Ming the Mechanic:
Why can't we stick to our goals?

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 Why can't we stick to our goals?2008-05-06 13:57
picture by Flemming Funch

L.A. Times: "Does your brain have a mind of its own?" - Why can't we stick to our goals? Blame the sloppy engineering of evolution.
How many times has this happened to you? You leave work, decide that you need to get groceries on the way home, take a cellphone call and forget all about your plan. Next thing you know, you've driven home and forgotten all about the groceries.

Or this. You decide, perhaps circa Jan. 1, that it's time to lose weight; you need to eat less, eat better and exercise more. But by the first of May, your New Year's resolutions are a distant memory.

Human beings are, to put it gently, in a unique position in the animal world. We're the only species smart enough to plan systematically for the future -- yet we remain dumb enough to ditch even our most carefully made plans in favor of short-term gratification. ("Did I say I was on a diet? Mmm, but three-layer chocolate mousse is my favorite. Maybe I'll start my diet tomorrow.")...
I thought it was just me. It seems surprisingly hard to make my mentally conceived plans stick. If once in a while I really feel what needs to happen in my bones, or in my gut, it happens. But if it is merely a good idea, however logical, coherent and important I conclude it is, it usually gets overridden by whatever distraction that shows up that feels more compelling in the moment. And my plans are easily forgotten.

The article blames it on faulty evolutionary engineering. I'm not sure I believe in such a thing, i.e. I don't quite believe that evolution is so dumb and blind, but he does have a point. Our animal instincts are well developed. A danger appears and we'll know how to jump aside, without thinking about it. Something delicious appears in front of our nose and we'll be munching on it it no time. Our abstractly thinking mental faculties are much more sophisticated, but at the same time they seem like an after-thought, not entirely wired into the machinery. We can make great plans, based on the processing of abstract information, aimed at desirable long term objectives. But a single piece of chocolate cake or a random interesting website might get us off track.

I suppose some people have something called discipline, which involves subordinating what one actually feels to one's mental plans and ideals. But that just seems so .. brutal. It would of course be better if one's instincts, emotions and physical desires actually were synchronized with the mental planning. Not subordinated to it, as the mental ideas aren't necessarily the ones that are right. But coordinated at least. Maybe I should work on that. Or maybe I'll see what's on TV.

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6 May 2008 @ 15:34 by Steven @ : Subordination
Hmmm, your distinction between subordination and synchronization of what one actually feels to one's plans is a very succinct summary of my general unease with the concept of discipline. I mean, I hear people extol the virtues of discipline, and in theory I can agree, but I have a basic aversion to it, and your distinction points to why.  

6 May 2008 @ 16:37 by ming : Discipline
Yeah, I'm pretty sure it would be unwise to make one's mental faculties the ultimate authority in one's life. After all, the best things I've done in my life have been based on something else: a hunch, an instinct, a calling. My experience is that my gut feeling normally represents truth, non-verbal truth. Whereas, thinking mentally, I can much too easily fool myself into believing I know the correct way forward when I really don't.

Then again, in order to carry out some slightly long-term project with multiple steps and problem solving involved one needs to do some mental processing. So I can't either run my life strictly based on gut feelings. They point the way to where I ought to go or not, but they don't provide the details as to how exactly I get there.

I suppose we're just too often using our tools badly. We think too much about things that don't require thinking, and we think too little about things we ought to think about. We ignore our gut feelings, but let ourselves be thrown to and fro by fleeting desires. OK, I'll speak for myself.

At any rate, if instinct and intellect could work better together, that would be a good thing.  

7 May 2008 @ 11:59 by jstarrs : Single minded concentration...
...Concentration Terminology.
Then it depends on the motivation...what's the most important?
Hi Ming, how's it going?

7 May 2008 @ 12:38 by Roan Carratu @ : No future tripping
Since I got sick, more than a decade ago, I have learned that making plans is ultimately doomed. Universe seems to have a way to bollix up any plans I make. So I live completely in the here and now most of the time.

One day I realized it was because my thoughts are verbal, my images of the future are visual, and my actions seem to come from beyond both. Before I got sick, I used to be into will power, being able to will myself into a state so beyond normal that I didn't even feel pain. I could do amazing things, but ultimately the result would be a physical burnout. So I gave that up.

Now I realize that my mind is not the part that thinks, nor the part that visualizes, but the part that acts. Apparently, it works on a level of integration of information that the linear verbal thoughts and the gestalt of visual stuff cannot come close to. But it only works when I stop thinking and stop visualizing and let it happen.

Then I realized that was what Zen was all about. It's also the source of intuition, empathy, comprehension, and a multitude of other abilities that we all have but seldom recognize.

If I had followed my thoughts and beliefs, I have no doubt that I would be dead by now. My health has been on the edge for so long, I've been told by doctors that I could drop dead anytime, any moment, yet I am still here. So I think I'm doing something right.

As for not doing plans, if they are not life and death, they were not all that important anyway. IMHO.  

7 May 2008 @ 16:59 by ming : Future and Clarity
Ah, great to see you here, old friends!

I'm happy you didn't stay stuck in mind and will power, Roan, and that you're still here.

Jeff! I'm doing well. I am partner in a little company in Labège where I go to work every afternoon. Do you ever come to Toulouse?

I guess I also at some point found that it didn't work well for me any longer to just push things through with willpower. My most valuable and trusted impulses that tell me what to do come from something else which isn't mental. But still, when I know what to do, I would kind of like to be able to progress a bit systematically. Or maybe I just haven't become good enough at being in the moment.

Clarity and Mindfulness would probably be key ingredients, yes. Rather than "mindlessly" pushing ahead with what one planned in the past, if one could just really pay attention, both to what is going on right now, and what one feels one needs to do.  

8 May 2008 @ 04:02 by James @ : Waaay (well, not too way) off topic...
Hi Flemming,
Great to "hear" from you....

Did you ever read the Tim Ferris book 'The 4-Hour Work Week'? Well, he's got quite a cool blog going over there and this post reminded me of you...

All the best,

8 May 2008 @ 10:28 by ming : Ferris
Hi James! Yes, I love his book, and I read his blog too. Heheh, yes, I just saw that Denmark post too the other day. Made me proud to be Danish.  

29 Jan 2010 @ 15:21 by Печать буклетов @ : http://www.paragraf.su
Then again, in order to carry out some slightly long-term project with multiple steps and problem solving involved one needs to do some mental processing. So I can't either run my life strictly based on gut feelings. They point the way to where I ought to go or not, but they don't provide the details as to how exactly I get there.  

29 Jan 2010 @ 15:22 by Печать буклетов @ : http://www.paragraf.su./
Then again, in order to carry out some slightly long-term project with multiple steps and problem solving involved one needs to do some mental processing. So I can't either run my life strictly based on gut feelings. They point the way to where I ought to go or not, but they don't provide the details as to how exactly I get there.  

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