I don’t trust motivation

This is a general thing I’ve been observing, but it was sparked by a comment from my friend Marcus on my previous post:

I think you missed off the most important thing for me – be happy. I find it way easier to do the things I should do, like exercise, when I’m already cheerful. I tend to exist in the moment more than most people, so maybe it’s just me.

I’ve already replied to the comment:

Yeah, I don’t trust this strategy.

The problem is that happiness is transitory, and too much at the whim of external factors, which means that behaviour changes that rely on it tend to lead to relapses. I agree that it’s much easier to achieve your goals when you’re already in a great mood, but you need to be able to achieve your goals when you’re having a shitty day and really don’t want to as well.

But I think this deserves elaborating on further (and not just because I’m desperately trying to prevent a beeminder goal that requires me to spend more time blogging today from derailing *cough*).

A similar theme I’ve heard a lot recently is the idea that the solution to my exercise problem is that I should find things that are fun to do and I will then want to do them.

I think these are good ideas. Happiness is great, and it makes everything easier, and if you have fun things to do that are good exercise you should definitely do them because they’re fun and you’ll get more exercise.

But as strategies I fundamentally don’t trust them, and believe that following them would actively sabotage my attempts to achieve my goals.

The problem is that they all are ways of making you want to achieve things.

Wanting to achieve the things you’re trying to achieve is also great, and you should do as much of that as you can, but there are going to be times when you don’t want to achieve things, and you’re still going to have to anyway.

I don’t know about you, but my energy levels (both physical and mental) are incredibly variable. I’m aware I’m somewhat atypical on this front, but only in the sense of maybe like a standard deviation worse than average. This means that I will often go for periods of a week or maybe even two where I just can’t be bothered with things because everything seems like hard work. It’s not that I’m unable to function, it just means that my motivation is at a distinct low.

What this means is that on a regular basis I have to assume I will have very little motivation to achieve anything, and that the things that I learned how to get done by being happy about it, or by enjoying them, no longer seem like they’re worth the effort because the effort seems so much greater. Eventually this will pass, but by that time the habit will be broken and I will have lost a lot of ground and have to restart from a much earlier phase.

And what that means is that I have to regard any approach which is built purely on motivation as doomed to failure. This is why I need strategies, and I need to design systems where the response to “I can’t be bothered” is that I go and do it anyway.

This may sound overly specific to me, and your experience of personal experience of energy levels might be different, but there are other things that can cause this too – external variation in circumstances can cause life to get a bit overwhelming, and then suddenly you too can find that you don’t have as much motivation as you once did because you’re spending it all on the current crisis, and then like me all the things that you were relying on motivation for will start to fall by the wayside.

This is of course not to say that you shouldn’t use motivation when you have it. You can always rely on the times where you have motivation to do more of it. I’m certainly planning to try to find some more fun exercise to do (I’m already doing swimming as part of that) for when the motivation strikes me, but you need that baseline habit that carries you through for the rest of the times when you don’t.

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Strategies, not promises

This is a small motto for changing things that you do. I’ve believed in it for a while, and I think I’ve mentioned it once or twice on here, but I don’t think I’ve ever written it up.

The scenario is this: There’s a thing you want to change about yourself. You want to do more of something, you want to do less of something, you want to do something differently, etc. What do you do?

The most common approach people seem to try to take is to apply willpower to the problem: You resolve to do better, and you firmly commit yourself to doing so, and you try your very best to change things.

This is the “Promises” solution. I don’t know if it works for you, but it certainly doesn’t work for me and I’d be surprised if it worked for most people.

The problem is that you are generally already burning about as much willpower as you have to use, just in the course of your every day life. If you had much more to burn you’d probably have found something to fill it up. You might be able to eke out a bit more, but generally if a major behaviour change is required what will happen is that you will end up managing for a few weeks and then will have burned through your reserves and fail to be able to summon the motivation to continue. Worse: The next time you try to do something like this it will be harder because you’ve learned the lesson that you’re not the sort of person who can make this sort of promise and expect to keep it.

So what to do instead? Well, obviously I think the answer is “Strategies”, but what does that mean here?

Essentially it’s that you have to acknowledge that behaviours do not exist in a vacuum. There are reasons for those behaviours. In order to change them you need to address those reasons, either by removing them or providing counterbalances for them.


