Weekly Reads: Busted MacBook Pro Edition

Okay, so maybe “busted” is a bit of an overstatement. I’m a big fan of my MacBook Pro (first gen) — so much so that I’ve avoided taking it in for repairs for quite some time (trust me, it needs some work… the screen has dead pixels and bruising, the battery is shot and not that old, the VRAM fails its tests and frequently freezes the machine, the fan sounds like it’s out of balance, the top case has some serious pitting issues… and those are just the things that I can think of off the top of my head. But I love it! It just seems to be time to finally take it in. Thank goodness for AppleCare).

Anyway, I had planned to take it in this weekend, even going so far as to take it to our new Apple Store. Sadly, once I got there, only to find out that they’re soooo busy, they were booked up for the whole weekend. Note to others — call ahead and book an appointment if you need to see the Apple Geniuses.

So, here I am, writing up a delayed Weekly Reads on my MBP — which has none of my bookmarks, links, or browsing history, since my last-ditch effort to repair the VRAM on my own was to reinstall the operating system. Ah well, the things we do for our … uh … “adoring public”!

If you would like to pass on anything you think I might be interested in, post the link as a comment to this thread! I’m always looking for new things to explore. Note that comments on this site are moderated, especially if they contain links, so if it doesn’t show up right away, don’t worry!

Made Me Think

Why We Do Dumb or Irrational Things (from PsyBlog). There are probably at least a half-dozen articles I could have picked for this week’s roundup from PsyBlog, but the title alone makes this collection of interesting studies worth mentioning. I think my favorite was The False Consensus bias. I’ve been working a bit on marketing and communications at work, and I think this study is important for marketing specialists in particular.

9 Brain Habits You Didn’t Realize You Had (from MindCafe). While I was familiar with some of the tidbits from this article (for example, the notion that your short-term memory is only really good at holding a maximum of seven things at once), others were new to me. For example, did you know that we have two nervous systems?

How to Travel the World for Free (from Traveler’s Notebook). This past week, J and I spent some time reviewing our finances and our short- and long-term goals (we do this relatively often). One thing that we made a real effort to work into our plan this time was some money for vacations — mostly the small, going-camping-since-we-live-near-the-mountains-type — but even international travel doesn’t have to be super expensive, as this article demonstrates.

Things to Try

Oatmeal Streusel Cookies (from Baking Bites). Yes, I have a fair bit of a sweet tooth, and I also have a thing about baking. If not for the fact that I just baked up nearly 5 dozen bran muffins for lunches this week and next, I would probably already have made these. And eaten them all, too.

Water Balloon Luminaries (from CandleTech). A picture will do this link more justice than any long-winded description from yours truly…

 

Water Balloon Luminaries

Water Balloon Luminaries

One for the Road

Stripes — another one that I just can’t describe. Part optical illusion and part sheer awesomness (hm… I think I watch too much Ace of Cakes), this is pretty nifty to play with.

How to Overcome Boredom

Last week at work, I was experiencing a whole bunch of boredom.  The project I was working on amounted to little more than copying and pasting, and changing dates on documents to reflect that it is now January 2009, not September 2008.

83/365  painfully boring day

photo by riot jane

At first, I was able to keep myself engaged by making a game of it — how quickly can I get this document fixed? How many can I do in an hour? But that only lasted so long before I was avoiding checking my email, and could barely stand to look at the (seemingly ever-growing) pile of updates yet to do.

Fast-forward to today, and boredom seemed like a thing from the very distant past. I was in the groove, having a lot of fun working on a project and being excited seeing it all come together. I still wasn’t checking e-mail, but this time it was because I was so into what I was doing.

So what was the difference? What exactly is it that makes us bored vs. not-bored? As we’ll discover, the key is to understand challenge and skill — and find which one is your anti-boredom medicine.

Defining Boredom

I’m a firm believer that understanding something (like boredom) can make a big difference when it comes to overcoming it. So let’s start there.

