On Individual and Departmental Goals

It’s that time of year again whereupon three months into the year, organizations everywhere begin the exciting task of examining the tabula rasa of a new year filled with potential of achieving amazing things. As part of that task, many organizations set goals for individuals and departments in hopes that they will lead said individuals and departments to greater success for the company. There is no shortage of information on this topic, freely available after a short Google search.

One common theme to goal setting is that they must be SMART which is a fun HR derived acronym for Specific, Measurable, Aggressive, Realistic and Time-bound. Substantial evidence shows that goals set in this manner are in fact correlated with happier, more motivated employees and greater success in the achievement of the goals. However, I would argue that the resultant success and happiness are not caused by the fact that goals are SMART but instead by the underlying process through which the goals are worked towards. It is quite feasible that an organization would set SMART goals and then still have highly unhappy employees who achieve few if any of the goals nine months later. This happens because goals alone are useless regardless of how SMART they are. Goal achievement relies on the underlying system and strategy that support the goals.

Scott Adams has written about the difference between systems and goals. We all have regular experience with goals gone awry. Many of us are sure this will be the time that we lose 20 lbs or exercise more or read more books or whatever. It does not matter if the goal is SMART or not. I can say “I will read 24 books in 2021” which is Specific (read more books), Measurable (24), Aggressive (I read 7 last year), Realistic (outside any context of course which is critical) and Time-Bound (one year). But if there is no underlying system and strategy for accomplishing this goal, all the smartness in the world will result in the same failure.

A system is a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system’s response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world.

Donella Meadows, Thinking In Systems

System has a specific definition and meaning in this setting. It is the interconnected nature of the pieces of the system that produce the results that the system outputs. In order for an organization or a department or an individual to achieve goals, there must be an underlying system of management designed at least in part to facilitate the necessary behavior of goal accomplishment. If this system is designed, either intentionally or more often haphazardly, to produce behavior other than goal accomplishment, no amount of SMARTness will ever overcome it.

A trivial example applied to my desire to read more books. On its face, the goal seems SMART. However, that is only so if the underlying system that I use to make choices with my free time has taken into consideration the constraints on that time. Unless I have examined the amount of free time I had in 2020 and discovered a great deal more of it and then dedicated my future expenditures of that time to reading via a disciplined schedule, the goal of 24 books is much more likely to be DUMB (Definitely Underestimating My Behavior) than it is to be SMART even though on the surface, the goal seems to conform to the definition.

I would actually argue that one of the core principles of good management is the diagnosis and analysis of the Realistic in SMART. This is the area where management skills make or break the underlying system that allow successful goal achievement. In order to determine if a goal is realistic, a manager must understand and be able to answer the following questions:

  • What is the underlying system of how work gets done by the organization?
  • What is the underlying system of how work gets done by the department?
  • What is the underlying motivational type of the individual (if setting individual goals)?
  • Are all of these cohesive with each other?
  • Are they congruent with each other? (see Esther Derby’s work on Change and Congruence)
  • What are the constraints on work within the system?
  • How much work can the org, department or individual realistically do given the system within which it operates?
  • And so on and so on.

The key to successful goal setting and achievement is to have an underlying system of behavior that clearly defines what is realistic. It is not realistic to lose 10 lbs if you do not throw away all the Cheetohs in the pantry and continue to eat donuts every Saturday morning because it is a family tradition. The system that includes Cheetohs and donuts will overcome any amount of SMART goal setting because it is the system that produces the behavior that leads to outcomes. It is not realistic to have 8 priority one departmental goals if the underlying system of the organization is such that at any moment the entire department may be reallocated to focus on unrelated organizational goals.

A good manager understands the constraints on what is and is not realistic for an organization, department and individual. Here lie the dragons of management. Most goal setting exercises I have been a part of have applied a great deal of wishful thinking and magical handwaving around the capacity of the organizational structure. Most of these exercises identify several things that seem highly desirable and then ask “can we do all this?” Because humans are naturally inclined to be good, your experience with social media notwithstanding, the result is often a half-hearted “yes” if only so that we can get on about the business of actually doing work. But in order to have not only successful goal setting but also goal achievement, we must have a more rigorous system around what is realistic. At the very least, a manager must understand the constraints of the system within which she operates and have a strategy for dealing with those constraints.