  • I don’t go to the gym because it’s easy to put off doing it to another day. Solution: Schedule going to the gym for a specific recurring time and day.
  • I drink too much coffee because I don’t get enough sleep. Solution: Get more sleep (easy, right?)
  • I never get very good at this because I always get frustrated at a certain point and give up. Solution: Use some sort of commitment device (e.g. beeminder, but there are others) to push you past that point where you get frustrated.

The specific strategies that you adopt don’t matter that much. What’s important is that you try to figure out specific concrete things you can do to change the underlying behaviour, so that you can solve it without having to throw willpower at the problem.

The obvious reason why this approach is better is that you’re more likely to succeed, which is after all what you wanted.

The less obvious but actually more important reason why this approach is better is what happens if you fail. Which you may. You might have picked the wrong strategy, or at least an incomplete one – you won’t always have correctly identified the reasons for your existing behaviour, or your proposed solution might not be adequate for addressing them. That’s OK.

See, the great thing about failed strategies is that you can fix them. There’s nothing wrong with having failed. It’s not evidence of a character flaw on your part. You just didn’t get it right this time. So you can learn from what didn’t work and from it try to figure out something that will.

It actually took me much longer to realise this second part than the first – long after I originally coined the motto – but I think it’s the more important one. The most important thing about change is to be able to keep it up – promises impede your ability to change further whether they succeed or fail, but strategies improve your ability to change further, when they succeed but especially when they fail.

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Definitely not a Mexican recipe

I feel it’s important to state that this is totally not a Mexican recipe and I make no claims of authenticity, mainly so my friend Paulina won’t be mad at me for perpetuating the various bad imitations of Mexican food that abound (not that this will stop me from sending her pictures when I encounter things like the “Mexican mac ‘n’ cheese” I had in the north of England of course).

Lets call it pseudo-Mexican. Or Mexican inspired. Or we could call it Fusion if we were feeling fancy. I originally made it as an improvisation, but then I made it again because it was tasty.


  • 500g Gnocchi (I told you it wasn’t Mexican)
  • 3 cans red kidney beans
  • 3 medium sized onions
  • 4 medium sweet peppers (I used a mix or red, orange and yellow)
  • 1 small red chilli pepper
  • Ground cumin
  • Dry Oregano
  • Hot smoked paprika
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  • Vegetable oil for frying

The spice quantities are problematic because I still haven’t measured them out. The ratios are about twice as much cumin as oregano and twice as much oregano as paprika. I’d guess that it’s about 2-3 tbsp of cumin, but I’d recommend tinkering with the levels until it’s tasty.

Cooking is simple:

Dice the onions and peppers (including the chilli pepper), put them into a frying pan with hot oil and salt to fry. Stir, and once the onion has gone translucent, add the spices. Keep stirring for about another 10 minutes, add the kidney beans (drained), stir for another ten minutes, add the Gnocchi, and you guessed it stir for another 10 minutes.

By that point the kidney beans should have broken up a bit but the gnocchi will mostly have kept its structure. The result is a fairly thick mush that will hold together quite well.

The first time we ate this we just had it in bowls with guacamole on the side. The second time we put it in corn tortillas with some salsa verde as well and that worked a lot better, though both ways were pretty good.

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A satisfying resolution to trolley problems

Note: This post is based on a conversation I had with Dave about a month ago. I was recently reminded of it by a discussion on moral philosophy and thought it might be worth writing up.

Certain types of moral philosophers are very keen on trolley problems. You may have encountered these. They’re endless variants on approximately the following problem:

A runaway trolley is hurtling down a track. If it continues on its original route it will hit and kill 5 people. You have the opportunity to pull a lever which will divert it onto another route where it will only kill one person. No you can’t be a smartarse and come up with a clever solution which avoids these options, because reasons.

I’m not a fan of trolley problems. I think they oversimplify the landscape in which you make moral decisions. Most decisions are not this clear cut: Not only do you have uncertainty about the outcomes (which you can reason about), you also shouldn’t entirely trust your own reasoning process in these circumstances because you’re in a heightened emotional state which will introduce weird biases. So although you the person being asked this question might have perfect knowledge about the situation and know that you are detached from it and acting without emotional involvement, the hypothetical you standing there with  lever and a difficult decision to make does not have these reassurances. Have they missed something? Are they sure their judgement isn’t horribly compromised by the fact that they’re in a panic? Do they even have time to think things through or must they just act or not act before the decision is taken out of their hands?

