J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Month: October 2014

Family Values — A Different Take

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In the United States, the phrase “family values” tends to be associated with a conservative “1950’s style” family structure and lifestyle, including a heterosexual marriage, a bread-winning father, a homemaker mother, and multiple children.

There’s nothing wrong with that kind of family, but it’s not accurate to consider this kind of family as “normal”. Most families in the United States don’t look like this.

The way the term “family values” is used politically angers me — it attempts to marginalize families with gay parents, single parents, even couples who elect not to have children.

What makes a “real family”? Love and commitment. That’s it.

Maybe it’s time to reclaim the phrase. What if “family values” simply referred to the particular values that your family holds?

The idea is simple: sit down with your family and discuss what’s important to all of you. What values can you agree on? What does it mean to be a member of your family?

This isn’t a new idea, but rather a trend that’s gaining momentum. I can’t remember where I first read about this particular exercise, but here’s another post that describes it.

Our daughter is six, and you can see a six-year-old’s voice in the some of the items below. First-graders tend to make fun of each other mercilessly, and she decided she didn’t need that at home. So for now, we’ve agreed to not make fun of each other.

Our daughter sees these more as “rules” — she doesn’t quite get what a value is. Kia and I see the list as aspirational. It’s what our family looks like on a good day (or week).

What is your family about? Articulating your values is powerful. Co-defining your values pulls your family together, like gravity (but doesn’t bind you, like glue).

Values ripple out. Your small (or big) family unit may be more influential than you realize. Values are contagious. Like cold viruses, values spread through children.

Here’s the list my own family came up with (in no particular order, redundancies and family slang included). If you do the exercise, feel free to post your own results below.

What does it mean to be a member of our family?

  • We take care of each other.
  • We help each other with projects and tasks.
  • We share enthusiasm.
  • We listen to each other.
  • We prepare and enjoy healthy meals together.
  • We make good food.
  • We accept each other for who we are.
  • We celebrate birthdays and holidays* together.
  • We are polite and respectful and nice to each other.
  • We go on adventurecations together.
  • We learn together.
  • We go to family camp together.
  • We read together.
  • We don’t make fun of each other.
  • We go on bike rides together.
  • We go to the movies together.
  • We play games together.
  • We spend time in nature together.
  • We help our community together.
  • We help our friends and extended family.
  • We try to make the world a better place.
  • We are loving towards each other.

* we celebrate all of the Jewish holidays, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween … we are equal-opportunity observers (and yes I’m an atheist — but I don’t think religious practice needs to be tied to beliefs)

What was the result of completing this exercise?

As I mentioned above, our daughter has assigned herself the “enforcer” of the “family rules.” Even though she is selective and self-serving in her enforcement, her reminders do sometimes get us back on the right track.

What happens when you explicitly define your values is that inevitably you start to notice discrepancies between your stated values and your behavior.

A less-developed mind will shout “Hypocrisy!” and condemn the value setter.

But what’s the alternative? Lower standards? Not stating and therefore not knowing what your other family members hold dear?

Some “falling short” is inevitable. But it’s also inevitable that once you search your heart and then mentally focus your feelings into values, you’ll find yourself moving towards them.

Explicitly stated values vs. habitual behaviors create friction and tension within the mind. That leads to growth.

So slowly, day-by-day, we’re getting a little closer to what we all consider to be ideal family relations and activities.

In addition to growth, I have a secure feeling that I know what we’re about, as a family. It won’t be the same as your family (though there might be a lot of overlap). Each family is unique.

Conscious Growth — Personal vs Familial

Defining our values as a family made me consider what my own personal values are. The exercise served as a catalyst for my own personal growth. I ended up following-up with a series of exercises where I defined and prioritized both my positive and negative values (things that I want to have both more of or less of in my life). I’ll describe this process more in a later post.

Values as Cultural DNA

I sometimes think about my eight great-grandparents, and how they influenced me. I only knew one of them personally, and of course she was a really old lady when I was a little kid — I never got a good sense of what she was about.

But I know those eight people shaped me, not only through bits of DNA, not only via their life events that activated or inactivated various genes via epigenetic methylation, but through values, implicit and explicit, that they held and lived by. My strengths, my weaknesses, my hopes and fears, everything about me was greatly influenced by those eight people — even though I only met one of them.

Their values were passed down to my grandparents, to my parents, and then to me. No doubt some changes were made along the way. Sometimes we reject our parents’ values, because those values suck. But that kind of change takes tremendous self-analysis and effort, and even then we can find ourselves walking in our parents’ footsteps.