The strategy work of Richard Rumelt is very helpful here. Specifically, we must realize that good strategy is about policy choice and commitment to action. We have to write strategies for our goals that lay out policies to guide action towards the system behavior that we want. We must lay out consequences for violating the strategy and be prepared to defend them. Circling back to my personal goal, when I discover I have 30 minutes of free time and am thinking about practicing my guitar, I must realize that this hampers the realistic definition of my reading goal and that there are consequences to that choice. The same goes for reducing technical debt of an engineering organization. When faced with opportunity of some free time, if we fill it with yet another story delivering business value instead of dedicating it to removing NHibernate (don’t ask), we have violated the Realistic nature of our goal. To prevent this from happening, we have to have hard policies that say things like “when presented with available resource time, we will always choose to apply that time to the reduction of technical debt”. This guides teams actions but does not dictate it. They can still choose what actions to take within the guardrails of the policy. We must also then ensure that free time both exists and is encouraged. If it does not or cannot be created due to organizational constraints, no amount of SMART goal setting will ever result in a different behavior.

By building a system that produces the behavior we want, goals become mostly secondary in nature. If there are clear policies and feedback loops built into the system to confirm, analyze and affirm behavior, goals will just happen. We must understand the constraints of the system and operate within them as well. We must know the inputs and the outputs of the system and how those interact to balance or reinforce behavior. We must work to ensure that goals are written in such a way that they do not violate the boundaries of the system because that guarantees failure. Successful goal setting is really about system design and is just as hard as more concrete problems like making an API faster or migrating to the cloud.

Navel Gazing 2016 Edition

Whereupon I write stuff about the year that was 2016 and try to figure out what to do in 2017. Warning: this is fourteen year old girl level introspection stuff with only the thin veil of some philosophy from the 1950s to make it look acceptable. Read at your own risk.

As in 2015, in 2016, I had five main goals: learn more Spanish, write more, read more, exercise more and watch more movies. Because I’m a data geek, I track those goals because evidence shows that you need to be very specific in your goal setting if you want to actually succeed. In 2016, I achieved 75% of my movie goal, 63% of my exercise goals, 50% of my book goals, 27% of my Spanish goals and 15% of my writing goals. Super successful then. Though I did achieve all of my diaper changing goals. So there’s that. So then the natural reaction for a navel gazer is to wonder what happened. Were the goals too aggressive (maybe)? Was the desire to achieve the goals insufficient (probably)?

Of course, it’s not like nothing momentous happened in 2016. I now have a daughter who is beautiful and happy and healthy and absolutely fills my heart with a sensation I can’t even possibly begin to express within the limits of a language like English (maybe French or Russian but given how far from my Spanish goals I ended up, I’m doubtful of writing French poetry any time soon). But on an actual personal level, I feel pretty unaccomplished this year (and here’s where all the other parents stand up and say “welcome to the club”). I didn’t write much and almost all that I did was in February, read half as many books as I wanted, watched two-thirds of the movies (and some of those were repeats), exercised some early in the year but basically gave up in the last several months and didn’t advance much on the bilingual front (which isn’t entirely true, last time I logged into Duolingo, I was 10% fluent but it’s still way behind my goal).

One of the benefits of tracking specifically the goals as well as having the same goals over multiple years is that you can compare the progress. Were things better in 2016 than 2015? Yes, mostly. I learned significantly more Spanish, exercised moderately more and read more books. I wrote less in 2016, at least from a public production stand point and watched 2 fewer movies. But overall, 2016 got better than 2015.

I did just finish reading At The Existentialist Cafe which is a broad sweep of the philosophers who created existentialism including Simone de Beauvoir who my daughter’s middle name comes from. It is a fantastic look into a time when major magazines covered philosophers and their work, examining the impacts and the celebrity of these thinkers, i.e. the opposite of 2016 where major magazines covered an unbelievably terrible election and totally missed the entire thing. Existentialism focuses on the actual events of life, the things as they are when the layers of crap have been stripped away. It also focuses on freedom, a fundamental characteristic of being human and the implications that characteristic has on our every day life. Reading this book, which examines both the men and women who developed existentialism and the time period from which they came (WW I through about 1960), it was striking how much attention in the actual world was paid to a philosophy and how much influence that philosophy had in art and literature and even politics.

