J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Tag: goals (Page 1 of 2)

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.


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.

Goals Should Provide (Not Require) Motivation

Goals should electrify the brain.

Goals should electrify the brain.

Over the last couple years I’ve been experimenting with different systems for setting and achieving goals. During that time I’ve hit some walls and changed my mind more than once. Here’s a summary of my current thinking:

One area that I haven’t discussed in detail is that motivational value of the goal itself. Several times, I have selected a goal that seemed to align with my life purpose, but then found myself swimming upstream when it came to taking action. The parameters I set around the goal (target date, reward) had no effect, because my core motivation was lacking.

If the goal itself doesn’t energize you, no trappings applied around the edges are going to light the fires of your motivational engine. Goal-setting doesn’t work as a hammer to pound yourself into something that you’re not. At the best, goal-setting adds structure to something you already want to do.

Steve Pavlina has a good post on this subject. I don’t agree with everything in the article, but Steve makes an excellent point in that the point of goal-setting is not to control the future. The point of goal-setting is to energize you in the present moment.

Energizing and Actionable

Steve’s post references SMART goals (a concept made popular by Peter Drucker), which stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound (Steve is not in favor of the SMART system). I think the SMART criteria are reasonable in the context of employee management (Drucker’s field), but they make less sense for individuals trying to “level up” in a particular life area.

My own criteria for goal-setting are that a goal should be:

  1. Energizing (providing motivation rather than requiring it)
  2. Actionable (the goal is such that you can immediately plan and take actions in pursuit of the goal, including setting up a task system and schedule that will in all likelihood lead to reaching your goal, as long as you do the work)

The goals I end up choosing for myself usually end up being SMART goals as well, but for me the SMART acronym isn’t that helpful. It misses the most important thing (that a goal should be energizing, providing motivation), and five criteria are just too many too remember (even with the help of the acronym).

“Today You” vs. “Tomorrow You”

The human brain is comprised of layers, with each layer relating to a different set of functionality. The inner layers are more primitive, and provide motivation and capability to eat, hunt, defend ourselves, claim territory, procreate, and otherwise pursue our reptilian and mammalian prerogatives.

The outermost and most recently evolved layer, the neocortex, enables conscious thought and the ability to understand and visualize time outside of the present moment.

Sometimes human motivation becomes a battle between primitive instincts to sleep, eat, and rest vs. more abstract/cerebral motivations (prepare for the future, work on a project that may offer long-term benefits, etc.). This schism could be considered “today you” (that part of you that is interested in immediate sensory satisfaction) vs. “tomorrow you” (the part of you that considers future consequences of present actions).

Goal-setting tilts the scales in favor the neocortex (“tomorrow you”). This doesn’t necessitate total self-denial. “Today you” can be easily satisfied with good food, adequate rest, time with friends and family, and other animal pleasures. Life occurs in the present, so it doesn’t make sense to endlessly defer gratification. But goal-setting can provide a line of defense: a minimum level of effort dedicated to improving circumstances over time (even if it means minor, occasional discomfort in the present).

Motivation and Brain Health

If your life is devoid of excitement and nothing excites you, you are probably depressed. When I experience a lack of ambition and motivation it’s a red flag for me that my dopaminergic system is out of whack, and that I need to take immediate steps to increase BDNF, encourage neurogenesis, and resensitize dopamine receptors. My basic strategy in this case is to become more paleo (eat less sugar and starch, decrease artificial light and go to bed earlier, exercise more intensely, spend more time with friends and family, and reduce screen time). On top of this I eat more curry and oily fish (turmeric and DHA both increase BDNF, increase neurogenesis, and improve brain health). When I take these steps I generally notice a marked improvement in attitude and motivation within a week (and sometimes just after a day or two).

Personal Update

My own goals continue to center around fiction writing. Though sometimes I feel (as a 44-year-old trying to start a career as a novelist) like I’m tilting at windmills, I recently completed a 2nd draft of novel that I’m reasonably pleased with, and I’m working towards what might eventually become a novel-writing system.