Still, thinking through what you should do in these sorts of scenarios before you are in them is exactly what you need in order to sharpen your moral sense and ensure that you act correctly without having to think things through, right?

So here you are. You have two options. You can choose not to act, and let 5 people die, or you can act and kill someone, saving five peoples’ lives.

I think there are legitimate and consistent moral systems in which you choose not to act. I think they’re not the sort you want to apply when designing larger scale systems of action, but I think as a personal choice it’s completely valid and it might well be the option I’d take if you put me at the lever of an actual trolley.

What I want to talk about is when you choose to act. I think there is a strictly superior option which cannot be finagled away by redesigning the question that anyone who thinks that they should pull the lever should follow instead.

Which is that you pull the lever and then you turn yourself in to the relevant authorities for having committed murder.

Oh you will, and you probably should, get a reduced sentence because of all those lives you saved, but you’ve taken a life, and you should be treated accordingly.

Why should you be punished by the system when you’ve done nothing wrong and in fact made the correct moral choice?

Well, why should the person whose life you took be punished by your actions when they’ve done nothing wrong and were just an unfortunate innocent bystander?

That’s not a judgement, it’s just an analogy. I am pointing out that you have already committed yourself to a system in which actions are taken not because of some intrinsic justice or fairness, but because they produce the greater good.

Lets adjust the problem slightly. Suppose you’re tied to the track along with the other person who is going to get killed when you pull the lever. Now two people will get killed when you do, and one of them is you. Five versus two, still a great deal from a moral calculus perspective, right? But I bet you’re going to think a lot harder about it.

And this is why I think it works out: When you find yourself in a situation where your reasoning is suspect, it’s very easy to think that your actions are justified if they help , and that that gets you off the hook for the consequences of them. The fact that you will always be held accountable for the consequences of your actions creates the right sort of barrier to that: By requiring an element of self-sacrifice in order to cause harm, it forces you to think about that justification much harder, and maybe decide that on balance you don’t want to have to make this call.

This doesn’t necessarily produce a better outcome in every case. Indeed, in every case where acting was the right thing to do it produces a worse outcome than  pulling the lever and getting off without punishment. What it does is in aggregate produce a better outcome, because it makes it harder for people to decide that the ends they want justify any means, and it helps to put the brakes on the excesses people commit because they decide that it was the right thing to do.

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David seeks app for fun and exercise logging

As part of my attempts to exercise more, I would like to track how much I am actually exercising. This means that I am currently seeking something that satisfies the following spec:

Basically, I want to be able to log what exercises I’m doing in a moderate amount of detail. Something to the tune of:

Date: Blah

  • Pushups: 5, 7, 5, 5, 8
  • Swimming, moderate intensity: 10 minutes
  • Barbell Squats, 20kg, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5
  • etc.

I would like to have historical stats, etc in the app but it’s not required.

What is required:

  1. I have to be able to enter data on my android phone (it’s OK if this is mobile web, as long as it’s vaguely usable mobile web rather than accessing some completely unsuitable for touch desktop site)
  2. There has to be an API I can access the data with from devices that are not my phone
  3. It has to actually let me record detailed information about the workout
  4. It has to actually work

My least worst contenders at the moment are fitocracy (fails the API requirement. I could scrape the site but I don’t really want to. There is an open source project which implements an API for it based on that, but it looks broken and bitrotted) and myfitnesspal (less good in all regards for this than fitocracy except that it has an API, but I have to apply for access to the API and tell them what “my company” wants to use it for. This is not really better than scraping the site)

Things I have considered and rejected:

  1. Endomondo, looks nice but fails 3 hard. It lets you bucket into a bunch of nonsense high level categories and record how much time you’ve done on them. This is totally uninteresting to me.
  2. Runkeeper, fails 3. Not its fault, it’s not really for this.
  3. The Squat Rack. Barely squeaks by on 2. Fails 1. Mostly fails 4. Looks like it would do exactly what I wanted beautifully if it actually worked. Probably worth checking back in 6 months time.

My fall back plan which I’m suspecting to be the best option is to have a paper notepad and a weekly TODO item to transcribe my notepad into a google docs spreadsheet. Is this really the best that’s on offer?

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