Man is condemned to be free. Because once he is thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. Jean-Paul Sartre

We don’t often think of freedom as a condemnation, do we? And yet, the constant need to make decisions brings upon us an anxiety that many of us find too difficult to deal with. Freedom isn’t all fun and games. It is this constant interplay between choice and anxiety that existentialism focuses on. It’s interesting to think about freedom as a burden but it is because with choice comes consequences. Don’t want to exercise? Have fun with heart disease or back surgery. Don’t want to read because Facebook seems more fun today? Don’t be upset when you aren’t any smarter than you were yesterday.

But choose well and your life is at least 75% yours, probably as long as you don’t have something terrible happen. Obviously there are limits to what control you actually have over your own life but everyone has some control. Sartre argued for the concept of authenticity, of being true to what it was that you are. Here’s a quote from the book:

If this sounds difficult and unnerving, it’s because it is. Sartre does not deny that the need to keep making decisions brings constant anxiety. He heightens this anxiety by pointing out that what you do really matters. You should make your choices as though you were choosing on behalf of the whole of humanity, taking the entire burden of responsibility for how the human race behaves. If you avoid this responsibility by fooling yourself that you are the victim of circumstance or of someone else’s bad advice, you are failing to meet the demands of human life and choosing a fake existence, cut off from your own ‘authenticity’.

As I read this, I thought about all the times I made a choice that was not only bad for me but also bad for the whole of humanity. Certainly, this is a heavy burden but imagine the changes in the world if we even slightly considered humanity when we made decisions.

This battle with anxiety in order to achieve authenticity is fundamental to existentialism and the more I think about it, to human existence. I tracked all my goals this year as I often do. But I didn’t track how many times I mindlessly opened Facebook or Twitter because it was an easier choice than picking up a hard book or writing code. I made excuses: I only have 15 minutes, the baby may wake up, I’ve had 3 beers – but excuses are just that, a way to escape from the fact that choices were made that lessened authenticity in my life.

So while 2016 was way behind on the goal scale, perhaps things can change in 2017 assuming the world doesn’t end in WWW III or the zombie apocalypse. This is the only life we have, regardless of what you think happens when it ends. Existentialism teaches us to focus on our choices and to choose a path to our greatest authenticity.

At the end of the book, there is a discussion of existentialism and technology. Interestingly enough, Heidegger wrote extensively on this topic and it seems even more relevant today in a world where our lives seem to be almost entirely lived out online (irony duly noted that I’m saying this in an online forum). The Internet (and I’m thinking specifically of Facebook and Twitter here) removes depth and authenticity from everything. When I post to Facebook, I do so on a platform created specifically to profit from my data. Once I do that, that experience is no longer mine, it belongs to the “Other” from existentialism, the concept of that which is outside ourselves. A post, a picture, a note on Facebook reduces me to the sum of those things and removes context and depth and privacy from my actual self. It steals my authenticity except that it was my choice, made freely, and thus is actually me reducing my authenticity voluntarily.

In 2017, I want to spend more time with my daughter and less time with my phone. I want to spend more time with my wife and less time with social media. I want to spend more time with my parents and in-laws and less time giving away my authenticity. I want to spend far more time in the outdoors, teaching my daughter about nature and the world and less time wondering if anyone liked something I said on a platform that uses me as the product. These are things that will increase my authenticity. They will increase my intellectual abilities and not make me feel weirdly anxious after doing them.

So my concrete goals for 2017 remain mostly unchanged from 2016: 120 hours of Spanish work (down from 180 in 2016, 50 accomplished in 2016), read 18 books (9 read in 2016), watch 12 movies (9 in 2016), exercise 180 times (115 in 2016) and write 26 things (down from 52 in 2016, 8 accomplished in 2016).

More specifically, I want everything I do to increase my authenticity. So for January, I’m going to start an experiment. All content will be placed here on AEIS instead of Facebook or Twitter. I’m not sure that’s totally an improvement but for at least one month, I won’t be the product. I won’t be driven by likes or retweets or any other false metric for authenticity. Additionally, we as a family are going to take a technological Sabbath every Sunday as well. We will focus on each other, our extended families, our house, our animals, our experiences and we will not be online. We will produce and create, not consume and absorb. We will read an actual newspaper and play actual games and go on actual walks and hikes.

