Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 17

Personal Olympics

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com. For the past few weeks, I've been talking about how important it is to think in terms of on behavior rather than results, and that it's better to stay focused shorter periods of time in terms of tracking and planing, like one day for the habit traffic light, and one month in terms of resolutions. Today I'm going to talk about a way you can superimpose a longer term and possibly even results oriented goal framework onto these. It's called Personal Olympics. I'll explain what it is first, and then go into why you might want to do this, despite the fact that it seems to contradict what I've previously said on the subject.

The idea is that if 3 classes of Olympic medals can spur on athletes to almost superhuman achievements, maybe a similar tiered incentive scheme can be applied to mundaner stuff -- like your exercise routine, or losing weight. There are no actual medals involved, just different levels of patting oneself on the back. The psychology behind it is sort of like the little stars they give kids in elementary school. Those little worthless but highly motivating stickers. The idea is that somewhere, deep down inside, despite knowing better, we still respond to that kind of thing. The world class Olympic connotations take something we might think of as very personal and pathetic and make it seem worth our attention. Yes, it's a trifle absurd, and I'm not sure this will work without a bit of a sense of humor, but you know, you really should be taking these personal problems seriously, and if putting them on a world stage is what it takes, that's less absurd than just being quietly defeated by them. And absurd is fun. Which is something most of us could use a little more of in our personal improvement struggles.

It works like this: say you want to be able to do a certain number of pushups. You come up with three, preferably evenly spaced numbers, say 20, 25, 30. The lowest should be a little more than you can currently do, but not too much. It should stretch you a bit, but still be realistic. Realistic is the priority, for the bronze. Next you come up with a time frame. Say, sometime this year. If you can hit your lowest number, you've got the bronze. If the middle, silver, the highest, gold.

These medals are all just imaginary, but you'd be surprised at how motivating even an imaginary medal can be. Besides all that gold star stuff I talked about before, you have the carrot of an attainable goal always in front of you, a great distant goal to appeal to the high stakes achiever in you, and plenty of legitimate opportunity for self congratulation when you hit a tier.

What have I been using Personal Olympics for? Well, three things I'll admit to here.

  1. pushups, aka degraded beast, for shovelglove fans. I starting doing them as part of my shovelglove 14 minutes a few months ago, and I want to be able to bang out a lot quickly. So I decided for 2006, my bronze/silver/gold goals will be sets of 40/45/50 reps. I've already blown past this, with over 55 pushups. Which I guess puts me at platinum. If I get 60, I'll enter rock star mode, with double platinum, etc.
  2. 2006 savings. We want a bigger nest egg for when the time comes to move, and bronze/silver/gold gives me a way to quantify "as much as possible" in a somewhat realistic and motivating way. I bronzed last month.
  3. Hebrew language flash cards. I have a deck of Hebrew vocabulary cards that I alter every month, and then go through as many times as possible. 3 times is bronze, 4 is silver, 5 is gold. I've bronzed just about every month, and silvered once.

Coming up with good medal points is perhaps the trickiest part. It helps to do some experimenting before setting them. I knew that I could do 3 decks of cards in a month for example. And I did a few weeks of non-Olympic pushups before coming up with those numbers. Think of it this way: a real Olympic athlete would never go into an Olympics without some training, why should you? In the monthly resolution segment I talked about how bad people are at coming up with goals, how unrealistic those goals tend to be, especially at large time scales. Keep this in mind. Make your bronze something you're very confident you can do. In the case of weight loss, maintenance might be a good bronze. Most people don't even maintain, but get heavier every year, so unambitious as this sounds, it's actually meaningful and important.

So how do I square personal Olympics with the habit traffic light and it's focus on behavior, and monthly resolution, with it's smaller time scales?

Well, if I do personal Olympics, I try to do in in parallel with a more behavior oriented, finer granularity structure. So it's not an either/or. And personal Olympics is never the primary structure. The fine grain behavioral stuff always takes priority. So for example, my pushups goals are not even close to my most important fitness structure, which is shovelglove 14 minutes every weekday plus urban ranger. I do the personal Olympics event in addition to that stuff. Same thing with the Hebrew cards. My primary structure for doing those is that I have to do some every week day -- habit traffic light.

What personal Olympics can give you in addition to these primary structures is a extra motivational boost. It gives you the feeling that you're not just going through the motions, that you're actually getting somewhere with your behavior.

And if you want to, you can combine personal Olympics, monthly resolution, and the habit traffic light, by setting the time scale for your event to a month, and expressing your tiered goals as levels of traffic light compliance. For example, lets say you're starting out with the no s diet. You could say, I'm going to make a monthly resolution for January to do the no s diet and record daily success/exemption/failure with the habit traffic light. If I get no failures at all in the month of January, I get a gold. One failure, silver, Two failures, bronze. Or something like that. You could also add something about non-weekend S days if you thought that was an issue. Like, every non-weekend s day beyond 2 or 3 counts as a failure for the purposes of this Olympic event. This could be particularly useful around the holidays, when we want to be really careful to limit celebratory eating to just the holidays themselves.

That's all for now. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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