Most of us would probably define boredom something like how the dictionary does:

The feeling of being bored by something tedious 

Oh so helpful, right? So, as I was taught when in elementary school, when a definition in the dictionary doesn’t help, try looking up other words from the definition. Which leads us to

Bored, adj. To make weary by being dull, repetitive, or tedious

Well, now we’re getting somewhere. It may not be the world’s most detailed definition, but it is slightly more insightful. At the very least, the definition(s) match our emotional experience of boredom: the feeling of tedium, the feeling of being weary because of experiencing dullness and repetitiveness (repetitiveness… repetitiveness…)

But what a dictionary definition doesn’t tell us is what boredom actually is — it only tells us how we experience it. And while it might give us a bit of a glimpse into why we get bored, it doesn’t really help us all that much beyond what we already knew: we get bored because we’re doing boring things.

What Boredom Isn’t

Another technique we can use to understand what boredom is and where it comes from is to look at what it’s like when we aren’t bored.

For example, we could say that we’re not bored when we’re totally engaged with something, or when we’re curious and captivated, or when we’re being challenged. This would imply that boredom is characterized by a lack of engagement, challenge and/or curiosity. And this makes intuitive sense: it’s impossible to feel simultaneously bored out of your skull and completely engaged and interested in something.

This also aligns with research done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a noted psychologist from Claremont Graduate University. I recently re-watched his TED Talk on Flow (which is super-interesting; I may write a post about it!); while the talk itself is about the state of Flow (ie. the aforementioned complete engagement) you can learn alot about boredom from it, too.

Boredom as Low Challenge, Low Skill

stages-of-flow

According to Csikszentmihalyi, there is a relationship between how you feel doing something (e.g. bored, relaxed, in control), how much you’re being challenged, and how much of your skill level you’re needing to do that task.

Let’s skip the “Flow” side of this diagram for now, which is where most people focus, and instead look to the topic at hand: boredom.

As shown in this diagram, Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that we tend to experience boredom when we are engaged in non-challenging tasks which use some of our skills, but not a lot. That matches up with our earlier definitions, in that boredom hits when we’re doing things that are dull and non-challenging.

Beating Boredom By Increasing Challenge

What’s more interesting, though, is that this diagram doesn’t just tell us what boredom is, it also tells us how we become bored — and in doing so, it gives us hints about how to get “un-bored”.

In short, if boredom occurs when we aren’t challenged and aren’t really using our skills, then the opposite ought to be true. Increase the challenge and amount of your skill you’re using, and you’ll move out of boredom.

Note, however, that just increasing the challenge on its own isn’t a guarantee that you’ll beat boredom and get into a better space; if I wanted to program a complex application, which would raise the level of challenge. Now, I am a competent programmer, but it’s been a while since I’ve written any serious code. In other words, it may be high challenge, but the skill level it would require is way beyond where I’m at — I’d feel worried about my ability to complete the task, since I perceive my skill level was far below what it needed to be.

So while an obvious key to moving out of boredom is to increase the challenge — with the added caviat that we also need to make sure that we have the skills to handle the new challenge.

Moving to New Skills

But since challenge and skill are related, it really ought to work both ways, even if this isn’t obvious. Let’s take the programming language example — what would happen if I decided to learn a programming language? By doing this, I am not so much changing the challenge level (as I’m a fairly competent programmer, and have a good understanding of programming languages) as changing the skill level involved.

In other words, just like you can overcome boredom by adjusting how challenged you are, you can also overcome boredom by adjusting the skills you’re using. Now obviously, changing skill and challenge levels are related: if you’re pushing yourself to acquire new skills, you’re creating an inherent challenge. But each individual will have different ways that work better for them.

Which Works Better For You?

Imagine what you would do in this situation: if you were totally bored with your current job, which approach would you be more likely to take to better your situation? All things being equal, would you try to find a new job in the same field, or would you try to change career directions entirely?

There’s nothing wrong with either direction — both will meet the same need and will help you move out of boredom — but one will feel intuitively more natural than the other. If you’d try to find a new job in the same field, you’re more challenge-driven. If, on the other hand, you’d rather change fields altogether, you’re more skills-driven.

Either way, that’s your anti-boredom medicine. Simply by increasing challenge or adjusting skill requirements, you can beat boredom.

