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Quantum Mechanics, Marshmallows, and Shutting The Hell Up

Something has been bugging me lately: Goals. Not the actual setting of goals, but the way we go about announcing and attempting to achieve them.

Conventional wisdom suggests that you shout your goals to the mountaintops. Tell your friends, tell total strangers. Post it on your blog, post it on your mirror. Hatch the baby chick of your wildest dreams and desires and fling it from the nest into the wide, wild world.

This — well, this doesn’t work too well for me. I’ve always thought it was some sort of personal flaw until I watched this TED Talk called “Keep Your Goals To Yourself”:

The idea is that the very announcement of your goal gives you enough of a psychological boost that you start to feel like you’ve already accomplished something — thus making you less likely to work your ass off to begin achieving it.

I very vaguely remember reading similar advice about writing fiction. I wish I could find it for you. The gist of it was to keep your stories to yourself. Every time you tell the story, it loses a bit of its magic, its momentum. It’s also a good procrastinating technique — another way of building Neil Gaiman’s gazebo.

As I’ve mulled this over, I’ve kept mum about most of my goals, which normally I’d be announcing and revising and rescinding, feeling all sorts of elation and hope and guilt because of it. I’d be worried if I was doing it right. I’d feel more inhibited about taking it more freestyle instead of in a super-structured way.

One night, as I was falling asleep pondering things such as announcing and tracking your goals, I got thinking about physics.

You see, what I really want for myself is to tap into my intuition and be able to live a healthy life without constantly being plugged into a tracking program.

What’s physics got to do with it? Let’s ask Schrodinger’s cat.

Schrodinger's lolcat

The Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment is a quantum mechanics take on observer effect, which more or less states that the act of observing something changes that which is observed.

Let’s put this in health and fitness terms:

  1. You’re keeping a food journal. You really want a handful of candy from the front desk, but you don’t want to ruin today’s page of totally healthy foods. So you have a handful of almonds instead.
  2. You finally got a Garmin to track you running workouts! You realize your usual route is 2.86 miles. You run just a wee bit further to make it an even 3.
  3. You started tracking calories. You have no idea how many calories are in your home-made spaghetti, so you don’t eat it. Instead, you choose a frozen dinner because the macro nutrients are clearly labeled on the back, which makes it far easier to track.
  4. You installed a bike computer, and like to keep your speed around 15 miles per hour. If your speed starts to drop below that, you force yourself to pick it up, whether you feel like it or not.
  5. The latest RunKeeper update keeps crashing, so you decide to skip your scheduled workout because you won’t be able to post your mileage on the web.

In some cases, you can use the observer effect to your advantage, like in the first two examples. But in the last three examples, what’s so healthy about eating the “easily tracked” (and likely highly processed) food, or obsessing over hitting a precise speed on your bike regardless of how you feel that day, or skipping an activity because you can’t accurately track it?

The more I observe and track myself, the more I fall into the negative aspects of the observer effect rather than making use of its benefits.

And, going back to my desire to live intuitively, the time-consuming habit of measuring everything you do becomes a crutch without which you’re unable to live the sort of life you desire.

Calorie counting is a great tool when you’re learning about the energy density of foods (there’s how many calories in a mere tablespoon of peanut butter?!) and appropriate portion sizes. But it’s not exactly a life skill. Keeping track of your pace and time is a great way to discover personal achievements, and even how your body responds to the weather or time of day, but those damn numbers are so loud they drown out your own body’s attempts to tell you what you need that day.

Aside from a handful of learnable skills — like measuring proper portions, cooking, meal planning, how to practice your sport of choice — a truly healthy lifestyle comes down to psychology. Psychology, and marshmallows.

The marshmallow test was an experiment studying kids and deferred gratification. (Read an in-depth article about it at the New Yorker.) You should watch the video, because it’s hilarious. But the gist of it is that these kids were sat down with a marshmallow and told that they could eat it right away, or they could wait and get a second marshmallow when the proctor returned. Some kids ate the marshmallow right away. Other kids struggled and ate it after a few minutes. About 30% of the kids were able to hold off and claim their reward. Incidentally, the kids who were able to ignore the marshmallow for 15 minutes showed better behavior and significantly higher SAT scores as teenagers.

The thing you ultimately learn from these kids — which you can read more about at You Are Not So Smart, along with cool terms like “hyperbolic discounting” and “present bias” — is that success lies in figuring out how to trick yourself into doing what’s good for you when all of your biological processes are screaming, “Eat that damn marshmallow, stat!” In other words, you need to somehow make sure your present self follows through on everything your past self wants you to do, and your future self wishes you had done.

Taken altogether, I think that the recipe for a healthy life includes: intuition, in the form of body awareness; life skills, as noted above; and good planning, to make the choices that lead you closer to your goals as easy and attractive as possible. With a healthy dollop of clever psychology and ninja-like secret plotting.

10 thoughts on “Quantum Mechanics, Marshmallows, and Shutting The Hell Up

  1. This is a really interesting concept.

    I have found just through trial and error in my own life that when I announce my goals, I almost never follow through. You would think that caring about what others think of me and being judged for failure would be enough to motivate me to get up and do whatever I was going to do, but it never has been. Sure, I want to make others happy and look good in front of them, but it becomes too much pressure for me and I usually give up.

    When I started to lose weight I was using Spark, and Spark tells you to shout your goals from the mountain top. But I was really scared. I had already failed at weight loss so many times that I didn’t want to fail at it in front of anyone again, so I told no one. Maya knew, as she showed me the site, but didn’t mention it to anyone until I had already lost 20 pounds. It seems like when I kept it to myself, there was less pressure, it seemed like no big deal and I got up and lost 90 pounds.