Take the time to consider your own values, and what values you’re passing on to your children (or whatever children you come into contact with in your life, even if they’re not your own). Make the passage of “cultural DNA” a little more conscious, a little more intentional.

 

How To Trigger Super-Momentum

Super-momentum: life in the productivity fast lane

Super-momentum: life in the productivity fast lane

No more than a dozen times in my life, I have experienced a state of what I call “super-momentum.” For days, sometimes weeks at a time, I operated at a extremely high level of energy, excitement, and creativity. I became so absorbed in my work that becoming distracted wasn’t an issue; I was distraction proof. I slept less and ate less, but had more energy. At times ideas came so quickly that I struggled to capture them, getting up in the middle of the night or pulling over in traffic to write them down.

There’s a clinical word that describes aspects of this psychological state: hypomania. But whereas hypomania is often associated with distractibility and thrill-seeking behavior (gambling, shopping sprees, sexual promiscuity, etc.), I associate super-momentum with extreme focus in a single work area, and the application of 100% of the excess energy to the work in question.

There are multiple advantages to having a singular focus. With project immersion, the subconscious mind is always engaged with the material (though other life areas may suffer from lack of attention and processing power). Project progress increases because there is less “loading” time; since the mind is continually engaged, you don’t have to “remember where you were” when you start working. You already know! This also reduces initial resistance/willpower expenditure for starting each work session. Instead of knowing and dreading the mentally strenuous work of reviewing your work for half an hour (or longer) to “get back in the groove,” you just pick up right where you left off the night before. You’re already in the groove — you never left.

Super-momentum is similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, but I consider super-momentum to be more agitated, more based on heightened physiology (dopamine, sex hormones), and less reliably triggered. And while flow is characterized as “enjoyment in the process of the activity,” I would describe super-momentum as an ecstatic, near-frantic, inspired, completely focused work hustle.

It’s a great drug, and I’d like more of it. But it’s not something money can buy.

So, the questions:

  • Is super-momentum worth triggering? Does it actually result in value being created? Or is it just another high to be chased?
  • Is it possible to trigger super-momentum, and if so, how? What circumstances lead to this explosive burst of energy, enthusiasm, motivation, and productivity?
  • Are there negative effects of super-momentum, in terms of psychological strain, physical stress, and general wear-and-tear? Is the comedown painful? Is “project completion letdown” inevitable?

Is Super-Momentum Worth Triggering?

Absolutely yes. While not every period of super-momentum in my own life has paid off in every way, all have paid off in some way. To list just a few examples:

  • I spent weeks in a state of super-momentum writing an artificial life emulation program that took my programming skills to the next level. I still sometimes reference the source code of this application when solving similar problems.
  • For at least a full month I became complete absorbed in Minecraft, sleeping very little and thinking about the game constantly. My brain was so “activated” that I made major breakthroughs on completely unrelated problems (client work) during this period of time.
  • Momu and Grayarea collaborated during a very short window of opportunity. A sixteen-hour work session led to a week of very intense follow-up work, resulting in the track “One” which has generated thousands of dollars in royalty income.

In the long-run, these brief periods of super-momentum are mere blips when compared to productivity and results from consistent daily disciplined work. But still, these blips interest me. Not only are they fun when you’re in them, but many artists and writers I respect and admire seem to be able to consistently generate super-momentum, dramatically increasing their productivity during focused periods of being completely ON.

Is it Possible to Trigger Super-Momentum? If So, How?

Since flow is a possible subset of super-momentum, what have psychologists already determined are the prerequisites for the former?

In order to achieve flow, Csikszentmihalyi lays out the following three conditions:

  1. Goals are clear
  2. Feedback is immediate
  3. A balance between opportunity and capacity (the task is sufficiently challenging but not overwhelmingly difficult)

On most days I can enter a flow state (as characterized here) for at least a few hours. But I don’t know if I can consistently generate the heightened physiological state I associate with super-momentum. As a start, in terms of reverse-engineering, here are the factors (in addition to the above) that I associate with super-momentum:

