Getting Things Done Main

Two Ways to Think about Self-Improvement

Photo by Kevin Miller
Photo by Kevin Miller

A few months ago I realized I don’t like setting goals. However, I admire people who work this way. “I’m preparing for a triathlon next summer.” For some people, a triathlon next summer is the best way to run on the treadmill today.

If you like to set goals, you are outcome-focused. The outcomes are explicit; the actions are implicit.

The alternative (and my preference) is to focus directly on daily, weekly, and monthly actions and habits. “Read a good book every day.” “Visit the gym three times per week.”

If you like to focus on habits and routines, you are action-focused. The actions are explicit; the outcomes are implicit.

But without a goal, how do you know your gym time will make you ready for a triathlon? I don’t know. But that approach doesn’t work for me. Incidentally, I don’t signup for triathlons. (But it sounds like a fun mindset if you have it.)

Outcome focus is top-down. This is Stephen Covey’s approach in Seven Habits where he describes “beginning with the end in mind”.

Once you have that sense of mission, you have the essence of your own proactivity. You have the vision and the values which direct your life. You have the basic direction from which you set your long- and short-term goals. You have the power of a written constitution based on correct principles, against which every decision concerning the most effective use of your time, your talents, and your energies can be effectively measured. (pp. 108-109)

Action focus is bottom-up. This is David Allen’s approach in Getting Things Done:

I have discovered over the years the practical value of working on personal productivity improvement from the bottom up, starting with the most mundane, ground-floor level of current activity and commitments. Intellectually, the most appropriate way ought to be to work from the top down…. The trouble is, however, that most people are so embroiled in commitments on a day-to-day level that their ability to focus successfully on the larger horizon is seriously impaired. Consequently, a bottom-up approach is usually more effective. (pp. 19-20)

By the way, does the action focus cause more discouragement? What if I want to read a good book everyday, but I didn’t read yesterday? I prefer to think of goals, of any type, as prospective not retrospective. Goals drive your future behavior. They’re not a stick to beat yourself with.

Both approaches lead to what you are becoming. “I want to be an avid reader.” “I want to be a patient person.” No matter what approach you take, it seems important to focus on what you are becoming.

Thanks to Kevin Miller, James Miller, and Brian Henderson for conversations that led to this post.

Character Main

Independently Strong

Three years ago I read a weight training book that was more influential on me than I expected.


According to the book, called “Training for Mass” by Gordon La Velle, weight training is best done at high intensity. You might think all weight training is high-intensity. High-intensity training (HIT) is a particular flavor of weight training that advocates deliberate, intense action, in a short workout, to stimulate muscle growth. While some people who lift weights may spend hours at the gym, several times per week, with multiple sets per exercise, Training for Mass says this is overkill. It’s unnecessary at best, and may cause burnout or injury at worst. What’s needed is just one “work set” per muscle group, once per week. But it must be very intense.

“The higher intensity, the greater the growth stimulation. Within the realm of weight training, where muscular growth itself is the objective, the ability to generate a high level of intensity is the most critical factor under your control.” (p. 33)

Source: Flickr user mjzitek
Source: Flickr user mjzitek

Contrast the objective of muscular growth with the objective of appearing strong. If my goal is only to appear strong, there are certainly ways to fake it:

  • Assisted repetitions — An assisted repetition is when your friend helps you lift the bar. “If someone is helping you lift the weights, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in physics to deduce that the weight you’re lifting is equal to the mass of the weight minus the force being applied by the helper….” (p. 111)
  • Cheating — Cheating is to use bouncing, or momentum, or a change in your body position to lift more weight than normal. Not good. “[There] should be no bouncing, swinging, or using any other deliberate technique meant to increase the momentum of the lift. Any momentum present in the lift should come only from the simple linear movement of the weight.” (p. 107)

(Technical note: There is a place for assisted reps and cheating — on the very last repetition. Because it’s harder to raise weight than to lower weight, our muscles burn out on the raising part of a repetition (“concentric contraction”) before they burn out on the lowering part (“eccentric contraction”). When you can no longer lift on your own, assistance or cheating, if it can be done safely, can be used to raise the weight one more time, and then you should lower the weight entirely on your own.)

If your goal is muscular growth and you’ve been using assists or cheats (for more than the last rep), it’s better to reduce the weight, and the *appearance* of strength, and use a weight you can actually lift on your own.

