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Against goals

Posted on 2018-03-15

First off, it’s morning so I want to plan out today. An unexpected thing that happened yesterday was misstepping on my run down the stairs when I was going to work, and spraining my ankle. My right ankle, in which I had arthroscopic surgery some years ago. So I had to go to see (another) doctor, and probably will be working from home until the swelling stops. Hopefully it’s just a simple sprain and will be alright in a couple of weeks.

Because I had been home and not at work, I didn’t have Joylent available - I just grabbed the ~1/4th a packet I had at home for breakfast, and then when I came back from having myself drilled in the mouth and touched on the legs, I had been hungry. And I ended up just very quickly cooking whatever was in the kitchen, which was a big can of beans from Denner, 5 eggs and a packet of Chinese noodles. (Since I switched to not cooking and going with Joylent instead, my kitchen is mostly free of any ingredients of my own…) I munched all of that down very quickly, and then felt bad, because my stomach was disturbed and I felt that I had slipped into bad eating habits. I think it was the beans - they were not very good, predictably. When I started cooking the stuff, I did not have much agency, and had the opposite of reflection and mindfulness. I had entered some mode like “gaah eat all the food”. It was lucky for me to not have much actual food at hand, otherwise I might have eaten much more. I actually think I still was under the 2000 kcal I’m getting daily from the Joylent.

I don’t really know what to do next time. I guess something like a TAP like “omg want food → remember to breathe and not eat everything in sight”. Doing mindful eating on the meal would probably also stop it.

Rationality Zurich went fine yesterday. Just 3 people, but we had a nice conversation about an alternative system of self-development brought up by my roommate. My summarization of it is:

Goals are pleasant when you meet them, but painful if you don’t. If you tell yourself “today I will run a mile” and then you don’t, you get an “ow”. The “ow” makes you feel bad, and so the consequence of missing the goal is is feeling bad about yourself for a while. If you can stay on a streak of successfully doing all the things you commit to doing, you will ride a nice wave of “yay I’m doing all the things and I’m doing well”. But miss once, and now you’re a bad bad person (ow) and if you’re like me, on a deep level, you just want to curl up and cry.

Also, my goals are sometimes about “forcing myself to do things good for the long-term, even if they are aversive in the short-term”. That can feel like the part of me which set the goal is grabbing control of everything and dragging along all parts which might be protesting, which is painful.

An alternative is looking at self-development as a process. In that process, you do not set goals which you have to achieve or it’s bad. You don’t try to create a master plan with 34 steps that will perfectly fix everything if you follow them perfectly. Instead, you do small things in the now which are available to you, things which you want to do (or might enjoy doing but aren’t sure yet) that will bring you a very short distance in the general direction of where you want to be. “Where you want to be” might also best be thought of as kind of an emotional “this is who I really am, this is what is really important to me” - not a S2-type explicit list of SMART goals like “I want to weight <= 90 kg by 2019-01-01”.

I really like some things about this view. It’s comparatively very non-violent, and it natually allows for “okay, so a year ago I thought I wanted to be more fit, and I started swimming because I like it, and I met this person and talked with them and changed my goals, so now I want something a bit different”, and you can change what you are “aiming for” (though “aiming for” in a very weak sense, more like “what kind of thing would feel right”) without feeling you’re betraying an earlier commitment.

On the other thing, parts of me seems to want some enforcement device - like the pain you get from missing a goal. Like for some reason I don’t want to stop feeling bad if I e.g. overeat. Maybe a way to make this part feel better about it would be building some self-trust, or what the internal family systems model calls “Self-leadership”. Having some Self which makes sure that parts get along without being violent at each other, and which makes sure that everyone’s needs are met and that parts don’t enter prolonged conflicts. Like, part of me wants to make sure I do get fit, and it’s afraid that if it lets punishing me for not getting fit, I will not get fit.

So, as for today. I’m staying home to nurse my ankle and having a MRI and a chat with a friend in the evening. My plan today is to go on one container of Soylent. I should probably also add another luggage to my flight home.

Part of me feels like this is “a bit too little”. Like “I should also argh be finishing this master’s thesis and argh getting fitter”.

Well, actually I’m doing really good so far. I feel good about the new system/the new process I’m putting into place. Writing about how yesterday went and thinking about the things I will do today felt nice, and I am now not in traps in which I used to be (e.g., the “feel bad → overeat” trap).

I just realized there’s one trap which I haven’t mentioned here yet, and maybe it’s one for which I don’t yet know how would I avoid it long-term. It’s the trap of the work environment pressuring me into acting not fully authentically in it.

Say that I am feeling stressed because there’s too much noise in my office and it hurts and I stayed up all night because I was playing Civilization 5. And what I really want at this point is to go get some sleep.

But it’s work, and if you are not at your post without explanation, your boss will reproach you for that.

But if you tell your boss “hey, sorry, I stayed up all night playing Civilization 5 and I feel really bad about it and I just want to sleep please”, that costs you social points. Because you’re socially-supposed to be a strong independent adult, and strong independent adults are not fragile. And also, you don’t want to show how fragile you are, because you have already had your fragility abused by others plenty of times.

So (barring the opportunity to actually get some sleep), you stay at your post, and you feel bad about yourself, and you just want everyone in your open space to shut up, but you can’t, because they’re allowed to talk at their work place, so aaaaaaaa :’(

Google’s research into effective teams identified this attribute called “psychological safety”, which seems to predict lots of good things, and it seems to me like the belief that it’s okay to make mistakes, that you will not be personally-judged for what you do, that you are not on thin ice, that you are free to be yourself here. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be mostly work-related - i.e., “it’s okay to break the build for a few days and we won’t be mad at you”. What I think would make me feel better at work and more free to be authentic (and also like it more, because I would not feel forced into putting up a performance of a solid worker drone that I actually am not) would be a kind of “psychological safety” less about the content of my work and more about “it’s okay to be fragile, it’s okay to be disturbed by people talking a lot, it’s okay to cry if you’re overwhelmed”.

Feeling psychologically unsafe is also kind of self-perpetuating. If you don’t feel safe to e.g. express an overwhelming sadness when you feel you’ve done something wrong, and hence you don’t do it, you will use it later as more evidence that you are not psychologically safe here.

Maybe if my current work environment is actually supportive of everything like that and most of my fears/expectations-of-judgement are from this kind of self-driven feedback loop, some CoZE-type experiments could help. Like, maybe when I tell my boss I’m feeling bad, don’t say it while wearing the mask of “I’m an efficient worker and emotions are my slaves”, and instead let it drop and shed a few tears or let my voice break. Meh. Probably actually something weaker than that. This would already feel unsafe.

There’s a thought lingering in my head about the “think of it as a process” thesis. Maybe things which you have to force yourself into doing (by way of e.g., Complice or calendar reminders or willpower or what not) are not really worth it. Because being forced into something hurts. And maybe the thing to do instead is to start with where I am, and making progress through a sequence of comfortable expansions at the margins, all of which feel good and not forced and don’t make me feel bad if I don’t end up doing them.