  • a great idea
  • competition (personal, not abstract)
  • a crush/a muse
  • hunger for success and recognition
  • decent tools and working environment
  • an inflexible deadline
  • powerful collaborators or helpers
  • creating something that will really help or inspire other people
  • breaking new ground (in terms of knowledge, style, or genre)
  • some drugs (modafinil, bromocriptine, caffeine, etc.)
  • being in good physical shape and generally healthy
  • incremental success (power-ups)
  • emotional intensity (including heartbreak, joy, grief, love)
  • working hard, playing hard
  • terrible consequences if I don’t succeed
  • a big payoff if I do succeed
  • getting “amped” because of excitement around an activity or an upcoming event or release (anticipation)
  • extended hyperfocus (for example videogame immersion)
  • an extended period of quiet solitude or near-solitude, time and space to completely relax, decompress, reflect, and even become bored

I have personal experience with all of these factors except for modafinil (which I am curious about, but wary of). Some of these factors are within personal control, but just as many aren’t. Part of super-momentum might simply be utilizing the enormous energy that comes with momentous life events (births, deaths, falling in love, getting dumped, etc.).

Drugs are within one’s personal control, but to me that seems a dangerous route (for example, I could imagine quickly and efficiently writing an absolutely worthless one-thousand page novel under the influence of modafinal).  I once tried bromocriptine (which increases dopamine levels) as an experiment, and  once was enough. I consume a moderate amount of caffeine from dark roast coffee, but medium roasts leave me dehydrated and jittery — I’m not interested in increasing my caffeine intake.

What other factors are controllable?

  •  Setting an ambitious but achievable goal
  • Agreeing to a tight, inflexible deadline, such that other people are depending on you to deliver
  • Choosing subject matter than can potentially have a real impact or break new ground
  • Maintaining and optimizing your infrastructure and work environment so that when inspiration and energy do strike, you are not slowed down with mundane “fixit” tasks and distractions
  • Underscheduling and undercommitting, so that you end up with “empty space” in your life (and not filling that space with distractions like television — get bored enough so that your mind starts racing for its own entertainment — see Oates tweet above)
  • Engaging in a rich social life (ideally centered on or related to your work area) so that you increase your potential exposure to mentors, muses/crushes, rivals, and collaborators, all who can dramatically spur your motivation and amp up your nervous system.

This is the first time I’ve thought about this analytically. I’m surprised by how many super-momentum associated factors are potentially controllable. Maybe super-momentum can be engineered.

Can you Create Your Own Motivation and Excitement?

According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, yes.

“The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

– Neil deGrasse Tyson’s response on Reddit when asked “What can you tell a young man looking for motivation in life itself?”

What Tyson doesn’t explain is how. How do you go from sitting on the couch feeling blah to firing on all cylinders?

Well first, get off the couch. As Tony Robbins likes to say, “emotion is created by motion.” [Tony Robbins “Ultimate Edge — Hour of Power” mp3, link borrowed from this Tim Ferriss post]

Exercise generally stimulates dopaminergic systems, which generally increases motivation (though the neuroscience is complex; higher dopamine in some brain areas increases motivation, while higher dopamine in other brain areas increases awareness of the costs of certain behaviors).

So daily exercise is a must if you want to boost your “get up and go,” with the caveat being that you don’t want to overdo it and end up in a state of chronic inflammation. Lifting heavy weights or going on long runs every day will just exhaust most people. Walking or bicycling or yoga everyday plus short bursts of more intense exercise (sprints, weights) is probably a good balance.

But brisk walks won’t get you to super-momentum. You need to be excited about your work.

Well, what if you aren’t excited? Can this be changed?

Author Rachel Aaron has a good perspective on this. In this blog post she describes how she went from writing 2000 words a day to 10,000 words a day. She breaks her approach into three core requirements:

  1. Time (track productivity and evaluate)
  2. Knowledge (know what you’re writing before you write it)
  3. Enthusiasm (get excited about what you’re writing)

She has valuable insight into all three areas. I’d recommend her post to all writers. But for the more general purposes of this post, her insights into generating enthusiasm are the most relevant. From Aaron’s post:

The answer was head-slappingly obvious. Those days I broke 10k were the days I was writing scenes I’d been dying to write since I planned the book. They were the candy bar scenes, the scenes I wrote all that other stuff to get to. By contrast, my slow days (days where I was struggling to break 5k) corresponded to the scenes I wasn’t that crazy about.

This was a duh moment for me, but it also brought up a troubling new problem. If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn’t want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. This was my novel, after all. If I didn’t love it, no one would.

Fortunately, the solution turned out to be, yet again, stupidly simple. Every day, while I was writing out my little description of what I was going to write for the knowledge component of the triangle, I would play the scene through in my mind and try to get excited about it. I’d look for all the cool little hooks, the parts that interested me most, and focus on those since they were obviously what made the scene cool. If I couldn’t find anything to get excited over, then I would change the scene, or get rid of it entirely. I decided then and there that, no matter how useful a scene might be for my plot, boring scenes had no place in my novels.