Weekly Reads: Contemplative Edition

I’ve had kind of an interesting week, to tell you the truth. I don’t particularly know why, and I can’t particularly put my finger on what has made it “interesting” — a lot of it I think is that I spent a lot of the week “practicing what I’ve been preaching” about choices lately, and the results have been pretty cool:

I pushed through some really big fears (thanks to those of you who helped; you know who you are), stood up for what I wanted and needed in some new and exciting ways, and stopped procrastinating on some personal growth experiments (like my Scanner Daybook) that I hadn’t had the get-up-and-go to do before. Heck, I even just about finished the really evil puzzle that I started over the Christmas break!

But as I sit here and write up my weekly reads, I’m in that somewhat strange contemplative state where you’re not really thinking about anything consciously, but you’ve got that feeling that your subconscious is having a really good go of something. Anyone else know that one, or am I the only crazy one?

I think my reading this week (and really, the past couple of weeks) has added to my contemplative mood. Maybe that will come through a bit in this post… I’ll let you all be the judges.

If you would like to pass on anything you think I might be interested in, post the link as a comment to this thread! I’m always looking for new things to explore. Note that comments on this site are moderated, especially if they contain links, so if it doesn’t show up right away, don’t worry!

Made Me Think

How to Design Your Ideal Life (from Think Simple Now). I just about skipped reading this post after skimming the first paragraph — it seemed like just another “resolutions are bad, make goals instead” piece. Boy, and I glad I didn’t. When I read this heading, it hit me like a tonne of bricks: Live By Design, Not By Default. Yes, that’s what I’d been writing about in my Choice series, but even now I feel as though even just reading those six words, I’m hitting on something really important. I’m going to make either a computer wallpaper or a poster (or both) with those words on it — remind me, and I’ll share it with you :)

The Single Secret to Making 2009 Your Best Year Ever (from Zen Habits). Yeah, I know. One of those titles that you kinda roll your eyes at, and think “whatever you say”. But trust me on this one; Leo Babauta really hit this one on the head: Stop waiting for happiness. Happiness is right here, right now. Let that one bounce around your noggin for a while, then go read Leo’s article. You can come back for the rest of the list later. It’s okay, I’ll wait.

Spirituality, Not Religion, Makes Kids Happy (from LiveScience). Okay, I have to admit that as a former religious studies student, the title does make my toes curl a bit (we generally hate the word “spirituality”). But if you get past the shuddering — and somewhat sensationalist headline — it’s a pretty interesting bit of writing. Some aspects are maybe unsurprising, but the relationship between spirituality and happiness (and not religious practice) was thought-provoking for me.

Oldies But Goodies

I encountered (and in a couple of cases, re-encountered) a couple of older articles this week. They’re still fantastic.

What If You Have Too Many Interests and Cannot Commit to Any of Them? (from Steve Pavlina). Any scanners and renaissance souls in the house? (Hint — if Pavlina’s title ressonates with you, you probably are one!) This one is for you. We can always use reminders that there is nothing wrong with having multiple interests, and that we do have options when it comes to pursuing them all. This article takes a bit of a different approach compared to — say — that of Margaret Lobenstein or Barbara Sher. Pavlina goes beyond saying “here’s how to handle all those multiple interests” to arguing that multiple interests is a powerful tool in the pursuit of personal growth. I think I’m inclined to agree.

Q&A with Lisa Diamond (from the Boston Globe). This interview from 2007 is really a brief introduction to research by Lisa Diamond (Ph. D. Assoc. Professor of Psychology, University of Utah), which led to her book Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire. (Note, I have not read the book, but am thinking I might track down a copy at the library).  The reason for the link, though, is not just for the interview itself — which is insightful — but as a suggestion that you Google some articles related to Diamond and the research which surprised even yourself. Or heck, just do what I’m going to, and see if you can find her book.

Catch It on Repeats

And finally, a big shout-out about the latest episode of NUMB3rs: Arrows of Time. I’m a big fan of the show any way, but this one was phenomenal in my opinion. Action, comedy, drama — yes, it had all of those. But it also is one of the few shows that I’ve seen on TV lately (if ever) that really dives into the heart of the huge role that religion can play on our lives. I’m also hugely appreciative of how the show, and this show in particular, took the risk of having one of its major characters investigate their own Jewish heritage and faith (even if they do insist on calling the synagogue a temple). Kudos for a fantastic episode; American viewers and those handy with proxies can watch it online at CBS if you didn’t already see it; the rest will have to wait for repeats or DVDs (legally, at least).

