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Your Goals Are Holding You Back (danshipper.com)
104 points by dshipper on Sept 5, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 36 comments

I'm probably twice Dan's age, but I am not sure about the "go to the gym, whenever you feel like, just do whatever, doesn't matter if you skip a week or two" advice.

I mean, that's traditionally thought of as the road to failure. 90% of people who do that, or 90% of things you try using that approach, will fail. You'll go to the gym 4 times, and then get too busy to go. And then never go.

I think you have to force yourself to go for the first month or two. Set a goal. Lift X pounds. Run X miles. And try every day to reach that.

At least until it becomes a habit, and you get to the point where you miss not going to the gym.

Good post though, and worth thinking about.

Or worse than never going, you'll keep going, but you'll always just do whatever you feel like and never push yourself. Then years down the track you've made no progress, but poured countless hours into the habit.

It's probably not going to work if your strategy is to only do easy things, or only do really hard things. I suspect that the answer lies somewhere in the middle, as it often does, and as ever there is no way to summarise that as a simple and absolute rule, you just have to use your own judgement and self-knowledge to guide you.

People who seek these kind of easy answers are already in a quagmire. The most debilitating belief is the one that there's a perfect, general answer out there that you just have to find.

Unless you are unsatisfied right now, "progress" isn't really important. The most important part of exercising at least semi-regularly is to maintain your condition, and that get more important as you get older. Nobody has the TIME to do everything they might want, you have to prioritize. As Peter McWilliams put it:

"You can have anything you want: No dream is too big to achieve. But you can't have everything you want: We live in a finite world for a finite period of time, but with infinite imagination."

My startup is focused on building habits and we've found that doing one thing daily is extremely effective. In terms of forcing yourself, we decided to use peer pressure. The user chooses a few people that we can notify if the user doesn't do their daily step. These people then reply back with positive advice/feedback to the user if the user fails to do their daily step.

I created a custom goal called "Do 10 Pushups a Day" and it's been pretty good at making me actually do the pushups.

We launched recently and we'd love to hear your feedback. Link: http://www.goalhawk.com

Very interesting. Would you like to share how many users have you been able to sign up thus far?

Yeah, I am interested in this too. Any chance you can release some metrics?

I don't have those numbers off hand, but contact us with any specific questions you have and we'll see what we can pull up. team at goalhawk.com

It really is all about the small incremental steps, but sometimes, it just has to be enjoyable. I think that's really what he's getting at. If you find that going to the gym with friends is fun, then you'll never work out ever "work out again." I also agree with the forcing-yourself-to-go mentality too. I think that maybe better for some people.

Without citations of scientific research, this is really just an exercise in generalizing from one example.


Scientific research is necessary for self-help or lifehacking now?

Scientific research is necessary for self-help or lifehacking now?

Necessary? No, you can do whatever you want. But if you're making important decisions about how to live your life, wouldn't you prefer to make those decisions based on knowledge that's been validated as thoroughly as possible?

Necessary? No. You can do what you like. But if you want to find out what works and what doesn't, and actually get the right answer, the scientific approach is the only game in town.

I'm usually the guy who defends science, but I kind of disagree with you here.

Science looks for statistical trends. But I'm just one guy. Something could fail for >90% of the population and still work for me. Conversely, something could work for >90% of the population and fail for me. If the costs of trying the solution aren't high, trial and error (guided by some basic scientific theory) might be more successful than scouring the journals for whatever self help theory happens to have a little bit of clinical support these days. A lot of these theories haven't been tested, and a lot of them that have weren't too rigorous.

trial and error with sample size of one (yourself) is called a bunch of anecdotes. We have plenty of evidence by now of how useful this is when looking for the truth about something.

trial and error with a sample size of one is great at convincing you of something that's not true. It's horrible at everything else.

The least rigorously tested theories in the softest of sciences are still orders of magnitude more likely to be right than something one person has done through trial and error experiments on themselves.

If you do "trial and error (guided by some basic scientific theory)" on yourself, and do it well enough to justify believing the results you get, then you are doing scientific research. So I think we're actually in violent agreement.

If you care about little things like if the tip/thing/hack actually works then it is yes.

How could knowing if something works or not not be necessary?

Because these tips are not scientific, nor are they meant to be, and I doubt that they can even be testable. How often can life advice be empirical?

Completely empirical? Probably never.

But if something has no evidence presented then I don't understand why an educated person would care. We know that without evidence the advice/tips/pet theories of human beings are much more likely to be wrong than to be right.

Without any evidence I read these kinds of things like "here is some bullshit that is almost certainly wrong in a fundamental way because I am human and therefore have a multitude of biases that I am unaware of".

Doesn't mean it isn't interesting to read someones personal philosophy, especially if it's well argued and written. But why would you follow advice when you have no way of determining if it's good or bad advice? The more convincing something like this is to your "gut" the more likely it is to be a specific kind of bad advice.

Really cool post, I think I'm in a somewhat similar boat as you are albeit on a smaller scale.

Except for this: > I now have a network of entrepreneurs and investors that I talk to on a regular basis for advice. And I’ve done it all with no prior connections to anyone, while still in school.

I keep forgetting to "keep in touch". I know I shouldn't, but I do anyway. Was this something that came natural to you, or did you have to work on it?

I had to work on it. Every day. I'm pretty shy normally. Around the end of freshman year I started to get tired of being nervous every time I met with someone. So that summer I tried to meet someone new or reconnect with someone old every day. And I did.

I talked to so many random and interesting people that summer (many of whom I still keep in touch with). I actually reached out to you, but we never found a time that worked for us :)

But yea it's a skill that you have to develop like any other. Pays dividends when done honestly and earnestly.