This applies to all creative/innovative pursuits — not just fiction writing. If it’s boring, why are you working on it? Skip ahead to the good part or the interesting part.

You may need to come back to the “boring bits” of the project later, but if you’re already in a state of super-momentum, you’ll blast through them effortlessly.

Are There Negative Effects of Super-Momentum?

Obviously, being amped up physically and mentally for an extended period of time (even if drug free) is going to take its toll. More free radicals, more stress hormones, and accelerated aging are probably inevitable to some extent.

Super-momentum is not the fountain of youth. It’s burning the candle at both ends. Even if the high is natural, all highs are followed by a low.

In addition to physical and mental stress, focusing all your energy and attention on a single life area means that other parts of your life (household, relationships, children, eating well, sleeping well, other work areas) are going to be temporarily neglected.

In addition, when you come down (and you will eventually come down), you won’t have the energy to energetically deal with these neglected areas. You’ll be drained. After expending an enormous amount of energy and delivering or otherwise completing your project (or possibly abandoning it), you’ll experience letdown. While life coaches and therapists might distinguish physiological depression from post-project depletion, they feel about the same.

The advantage of going through the latter is that you know why (you just pushed yourself like a maniac, and now you’re out of gas), and you know that with rest and recuperation, you’ll bounce back and regain that life spark.

So pursue super-momentum at your own risk. There will be downsides. A near constant state of super-momentum without corresponding periods of rest and recuperation might lead to gigantic leaps in terms of career success, but long-term health life effects might include:

  • obesity, from sleep deprivation and circadian disruption
  • insulin resistance, see above
  • chronic inflammation, manifesting in joint pain, back pain
  • chronic depression
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • damage to personal relationships, from neglect and/or volatile emotions
  • self-doubt, loss of sense of purpose, “Why am I doing this?”

To these risks you might say “So what?” In the famous words of a super-momentum enthusiast:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

– Hunter S. Thompson

He was a man true to his word.

On the other hand, there are equal or even greater risks to not pushing yourself, to eating and resting too much, to not discovering and stoking your inner fire. These risks are both physical and psychological. Chronic stress is terrible for health, but acute stress is necessary. A sedentary life devoid of all challenges is a fast track to obesity, heart disease, cancer, and dementia. Consider:

Work “sprints” (via super-momentum) are not necessarily bad for your health as long as you take some downtime to recover. Here are some basic life and health precautions to take if you are chasing the dragon of super-momentum:

  • stay super-hydrated
  • get at least five hours of sleep a night
  • eat at least one healthy meal a day
  • don’t use stimulants stronger than tea or coffee
  • rely on “natural” sources of motivation (see above) instead of drugs (including all so-called “smart drugs”)
  • start with “money in the bank” (literally, but also in terms of relationships, core infrastructure, etc.)
  • take extra care to be polite, patient, respectful, and considerate to your loved ones (your agitated, hypersensitive, hyperactive state will make you prone to snapping and snap judgements)
  • when its time to come down, come down gracefully (sleep more, eat well, decompress, pamper yourself, recuperate, thank everybody who supported you during your sprint, return the favor)

This cautionary tale from author-turned-cocaine-and-videogame-addict Tom Bissell is worth reading. It’s possible to amp yourself up into a state of hypomania and hyperfocus that feels like super-momentum, but moves your life backwards instead of forwards. While I’ve never gotten into recreational drugs, I can relate to the lure of videogames. These days I have a simple rule of “no entertainment during the workday” (including web browsing) that keeps me from falling into false “feeling productive while doing nothing productive” traps.

So Who Wins, The Tortoise or the Hare?

Well, we all know that slow and steady wins the race. There is no substitute for establishing rock-solid daily habits that inch you closer to your goals, day by day.

But there is a place for sprints, for extremes. Especially to reach the heights of artistic or innovative greatness, these sprints might be required.

So the tortoise wins the horizontal race, but the hare gets more air.

Or maybe, once in awhile, the tortoise bursts into a sprint.

How To Calibrate Goals and Explore Obstacles to Increase Motivation

Don't ignore the needle -- decide how you're going to thread it.

Don’t ignore the needle — decide how you’re going to thread it.

Early this year I wrote about how goals should provide (not require) motivation.

Setting the right kind of goal is tremendously important. A good goal is:

1) Purpose drive (the goal helps you express your life purpose, it resonates with your answer to “Who am I?”)