Here’s to a stronger, blessed 2017. I hope your year turns out to be everything you choose it to be.

Books read in 2016
Thirteen Moons
The Black Swan
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy
The Age of Unreason
Star Island
Then We Came To The End
Waiting for Godot
The War of Art
At the Existentialist’s Cafe

Movies seen in 2016
It Happened One Night
Herb And Dorothy
Ocean’s Eleven
The Long Hot Summer
Secret Lives of Pets
Tomorrow Never Dies
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

On Achieving Goals

Ah the tabula rasa of the New Year where so many of us decide how much better we’re going to make ourselves in the next 365 days. We decide to lose weight or get our finances in order or be more productive. Occasionally we announce to the world these lofty ambitions like Donald Trump boasting how rich he is. Then for a month or six weeks or if we’re really lucky to the spring equinox, we really focus on these “goals”. We go to the gym. We save money. We write blog posts. And then something quietly breaks that we aren’t even aware of and suddenly it’s August and we’ve gained the weight back plus found a new appreciation for that kick ass donut shop that just happens to be on the way to work. What happened?

As it turns out, having goals makes us largely unhappy according to James Clear. This makes intuitive sense because goals so often end in failure for a variety of reasons. Then we are left with a fundamental lack of accomplishment. For several years, I’ve wanted to learn Spanish. That’s a Goal. But having Goals without a clear path to achieving them is destined for failure. What you also need is a system or a habit plus a reasonably accurate, mostly simple way to track that system (not the goal). This kind of thinking leans heavily on “small strokes fell great oaks”. We are creatures of habit but the key is getting into a habit of doing something different from our current habits. As it turns out, lots of small steps are a lot easier on the path to new habits than huge jumps. Yet our Goals are necessarily designed around these huge jumps.

Having a system mediates that. A system involves what you do every single day to achieve a Goal. If you want to write a book, your system is “write for an hour every day and track the number of words”. If you want to lose weight, your system is “I’m going to follow the five rules of the Slow Carb Diet.” If you want to write 26 letters, your system is “I’m going to write one letter every first and third Saturday of each month”. These systems are formalizations of the cues that are necessary to form new habits which lead to progress towards change. The beauty of systems and cues over goals is that even if your goals turn out to be slightly harder than you thought, you can still gain a great sense of achievement by analyzing the results of your system if you track it well.

Let’s say your goal is to win the Masters next year. Your system is hit 500 balls a day. You record this in a spreadsheet and write an easy sum function and an easy averaging function to display progress. In 2017 when you are watching the Masters on the couch, if you have followed your system, you almost guaranteed to be a MUCH improved golfer regardless of the result of the goal. This is key to Clear’s third tenet linked above concerning the fact that Goals make you think you have control over things you don’t. So many times life gets in the way and we lose sight of our goals. But if we have a solid system in place like “Don’t eat white starchy things”, we are more likely to just keep plugging right along. Also, having that system/process viewpoint can help on the days we don’t do well or have slight setbacks. If my system is workout 60 minutes a day, a day where I only do 30 minutes isn’t the end of the world because I can go for a long run on the weekend. I don’t feel guilty about working out less on some days when the system is in place.

Systems lead to progress and we can take comfort in progress even if goals are never reached. I find it helpful to know where I am in my system so I built a basic spreadsheet where I can track activities that move me towards my goals. You could easily copy it and modify it for your goals and progress. I have instant feedback on where I am which helps me feel much better about my progress (or identify places that I’m falling behind. Time to watch a movie!). And this provides the behavioral reinforcement of the system which hopefully results in a very positive feedback cycle. With that in hand, I will be able to look back at the end of 2016 and feel very good about the progress I’ve made regardless of the end result.

The Year in Review And Beyond

Inspired by David Collum’s epic Year in Review post (and it is epic in both senses of the word and I highly recommend you read it), here is my year in review that once upon a time was a semi-regular occurrence around The Experiment but like The Experiment itself has fallen on hard times lately. Perhaps a mini epic post (like Lonesome Dove, Abridged) could reawaken the slumbering literary dwarf within me.