Interest, Excitement and Your Natural Stopping Point

As I was relecting the diagram showing the lifespan of my idea interest, it struck me that my “bail-out” points were located in what looks like strange places: at low points of interest. Wouldn’t it make more sense to bail-out when interest is high, rather than waiting for a crash of interest?

What I realized, though, is that I was falling into a trap: I was confusing interest with excitement.

Relating Interest and Excitement

Interest and excitement are closely related. The more interested we are in something, the more excitement we feel and the more energy we have to work on a project.

At the same time, I personally find that my interest level tends to be a bit more up-and-down than my excitement level. For example, I can remain excited about something in the general sense but not be interested in it “in the moment”. So in my experience, interest and excitement are related, but are not the same thing.

If we were to overlay my excitement levels onto the previous graph, it might look something like this (the red lines are the bail-out points from the previous diagram):

 

Levels of Interest and Excitement

Levels of Interest and Excitement

In the newly revised diagram, you can see that my excitement rises and falls with my interest, but it’s not quite as … tempermental. While my interest flares up and wanes occasionally, my excitement for a certain project follows a pretty standard trajectory. It goes up for a while, stabilizes, and then goes down for a while.

Bailout Blues

So going back to the original question, then, why do I tend to “bail-out” of projects when I do? When we looked only at interest, it seemed as though I would bail out whenever my interest level was low.

If that were the case, though, I’d find myself quitting before I even got started. And some of the bailout points wouldn’t really make sense. Take point #1 for example: at this point, my interest is still higher than it was when I got started. So clearly, I’m still interested in the idea. So why would I quit when my interest dropped just a little bit? Do I get bored that easily?

More clarity comes when we add excitement into the picture. The pattern that emerges is quite elegant when you think about it: bailouts appear most likely when excitement and interest are at widely different levels.

But consider this: when you lose interest in something, but are still excited by it,  you may well choose to return to it at a later point, or you may find your excitement disappears along with your interest. So we can’t ignore that excitement is affected by changes in interest, and vice versa.

Instead of looking at levels of excitement and interest, then, what happens when we look at how they trend in relation to each other. Taking my drawing above, we can look at my personal excitement and interest bailout points as follows:

  1. Excitement Rising, Interest Falling
  2. Excitement Holding, Interest Falling
  3. Excitement Falling, Interest Falling

Now a very clear pattern has emerged. I quit when my interest has fallen, regardless of what my excitement level is. But does this really make sense?

The Best Time to Quit

When we compare the bailout points, it seems silly to bail when there is still more interest and excitement yet to be had (point #1). At the same time, it’s really not very much fun to hang on and force yourself to do something that you’re neither excited about, nor interested in (point #3).

It would appear that the best time to quit something, then, is when your excitement is fairly static (or just starting to decline) but your interest is clearly falling. Otherwise, you risk just making yourself miserable.

But how do you know what that is? When is the best time to quit — how do you know when your has excitement peaked and your interest begun to wane? In other words, what is your natural stopping point?

One of the best ways to do this is to simply keep track of all the ideas you have (or projects you start). For each, note the following:

  • Project/Idea Description (1-2 sentences is fine).
  • Points at which you felt like bailing (whether you did or not), and for each point:
    • Interest level (rank, 1-10)
    • Excitement level at bailout (rank, 1-10)
    • What you were doing at the time?
  • When you finally do bail, do you feel as though you hung on too long?

Do this for a week or two as honestly as possible (ie. don’t continue doing something just because you think the numbers are telling you should, and likewise don’t quit just because you think the numbers are telling you to do so).

At the end of your logging period, go back and review your log. A good way to do this is to break your log into two pieces: one containing all the times you felt you hung on too long, and one for all the times that you didn’t.

  • For all the times when you felt as though you hung on too long, can you find an earlier bailout point where your excitement was high but your interest was dropping off (we’ll call this your “optimal bailout”)? If yes, what were you doing at that time?
  • For all the times when you felt as though you didn’t hang on too long, what were you doing at the time? (This is also an “optimal bailout”)

Now — and here’s the magic of the log — can you find a general theme among what you were doing at your optimal bailouts? For example, you might find that your optimal bailouts always occured when you had produced a working draft of an idea. Or perhaps it always occured when you had figured out how things worked. Maybe for you, it happens when you’ve released the final version of something (and really, really hope that you never have to look at it again!) Or maybe something else.