2) Specific (you’ll know, without any ambiguity, if you’ve achieved this goal or not)

3) Energizing (thinking about the goal propels you to action)

A recent post on Eric Barker’s site opened my eyes to two additional factors.

Calibrating Your Specific Outcome

First, Barker points out that imagining a specific outcome for a goal can sometimes decrease motivation.

What??

It turns out that for a specific outcome to increase motivation, you actually have to believe that with effort and a little luck you can achieve it.

A few years ago I was reading a book by a bestselling fantasy author who I will not name. I finished the book, but was left unimpressed by the prose. Somehow, this experience was incredibly motivating. If he can do it, I can do it, I thought to myself. The experience of reading a successful but mediocre novel got me pumped to continue my writing and pursue my own writing career. Write better than Author X became my standard.

On the other hand, when I read an author like David Mitchell (I’m reading The Bone Clocks now), it’s deflating to think about trying to write like that. Maybe, in five years, things will be different, but at the moment shooting for that level of brilliance in my own prose seems unattainable.

Certainly it’s possible to aim too low. You should think as big as you can realistically believe is achievable. How do you know the limit? If visualizing the specific outcome pumps you up, that’s a good sign. Try visualizing the “next level.” Still pumped? Or does the next level feel “pie-in-the-sky”? Not everyone can be an astronaut.

If a specific outcome feels unattainable, that doesn’t mean you should necessarily shoot lower. Consider moving left or right instead, to a specific outcome that is just as (or even more) ambitious, but also a better fit for your particular talents and personality. A great example of this is Peter Diamandis, who abandoned his goal of becoming an astronaut in order to create the Ansari X Prize (which helped jumpstart the private space industry) instead. (Tim Ferriss recently posted a good interview with Diamandis and Tony Robbins.)

Exploring Obstacles

The second post from Barker’s post that resonated with me was that imagining obstacles and roadblocks on the way to achieving your goal (and planning for them) also increases motivation.

The idea is that if you plan for contingencies, when you hit the (almost inevitable) obstacles, instead of deflating and giving up, you think “I knew this was coming” and your plan kicks in.

Gretchen Rubin refers to this strategy as “safeguards” and “planning to fail.” When establishing a new habit, anticipate what will probably trip you up, and decided ahead of time what you’ll do in response a trigger.

The same strategy applies for bigger-stakes games. What am I going to do when I start submitting my fiction work and (almost inevitably) receive rejection slips, or no response at all? I’ll do the same thing as I did when I was a fledgling music producer — keep sending out material and not take it personally if it doesn’t connect. Creative rejection isn’t failure — it’s feedback. Rejection means either 1) your work needs to be better, or 2) you sent it to the wrong person/publisher/outlet, or 3) for whatever reasons your work doesn’t fit into the current zeitgeist/popular taste. Maybe it’s time for revisions, or maybe back to the drawing board with a brand new idea, or maybe it’s just time for a fresh envelope and a new stamp. Whatever your creative pursuit, rejection is going to be part of the game. While rejection never feels good, you can learn to consume it as a sort of food that gives you energy. All obstacles can be used to increase motivation if they are expected, and fit into your mental picture of your path to success.

Daniel Coyle describes how the Green Berets use negative visualization (as well as positive visualization) to prepare for missions. They rehearse a mission with every possible thing that could go wrong, going wrong (the Murphy’s Law version), and a later rehearsal where everything goes smoothly.

Reconsidering Multiple Life Goals

Previously I wrote about the value of having a single goal. I’ve changed my approach somewhat since I wrote that post. I still believe in having a single life direction that defines what you are trying to do or become. I am x becoming y, or I am attempting to to this or that in the world. But after some experimentation I have found that there is synergy and energy created by pursuing multiple goals simultaneously. I would agree with Peter Diamandis’s 3rd Law: “Multiple projects lead to multiple successes.”

In terms of tracking, I still use the same methods described in that post (specific outcome, evaluation date, reward, kick-in-the-butt motivator).

Will Any of This Make You Happy?

When considering goal-setting, it’s important to remember that achievements generally don’t increase happiness (at least not for very long). Achieving your goals will move your life forward and perhaps make the world a better place, but if you want to be happy, there are more direct ways. In fact, happiness helps you be successful more than being successful makes you happy.

So what are the essentials of happiness? That’s worth another post, but I think the pillars are gratitude, social interaction and inclusion, and neurogenesis/chemical brain health.

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