3. Be held publicly accountable by writing about your goals on your blog or having your friend hold you to them.

Interestingly this doesn't always work as you expect. I've been poking at this a bit recently since a side-project touches on intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation in its users.

Basically for some kinds of goal stating it publicly actually make it less likely that you complete the goal (the theory being roughly that just stating it publicly feels like making progress, so you're less likely to actually make progress.)

See http://sivers.org/zipit for some background info. There's been more research but I don't have the references to hand ATM and am too lazy to Google for it right now :-)

I'm the same age as you, Dan, and just started to realize a similar thing. Your post really struck home with me.

Right now I'm in the middle of a seven-month internship with IBM. Back at the start, I distinctly remember when Hacker News was full of articles discussing 42 Floors' open job offer to you, and I felt miserable - "I could be that awesome if only I managed myself better" - and determined to spend the entire seven months in a mad self-improvement frenzy.

At the start of the summer I made this big sheet of paper with little letters and numbers next to each day to be crossed off. There were different things I wanted to do each day - read a bit of this book, work a little on this project - and they were all meticulously planned out. Since the work was divided up into such small chunks, however, it was easy to just miss one because ultimately it didn't matter. I also resented that the paper was planning out my day so much. Once I'd missed one, it was easy to miss another, and pretty soon it all fell apart. I don't think it's a good idea at all to micromanage yourself this much.

Next, I tried making the goals slightly more long-term. I divided up what I wanted to do into months instead of days, making columns for each month between now and January and writing down what I wanted to accomplish in each month, all the books I wanted to read, etc. The problem again was expecting too much of myself and being too strict on myself. When I wrote down a reading list, suddenly reading the books didn't feel enjoyable anymore - it was something I was forcing myself to do and so something that I had to do. Even writing "Do a Rails project" made it less of an enjoyable experience because I felt like I was doing it because I had to instead of because I wanted to, even though I had only written it down in the first place because I wanted to do it.

I've grappled with the second goal set for the last two months, talking to my friends and discussing a lot of the same ideas that you wrote about in your blog. I think you and I both came to the same conclusion, which is that you just need to have some vague idea of where you want to go and go there in a way that you'll enjoy. When the inspiration hits, you'll be free and flexible enough to do something with it, instead of being imprisoned by goals. So right now, my goals are just "Learn more about algorithms and do cool projects", which I'm enjoying a lot more. In particular, I think that we as programmers have a bad habit of assuming that we're capable of a lot more than we actually are, an assumption that kind of handicaps us by making us think we can jump into things in an unrealistic way such that we feel frustrated when we're not as godlike as we imagined.

If this is utterly unreadable, thank Bill Clinton, haha.

I like the article but I'm always a little shocked when someone has put this much thought into a subject and either hasn't even looked at, or at least doesn't mention, all the recent research that has been done around goal setting and motivation.

There was a really interesting study recently that compared two methods of motivation for a habit/activity. The methods were goal setting and cultivating an appreciation for the activity itself.

The goal setters improved faster and more of them had stuck with it after a short period of time. After a longer period of time the appreciators were just as proficient as the goal setters and more of them had stuck with it. A lot of goal setters quit in the medium term.

I remember the explanation being that goal setting drove better performance faster but the habit was more fragile and missing goals or reaching a plateau resulted in more quitting, while the appreciators just kept plodding along because they enjoyed it and were more successful long term.

I had no google luck finding that study again, and I have to get back to doing some real work but if anyone recognizes it please post the link.

I can't be only HN user who appreciates these types of articles when they tie in interesting facts a lot more than those that just have a well written argument based on personal experience and anecdote. Maybe that's just my bias towards science over self help?

I got very interested and tried to find out but haven't suceed. So I just second it that I would be very interested reading that study!

Found it, added the links to the end of my original post

I'm a big fan of doing one tiny thing each day to get the ball rolling. Set that typeface you've been meaning to set or make that form submit to the database. You can't just commit your code and stop there, you've gotta keep going. Hopefully you get into a flow and do some good work from there out. Works for me.

> And so the biggest part of Step One is not to get better at doing, it’s to start doing.

Agreed. I see so many people just taking class after class when they could be coding their own project instead of stupid homework assignments. I think they are just procrastinating.

Very very interesting, particularly the part about the ego. I'm homeschooling my 9 year old daughter, and I'm trying to get her to be self-motivated (at least to a degree).

And I think your tidbit about the ego and its fear is going to help me. Thanks.

Wish I knew this 12 years ago at your age:) Now that I have gone through years of becoming a more 'effective and efficient person', I agree with they key points you lay out here and really appreciate you writing it (so I can refer others to it). It seems that much modern thinking on 'how the brain works', choices, and productivity is in line with what you are talking about here (that habit forming is essential, but most people's brains find a way to get in the way (or most people let their brain find a way to get in the way)).

I think this is not just good for getting started with things, but also for times when you're feeling blocked from moving forward, or in some other kind of rut.

Sometimes a problem can seem overwhelming and instead of formulating a grand master plan to overhaul it, it's often more effective and keeps you more sane to start taking action, any action, and see where that takes you.

For those looking to set habits I definitely recommend chains.cc It's a super simple way of tracking what you did each day and makes you feel good when you keep up your habits. I'm not affiliated in any way, just a fan as most todo and goal apps never really worked for me (for most of the reasons mentioned in the article)

This is exactly how I approach improving in programming. Since I didn't really get into it until I started college, I always feel like I'm playing catchup to everyone else. The trick to making progress is to not get discouraged.

You'd be surprised how far "do a little bit each day" will get you.

For me, one of the most helpful things I've read in a long time!

Really glad you think so :)

Habits are more powerful than goals. That's a profound message.

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