Picasso came into our lives this year after we lost Rocky last December. We got him from SPCA Dallas and he has been a happy addition to the family. He has a personality that is a cross between Garfield and Bucky. Vincent and Scooter put up with him as well as they can.

My main learning goal last year was Spanish. I definitely did not spend 180 hours on Spanish. I don’t have a set routine at home for studying Spanish so the main way I get in time is on the train. Unfortunately, there were two large projects at work this year that involved lots of working late and taking the train home late is right below “Prostate exam” on my list of favorite things to do. So for two months in the summer and six weeks in the fall, train riding, and thus Spanish lessons, ground to a halt. This is a lame excuse but the only one I have. On the upside, I actually learned a lot of Spanish in the time I did spend. Duolingo currently says I’m 2% fluent which is probably about right. That sounds pathetic after a full year but I can read at a higher rate than that for sure. Listening is still a problem but I’m starting to pick up words from random conversations (especially if they revolve around cerveza or carne or tacos de lengua). Assuming work life returns to something resembling normality, I think my fluency rate will start to ramp up as I get enough foundation laid.

The big trip for the year was my company trip to Beaches Turks and Caicos. This was an incredible vacation to a destination we wouldn’t likely have visited or been able to afford on our own. We went in September which is the lowest of the low season and that certainly helped. We had the resort to ourselves and in talking to several staff members, the difference in number of visitors in September compared to the high season of April-June was extreme. The diving was excellent, on par with the reefs of Belize without having to go far off shore. If we were to ever visit again, I would definitely want to dive during the week because they go farther offshore and to different locations. There were 19 restaurants on premises and never any shortage of new food to try. Favorites were the French restaurant Le Petit Chateau and the Japanese restaurant Kimono’s. We didn’t do any off premise excursions because the resort was so large. I think we definitely could have spent a week there with no problems.

Probably an equally fun trip was a week long excursion to Gulf Shores, Alabama with friends. We stayed in a 5 bedroom house on the bay with beautiful sunsets and access to a pier right behind the house. The beach was an easy walk from there and we spent large amounts of time in the surf. We ate and drank like gluttons but it was vacation and thus perfectly expected.

We camped in two new locations. The first was over Labor Day in Caprock Canyons State Park. We went that way in an attempt to escape the heat but largely failed as it was 95+ during the day all weekend. The park was beautiful and it looked like the hiking was really good but we didn’t get to do nearly as much as we would have liked because of the heat. In the future, we’ll want to book earlier to get an electric campsite as all the tent camp sites are a decent walk from the parking area and not particularly secluded from each other.

In November, we camped at Caddo Lake State Park with friends. It was pretty rainy but we still managed to have quite a bit of fun. The canoeing was the best part as we went quite aways down the new paddling trail there. It’s very serene and peaceful back in the swamp. I’d like to do another trip there and take the gear out to the WMA via canoes or kayaks for more primitive camping.

Skink – No Surrender – I love Carl Hiassen and his crusade through fiction to increase the public’s appreciation for Florida’s disappearing natural beauty. This is actually a young adult book that I must have accidentally requested from the library but it’s a fun and easy read, good for the beach or the train. His characters are a wacky group of oddballs and misfits who thrive in the craziness of South Florida. Probably not too exciting for narco fascist real estate developer types but everyone else should find his books fun to read.

To Rise Again At A Decent Hour – This book popped up in my consciousness randomly when I saw a review for it in the Dallas Morning News. Ferris’ voice isn’t mainstream and it takes a little while to decide if the book is good. But there are some good characters here and there is definitely a theme of community and its meaning that I found inspiring. I was reminded of The Broom of the System as I read it as both books switch between reality and fantasy regularly.

Shop Class as Soulcraft – More fully reviewed here but this book had a profound effect on my thinking about our throwaway society and our inability to treasure what we have.

The Wilderness Warrior – Reviewed here

Switch – An excellent book on why our efforts at self-change largely fail and ways to change that. A book length exposition on The Elephant and The Rider originally explained in The Happiness Hypothesis, this book explains why we struggle to lose weight, learn a language, make more friends or workout more. Finding ways to motivate the Elephant and ways to not overwhelm the Rider are key. Search YouTube for great videos from the authors if you want an introduction into how you can manage change in your life.

