Why we sabotage our goals (and how to stop it)

 “The best plan is only good intentions unless it degenerates into work.” – Peter Drucker

We all have good intentions. Whether it’s intending to lose weight or intending to donate to charity, they exist but as we’ve probably experienced, our intentions don’t always translate to action. Some studies argue that up to 50% of our intentions are never realised through action.[1]

To put that into perspective, let’s say that your doctor wrote a prescription and intended to sign it the next day for you to pick up. Would you think they’re good at their job if there was a 50% chance it was never completed?

Of course not.

Yet, we do it to ourselves all the time.

Intending and only intending to complete personal projects is a great recipe for guilt and lowers the credibility we think ourselves as having. Good intentions – without any action to follow – have much less value than they otherwise should have.

Failing to follow through on things reluctantly is understandable. Sometimes things that are out of our control prevent us from doing things.

But why, with all the best intentions in the world, do we wilfully sabotage our own goals?

 “I deserve a treat!”

This phrase pops up in a variety of different forms and it turns out that this thinking is what explains why we happily put our goals on hold for a “treat”. Even though it probably isn’t warranted, helpful or even wanted.

Cat Taylor, Thomas L. Webb and Paschal Sheeran decided to find out the different justifications we use to undermine our intentions.

99 university students were asked to nominate an unhealthy snack they ate too much of and record how much they ate during a week. At the end of the week, they asked how often they used certain justifications just before eating it.[2]

There were six groups of justifications:

  • It’s available
  • It can be compensated for
  • It’s different
  • I deserve it
  • I’m curious
  • It’s irresistible

These are all very familiar. Red Velvet milkshakes are rarely available but different, irresistible and pique my curiosity. I certainly believe that I can compensate for it later even though it’s quite difficult to do so.

The justifications above explain our tendency to indulgence and undermine our intentions.

The final part of this questionnaire asked them to rate how much they intended to halve their consumption of the unhealthy snack on a scale.

Four weeks later, they answered how much they ate of the nominated snack. Thankfully, they ate much less.

However, after some fancy stats work, I don’t need to (and can’t…) explain right now, their findings became very interesting.

Firstly, if you used one justification, you were far more likely to use more.

Secondly, the stronger the intention to not eat food, the greater the effect of these justifications on how much they ate. For those with weak intentions, justifications mattered much less.

“The more people justified indulgence, the more snacks they consumed despite holding strong intentions to avoid doing so”

Even if you hold strong intentions to not eat certain snacks, it’s extremely easy to run away from that intention. Simply use a justification that melts away all potential guilt.

How do we stop the self-sabotage?

For one, realise that it’s happening. I didn’t make much sense of the categories before I had read this study but now I notice it happening all the time.

They just creep up on you and can happen quite quickly. It’s even worse when you’re with other people who come up with random justifications on your behalf. Does this sound familiar to you?

self sabotage

 

Tell your friends to help you stick to your goals instead of enabling the opposite. It might require some tough love and you might dislike them for not allowing you to do something briefly. But you’ll benefit from it.

These justifications appear because there is a clash between short term and long term desires.

Should you have the cake now or not? You want to have the cake but also lose weight. You can’t do both at the same time so the justifications come out of the woodworks to make choosing the short term desire easier.

Of course, in the long term, it’s unhelpful and you’ll have to pay for it later.

Let the urge pass.

Urge surfing is one of the most helpful concepts I’ve ever come across. In short, you notice an urge and just stay with it. You don’t act on it as soon as it happens – you just watch it. Notice how it feels. Does it make you feel anxious? Angry? Worried?

Whatever it is, it passes with time. And usually quite quickly – they don’t tend to last for longer than half an hour.

Yes, it’s difficult. However, it helps you understand that you don’t need to act on every want that pops into your head. Many of these wants are caused on purpose by advertising but understanding that they don’t need to control your every action is liberating.

You can focus on the goals you truly want, at your own pace.

Daily takeaway

When you notice yourself wanting to procrastinate, eat too much, lie in bed all day or anything that might stop you from achieving your very important goals be sure to ask yourself:

  1. Is this what I really want?
    1. Is it part of the big picture for me?
  2. Does my justification make sense?
    1. It’s unlikely you’ll compensate for a big mac by walking up an extra flight of stairs

Then:

Let the urge pass.

You’ll slowly stop sabotaging your own goals and finally follow through with your personal intentions.


[1] Sheeran, P., Intention-Behaviour Relations: A Conceptual and Empirical Review, 2002

[2] These justifications were found during their first study – they weren’t forced upon the participants. Otherwise that would be a huge framing problem.

