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

Resolutions Month Five

It’s been several months since we’ve had an update on our ill-fated New Year’s resolutions here at The Experiment and since we’re rapidly approaching the mid point of the year, it seems like as good a time as any to get caught up. As always, there is good news and bad news. Since I’m a pessimist cynic realist, let’s start with the good and end with the bad.

Good: In our pursuit of the finer side of life, we are on track to play golf more than 26 times. Why just this weekend, we played it 3 times in a futile attempt to win money in a tournament. We are far enough ahead on this resolution to consider it a success. Now if we could only say the playing had made us better, it would be a win. CrossFit continues and while the last couple of weeks has been CrossFit FAIL, overall I think I’m making progress. I’m signed up to attend a Level I certification in Allen in September which I’m excited about. I also managed to find a sax that I both wanted and could afford. I have been practicing it some though again, the last two weeks have been general FAIL when it comes to self improvement. It’s a Selmer Super Action 80 tenor and is in pretty good shape. I’m having fun with it though I’m certainly rusty.

As for the bad, letter writing has stopped completely, book reading is in a terrible death march and writing code at home in Python has been searching Michigan online phone books for a Dr Kevorkian, J. Of the three, book reading is the one I’d like to get caught up on but somewhere, my life seems to get in the way though I have no evidence of such life existing in any great and gory detail. I did get Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex and it’s quite good. It doesn’t have Cormac McCarthy’s density of prose but Hannah tells a damn good story. It’s a little crazy but then, most Southern Gothic is. I continue to be fascinated by Southern writers and if I could manage to find time in my day, I’d read more of them.

Overall, my resolution list is hit and miss which I’d say is infinitely better than most resolution lists 5 months in. I’m not sure I feel greatly improved but give me another month or so and we’ll see where things stand.

Resolutions Month 2

I made some resolutions this year and in an attempt to keep them, I’m writing about the progress every month. The first month update was here.

Month two fell behind a little bit. First the good news: I played enough golf to stay on track for 26 times this year. I don’t seem to be getting any better but I’m having fun. My Fran time dropped from 9:55 to 9:10 so that’s good. We haven’t done Murph again yet, that only comes up about once every 6 months but based on other exercise goals (deadlift weight is now at 325, yay) I think I’m making progress there too. I started back up on a Python application that downloads and analyzes NBA stats though progress is slow.

Now the bad: Letter writing ceased completely. I still haven’t bought a sax though I did bid on one and lost at the last minute so maybe that’s progress. I’m only halfway through my 2nd book though I’m going camping this weekend so maybe I can make some progress there.

Overall, not a bad start to the resolutions but I’m falling farther and farther behind on some that will be impossible to catch up on.

In other self improvement news, I gave up yelling at stupid, rude drivers for Lent. This is quite possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. There are a lot of stupid, rude people driving. Jesus needs to get here fast this year.

First Month Resolution Update

So it doesn’t make much sense to me to make resolutions for the year and then promptly forget about them until December. With that in mind, I’m going to do monthly updates on my resolutions. Overall, the first month wasn’t bad. I’m pretty behind on the 52 letters with only 1 written so far. I haven’t started playing the sax again because I haven’t decided I want to drop the cash on a new one. My exercise has been pretty consistent so I’m definitely making progress on the two CrossFit goals.

I played golf 3 times in January so I’m ahead of the game there and I finished the first book of the year, Caen Anvil of Victory which I highly recommend if you are into military history. It’s a great account of the British battle for Caen after D-Day while the Americans moved towards Brittany. It’s a little difficult to read because it’s from the British perspective and so I’m not as familiar with many of the terms but overall, it’s a good book.

I haven’t been writing any Python lately, much less anything resembling a useful application but I think that will start up soon enough.

Overall, I’m happy with the progress so far. Hopefully, I’ll continue to be focused on achieving the resolutions.


I’ve previously done some 2008 navel gazing and now it’s time to publicly lay out some resolutions for 2009 if for no other reason than enjoying humiliation. So here they are, in all their boring glory.

  1. Write 52 letters. Probably will mostly be to family.
  2. Write a novel in November.
  3. Start playing the sax again.
  4. Do a sub 35 minute Murph.
  5. Do a sub 5 minute Fran.
  6. Play golf 26 times.
  7. Write a real application in Python.
  8. Read 12 books.

There they are. They span most of my interests right now which keeps them broad and varied. Only 1 is really nebulous and that’s the third one. I need to flesh that out a little with some way of measuring whether it’s happening or not. The rest are pretty goal oriented which I think is important to success.

We’ll see what they look like in 12 months.