The 4 Hour Work Week – Tim Ferriss’ first book laying out the ideas behind the rest of his media empire. Thought provoking to say the least, I came away from this book with more understanding of passive income and the effects it can have on your life. While I don’t ascribe to his ideas of lots of mini-retirements instead of one long boring one at the end of life (mostly because I don’t want to live in Hong Kong or Australia or wherever), the idea of having a steady flow of passive income that frees you from the addiction of a steady paycheck is appealing. Appealing enough that one of my goals this year is to follow through on acquiring a modicum of passive income (see Goals).

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson’s epic tale of debauchery and gonzo journalism, I read this on the beach in Gulf Shores because it seemed slightly fitting. I wonder how much of our reliance on Reality TV for entertainment in today’s world has its roots in the work of Hunter S. Thompson. Fiction and non-fiction began to converge with his work (see also The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, a favorite of mine) and this was where it started.

The Long Narrow Road To The Deep North – An incredible book following the life of one man through his journeys in POW camps in the Pacific theater in World War II and the effects of a singular love of a woman throughout. I’m seeing many of the same themes in Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons that I’m reading now. The Long Narrow Road is depressing in its vivid descriptions of the lives of POWs under Japanese control. A strong sense of fatalism runs through the course of the novel and is epitomized by the Japanese officers in their brutal actions towards the prisoners. One of the best books I read in 2015.

That Old Ace In The Hole – I think my mom gave me this book a long time ago when she inherited it from someone. I had originally found it slow and uninteresting. Like the brussel sprouts of my youth, I guess I wasn’t ready for it yet. It had been sitting on my bookshelf unread for years patiently waiting and I pulled it down this summer. I’m not sure how it stayed there so long. As an Amarillo boy, this tale of a man working for Global Pork Rind Company as a scout for possible pig farms in the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles struck home both because my grandparents’ farm in the Oklahoma Panhandle was sold as a potential pig farm and for the sweeping descriptions of the landscapes of those areas. Most people encounter the Panhandle and find it lacking of all interesting features but there is an aching beauty in the plains and grasslands that is sublime. This book captures much of that for me and I think I found it more interesting on second reading many years older as I realize things I miss about that area of Texas.

The Graveyard Book – Highly recommended to me by Mara, this was my first introduction to Neil Gaiman and a worthy one. The fantasy world Gaiman creates inhabited by all manners of good and evil and in-between characters is rich and engrossing. More and more my taste in fiction revolves around epic tales of a singular life and while this book is fantasy, it fits the bill. I need to put a few more Gaiman books on my list for 2016.

The World’s Largest Man – Easily the funniest book I have ever read. Mara would often mention to Scooter “He’s reading the book that makes him giggle cry again.” It’s a memoir of the author’s father and the experience of growing up in the rural South. Nothing I say about it can explain how funny it is so you should just read it. Read this as a precursor and try not to shoot milk out your nose (especially if you’re drinking coffee).

All The Pretty Horses – The first book in Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy (The Crossing and Cities of the Plain being the other two), this book is representative of McCarthy’s incredible use of the English language to describe the old west in different terms that we used to see in the westerns of Louis L’Amour and others. McCarthy is one of the great novelists of this and the last century. I tried once to read The Road which is his latest but found it too depressing. However, all other books of his including Blood Meridian, The Orchard and Suttree have been outstanding.

In recent years, my goals have been very similar and they are unlikely to change much this year. I’d like to get to 10% fluency or so in Spanish according to Duolingo. Once again, it feels like the 2015 hunting season got away from me. I didn’t go bowhunting in October at all when the season first opened and just haven’t spent much time in the woods. I’m hoping to have a lease next year but we’ll see if that works out with everything else that is on the table. I’d like my exercise to be more consistent regardless of weather. I regularly use the heat of the summer as an excuse not to workout but I’m finding it harder and harder to come back from 2 months off. Probably the biggest goal for this year is to have some form of a passive income stream. I’m setting the bar pretty low I think in saying I’d like to be able to make one mortgage payment from passive income this year which would be $750. I feel like my best chance at that is to write books that people want to read so the main focus in the first part of 2016 will be on that. That will probably require an entire post in itself though.