[3] Study used: ‘I deserve a treat!’: Justifications for indulgence undermine the translation of intentions into action by Cat Taylor, Thomas L. Webb and Paschal Sheeran

[4] Interestingly enough, there was a third study which showed that the justifications weren’t just ad hoc explanations for their behaviour. They can be primed to appear again. If you spend your time justifying your actions in a completely unrelated activity, you’ll be more likely to do the same in future activities.


As always, thanks for reading.

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Celebrate Your Effort – The Outcome is Less Important

“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying.”

Dalai Lama XIV

Many of us, at some point in our lives have been obsessed with accomplishments and what it takes to get there. We have goals that we really want to achieve and then say that we’re going to do as much as we can in order to get there.

What happens when we don’t?

Do we blame ourselves for not doing enough or just accept what happened and become proud of our efforts?

It’s likely the former and that is a problem.

The end is all that matters

There is an unfair emphasis on the outcome of the work rather than the work itself.

For example:

“If we don’t win, what’s the point in trying?”

“If I didn’t get an A on the paper, why did I bother working so hard on it?”

“Since didn’t get that internship, I’m not trying for something so competitive next time.”

When we make the outcome of our efforts the only important part of the goal we have or project we try to complete, we become disappointed. This discourages to trying again in the future due to fear of simply being disappointed again.

The obsession with outcomes is a problem.

It’s can important cause of anxiety (what if I don’t get to where I want to be?), strong self-criticism (I’m terrible for not getting to where I want to be), anger, sadness and the like[1].  Failure is far more likely to be ego shattering:

It hurts a lot

 

As a result, we will be better off slowly removing our stringent attachment to the outcome of our actions and simply experiencing things as they are and as they come.

The Myth of Control

In a very American Dream fashion, many of us believe that if we work hard, we will be successful. For all the Olympic swimmers, thriving business women and award-winning students, the reason for their success is because they worked hard. Clearly, a part of that is that if you don’t work hard you won’t be “successful”.

Are both sayings true? Let’s think about them.

  • “If you don’t work hard, you won’t be successful”.

If we think of success as accomplishing something by yourself, it’s unlikely you’ll accomplish anything if you do nothing. It would be like saying you want to write a book but never sitting down to write. In The Aspiring Writer, we can see two writers having the intentions to write but continually avoiding it.

Of course there are a few outliers who can get extremely lucky. Donald Trump. To a number of people, he is a successful businessman who owns a number of luxurious real estates. However, lest we forget that he was given a very generous small start of $1 million. No one picks where they were born and as many philosophers say, it is a “lottery of birth”.

Onto the next one:

  • “If you work hard, you will be successful”

By saying this, we argue that hard work is the sole cause of success. It’s short and snappy but runs very close to telling the future[2]. There is no guarantee that working hard will lead to success especially if we take extremely risky ventures.

For some events, you have more direct control over them. Losing weight is an example. If we work hard to expend more calories than we consume, we will lose weight. The path to the goal is clear and laid out for you – though not easy to achieve.

For others, you have much less control over what happens even if you think you have a lot. Academic grades are an example. They do not reward effort, but content. You may work hard on an essay (or inefficiently and make the work very hard to do), and still produce a poor essay. Or you could work hard, but have a particularly harsh marker who allows their personal bias to affect their grading. You couldn’t have controlled that at all.

Or you apply for a job, spend ages on the application, but have your desired job taken by a personal friend of the CEO.

Or you could train for years in a sport, only to get injured or beaten by people who are have genetic advantages.

A large number of hidden factors affect the outcome of events in ways you cannot control. Blaming yourself for something that you cannot control is a great recipe for near uncontrollable self-loathing because there is no path for action. Only a path for thinking about your apparent short-comings.

This isn’t to say that we should say if you’re successful you were only lucky. That’s going from one extreme to the other. Rather, it is saying that success definitely comes with some good fortune and it ignore that influence is unfair on those who haven’t received similar luck.

Allowing yourself to commit to something and working at it consistently is likely to open yourself up to more opportunities. Those opportunities, you might view as lucky but it would be you who put yourself in the right place at the right time.

A helpful way to put it is this:

Your hard work makes your desired outcome more likely but never guaranteed.

Because of this, we should celebrate and assess the effort that we put into achieving things without hating ourselves if we fall short.

After some calm reflection, perhaps you realise there is more you can do. Slow down, assess the things you can improve upon and pledge to take action. Then do so.

If there isn’t, then there isn’t anything to do apart from accept things as they are and as they come.