“Why don’t these lifters just go lighter and lift the weight themselves, at least before reaching failure? This seems like it would make a whole lot more sense. Inflated egos might be the culprit here, since the lifters may want to appear to be lifting heavier weights.” (p. 111)

Source: Flickr user Pete Bellis
Source: Flickr user Pete Bellis


Suppose we think of our character as a muscle. How could the above principles change our mindset about the development of character?

One of my favorite quotes of all time is from D. Todd Christofferson:

“[God] is endeavoring to make us independently strong — more able to act for ourselves than perhaps those of any prior generation.”

To me, “independently strong” is different from “appearing to be strong” or “strong when assisted.” I don’t know that we can expect to have character that’s chiseled and solid without actually lifting heavy weight. When the weight is heavy and it feels like there’s no Trainer assisting, maybe that’s on purpose.

A friend recently told me that 2013 has been the hardest year of his life. If we had been leaving the gym, and he had said this was the hardest *workout* of his life, I would have congratulated him. Maybe hard days and hard years are cause for congratulations. If you’re having the hardest year of your life, maybe you’re becoming the strongest you’ve ever been.

UPDATE on May 17, 2014: Elder David A. Bednar has an excellent talk on burdens: Bear Up Their Burdens with Ease

Main Religion

The Evidence of Things Not Seen

I wasn’t planning to write this today, but I want to.


It was two years ago today that my brother David left home. We thought he had run away to start a new life or something. Then last fall, we learned he had passed away.

I feel melancholy thinking about my brother today. However, I also feel a sense of peace that I will see David again. I actually feel very assured about that.

That raises a question: Why should a rational person feel assured of something he can’t see or demonstrate, such as life after death?

The five senses are considered our inputs for rational thinking. However, I’ve learned I can know things outside of my five, traditional senses. There are other, finer senses that give us knowledge about spiritual things. We can cultivate these finer senses and trust them. They contribute to rational thinking. For me, faith and religion help cultivate these finer senses.

Traditional thought is that religion is at odds with science; it’s religion versus science. However, we can think about it differently, as religion plus science. Both are methods for learning truth.

In fact, religion may sometimes know things before science knows them, especially at a personal level. In that way, religion is sort of “indy” truth — truth before it goes mainstream. Eventually religion and science will be reconciled as separate views of one great whole.

In the meantime, religion and faith appear “supernatural” or “magic” to outsiders. Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The Subject of faith seems supernatural because we don’t understand it fully, but I think it’s more natural than we know.

As I come to understand spiritual things little by little, they seem less foreign, less “magical”. What is “supernatural” now will eventually just be “natural”, because our understanding will have changed. As Tim Berners-Lee said, “Everything you don’t understand is magic. When you understand things, there’s no more magic.”

On a day like today, I’m grateful for the possibility of knowing additional truths by faith.

I really enjoyed this 5-minute clip from Professor Clayton Christensen discussing science, religion, and the pursuit of truth (starting at 2:55):

There’s also a great interview with John Lewis, a scientist discussing religion and science as being like two lenses in a pair of glasses:

Update, Aug 2, 2014: Here’s a recent, related quote from Elder Russell M. Nelson: “Truth is truth! It is not divisible, and any part of it cannot be set aside…. Whether truth emerges from a scientific laboratory or through revelation, all truth emanates from God. All truth is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Main Religion

Dating Advice For My Future Children

As a little background, I’m Mormon and we take marriage seriously — a high ideal worth working for. Because dating is the process that leads to marriage, we usually take dating seriously too. We might do well to be both more serious and less serious about dating — more deliberate, but less anxious. I look to my parents, several good friends, and others as models of good marriages. This talk by Richard G. Scott also paints a good picture: “The Eternal Blessings of Marriage”.


I’ve been thinking about this post for almost two years and the ideas in this post for even longer. I’m 33, so I’ve had over a decade of post-mission dating. The differences I see between my dating world and the one described by my parents’ or grandparents’ generation will likely be even more stark for my future children, so these are the observations I’ll share with them:

Be careful of distraction and other mental traps

Source: Minnesota Historical Society
Source: Minnesota Historical Society
Some people have told me, “Your generation is scared of commitment.” While that may be true for some people, I believe distraction and other mental traps are larger factors. Ironically, distractions even affect the people who desperately want to get married.