Good luck with your own goals, and Happy New Year!

When To Give Up and When to Double Down

All in.

All in.

The common sentiment that a strong person should “never give up, never surrender” quickly falls apart when subjected to some critical thinking.

For example, any experienced poker player will tell you that knowing “when to fold ’em” is one of the most important parts of the game. A player who never folds (gives up) will quickly lose all their money.

The issue is opportunity cost. We all have limited time, money, and energy. When you’re young, with few responsibilities, you might *feel* like you have unlimited time and energy, but it’s not true. Time you spend doing one thing is less time you have for other things. Money you invest in one project is less money you have to invest in other projects.

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How to Discover Your Life Purpose, Set a Primary Goal, and Stay On Track

Unless you are the Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Beginnings, you’ll probably need to pick just one goal at a time.

In my last post I wrote about why I think setting goals is important. I addressed some of my own reservations regarding goal-setting. Is ambitious goal-setting selfish? Is it obnoxious and annoying to others?

I suggest you read that post first. But if you’re ready to get into the details, my five step system for exploring life purpose and setting a primary goal is below.

It’s a long post, but it’s the whole deal. I’ve come to this system after decades of diversions and hard-won experience. So get a fresh cup of coffee, and welcome to my world.

Step 1: Soul-Searching, Purpose & Calling

Seneca’s reputation may suffer as a result of self-promotion guru Tim Ferriss quoting him so much. But before the Seneca backlash is in full swing, I’ll get this relevant quote in:

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A New Approach to Goal Setting (Introduction, and Reservations)

Go with the path or hop the fence?

Over the last six months I’ve started using a new approach to goal-setting that I’ve found to be effective, enlivening, and motivating. I’m still ironing out the kinks in the system, but I’m far enough along that I want to share my approach and my results so far.

As I’ve mentioned before I consider myself to be (in role-playing game nomenclature) a “multi-classed character”. I have many interests and ambitions, and I find it difficult to pursue one at a time. I’m probably in the majority; it’s a rare human being who naturally has a single-minded pursuit or singular quest throughout their entire lives. Most people have many interests, like to do many different things, and want to acquire a wide range of experiences. Overall it’s an effective strategy — the multi-class character ends up with multiple skills set and diverse social networks, and is thus less vulnerable to economic downturns, changing popular tastes, and other vagaries of modern life.

The drawback of going broad, in life, is that you don’t necessarily get to go as deep (or if you do go deep, it takes you longer to get there). It takes longer to level up (to acquire achievements, recognition, mastery, and so forth).

So that’s one reason I’ve been refining and developing my goal-setting system; I want to go deeper and level up in certain areas. But it’s not the main reason. The main reason is …

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If You Want Something More …

My daughter just started her last year of preschool. One thing the teachers say to the kids is “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” (A variation at another preschool is “You get what you get and you don’t pitch a fit.”)

Well, that’s a decent life lesson. Some things you can’t control, and you just have to accept what happens. Like, your friend got a bigger portion of raisins, and your teacher isn’t going to fix it. Life is like that sometimes.

But on its own, the saying conveys too much passivity. It needs a more proactive corollary. So, at home, we’ve started saying the following to our daughter, whenever she complains about something that is well within her own power to change:

“If you want something more get your butt off the floor.”

I heard somewhere that your child’s inner monologue is based on the way you talk to them. Maybe the parent that came up with that was thinking of Lev Vygotsky big idea, which I talk about in this post. Speech with caregivers turns into “self-talk” which turns into silent self-talk, aka thought. Makes a lot of sense.

What Vygotsky didn’t mention was that the way you speak to your children also transforms your own mind. Your lessons to them become your own maxims (if they aren’t already).

“If you want something more get your butt off the floor.” Has saying that to my daughter hundreds of times made me more proactive? You bet.

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