Defining yourself by the outcome of your actions is unnecessary. It regularly leads to an over-inflated ego or excessive self-criticism.

Spend time celebrating your effort and your actions. It’s the one thing you have the most control over.


[1] I asked my GP who in turn asked a psychologist – I don’t know how to reference this otherwise. One method for identifying this was bad events or failures tend to become personal (this is my fault) and permanent (this because of who I am).

[2] Which none of us can do.


More reading:

Create without expectation

Let go of your attachment to the outcome

Zen habits – attachments


As always, thanks for reading.

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The Low Information Diet

I used to read the news every morning and thought this was a good thing. I’m sure that at some point, I thought more people should do it because it’s important to be an ‘informed citizen’. It wasn’t just a thing I did, it was a duty.

I’m sure I got this habit from my dad. He’s woken up by the news with his radio and continues listening to it on his way to work. He’s an extremely informed person and can probably tell you anything about politics on demand.

However, as I’ve grown up, I’ve strayed from my dad in this respect. I no longer read the news every morning and don’t think it’s necessary for anything.

In fact, I want to read the news less.

This is what this post is about. Reading less news and reducing the needless amount of information we consume every day for greater clarity, focus and more happiness.

Most of the links supporting my argument will be at the end (so you don’t have an endless number of tabs open at the end).

What is the Low Information Diet?

Consuming less information.

Mainly the news but it can also include blogs, internet forums and, email and so on.

There are a number of reasons for this and I think they support the aim to consume less information on a daily basis so we can pursue other interests and be more involved in our own lives through active engagement rather than passive participation.

Removing the passive aspect of news consumption means we’ll make a more deliberate effort with the information we consume and become more likely to consume higher quality information.

Why bother?

I want to highlight a few important reasons why we should consume less news and information. I will also address a few problems people might have.

A lot of this is inspired by the essay Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet by Rolf Dobelli. I don’t agree with everything he says but that’s not terribly important.

News is harmful

It is sometimes beyond useless.

The overwhelming majority of news is negative. Studies have shown the average ratio is 17:1 or 95% negative news!

You may come to the conclusion that it’s just the way the world is.

I was part of a lecture given by two BBC News journalists where they taught us how to create compelling headlines and write stories. There was a Q&A session at the end and I asked one of the women what she thought about the lack of positive news in the media.

“Positive news doesn’t really go anywhere.”

You can create stories from a murder investigation but stories about literacy rates increasing or cured diseases tend to stop after one news reel. It may be true that positive stories and tend to lack new developments the same way a negative one would but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Since news stations (even government-funded ones like the BBC) require views, they’re far more likely to include prolonged negative stories rather than standalone positives.

This attitude is compounded at times. Myself included. The attitude of ‘positive news isn’t real news’ pervades our thinking far too often. If we hear about an explosion that’s killed 30 people but see the news reporting about plastic bag use decreasing (which has important consequences for our environment) we might think to ourselves ‘This isn’t news. Why are they wasting my time?’

It’s unfortunate because it hides the good in the world using the excuse of ‘I want truth’ which is really a veil covering needless cynicism.

Assuming the world is bad and wanting the news to confirm that belief that is not truth-seeking. It’s ego-stroking.

Being bombarded with negative news is very good at causing anxiety.

We get facts about some disaster and feel bad about it. It doesn’t affect us directly so we don’t do anything to help apart from say ‘that’s really sad’. Then we feel bad about something we can’t change.

For a lot of people, the news doesn’t inspire the amount of action that’s proportionate to the news we watch every day. So a lot of the time, we’re entertaining feelings of depressed helplessness.

It’s rarely substantial

Most of the news we read or watch isn’t substantial. They’re bound to be very short articles without much investigation. That’s the nature of first-then-fact news. These pieces are bound to just make us feel bad about an event without discussions (not assertions) about why the event happened or what progress is being made on the problem.

There are many brilliant articles and journalistic pieces out there. They take time and effort to both create and digest. The feelings they create whether positive or negative are a result of active engagement rather than a simple fact devoid of proper discussion.

You can test this yourself. Think about the number of articles and news pieces you’ve read today and count the number of things that have made a substantial effect on your day. The number is probably low. Unfortunately, if you haven’t already spent time curating your sources of information, then the ratio of useless to engaging will be skewed in the wrong direction.

Not everything you read or watch needs to be life-changing. That’s a high ask.

The aim here is to focus our attention to sources of information or activities that improve the quality of our lives and the time we spend taking part in the activity. A trip in the 24 hour news cycle is unlikely to do that.