Your Personal Stopping Point

The key is that this general theme is your natural stopping point. It’s the point at which you have reached your maximum enjoyment (and probably your maximum effectiveness, too, since very few of us do our best work when we’re not enjoying it).

What’s really cool is that your natural stopping point (NSP) also shows one of your greatest strengths.

For example, if one of your strengths is finding connections between ideas, your NSP will likely occur shortly after you’ve made the connection. If your strength is seeing patterns, your NSP will happen once the patterns have become clear to you. If your strength is tying together all the loose ends, your NSP will be when something is wrapped up in a neat little package, all ready to go. And so on.

The critical thing to realize is that your stopping point may not be the same as everyone else’s. But that’s okay — don’t let anyone tell you it’s not! Each of us has our own strengths and our own abilities, and just because yours might not be the same as your neighbors doesn’t mean they’re any less valuable.

By the same token, your NSP may not be the same as everyone else’s — you may be “done” long before the product is shipped, for example. But that simply means that you’ve already given your best, and used your strengths. And that’s a good thing; something to be proud of.

Adaptive Intelligence

As I reflect more on the idea of resolutions and goals, and growth and development, I realize more and more how much effecting change really comes down to our ability to make a choice to do so.  Be it making a change in your own life, or a chance in the world around you, the first (and in many ways, most important) step is just to start.

The Key to Growth is Choice

this is Roy... Roy the killbot

Photo by Don Solo

It seems so simple, and yet, it’s something that so many of us struggle with.

A huge part of the struggle happens because we’ve had choices turn out badly in the past. If experience is the best teacher, then experience seems to teach us that making choices can potentially be a very good — or very bad — thing.

The result? Our ability to make choices hinges on how comfortable we are with our ability to accurately predict the outcome of our choices. If you are relatively confident that choice A will lead to outcome B, you will be more confident in making that choice. If you aren’t, then making the decision will seem much harder.

If you want to grow and change, eventually you have to master the decision-making process. And if part of the problem is that you’re not confident in your predictive abilities, then it would make sense that what you need to do first is work on the accuracy of your predictions. As you become more confident in your prediction-making-ability, you also become more confident in your ability to make the “right” decision — which will then make decision-making and growth come more easily.

Artificial Intelligence in Software

Our brains actually behave quite a bit like a piece of computer software: based on certain inputs (experiences), the software generates a set of outputs (predictions). If you give it insufficient data, you’ll get less accurate results. Even beyond simple input-output, our brains actually function like the “bad guys” in modern video games: with adaptive artificial intelligence.

In traditional video games, the artificial intelligence displayed by computer characters (NPCs: non-player characters) is very limited. If you shoot at an enemy, it will shoot back. If you run into a room where there are enemy characters, they will attack.

More modern (“cutting-edge”) video games feature an emerging technology known as adaptive artificial intelligence. In these games, an enemy sharp-shooter might adapt to your firing patterns, or they might adjust their tactics to take advantages of what they learn your weaknesses to be.

In developing this type of software, programmers and researchers are attempting to replicate what the human brain does naturally: use knowledge acquired from prior experiences to anticipate the outcome of future choices.

Predictive Patterns

Every time something happens in our lives, our brains file that information away for use in future situations.

You can see this most clearly by watching a child learn something new. When that child is learning how to walk, he or she may lean too far backward and fall down. The mind takes this information and makes a note not to lean so far backward in the future.

As we grow older, our brains have built up quite a large “database” of experiences from which to draw upon. As we continue to make choices, the results of those choices (both large and small, conscious and subconscious) are added to our knowledge bases, and are factored in when we make decisions in the future.

This “knowledge database” is the means by which our brains categorize and generalize experiences, and creates predictive patterns. Because the brain remembers the outcomes in general terms (you may not remember exactly when or how you learned to walk, but you still know how to keep your centre of gravity in the right place), it naturally identified commonalities and patterns.