I’ve had a goal of writing letters for two years now and it’s never even sort of been achieved. Neither did last year’s “Write 52 things”. I might have written 10 things. I’d like to reattempt both of those again. The key to goals though is having set times and habits for achieving them and I worry that there are too many things I think I want to do. Spanish is easy enough with consistent train rides but writing letters and blog posts and exercising require set times in the schedule. Something as specific as “write a letter on the 1st and 15th of each month” would probably be sufficient. So I’ll try these goals that have ways to track them built in.

  • Become 10% fluent in Spanish by studying for 180 hours
  • Be more fit by averaging 300 a minutes of exercise a week
  • Write 26 letters by writing one on the first and third Saturday of every month
  • Read 18 books (this will be a 50% increase over last year but again should be easier with regular train ride
  • Have a passive income stream of at least $750 a year by writing a book 1000 people buy

Looking Forward with Trepidation
If you read Collum’s tome linked above (or have a lick of sense or follow Zerohedge on Twitter), you probably realize things aren’t so good out in the real world. According to Credit Suisse, 25% of all Americans have a negative net worth. Pensions across the country are horribly underfunded. The six biggest banks in the world are now 50% bigger than they were at the beginning of the financial crisis that nearly destroyed the world (or so we’re told). We are now in the 6th longest recovery since the Civil War (read: we are long overdue for a correction). The Fed has expanded their balance sheet to extremes we’ve never seen before. S&P 500 forward earnings are plummeting while the S&P continues to saunter northward. The dollar is getting stronger and stronger while other currencies are getting weaker and weaker. I have a tendency of reading sources that just strengthen my confirmation bias (don’t we all?) but it seems to me that the US economy is teetering on the brink. This “recovery” has been just about as weak as it could be while still being considered a recovery. Collum makes the analogy of walking into your kid’s room and pulling out some building blocks. Start stacking them up as high as you can. Eventually you reach a point where some seemingly unrelated random event causes the whole thing to come crashing down. A cat sneezes or a branch falls on the roof or a dust mite gets a wild hair and lands on top. When things are structurally unsound, it doesn’t take much to push them over. The US economy (and to an equal or even greater degree, the entire world) feels like it’s a big stack of children’s blocks.

What to do about that? It seems to me that being a contrarian is almost always the way to go as it relates to stocks, gambling or Settlers of Cataan. That is, do what other people aren’t. The American people have more debt that they know what to do with? You should do everything in your power to have zero debt. Stocks going up in spite of bad news and bad forward earnings? Sell. Gold and silver and oil at multi-year lows? Maybe time to buy some. Governments declaring war on cash? Make sure you have some around, preferably in harder assets than the paper they print.

I’m no economist though that should hardly disqualify me from writing about the economy given most economists dismal track records. But I do understand regression to the mean and law of averages and how evolution works to some degree. And so if we’re in one of the longest recoveries on record without a recession and none of the crap financial genetic material that caused the last disaster got cleaned out, I feel like we’re overdue for some pain. And that tends to worry me a little. But who knows? Let’s just go buy something at the after Christmas sale and we’ll all feel better.

I don’t have any. If you came here for conclusions, you’ve been horribly misled. Overall, we had a pretty good year here at the Experiment. Here’s to a successful and prepared 2016 as well.

On Defining Goals

I recently read an article in Garden & Gun (an excellent magazine if you love the culture of the South) on three women who returned to their family farm to make a living off what they could grow and create from their own labors. One of the women was a musician who had struggled through a large part of her life and found upon returning to a simpler life that she could escape from what the author called “hobbling introspection”. This phrase struck a powerful chord with me as I often times find myself hobbled by introspection and navel gazing. Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about goals and resolutions and growth and the means to accomplish things. I find that occasionally the focus on such things lapses into hobbling introspection and little or nothing comes from the exercise. The question is “how best to avoid that?”

In the article, the woman returned to the land which can easily be translated into “started having to get up at 5 in the morning to milk the damn cows”. Waking at 5 AM for the physical labors of a farm leaves little time to worry about the existential meaning in your life. Having just moved back into the big city, I probably won’t be able to get a cow that needs milking anytime soon. Other people know that having a family provides. A crying child is just a powerful motivator as a full udder depending on the perspective. While that’s still an option, it’s probably not happening in the next 9 months for sure. And so those of us with no farm and no kids but a desire to quit navel gazing and wasting time introspecting are left to fill the time on our own.

