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, 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 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."

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 »

How I’m reading 2× as much as last year with a smaller goal

In 2013, inspired in part by this post by Julien Smith, I decided to try reading 52 books over the course of the year. I was doing really well for a number of weeks, but then I fell behind, and ended the year with only 21. For 2014, I tried something totally different, and it has worked amazingly well: we’re now halfway through 2014 and I can count 15 books that I’ve finished. More importantly, I can count 61 that I haven’t.

What gets measured, gets done

Or, whatever you measure, you will optimize for.

The problem, in 2013, was that I only got points when I finished a book. I had started keeping track of all of the books I finished in a spreadsheet. I wish I’d done this sooner. If you haven’t done this but you wish you had—do it. The feeling won’t go away, and you’ll just feel sillier when you finally do start. If you have kids, start one for them. My old system looked like this:

  1. Objective: read 52 books in 2013 (a book a week, don’t get behind)
  2. Tracking: record finished books in a spreadsheet with a rating and remarks

I remember distinctly one book I picked up in 2013 that was not for me. It was called “Slack”, and I was excited at the possibility that it might help me with introducing more slack into my life, but it was extremely focused on management and it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to get much out of the book. I made a new tab in my spreadsheet called “Dismissed”. Slack is the only book in there, but it was a start.

The problem was twofold:

  1. I would avoid starting books because they didn’t look like they’d be worth reading in their entirety, and I didn’t want to waste reading time on books I couldn’t count.
  2. If I found a book wasn’t interesting me, I would typically try to finish it anyway so I could count it.

Laid out explicitly like this, my old tracking schema was quite obviously problematic. » read the rest of this entry »

The scientifically-validated way to align urges and goals: Implementation Intentions

“Implementation Intentions” is a tool from psychology literature that has been conclusively shown to increase the tendency of people to actually carry out actions towards their goals. Feel free to read the paper if you want justification. Since there’s plenty of that and I’d be just copy-pasting the article, I’m going to focus on the application side.

How to Intentionally Implement

Step 1: Have a Goal

You can use this for huge goals or things you’re trying to accomplish, or it could just be a simple habit you want to create/change/eliminate. One example that’s worked well for me is staying up when I get up. I don’t have a big issue with getting up when my alarm goes off, but if I’m at all tired or even just cold, I feel a strong inclination to just crawl back into my nice warm bed… but when I do that, I fall asleep, and it usually isn’t even particularly restful sleep. So my goal here is to stay out of bed once I’ve gotten up.

Step 2: Mental Contrasting

This technically isn’t part of implementation intentions either—but it’s another well-documented tool that helps with goal success and that works well with implementation intentions. Warning: there are two key parts here that must be combined. Doing both will increase your chance of success; doing only one will decrease it.

The first part is to spend some time thinking about the benefits of achieving your goal: the short-term peace of having a relaxed morning instead of a rushed one… the long-term time gained by not oversleeping, and the value of whatever I spend that time doing instead. The second part is to bring to mind all of the obstacles you can think of, ranging from the regular and simple (“I get cold” or “I get tired”) to the less frequent and complex (“someone else is in the bathroom”).

Here’s what mine looks like for up-getting:`

  • more time in the morning
  • better quality sleep
  • completer Zeo data
  • feeling more motivated


  • desire/urge for comfort
  • habits learned this summer while mis-doing everyman
  • sleep inertia in general
  • staying up too late

What’s key, the research reveals, is to then contrast those obstacles with the ultimate benefits, so that you get a clear association in your mind that those things are what’s standing in the way of you having all of that awesome success. Once you’ve done that…

Step 3: Think of Opportunities

In the case of getting up, there’s really only one main opportunity: when I hear my alarm clock. Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar actually likes to refer to this device as an “opportunity clock” because he thinks it’s a helpful positive reframe. “If you can hear it, you’ve got an opportunity.”

For a goal like “exercise more”, there are many opportunities. One in each context where you’re choosing what to do with your body. Perhaps when you decide whether to drive or bike to work, or to take the elevator or the stairs. Is there a bar somewhere in your daily routine that would be great for pull-ups? What would be a convenient time and place to do some crunches?

Step 4: Create If-Then Statements

If you’re a programmer, then this will be really familiar. If not, then this sentence and the previous one are sort of examples. If-then statements are the core of implementation intentions. The name itself is to contrast with what researchers call “goal intentions”. Goal intentions are things like “I intend to be 10lbs lighter in 3 months” or “I intend to write a 50,000-word novel by the end of November.”

Implementation intentions look more like “if I have the chance to eat a cookie, then I’ll just take a deep breathe and refuse the cookie” or “if I sit down at my computer, I’ll open up the draft of my novel and write at least 1000 words before I go on Facebook”.