As a result, we are not only are we able to predict outcomes based on “what happened before”, but based on what we expect will happen — our brains are natural simulators. It’s how you know not to put your hand into a pot of boiling water; even if you’ve never done it before, you expect that the outcome would be painful, and so you don’t do it.

Predictions and Expectations

In 1738, famous polymath Daniel Bernoulli suggested that we calculate expectations in the following way:

Expected value = Odds of gain × Value of gain

In general terms, this simplified formula forms a basis of statistics and probabilities. Say you were offered a bet: for a buy-in of $100, you get to flip one-thousand quarters, and you get to keep any of them that turn up heads.

Ignoring the fact that you would be incredibly tired of flipping coins by about coin 200, and that you probably wouldn’t want to be lugging around hundreds of quarters, according to Bernoulli’s formula we should take the bet. The odds of a coin turning up heads are 50%, or 0.5. The best possible potential gain would be if every quarter turned up heads, thereby giving you $250. So the expected value of the coin-flip game is:

Expected value = $125 = 0.5 × $250

Our expected value for the coin-flip game is greater than the initial bet, and so statistically, the bet is a good one to take.

We do the same thing for non-numeric decisions as well. Our mental simulators evaluate the odds of one outcome or another. Then, considering how much potential benefit the outcome(s) have, the simulators give us an emotional response: yes, this is a good decision and will likely turn out in our favor, or no, this is not likely to turn out positively.

When Expected and Actual Value Don’t Match

As we’ve all experienced, sometimes, our choices don’t turn out for the best. Going back to the coin-game example, this makes sense. While on average, we would win $125 from the game, it is possible that we would have bad luck and flip only a handful of quarters. In other words it’s possible that expected value and actual value just won’t match up.

A really common example of this is going to see a movie that you’re really excited about. Your brain evaluates the odds of completely enjoying the movie to be quite high — say 80%. But that still leaves a 20% chance that you won’t enjoy the movie. So while you were really excited about your decision to see the movie, you may still leave the theater saying “I just spent $15 to see that?!?

In this type of case, the expected value has been calculated exactly right, but that doesn’t guarantee the outcome — so the expectation doesn’t match up with reality. While we’re not thrilled with these outcomes, often times we’re “okay” with them, because somehow we subconsciously understand that we made the right choice, it just didn’t work out this time.

Even though it didn’t lead to the best outcome, the experience is not useless and our brains don’t throw the result away.  Remember that our brains calculate odds based on patterns stored in our knowledge bases (our memories and acquired knowledge). Both the choice and the result are added to our memories, and the next time we make a related choice, we will factor in the “new information.”

Need More Input

New information can only go so far, though. Because we are human, with limited experiences, we very often don’t have the ability to accurately predict the odds for our situation. Especially when we have limited information, our predictive powers can be “off”.

Consider the following example; I’m going to give you a set of numbers, and you’re going to predict the next three numbers in the series…

3, 5, 7

What’s the pattern? If you’re like most people, you’ll identify those numbers as “odd”, and your prediction will be 9, 11, 13. If you’re more mathematically inclined, you might think that I’m talking about prime numbers, and answer 11, 13, 17. But in either case, you would be wrong, because I’ve only given you limited information.

What if I now gave you the next three numbers as well?

3, 5, 7, 13, 15, 17

By taking in more information, you could correctly guess the next values to be 23, 25, 27. But the thing is, without that further information, you would have been hard-pressed to make an accurate prediction. Just like with those computer baddies, more data leads to better predictions.

Type Mismatch: Lots of Bad Information

Even when we’ve taken in a whole bunch of data, we’re still talking about predictions and possibilities. And as we all know, even when we spend a lot of time putting thought and care into making the “right choice”, it doesn’t always work out. For all of our thinking, our simulators don’t always come up with the optimal solution.Sometimes, the new information that has gone into our brain-powered pattern recognizer isn’t representative of actual fact.

Let’s apply this to a “real life” problem: winning the lottery.

Statistically, the odds of actually winning are so miniscule, you may as well be tearing your money up into bits and throwing it into the garbage. So why do people continue to buy lottery tickets? A big part of the problem is that their decision making process is based only on a partial data set. Think about it — how many times have you heard in the news about the latest “big winner”?