Here are a few distractions and mental traps I’ve observed:

Facebook, etc.

It’s not really the time wasted on Facebook. It’s that you can travel down a “rabbit hole” of looking at pictures of attractive people you don’t know, looking at events that you’re not attending, and deluding yourself into thinking you’re “meeting” people. Of course, no one thinks they’re actually meeting people, but your mind can be tricked into thinking you’re making progress. And you’ll probably believe your own dating isn’t very exciting. I’ve had friends go down that rabbit hole and say “she looks like my type — why can’t I find someone like her?” and then come out of the rabbit hole to say “Where did the last 30 minutes go?”

In this trap, the strangers on Facebook we don’t know seem more attractive than the real people we do know. Of course, those strangers are also real people with strengths and weaknesses too, but we build them up in our minds.

In The Great Gatsby, Jay fell into this trap: “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams–not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion…. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

The aggregation effect

Suppose you go to a dessert party, talk to several attractive people, and have a great time. Which one do you want to date? None of them? You may have just been fooled by the “aggregation effect”.

Source: Flickr user Doug88888
Source: Flickr user Doug88888

The aggregation effect is that you mentally combine all the attractive qualities of a group of people and subconsciously believe there’s one person out there who possesses all those qualities. Amy dresses well, Beth is well-read and interesting, and Candace laughs at your jokes, which makes the party fun, but if you don’t want to take someone on a date, then your mind may have fooled you. Again, this is subconscious.

Elevated baseline

Related to the aggregation effect is an elevated “baseline”. Think of your baseline as your average day-to-day excitement or happiness. It might be loosely associated with dopamine levels in your brain. When you meet someone attractive, your excitement level rises above the baseline. It’s novel and exciting.

By constantly attending parties, dessert parties, group activities, huge dances, etc. with exciting/attractive/interesting people, I believe it’s possible to raise your “baseline” so that you’re no longer excited by one individual.

To paraphrase Jeffrey R. Holland, no one is as handsome or as beautiful or as brilliant in school or as witty in speech as all of us are combined.

With 1 person, you have to carry the conversation about 50% of the time, and you get to hear novel, interesting, or funny conversation the other 50% of the time. At a dessert party with 20 people, you might carry the conversation just 5% of the time, but you hear novel, interesting, or funny conversation 95% of the time. Parties are biased to provide you far more novelty and entertainment than any one person can provide alone.

How to kill a moth

Nature magazine published an article on how moths were exterminated in Australia using their own natural pheromones instead of manufactured insecticides. (Pheromones are a natural substance released by female moths to attract male moths.) One method was to build a snare into which the male moths would enter and not escape. The second method didn’t require a physical snare at all:

Source: Flickr user Benimoto
Source: Flickr user Benimoto

[It] is called the confusion method. An airplane scatters an environmentally insignificant number of very small plastic pellets imbedded with the scent of the pheromone, and only a few of these pellets per acre are enough to overpower the male’s ability to find the female. He is thus desensitized to the natural scent of the female by this compelling scent. The Australian article describes the confusion method as follows, “The male either becomes confused and does’t know which direction to turn for the female, or he becomes desensitized to the lower levels of pheromones naturally given out by the female and has no incentive to mate with her.” (Quoted by Dr. Donald Hilton, Lighted Candle Society Annual Banquet, May, 13, 2009)

The male moth was exterminated by raising the baseline pheromone level of its environment.


Adlai E. Stevenson was a candidate for U.S. president in 1952 and 1956. He said that from citizens we need “not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime”. That also sounds like a good formula for a relationship. To be open and vulnerable in marriage, you’d want your partner to be steady, not frenzied.

Incidentally, that’s opposite of what makes romance exciting. Drama is fun! Drama is exciting!

What makes slot machines addictive and dogs trainable is intermittent variable reward or IVR, the idea that it’s easier to manipulate behavior with random rewards than consistent rewards. “[A] dolphin rewarded with a fishy treat every six jumps will soon become lackadaisical about the five in-between ones; reward it at random, however, and it’ll jump vigorously, never knowing which jump will bring fish.”