Goal intentions, despite having little directly to do with behaviour, have been shown to be effective for producing behaviour change. With implementation intentions and mental contrasting, they become even more effective. To create your if-then statements, start with the opportunities you identified in step 3. This is the initial “if” part. Then, add the intended action in those circumstances.

This is what I started with:
• When I hear the zeo opportunity clock, then I’ll get up and turn it off

It helps to be specific so that your brain is really certain when the “if” is triggered. I actually started with something I almost always do anyway. I then added:
• If I’ve just turned off the zeo, then I’ll go to the bathroom and weigh myself [I’m tracking my weight on beeminder]

This helps to create a new habit at that decision point where I’m deciding whether or not to go back to bed. While these two lines would be better than nothing on their own, they actually still have substantial room for improvement. Brains are incredibly skilled at generating excuses for things that are unpleasant or inconvenient or even just unfamiliar. You need to catch those cases. This was the ultimate chain of If-Thens that I created:

• When I hear the zeo opportunity clock, then I’ll get up and turn it off
• • If I’ve just turned off the zeo, then I’ll go to the bathroom and weigh myself
• • • If I feel like going back to bed instead, then I’ll ignore that feeling and still go weigh myself
• • • If someone is in the bathroom, then I’ll stay standing and start my morning intentions
• • • If I still feel tired, then I’ll go to the kitchen, get water, and splash it on my face
• • • • If I’m not dressed, then I’ll put on sweatpants then go
• • • If I realize that somehow I’ve sat or laid down on my bed, then I’ll count from 5 down to 0 then stand up on zero [this helps in tired situations because it doesn’t feel effortful to start counting]

• After weighing myself, then I’ll start my morning intentions
• • If I feel like doing them in bed, then I’ll do them sitting at my desk instead

Note that in several cases the “if” is basically “if I don’t feel like it”. While this might be surprising, or seem silly, it’s actually really key. If you say, “I’m going to go to the gym on Monday” then you’re implicitly assuming that on Monday you will still want to go to the gym. If you don’t, your brain might assume that you therefore don’t need to go. If, however, you decide that even if you don’t feel like it, you’re going to go anyway, then that excuse doesn’t work anymore.

Tips for successful Implementation Intentions

Use positive language

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever heard someone say “I’m never gonna drink again” …more than once. Turns out that not only does that not work, but it backfirefs, in the same way that trying not to think of a white bear usually results in frosty ursine thoughts. So rather than focus on the behaviour you want to avoid, think about what you want to do instead. I know if I heard someone say “from now on, I’m only drinking soda at parties!” I might actually expect them to succeed.

Create a success spiral

Start with implementation intentions for something that feels challenging but not overwhelming. Then you’re likely to succeed, after when when you add a new layer to this (either in the original goal or for a new one) you’ll already think of it as an effective system, and one that you obey.

This post explains success spirals really well.

If you need caveats, build them in

If you set up your Implementation Intentions so that you’ve eliminated all snacking from your life with this, but you still want to snack sometimes, then you’re going to be forced to break your intentions to do so, which sets a precedent you don’t want. Instead, you might try something like what I did:
– If I really want a snack and I haven’t had one that day, then I can trade a coupon for a snack, provided that coupon was created at least a day ago.

I would just write eg “Friday Snack Coupon” on a sticky note on Thursday, and then on Friday I could buy a snack with this. This way I could still snack in a very limited way without breaking the official contract I’d set with myself.

Start small and memorable

One last tip—I know this is a lot! This whole thing doesn’t work if you find yourself in this situation and you don’t remember what your if-then actually was. There are two things that can help with this: first, start with simple If-Thens that are fairly easy to remember. Secondly, just create a global catchall If-Then:
• If I find myself in a situation where I’m pretty sure that I have an implementation intention but can’t quite seem to recall what it was, then I’ll behave in a way that seems like the kind of thing I’d put for the Then section in this context.

I just came up with that right now, so I’ll have to give it a field-test and see if it works.

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Everything You Want

I have decided that things are going to change. Obviously I can’t entirely drop my present habits, but I’m done with fooling around.

Several things have contributed to this:

  • Seeing someone’s particularly fit body (abs especially) at the party this weekend. He is so ripped, and it just looks like life. I want that.
  • Taking a happiness survey on Happify and realizing through answering the questions that I am not nearly as happy as my mean happiness for the past several years.
  • Realizing I have a general frustration with my own present default states of being, largely through conversations with Kenzi about our interactions

So. What does that yield? Watching this body move and wanting my own body to look like that (~again) made me reflect on the nature of wanting. As it turns out, you can’t get everything you want. This is obvious in cases like “I want to be in Canada right now” and “I want to be in San Francisco right now”. However, I had been allowing myself to believe that somehow “I want to be able to eat whatever I feel like (where ‘whatever I feel like’ includes tons of junk food)” is compatible with “I want to lose a bit of weight, put on some muscle, and generally be healthy”. Upon reflection, this appears not to be the case. I think this is a breakthrough of sorts.