Now — how many times have you heard about all of the people who didn’t win? Of all the millions and millions of tickets that are bought week in, and week out, you only ever hear about the winners! That’s a lot of new information reinforcing the idea that you too could win. And if you were to sit down and listen to every person tell you the outcome of their lottery ticket purchas? You would spend years listening to people say “I didn’t win” before you’d hear a single person say “I won”.

The point is, if you only encounter one type of experience (positive or negative) that reinforce the same message, you’ll always get the same feedback — whether or not that feedback is accurate or not. And that feedback can skew your perceptions of reality pretty drastically.

Fine-Tuning Your Predictive Intelligence

I hope it’s becoming apparent that unless you continually give your brain new stimulus and information, you won’t be able to increase your predictive ability. You never know when you’ll experience something that won’t fit into your previous patterns — something that would hugely increase your predictive intelligence. On the flip side, if you want to become better at predicting outcomes, your only real option is to experience a wide variety of optins.

In other words, the only way to improve your ability to make the right choices is to make choices that could turn out badly.

“Oh gee, that sounds like fun,” I hear you saying sarcastically.

Here’s the thing: making the wrong choices is still better than just staying the same all the time (“not making a choice”). At least by making the choice, you will have learned something — and you’ll be more empowered to make a more informed choice the next time. I strongly believe that we do not make mistakes; we simply have opportunities to learn. If you look at it that way, then there really is no way to lose.

A common saying in my family is “this too shall pass”. The not-so-good outcomes? They’ll pass. The good outcomes? They’ll pass too. But the knowledge you’ve gained in either case will stay with you. Your predictive intelligence will adapt and develop as you continually feed it new inputs. And you’ll reap the rewards in the long term.

Never Set Another Resolution, Again

In today’s world, the word “New Year’s” is nearly synonymous with “resolutions”. For some reason, the beginning of a new calendar year draws out the “this year, I want to do X” in so many of us.

New Years Eve 2008-2009 #1

Photo by mescon

Maybe its that the party season (and thus all of its goodies and sweets) are behind us, maybe its because it marks the beginning of a new business quarter or new semester, or maybe its just commercialization (all those diet books and gym memberships!) — whatever the reason, when it comes to the start of the new year, “resolutions” seem to be the words on everybody’s lips.

Set Up to Succeed, or to Fail?

But maybe you, like many others, look back on the year that was, and see a list of failed resolutions and things that didn’t get done. As the New Year approaches, you might be inclined to just say “screw resolutions, they don’t work for me anyway”. Or perhaps, by the time you’re reading this, it’s June. 6 months have passed, and you’ve gained 5 pounds instead of lost the 10 you wanted to get rid of in January.

It seems that the word “resolutions” in our society has almost become thought of as little more than a synonym for”guaranteed failures”. There is a cultural meme, propagated through media and everyday conversation and experience, that a huge majority of resolutions are, by their nature, bound to fail.

One must wonder, why would you put yourself in a situation where you’re expecting to fail? Not only do you give yourself an automatic out if (when) it doesn’t work, but you’re really not giving yourself a fair shot at success.

It’s particularly interesting when you consider the types of resolutions that people set: to stop smoking, to lose weight, to be kinder, to work less, etc. All of these things are good things to want! They are all desireable, and good things to have or to do. They all represent positive life changes, and opportunities for personal growth and development. So why make resolutions about these great things, if we believe that resolutions are bound to fail?

Resolve to Set Goals, Instead

If vocabulary is part of what holds us back from creating the life that we want, then the first step is to change our vocabulary.

In other words, if you want to at least give yourself a fighting chance to create the life you want, to make positive life chances, and to nurture opportunities for personal growth and development, stop making resolutions.

Psychological research has shown time and time again that the conscious and unconscious mind has enormous power when it comes to shaping our perceptions of the world — both emotionally and logically. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the title character says this very well: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

In other words, resolutions in and of themselves aren’t inherently good or bad, nor are they inherently bound for success or failure. But because we think we are more likely to fail to complete a resolution than to succeed, we set ourselves up for that eventual outcome! We believe that we will fail, so we don’t work as hard to succeed.

It works the same way as if I were to tell you, “don’t think about chocolate cake.”  What did you think about?  A gooey, moist, beautiful chocolate cake, maybe with a chocolate ganache and some strawberries and whipped cream on top. But wait, I told you not to think about it!