    But then when I gained some of the weight back and was suddenly accountable in front of people on Spark and in my daily life and I made the announcement that I was going to get back to my lowest weight…it didn’t happen. I felt trapped and useless and I gained another pound or two.

    It’s all very interesting.

    For me, I think I should probably just keep most of my main goals to myself.

    You know what?

    I really want a marshmallow now.

    1. I totally hear you. I think I used to have more success “announcing” goals on sites like Spark because I didn’t have any Spark friends when I had just joined. But now that I actually get feedback, posting goals seems like less of posting it for my own use, and more like announcing it. Incidentally, every subsequent time I announce a weight loss goal, I lose fewer total pounds before the whole plan crashes down on me, lol. In fact, I think it’s starting to go the other direction — I announce weight loss, and start gaining! Ack!!

      Also, the non health and fitness related goal that is closest to my heart, I haven’t told anyone. Well, I have, but I always phrase it as a joke. The only person who knows and might even believe I’m serious about it is a friend from college. I’ll do it … some day … but you won’t know it’s coming until it’s done. 😉

  2. I really like this post – nice research 🙂 I’m torn about sharing goals. I share them with my partner because, well, I tend to set overzealous goals. As in, first week of running “I’m signing up for a marathon.” She brings me down to earth. I announce goals on my blog with varying success. I had a very specific goal for my last race and totally missed it. That was hard and something I’ve learned from. I have other goals that are more vague and those I think are easier to share (but more difficult to work towards…research shows small, measurable, achievable goals are the way to go…and I suck at all 3 of those things.)

    1. I think that sharing your goals with one or two trusted confidants is a little bit different. You can’t achieve great things in a vacuum, and a partner or close friend who really understands you can give you beneficial feedback. Besides, you significant other deserves to know what you’re planning to do with your time, as it affects your time together and your household schedule!

      I’m kind of torn about the small, measurable goals thing. That’s probably a blog post on its own. I sort of use checklists at my job, which I guess are small, measurable goals. But I work better organically, and the checklist is just a reminder not to forget stuff. It always feels redundant to me to make a checklist of Healthy Things To Do. Would I seriously pull out my notepad and cross “Eat veggies” off my list after eating a salad? Maybe if I did, I’d eat more veggies. :/ Who knows!

  3. You are so smart!

    I love your observations on The Observer Effect – I definitely feel that all of my attempts to track food intake and exercise have worked against me, whereas an intuitive approach has brought back enjoyment and fun to both eating and exercise. And hey, I am at a good weight and I am never hungry frankly I don’t think I need to torture myself with extreme effort and goals to get slightly better results.

    That said, there are times when sharing goals works (the only reason I ran a 10-K is because I promised my friend I would do it with her), and times that it doesn’t. People and situations both vary.

    1. I love your attitude on deciding not to torture yourself! I realized a few years ago that I was approaching weight loss from a self-loathing vs. self-love stance… which is why I stopped being very successful at it, because I could never maintain that kind of self hatred. I like me too much. 😀

      And that’s a really good point about your 10K buddy. I agree that accomplices are awesome motivators. I still miss my running buddy from a few years ago, before I switched jobs. She’s the reason I ran my first 10K, too!

  4. Very interesting topic and well reasoned points. I think I subscribe more to a half and half approach to goals myself. I don’t like announcing specific goals to the world, not because I’m afraid of failing to achieve them, but because I am a strict disbeliever in absolutes and prefer the freedom to adjust and tweak as I progress. I usually confide my desires and ideals to a close set of friends who I feel I can trust (sometimes just one, sometimes a few, but always very deliberately chosen), but try not to frame the goals in an absolute manner.

    I do find that it helps me to write down not the actual goal, but the means/methods I plan to employ to achieve that goal in a more public way, though. It allows me to clarify and commit to the steps involved while getting some feedback and encouragement without feeling pressured. So for example, if I decided I really wanted to run a half marathon, I’d probably pick out a specific race to aim for, then email Alexa something like “I’m toying with the idea of a half, but I’m not sure about it yet..” and write a blog post about my training plan to increase my distance from where I am presently.

    I don’t know if that kind of 3-pronged method would work for everyone, but it’s what I’m most comfortable with, personally. 😀

    As for the observer effect. I totally see it with myself. Sometimes good, sometimes bad.. but I think I’m generally pretty good at using tech as a tool, and not letting it negatively affect my decisions. For example, when RunKeeper got struck with the crash on start bug, I went out and ran anyway, with just my HRM. 😀

    1. I really like your process! It combines the best of all worlds. You get feedback from someone you trust and use your blog to explore ways to achieve your goal. The end of the TED video mentions phrasing your goals in a way that gives you no satisfaction, which I think is how you go about it too.

      I guess this resonated with me because I tend to talk big, which usually just ends up as a lot of hot air. >_>

  5. Hi Elaine!

    I’m working on an assignment for school (MS in nutrition) and couldn’t help but think of Schrodinger’s cat when discussing the use of a journal in behavior change. The sheer observation is what begins the process. When I went searching for articles on the subject, I couldn’t find anything peer-reviewed that associated the two, but did find your post! I cited you and everything 🙂

    Thanks for validating!
    April

    1. It’s so cool to hear that someone else has similar feelings on the subject!! Although a little disappointed that there isn’t any official research on it, haha. Thanks for the cite. 😉

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