Much more generally than diet and physique, I think I’ve been (not quite this explicitly) thinking that “I want to do what feels fun/appealing in the moment, including following various dopamine surges” and “I want to achieve my medium-term and long-term goals” are compatible. Hell, that first one isn’t even compatible with “I want to get to bed at a predetermined time, ever”. Upon reflection, it’s very clear that the want of impulses is not the one I care about, yeah

What am I going to do about it?

[ Brief interruption while I take a pomodoro break
and go for a beeminded 600m barefoot run. ]

One thought that came to mind right now is to have a morning reflection period where I review my long term goals and affirm to myself how my actions today will advance them. This could be a decent time for the alternate-paths part of goal factoring too. Although I think I want to keep it super short, at least to start. My experiences around designing new habits and getting bogged down in wanting to get the details perfect suggests it could be valuable to create a little procedure for myself for designing and implementing new habits.

I wrote most of the above text on Sunday (edited a bit for this post) and since then I’ve indeed done this reflection each morning. It seems to have been an awesome action to choose as it has had substantial ripple effects on my other habits as well. For the past few weeks, I’d been gradually slipping behind at my Bees (Beeminder, mentioned in the run block above, is a service that lets you track your progress on your goals, and stings you (with a credit card charge) if you don’t make sufficient progress). Earlier this week, I had about 6 or 7 goals that were going to derail that evening if I didn’t do them. Not only did I do them, but I’m now ahead on most of my Beeminder goals, with 1-5 days of buffer!

12 charts indicating my beeminder process. The colours show that I've got several days to spare on all but 3 of my goals.

As of writing this post. Click through for live data!

I’m sleeping better, waking up feeling more motivated, and my days have more interesting things in them. I haven’t quite shifted all of my impulses and habits while at my computer, meaning I’ve not actually completed everything I set out to do every morning. I have, however, done substantially better than if I hadn’t noted it (on my phone) or thought explicitly about it at all. I keep my goals numbered so that it’s immediately evident in any review if one has been missed. Now I’m checking twice a day. In reality, with 5 goals, it probably makes sense to give 1 mostly-a-break on any given day. So maybe to do some tiny little action toward it, but nothing huge. With my work-goal, I get weekends off.

Given that I’m biting off more than I can chew at this point, I think this would be an effective way to scale back and focus. I expect it to also slightly renew my vigour when I return to the goal then next day. At any rate, my sense of purpose has already improved so dramatically this week that I think this can be considered a success. The paradox of sorts is that working towards my goals is so much more enriching and rewarding than dopamine hits from skimming Facebook*. So I’m experiencing pleasure while I do things, which is mutually reinforcing with the alignment between my urges and goals. So in a way, I am getting everything I want. But it required being open to the reality that that doesn’t happen automatically.

*or any dopamine hits, for that matter. Dopamine is the lust neurotransmitter, not the pleasure one, and it mostly makes you want stuff.

How I crossed “duvet” off my To-Get List without buying a duvet

Coop-life has its share of complications. In addition to virtually never meeting half of the Engineering faculty at uWaterloo, it can also cause a change of residence every 4 months. This summer, in class, I lived in a regular on-campus residence. This fall I’m living in an apartment that is a convenient 15-minute walk from both my work and Uptown Waterloo. The weather is starting to get colder, so I put “duvet” on my list of things I should acquire next time I have the chance. I already had a duvet cover I got when I was at the IKEA in Montreal.

In the meantime, I used an unzipped sleeping bag on loan from my cousin (originally for a camping trip that was a few weeks ago) for warmth. Reflecting on my need for a duvet, I realized that I’m only going to be in this Queen size bed for 3 more months… so buying an $80 duvet is not really a good investment, especially since they’re also large and inconvenient to store. A few quick measurements later, and I decided to just buy my own sleeping bag instead. Turns out an unzipped rectangular sleeping bag is about the same size as a Queen size bed.

Two photos - on the left, a packaged sleeping bag and duvet cover; on the right, the sleeping bag being unzipped.

Opening the sleeping bag and duvet cover.

Two photos - on the left, the duvet cover laying on top of the the sleeping bag; on the right, the sleeping bag inside the duvet cover

Putting the sleeping bag in the duvet.

Two photos - on the left, a bed with just olive green sheets on them; on the right, the same bed with a dark striped blue and purple duvet on top.

My bed, before and after.

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm developing scalable solutions to fractal coordination challenges (between parts of people as well as between people) based on non-naive trust and intentionality. More about me.

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