Which is why some of us define goals/resolutions I think. My goals for the new year have almost always been about growing and learning as well as gaining new experiences. Two main problems come up with goals like that. One is making them specific enough to be actionable. Goals that are nebulous are typically difficult to implement so over the past few years, I have started having goals like “Spend 180 hours on languages”. This is an actionable goal but it brings up the second problem and that is tracking progress. Growth requires direction and if you can’t know that you are moving in the right direction the effects are lessened. Because so many of my goals are countable, it would help to have an activity tracking tool. A quick Google search gives me 85 million possibilities so that should fill my time for the next century. Still, it’s important to have a way to know you are on the right track. Last year, one of my goals was to spend 180 hours on The Sports Pool Hub. I didn’t track my time at all but I’m pretty sure I accomplished that. Still, it would be nice at the end of 2014 to say “I actually spent 200 hours on it and my, that sure is rewarding”. Without the confirmation that the goal has been reached, we lose the largest effect of establishing goals, the feeling of reward.

This makes me think of a book I read last year (2014 goal: read 12 books. I made it to 11), The Power of Habit. It’s an interesting book that looks at the habits of individuals, companies and societies. The development of habits in individuals was the most interesting to me and is most relevant to accomplishing goals. In the book, author Charles Duhigg details what it is that causes us to develop habits, good and bad. By analyzing this development, he gives us tools for breaking bad habits and replacing them with good ones. This also leads to noticing how more and more of your behaviors are actually just habits that you have fallen into. There are three main components to a habit.

The first is the cue. Every habit starts with a cue. For a smoker, it might be stress or a drink. For a runner, it might be the alarm going off at 5:30. All habits have a cue. Finding the cue or establishing a new one is a key to breaking or creating new habits. The second is reward. We get a reward when we do the behavior that the cue kicks off. Puffing on a cigarette gives us the hit of nicotine that lowers the stress (though not really, it just transfers the stress from our mind to our cardiovascular system but we don’t have to worry about that until we drop dead of a heart attack). Finishing a run gives us the reward of feeling strong. This is a critical part of establishing a new habit and the reward at first often needs to be external in nature. Want to establish a new exercise routine? Make the reward something you like such as a smoothie or cookie. When you finish a run, have that smoothie and soon your mind will associate the reward with the cue and the habit making it more likely you will continue.

The third component of habits is the most important. Everyone knows that habits are easy to develop when things are going well. When life is smooth, we can all get out of bed and go for a run. However, often bad habits were developed in times of stress and in times of stress, we fall back into a routine that solved that stress before. It’s the craving that causes that and that’s the third component. Craving is the internalization of the habit. You have to find ways to crave the new behavior. If you are replacing smoking with running, the craving for nicotine must be replaced with the craving and desire to be stronger and healthier. I’m reminded of an idea from The Happiness Hypothesis. In that book, Jonathan Haidt talks about the rider and the elephant. The rider is our conscious mind. The elephant is our sub and un conscious mind. The rider on an elephant cannot control the behavior or direction of the elephant by force. He must have other methods for that control. Craving is one of them. If we can cause our sub and unconscious minds to crave new behaviors related to our goals, we can succeed at them.

So for my goals this year, I’m hoping to find ways to establish habits through new cues, rewards and cravings to accomplish them. My first way of doing this is to set up a schedule for the activities. Establishing a schedule is beneficial because it can provide the cue. If at 5:30 AM, the first thing you do is lace up your sneakers to run, that alarm becomes not a cue for waking up but a cue for running. Many of us know that we are most productive with a schedule. The second way is to more accurately track effort on the goals as that becomes a reward. Running a faster mile than you did last month provides reward and leads to craving. The combination of these two things should establish a base for building cravings for the new goals at times when life is off schedule or stressful. This will help to keep the elephant on the path towards the goal while the rider eventually reaps the benefits.

My Measurable Goals for 2015
Spend 180 hours on Spanish
Spend 180 hours on The Sports Pool Hub
See 12 movies
Read 12 books
Write 26 letters
Write 52 things (blog posts, stories, whatever)

My Goals that the measurable goals come from
Most of these boil down to Produce More, Consume Less which might be the motto for 2015.
Write more
Code more
Hunt more
Save more
Read more
Grow more
Buy less
Want Less
Complain less