Local Goal Setting

Epistemic Status: Works on my machine.

Attention Conservation Notice: Based on my highly scientific and totally reliable informal poll on twitter, there is a 70% chance that you know this already. However you may still find the framing useful.


How long can you hold your breath for? Try it. Take a deep breath, close your eyes, hold your nose, and maintain a silent count. Start a stop watch in parallel if you don’t trust your count.

If you want, repeat this a couple of times so you get a good sense of the range of numbers – chances are your second try will be better than your first and then it will quickly stabilise.

Now try the following: When you get to the point where you think you really can’t go any longer, ask yourself “Can I maintain just another count of five?”. If you think “Absolutely not”, stop of course. Please don’t suffocate yourself on my account (not that you actually can this way). However if you find yourself thinking that maybe you could do another 5, try it. See what happens.

And then when you’ve completed that count of five, do it again.

If you can’t do a count of 5, can you at least reach the nearest multiple of five in your count? It seems a shame to stop at 57, right? Might as well aim for the minute.

Of course, once you’re at the minute mark, I bet you could at least do a couple more seconds…

Did your numbers go up? I bet they did.

In case you’re curious, my current easily attainable best is about 70 seconds, but I’m out of shape and practice at the moment. My lifetime best is a bit over two minutes (I don’t remember the exact numbers. It might have been as high as 2:30 but I don’t think so). This is good but not amazing.

With that as grounding, want to try again and see if you can beat me?

I find this sort of local goal setting works really well for me. Instead of asking how hard you have to try for, or how long you need to go go on for, always just set the current goal just out of reach, to somewhere that feels attainable from where you currently are.

Then, when you attain it, try moving the goal posts.

I also do this with running (when I run, which is less often than it should be) – when I desperately want to stop and catch my breath, I ask myself if I can make it another 30 seconds. If the answer is no, can I do another 10 seconds? Or at least make it to a whole number of minutes?

By stringing yourself along this way, often you can move the goal post a surprising number of times before you finally cry uncle and stop.

The two basic questions that build up this trick are:

  1. Do I have to stop now or could I do a tiny bit more?
  2. It would be emotionally unsatisfying to stop on a weird number like this, can I make it to a whole number? (where you pick the unit to be the largest one that currently feels attainable – don’t try to hold your breath to a whole number of minutes if you’re currently at 65 seconds, but maybe see if you can make 70 seconds?)

The great thing about the combination of the two questions is that it’s often easy to achieve small improvements even when large ones feel impossible, and then completionism and the desire for nice neat numbers means you have a more emotionally satisfying goal that has been moved into the future.

You made it to a minute, great! Can you do another couple of seconds? Oh, now it’s at a weird number. Wouldn’t it be more satisfying if you could make it to 70? No? Well, OK, 65 then. You’re at 65, surely a couple seconds more is achievable… well you’re almost at 70, it would be a shame to stop here, wouldn’t it?

One area where this works really well is attention. I think this is a lot of why the pomodoro technique works so well – concentrating for 40 minutes feels (and is!) much more achievable than concentrating for a whole day, so when your mind starts wandering you can anchor yourself back to the fact that you have this achievable goal.

A recent application of this technique that I’ve been finding very valuable is a simple way to read more without getting distracted: Stick your bookmark (yes this only works with physical books, but physical books are good. Hynek pointed out on Twitter that you can use the pages/time remaining feature on your ereader similarly, but I find the physical bookmark somehow works a lot better for me) in the chapter marker for the next chapter. You don’t have to finish the chapter, but look there are only a couple more pages, it seems a shame to stop here, right?

And once you get to the end of the chapter, you could probably read a few more pages, couldn’t you? Move the bookmark to the next chapter. Doesn’t mean you’re going to read all the way there, but you know it’s as convenient a place to leave the bookmark while you’re reading as any…

Brains are really easy to fool. The best part is that as the owner of this particular brain you can fool it while simultaneously knowing that you are fooling it and it works anyway. It’s ridiculous that this is true but it is entirely true.

I think people don’t spend enough time tinkering with the things that work with their brain and finding tricks that work for them – they assume they can or can’t do something, or that the only way to do more of something is to force yourself to do it, and miss a lot of low hanging fruit like this as a result.

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