-to-have-been-productive. It generally feels pretty good while you’re doing it too. There are exceptions, of course—some work is a grind—but in general it’s at least satisfying, if not fulfilling, to be doing good work. And even with relatively aversive work, it usually feels better to be actually making progress than to just be stewing in the feeling that you should be working but aren’t.

So here’s the million-dollar question: if it feels good to be productive, why aren’t people productive more? » read the rest of this entry »

Captain’s Log: ultra-simple tech for self-reflection

For the last few months I’ve been using a remarkably powerful, remarkably simple technique for increasing my effectiveness. It’s called a Captain’s Log.

It’s kind of like a journal, except instead of writing in it reflectively from a historical or archival perspective, the specific purpose of it is to write in it in the heat of the moment, when encountering a feeling of uncertainty or internal conflict. (I realize that the name doesn’t really reflect that distinction, but I don’t care! Perhaps it’s from Invictus: I am the captain of my soul.)

How much better would your days be if every time you felt uncertain or conflicted, you were able to have a quick conversation with a compassionate friend? Would that effect be present even if the friend didn’t really say anything but just nodded as you thought out loud? Well, turns out you can basically do this!

And it turns out that it’s a really valuable tool for practicing undividedness as though saving my head from fire.

Thoughts that might prompt me to use it:

  • “I’m not sure what to do this afternoon…”
  • “I’m feeling kind of flinchy (ie drawn towards absorbing websites)”
  • “I want to go out, but I also want to finish the thing I’m working on”
  • “Maybe it’s time to go to bed? Maybe?”
  • “Where did the last 3 hours go?”
  • “I’m having a bit of trouble focusing but I really want to do some pomodoros!”
  • “Hmm I kind of want to go to this party, but I also want to go to that other thing. Ack!”
  • “I seem to be dissociating…”
    » read the rest of this entry »

Towards being purpose-driven without fighting myself

Lots of more abstract writing in the works, but in the meantime, an update on my personal learning process: I’m currently working on shifting out of a meta-oscillation between being intensely purpose-driven but stressed & tense and being self-compassionate & internally aligned but aimless & disoriented.

Of course, an update on my personal learning process is still going to include some abstractions!

I sketched out a 2×2 to capture these dimensions. I’m not totally satisfied with the axes or the quadrants, but the overall structure feels clear and powerful, and I’ll refine it over time. I’m trying to get more comfortable putting out drafts of things:

The ideal state is the one in the top right, » read the rest of this entry »

New site page: Experiments

I try a lot of things. In the past I’ve forced myself to try things a certain oftenness. There was my 2014 habit-a-week project, and 2015’s #trythings beeminder.

I think I’m presently trying more interesting things, more often, but it’s coming from internal drives rather than external pressures. I reflected that I wanted a place to write about these—things in progress, things that might not work, small things… things that aren’t worth their own blog post at this phase.

So I’ve made a new page on my site! malcolmocean.com/experiments

» read the rest of this entry »

Common-knowledge self-commitments for changing patterns of thought

So we’re trying to upgrade our mindsets.

Here’s my formulation of what we’ve been doing at my learning community, which has been working well and shows a lot of potential to be even more powerful:

With deep knowledge of why you want to change, make a clear commitment, to yourself. Then, share that commitment with people who support you, and make it common knowledge.

I’ve written before about a hard vs soft distinction: with hard accountability, there is a direct, specific negative outcome as a result of failing to meet your commitment. This is the domain of commitment contracts (“if I don’t write this paper by tuesday 8pm, I’ll pay you $50”) and systems like Beeminder. With soft accountability, you’re making a commitment to paying attention to your behaviour in the relevant area and shaping it to be more in line with your long-term vision.

Read that post to find out more about the distinction. Here I just want to note that hard accountability has some disadvantages in fuzzy domains, for instance in changing habits of thought. One is that if there’s a grey area, it’s then very unclear if you’ve succeeded or failed at the committed behaviour, and you need to know. Furthermore, it’s likely to be the case that the behaviour change you want to make isn’t exactly the same as the one you can measure, which means that your commitment is now somewhat at odds with your goal, in that you’re optimizing for the wrong thing.

» read the rest of this entry »

You flow downhill (and you can sculpt the hill)

“It was a pity thoughts always ran the easiest way, like water in old ditches.” ― Walter de la Mare, The Return

You’re probably more predictable than you think. This can be scary to realize, since the perspective of not having as much control as you might feel like you do, but it can also be a relief: feeling like you have control over something you don’t have control over can lead to self-blame, frustration and confusion.

One way to play with this idea is to assume that future-you’s behaviour is entirely predictable, in much the same way that if you have a tilted surface, you can predict with a high degree of accuracy which way water will flow across it: downhill. Dig a trench, and the water will stay in it. Put up a wall, and the water will be stopped by it. Steepen the hill, and the water will flow faster.

So what’s downhill for you? What sorts of predictable future motions will you make?

» read the rest of this entry »

The Time I Caught Myself Whistling

I once caught myself whistling.

I had done something to someone, that I really regretted, and I felt sick about it. I kept replaying the scene, wishing I’d done something different. Over, and over.

Then I was working on math homework, and just kind of distracted myself from being a person interacting with other people altogether. It was just me, and the symbols, the logic.

After the math homework, I was on my way to meet up with people to go for a run, and I caught myself whistling some sort of cheery tune. I was shocked: “Malcolm, you can’t be whistling..! You’re supposed to be all upset about this thing you did!”

I came so close. To believing what I told myself. I very nearly threw myself back down into that pit of despair and angst and regret and nausea. But then I realized I didn’t have to. That me stewing over what I’d done wasn’t helping anyone at all.

So I kept whistling.

“You don’t choose what happens to you, but you choose how you respond”

My parents had told me, since I was quite young, that I could choose what emotions I felt in response to a situation.

» read the rest of this entry »

Abstracting from Experience

Some things you don’t learn by being told (or telling yourself), you learn by organizing your experiences.

A few weeks ago I was talking with a friend, Ruby, over skype. Our conversation drifted to letters one might send to one’s past self, from say 1-2 years ago. Aside from the obvious tip-off’s about stock prices or romantic inclinations or lacks thereof, what would be useful to say? Ruby proposed sending his past self a list of books to read sooner. I though that was probably better than lots of other approaches (in part because it lets you send more information than you could possibly fit into a letter) but it seemed to me like there was a non-obvious challenge to doing that effectively, related to experience. There are some books that are broadly pretty mindblowing, but I’ve found that often when books really rock my world it’s because I’m particularly ripe for them at that moment. I think that trying to send a revelation to your past self, if you weren’t ready for it, might have a bit of an Archimedes’s Chronophone effect, where everything comes out sounding kind of obvious rather than insightful.

A second story: I was talking with some friends about Robert Kegan’s Constructive Developmental Theory. The structure of CDT is about shifting parts of your experience from being [thoughts you are subject to] to being [thoughts you can take as object, i.e. think about]. I’ve blogged about this here. Its content is a set of five specific subject-object stages in how people view themselves, ideas, and other people. Anyway, one of the people I was talking to has a 10-year-old daughter, and he was wondering if I had advice on how to help her go through the shifts faster. After noting that that wasn’t necessarily a good idea (I mean, it could be, but it might make her feel more distanced from her peers), I remarked that the process is complex and it’s not enough to just teach her certain things or to get her to do certain other things.

Because each subsequent shift in Kegan’s system represents not just new knowledge or understanding, but an entirely new kind of order applied to the level below. » 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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