If you date someone that’s up and down, hot and cold, it certainly may be exciting. The transition from cold to hot is exciting because of the contrast, but your mind may be tricked by this IVR effect. On the other hand, someone who’s consistent and steady may not be as provocative to your amygdala but they may provide more safety in a relationship. Our minds trick us into wanting excitement when we may prefer steadiness.

In pop culture, this is called being “no drama”. The recently passed Margaret Thatcher said, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” Being no-drama seems about the same.

Lower the costs of dating, and not just financial costs

Source: Flickr user The Fayj
Source: Flickr user The Fayj

Much has been said about reducing the financial cost of dates, and I think it’s good advice. I also think it’s more than financial costs. Keeping dates inexpensive is also about reducing the transaction and risk costs.

The transaction cost of a date is all the “fuss” before and after a date.

The risk cost of a date is how emotionally painful or socially awkward it will be if this date doesn’t work out.

Things that increase the transaction costs and risk costs of dating:

  • Making a big deal out of date, whether yours or a friend’s
  • Jumping to conclusions about someone you like
  • Jumping to conclusions about someone you don’t like
  • Talking too much or too soon with your roommates/friends about your dates
  • After your roommate’s date, asking “Is he/she THE ONE?”
  • Spreading the news that two people went on a date

Dating as a conversation topic should be as mundane as the weather.


I know a young lady who lived by herself and didn’t talk about her dates, even with girlfriends. She sometimes had dates on different nights with guys who knew each other but didn’t know they were all dating her. She effectively reduced the cost of asking her on a date because guys learned that they could ask her on a date without burning bridges with anyone else. Later she started dating one of them steadily and it became public.

As my friend Tristen says, stop talking about your first dates.


Suppose I have a daughter who doesn’t get married until later in life. It may be difficult for her to stay optimistic and cheerful about dating. However, I’ll try to explain to her how important it is to be as carefree and cheerful as she was when she first started dating. I might say, “If a guy perceives that asking you on a date might get your hopes up and hurt you if it doesn’t work out, he may not be inclined to take that risk, for fear of hurting your feelings. Stay optimistic and reduce the risk for him to get to know you.”

Source: Flickr user DanieleCivello
Source: Flickr user DanieleCivello
I like these words from Thomas Edison: “I have not failed, not once. I have discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work” and “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” Dating is a process of experimentation, trying to find the right fit. It doesn’t have to be viewed as compounding disappointment until it’s finally, happily over. It can be fun along the way, and we can learn a lot from each other, even when it doesn’t work out.

Pornography Principles

You know what’s sexy? Virtue by persuasion

There are supply-side efforts to fight pornography like the Lighted Candle Society, which litigates pornographers and is attempting to prove medically that it causes addiction. Agree or disagree, I think most technologists and much of the world consider such supply-side efforts an affront to free speech, censorship of the Internet, etc.

I’m inspired to see demand-side efforts like Fight the New Drug (FTND), which teaches children at school assemblies why they may want to avoid pornography for natural, self-interested reasons. The idea is, to paraphrase Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, “Pornography isn’t sexy. You know what’s sexy? Sexual intimacy with your spouse, someone you love. That’s sexy.”

I think an approach like this can teach children that, yes, this stuff is alluring, but there are self-interested reasons you may want to avoid it and opt for a more authentic kind of intimacy. It’s an attitude of “Don’t just avoid it because I said so. Understand the reasons.”

Now that I live in Boulder, I’ve come to learn that the local ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky was behind The Truth campaign I previously wrote about: Can pornography be made unpopular? In that piece I quoted Mary Eberstadt of Stanford’s Hoover Institution who called pornography the “new tobacco”:

Yesterday, smoking was considered unremarkable in a moral sense, whereas pornography was widely considered disgusting and wrong — including even by people who consumed it. Today, as a general rule, just the reverse is true. Now it is pornography that is widely (though not universally) said to be value-free, whereas smoking is widely considered disgusting and wrong — including even by many smokers.

This makes me curious to study the causes of the drop in tobacco consumption in the last decades. How much was caused by supply-side efforts (e.g. lawsuits against Big Tobacco, smoking bans, etc.) and how much was caused by demand-side efforts (e.g. The Truth campaign)? My bet is on the latter.

I’m very skeptical of the ability of government or law (prohibition) to produce virtue in a society. I very much approve of efforts to teach and promote virtue by persuasion and reason.