The thing is that our minds work best when thinking in the positive. We hear “don’t” but our mind processes the thing we “don’t” want. Choice of words can be hugely important as a result: when we say resolution, the mental warning is “don’t fail!” But when we hear “don’t fail”, our mind processes “fail”!

So if you’re looking for a tip about making resolutions that work, the best tip is simply this: make goals, not resolutions. A simple change in vocabulary can make all the difference in the world. Culturally, we have a better opinion of goals, so simply by reframing the situation, we are more lined up for success.

SMART Goal Setting

There is also a practical difference between resolutions and goals: goals have details; resolutions don’t. Goals have deadlines; resolutions don’t (or if they do, they’re vague). Goals have steps and processes, resolutions only have outcomes. Goals get accomplished; resolutions often don’t. You get the idea.

You may have heard of the SMART model for goals. It’s actually an acronym borrowed from business, which basically states that any goal you make should have the following criteria, in order to give yourself the greatest chance for success. Each letter in the word stands for an aspect of goal creation that, when taken all together, can make goal completion far easier.

S: Specific. “Lose weight” is not specific; “lose 10 pounds” is. “Save money” is not specific; “a 3-month emergency fund” is. “Be healthier” is not specific; “eat a serving of fruit every day” is. If you give your goals more specificity, you’ll know exactly what it is you’re going after, which means you’ll also have a better idea of what steps are needed to get there.

M: Measurable. Set a target: 10 pounds, 3-month emergency fund, 1 serving of fruit per day. All of those targets can be measured, so you know whether you’ve hit them or not. If your goal isn’t measurable, you’ll be like a ship at sea without a rudder — sailing and sailing, just hoping that eventually, you’ll hit land (but never knowing whether you’ve arrived, or not!).

A: Achievable. There’s no point in setting a goal that isn’t feasible and actionable. I could set a goal to be 2 inches taller, but what’s the point of that? There’s nothing I can to do achieve that goal; no action I can take to make it happen. Instead, make goals that involve specific action steps you can take. By making yourself the person responsible for your completing goal, you have a better chance to succeed since (if you don’t) there’s no one to blame if you don’t. Making achievable goals also affects how you state the goal: instead of saying “I want to do X”, say “I will do X”. It makes you feel more in-control of your situation, and helps you believe you can do it.

R: Realistic. There’s also no point in setting a goal that you don’t believe you can complete. Otherwise, you have the same problem as we did with resolutions — you don’t believe you will be successful, so you automatically gyp yourself of your best chance to be successful. You may want to run a marathon, but if you can’t dedicate time to train and physically prepare, you won’t be able to.

T: Time-Bound. The ultimate failing of resolutions is the ultimate success point of SMART goals: the time-frame. A good goal will have a definite timeframe for completion: Lose an average of half a pound every week, for 8 weeks. Eat one piece of fruit every day, for 30 days. Put at least $200 into an emergency fund by the last day of every month. The benefit of setting a time-bound is that at the end of the period, you can reflect on how you did — your successes and your failings — so that you can do even better the next time.

Believing is Half the Battle

If you notice a theme in these five aspects of good goals, you would be right: they all have to do with the way you mentally set-up the goal. Again, it comes down to the mind’s ability to impact our effectiveness and our reality. You see what you choose to see, you act the way you choose to act, and you believe the way you choose to believe. Ultimately, it is your power and choice that makes you ultimately responsible for the success or failure of your actions.

Now, I realize that just simply changing your vocabulary from resolution to goal on its own isn’t likely to be enough to get you over your New Year’s hump. There still is the matter of actually following-through on said goal. The key thing I want you impart to you today, though, is not to simply dismiss the power of the mind when it comes to setting yourself up for success.

Tomorrow, I’ll give you a list of practical tips and tricks for getting from “goal” to “accomplished” — so your homework is to spend a few minutes thinking of resolutions that you’ve set in the past (or maybe that you wanted to set for this New Year’s Day!). Take a bit of time to consider how you could transform those vague resolutions into SMART goals. When we meet again, we’ll look at ways you can turn those resolutions into goals, and those goals into reality.