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.
Let’s put this in health and fitness terms:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.