Dobelli’s point here is important. He says it’s difficult to recognize what’s relevant but much easier to recognise what’s new. The news always offers us new things but can’t always be relevant to our own lives on a consistently enough to justify following it every day.

If something is relevant, the chances are we’ll hear about it from someone else who follows the news or from more specialised sources.

If we miss out, the world will keep on spinning and your day will keep on moving forward.

No, you won’t be boring

A fear I’ve heard expressed is that we’ll become boring if we don’t stay up to date with the news because we’ll have nothing to talk about.

It’s true that some small talk focuses on current events but I don’t think this is particularly important. There are two reasons for this:

  • News isn’t much to bond over.

It’s much more useful to take interest in the person you’re talking to rather than a news event that has a high chance of just creating pity.

  • Consuming higher quality information leads to higher quality conversation.

This does not mean academic information. If we focus on things we find really engaging (that can be reading a comic, book or watching a film etc.), we’ll be happier talking about them to other people and others will be happier to learn about them.

I’m confident that the best conversations you’ve had did not revolve around the most recent news event at the time.

If current events do come up, it means you’ll learn something new.

Don’t worry if it’s daunting to always say ‘I didn’t hear about that’ (not that there’s anything wrong with it). This information diet does not necessarily require no news at all but a deliberate reduction.

Too much information ruins our attention  

While I think the other points are important, I find this is particularly potent because it expands beyond the problems of the news.

There’s only so much time and energy we have every day to focus our attention on certain things. Bombarding ourselves with more information day every forces us to make many decisions about small things.

Nicholas Carr wrote an article expanding on this problem. A study was completed in 2007 analysing what happens to brain activity when novices to the internet begin browsing the internet for prolonged times. Their brain activity increased significantly but that didn’t automatically mean better brain activity. They were more likely to skim articles, and become more shallow thinkers.

This doesn’t mean skimming is bad. It’s a vital skill but clearly cannot become the only way we consume information. If not for the fact that slower and deeper reading leads to better comprehension, keep in mind that being engaged with activities is a key ingredient to being happy.

What can you do instead?

One complaint about the low information diet is that you might not have anything else to do. Another is that being fully engaged with activities is often tiring. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Read a good book/article
  • Talk to people
  • Write a journal about your day
  • Look around and take in your surroundings (I’m serious)
  • Listen to music
  • Watch a movie or enjoyable videos (stand-up comedy is an example)

There are many things you can do which don’t require a lot of mental energy which are still enjoyable and remove us from anxiety-inducing news.

The Low Information Challenge

You might not be convinced by this.

I wasn’t at first and feared that I would lose my privilege as an informed citizen. None of that happened. I’ve strayed from this and wish to go back. Here’s a challenge that we can do:

  • No news for one day. Then a week. If you can keep on going, even better.

It will require a deliberate effort since checking the news tends to be an ingrained habit nowadays. That’s why we’re starting off small rather than diving into never reading the news again.

If that sounds too difficult or simply absurd try the softer version.

  • Restrict news consumption to 10 minutes at the end of the day

Rather than welcoming endless streams of information, we limit it on purpose.

I recommend trying going cold turkey first though. There are benefits to just not reading the news at all.

In a month, I’ll report back about how the low information challenge went. I hope you join in too!

‘til next time.


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Further Reading:

Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet by Rolf Dobelli [PDF]

A short objection to Dobelli’s article (highlights some of the disagreements I have with Dobelli)

The Low Information Diet (Mr Money Moustache)

News is 17:1 negative – Studies like this tend to be he-said-she-said where they’re repeated ad nauseam without a source. I found one in Democracy Under Attack: How the Media Distort Policy and Politics by Malcolm Dean p.415 (he actually has it at 18:1)

Why We Love Bad News More Than Good News

Why Bad News Dominates Headlines (very good discussion about our tendency to say we want good news but read bad news)

The Power of Ignoring Mainstream News

Some Great Articles:

The Blind Man Who Taught Himself to See

Lionel Messi is Impossible

How David Hume Helped Me through my Midlife Crisis

This blog I found is full of them…

If you have any recommendations, feel free to mention them below!

On Purposeless Walking

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

Henry David Thoreau

In the evening, when the business of the day is over, go for a walk. Walk with mindfulness and without purpose.

I remember I started walking because there was a day when I became angry and irritable. Instead of staying in the same environment that caused the anger, I went for a walk. My initial purpose was to calm down but I began doing it every night and eventually I just ended up walking for the sake of walking.

