goals and choice

I just started replying to Chani’s comment on the last post, asking about the choices we make, and whether we are choosing our mistakes. My comment started to drag on, so I figured I’d better expand it into a full post.

I think there are varying levels of choice involved in everything we do. We humans do a lot of things automatically, which makes life easier since we don’t have to consciously calculate everything out. Most of us can walk without consciously having to think “put one foot in front of the other” for every step. But in some sense you are still choosing where to walk and choosing each step, and for any of those steps you could choose to move it somewhere else.

This is what makes it so hard to instill a new habit…for the first while you have to really stop and think, and pay detailed attention to each step you’re taking. You have to ask yourself why each step is necessary, and if it actually takes you towards your goal. It’s nice to have ideas about yourself, and goals about what you want to achieve, but in the end it comes down to what actions you actually take. For instance, I could say “I want to learn Swedish” every day for a year, but if I don’t actually take any actions towards that, then I’m not learning Swedish. And really, how much did I really want to learn Swedish if I never did anything about it? In the words of a friend, maybe it means I just “wanted to want to learn Swedish”. Can you even want to want to do something? I’m not even sure any more.

At this point I’d like to quote the ever-inspirational Steve Pavlina in his latest article about Creating Your Vision:

If you don’t create a vision for each part of your life, someone else will do it for you. The intentions of others will fill in the blanks. You see… you’re always working to fulfill some vision. Either you’re creating and fulfilling your own vision, or you’re working on someone else’s vision for you. There is no neutral. If you aren’t creating your own vision, then you’re obediently fulfilling a blended vision created by others, such as the vision that you should be a good citizen and taxpayer, that you should relate to people a certain way and live a certain kind of lifestyle, and that you should manage your affairs a certain way until you die. If you’re in love with the vision that society is expecting you to live out, then there’s no point in creating your own vision. But if you’d like to hold the reins of your own destiny and direct your life path more consciously, then you must absolutely create a vision for yourself.

Basically, you’re going somewhere whether you’re thinking about it or not. If you want to end up at a certain interesting destination, rather than the default destination that is created haphazardly by a combination of the many influences on your life, then you are going to need to make some very small choices about every step you take, until those steps start to beat down the new path that will lead you to that goal.

I have recognized that it is a mistake for me to browse slashdot (which is a computer-related “news for nerds” site, for those who aren’t aware). It’s what I automatically do when I’m in front of a computer and I’m avoiding doing something else. Now, I’m not always thinking consciously “holy shit ya! I need to go read slashdot all day, and get absolutely no real work done! That’s so awesome it hurts!”. Usually what happens is that I just type it automatically, and then suddenly an hour of my time was spent on reading a bunch of geeks discuss the minute details of something totally irrelevant to my life.

To change this, I have to install a sort of a “trigger” inside myself. I have to consciously decide that reading slashdot is a mistake, and that every time I start going towards it, I need to choose something different. In this case, the most effective “something different” is to turn my computer off and pick up a book. I’m explicitly recognizing the behaviour of “reading slashdot” as a choice, and then I’m deciding not to choose it by choosing something different instead.

This conscious changing of habits is not an instant thing. Your mind will still be habituated to the old “bad” ways of doing things, and you need to train it over time by doing the “good” things instead. Each behaviour is a pathway through your mind, and some of them are more well-worn. In order to do a new thing automatically, you need to really consciously wear in that path. Really stomp that dirt down and make it permanent. It’ll take a while before you stop getting distracted by the nice pretty cobblestones of the regular path, but it’ll work if you keep choosing your new path. Actually, since I’m still thinking about Steve Pavlina, I’ll point to his 30 Days to Success post, which was another good one about making new habits.

Going back to the original comment that inspired this post, there was a question about what “lazy” means. Does recognizing that our habits are choices make us lazy horrible people? I’m not sure that it’s necessary to attach this sort of value judgment to it in order to discuss it properly and deal with the affect of our habits upon our lives. I think lazy usually refers to not wanting to do uncomfortable things, or things that someone else thinks “need” to be done. When someone calls us lazy, I think they are saying that they disagree with our direction, and want us to take other actions that would move us in their preferred direction. I think it could be the case that someone makes a series of choices about what’s important in their life, and then they take the steps necessary to accomplish them….and in the process they become habituated to doing those things. In some sense, someone might call them lazy if they keep doing those same steps toward their goal all the time, without going off the beaten path to do whatever that other person thinks they should be doing. In that case, “lazy” is being used to try to manipulate someone else into pursuing goals that are not theirs.

Where I think it becomes harmful to you is if you find yourself taking steps every day that lead you away from your own goals. I think it would in fact be “lazy” to avoid inspecting your own behaviours and to avoid deciding which of them are actually leading you to what you want out of life. I believe it was Socrates that said something like “the unquestioned life is not worth living”. If you want to be satisfied with your accomplishments a few years down the road, there are always some tiny choices you can make right now that will lead you there. If it feels really difficult to do that, it’s only the resistance of turning off the beaten path. Your habits are controlling you, instead of you controlling them.

I think changing these things may initially look difficult, but after you try then you find out that they’re secretly easy. Far too many things are Secretly Easy, in fact. You just need to do something simple over and over and over, and suddenly you’ll discover that it wasn’t really that hard. Starting is the hard part. Get off the beaten track!


2 Responses to goals and choice

  1. reineke says:

    This is a great post. Not sure what else to add. Never been good at this whole planning and breaking the bad habits thing.

  2. Raphael says:

    This was a fantastic post, I was linked to it from gbarto’s site. Everything you said resonated with me.

    For example, I’ve been wanting to really learn Dutch for over 6 years now. I first started wanting to learn the language in 2004. It’s now 2010. I’ve learned a little, but I never made much progress (although I’ve studied several other languages) Now I realize that it’s basically time to act and realize my goals.

    A problem for me is I actually get incredibly overwhelmed by my language goals. I have a large number of languages I want to learn, and due to my not having any enormously pressing reason at the moment to learn one in particular (such as impending travel or whatever) I find myself spending more time debating which ones to study at a given time than actually doing it. If I start studying Chinese then I wonder if my time would really be better spent doing Russian. But of course you have to just pick a handful you want to work on and just get on with it.

    The thing though that really hit home was time wasted on the internet. I think it’s common for members of our generation to waste an exorbitant amount of time on the internet when we’re bored. I think the thing is multitasking, for instance I can be reading the news, wikipedia, chatting with friends on MSN, browsing Amazon, more or less simultaneously. But then I can log on Facebook and waste hours looking at the same random crap that my friends post for like an hour or two. At the end of the day, how was that enriching?

    So I need to make a constant effort to wean myself off just “idle browsing” Although it’s easy to just pop open my MacBook anytime I’m bored, I need to limit the amount of time I’m sitting in frontof the computer and do more productive things.

    Good luck to you and thanks for the great post

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