Nowadays, we don’t really go on purposeless walks any more because walking in general has become a bit of a luxury. In the UK, 25% of journeys include walking but only 17% of people landed in the ‘just to walk’ category. And that category included dog-walkers. So we can imagine that number would drop if fewer people owned dogs. Of course, some people have to or simply enjoy walking more than others but the category of just walking for the sake of it seems to be decreasing.

Most of our entertainment is in our homes, we can take transport to most places or if we do go on a walk, it tends to be in order to get somewhere else. Like school or to the shop.

I say we should go on more pointless walks.

Why?

Going for walks without purpose relieves us of the multiple distractions that plague us throughout the day. With the increasing connectedness we have with other people, walking without purpose grants us permission to spend time alone. It means we can appreciate our surroundings better because that’s all we need to focus on. No longer do we need to remain captivated by the glare of our phones.

Many famous writers like Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf walked without purpose as it helped improve their creativity. They have time for solitude and lack of distraction. They can work through ideas in their head or just find more inspiration in the simplest of things.

The Thoreau quote at the beginning speaks an important truth. If we want to create deep mental paths in our minds, we have to do a lot of thinking. Too often I find myself giving up if I cannot express myself properly or if I’m stuck on a problem. We can’t figure out everything instantly or with minimal effort. A lot of things are difficult and embracing it rather than running from it gives us a much greater chance at overcoming them. Walking gives us a better chance at doing that.

How do I start?

  1. Go outside.
  2. Walk somewhere.

More seriously, there are a few things that help.

  • If you unfortunately have reasons to think you might be unsafe, walk with someone and during the day. If not, walk alone.
  • Don’t use your phone.
  • Be mindful.
  • Find new places but don’t map your walk.
  • Walk without listening to music or audiobooks.

***

Walking is another source of peaceful solitude. I remember many times going for a walk at night and looking forward to seeing the moon in the sky. Some days it would dominate the night like a king seated in his throne. Other days, it would be quieter and hidden behind a few clouds. Walking outside without any purpose allowed me to appreciate that properly. Instead of being preoccupied with other things, I looked up and was mindful of my surroundings.

Free from distractions and consumed with peace.

And that is the purposeless walk.

 

 

What does it mean to be open-minded?

Source: educationviews.org

During conversations about a controversial topics like politics, religion and science, you’ll probably hear the phrase ‘you’ve got to be more open minded!’ Those are the contexts I usually hear the phrase and often times it is used as way to escape an argument that isn’t going in your favour. It’s based on a misunderstanding of what it actually means to be ‘open-minded’.

Open-mindedness is the willingness to consider new ideas.

Open-mindedness is not accepting information and ideas uncritically.

When discussing the theory of evolution, I have been told I’m close-minded because I don’t accept the alternate theories. The story is the same with belief in ghosts and horoscopes. When you come across a new idea or argument, your aim should be to evaluate whether or not the supporting evidence is strong enough for it to be regarded as truth. Especially if the idea is being presented as fact.

For example, this sometimes happens with alternative medicine. If someone recommends something like homeopathy to help solve a problem, it’s not bad to be skeptical towards at first. Nor is it wrong to oppose it in someway because you’ve researched it and come to the conclusion that it is either useless or harmful. Requesting evidence does not make you close-minded.

It is also important to understand the difference between dismissing an idea and not believing in one. This is how caricatures of peoples arguments form which leads to them shouting ‘you’re just being close-minded!’ If I say ‘I do not believe in unicorns’ it does not mean ‘Unicorns can’t exist’ or ‘you’re stupid for believing in unicorns’ or ‘unicorns are ugly’. It just means I haven’t been convinced they exist. By misrepresenting their position, they’re rehearsing their own prejudices on the person without consideration of their opinion. Which is quite the opposite of being open minded.

With all of this being said, we don’t need evidence for everything that we’re told. Always demanding evidence when a friend tells you a story is an easy way to lose a friend. It’s when someone is trying to make to accept something as fact or make you do something you doubt that you should be more alert and willing to ask them to support what they’re saying in some way. It helps us determine what is true or false in important situations.

Being open minded is not merely about believing in things. That would be too easy and make you far too gullible. There isn’t much value in believing any story or adopting a belief just because it sounds interesting. It is the willingness to consider ideas, assess them for what they are and determine whether or not you accept them.

However, it is difficult. No one enjoys finding out what they believe might be wrong. No one enjoys having their world view shaken and disturbed but sometimes it happens. It leaves us vulnerable. Which is why many people ignore things that contradict an opinion dear to them and take solace in a closed mind.

An open mind without a filter will attract a lot of rubbish. Properly assessing what you come across and being willing to consider new ideas is an invaluable skill we should all aim to improve.

Do you think you’re open minded?