On the Shoulders of Giants

by Brian SperonelloIcon


So many people spend so much time talking about what they're going to accomplish, that somewhere along the line they forget to actually go out and do it.

(P.S. There is actually a relationship here. It's been shown that when people talk about what they're working on, to them it feels as if that is part of working on the project. Unfortunately chatting idly rarely will get you where you're trying to go, so be careful about how often you talk about your future plans. It could actually prevent you from getting there.)


"What Gets Measured Gets Managed"

"What gets measured gets managed" - Peter Drucker, author of The Effective Executive
Both of Tim Ferriss' books mention this quote by Peter Drucker, who is an expert on business processes and management, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The most amazing thing about it is how much power is crammed into five simple words.

The unavoidable result of taking measurements is action. One of the case studies in The 4-Hour Body was of a guy who simply started weighing himself every day and wound up losing an amazing amount of weight. He didn't even consciously try to change anything, all he did was force himself to step on the scale every morning and record his weight in a spreadsheet. Simply knowing what his weight was subconsciously effected his behavior and caused him to shed his extra pounds. And the best part is the power of this quote is amplified if you are actively trying to change.

One of the hardest parts about behavioral change is simply getting started. Steven Pressfield's theory of "Resistance" from The War of Art comes in many forms, but procrastination is one of the most common. As he says in the book, "We don't tell ourselves, 'I'm never going to write my symphony.' Instead we say, 'I'm going to write my symphony; I'm just going to start tomorrow.'" Fortunately for us, actively taking measurements is a powerful weapon for beating Resistance when it comes in the form of procrastination.

Whatever behavior you are trying to change, starting with something small and easy is crucial because it allows you to achieve what Ramit Sethi refers to as "quick wins." Seeing results early provides positive feedback and the encouragement to keep going, and taking measurements accomplishes two critical objectives that allow quick wins to happen.

First, taking measurements gives you perspective so you know where your starting point is. If you're trying to drink less when you go out, do you know how much you currently drink each night? If not, how will you know when you've reduced your alcohol intake? If you're trying to save more money, do you know how much you're saving now? If not, how will you know when you've started saving more? If you don't know where you're starting, you won't know if you're making progress, and that will block you from experiencing the early success that is crucial for experiencing quick wins. Knowing where you're starting will also allow you to make your first milestone extremely small and achievable, another thing that enables quick wins.

Second, taking measurements is usually extremely easy, but it still requires you to slightly change your behavior. That means it's a perfect way to make a small, simple change that still puts you on the path towards complete behavioral change.

Next time you're trying to change your behavior, try making your first step to simply start tracking for a week whatever you want to improve. It takes two seconds to step on a scale every morning or to write down how many reps and what weight you put up at the gym, but once you've begun taking measurements it's impossible to stop yourself from thinking "Okay, so what can I do to move this number in the direction I want it to go?"

Implementing the ideas that come from these internal brainstorming sessions doesn't feel like such a monumental step if the ideas are coming involuntarily, but they don't happen that way unless you start taking measurements. Once they do though, you will most likely find yourself making the behavioral changes you wanted without even thinking about it!

This post stands on the shoulders of:

Tim Ferriss - He's obviously a huge proponent of testing and self-experimentation, and he introduced me to the quote at the top of this post. See his book The 4-Hour Body.

Ramit Sethi - The term "quick wins," and their application in the process of behavioral change.

Steven Pressfield - The idea of "Resistance" from his book The War of Art.


Internalized vs. Intellectual Knowledge

I think that there are two kinds of knowledge — internalized knowledge and intellectual knowledge. Think of intellectual knowledge as the potential for internalized knowledge. Intellectual knowledge is what you learn passively, from things like reading books, watching documentaries, or taking instructional courses. It's entirely conceptual, while internalized knowledge only reveals itself on our behavior.

For example, I know from 48 Laws of Power that I should "think as I like, but behave like others" (Law 38), but at work I still have difficulty biting my tongue when my values run against what is commonly accepted, and occasionally it gets me in trouble. There are times that I remember this law and hold back, but it's not habitual yet. Intellectual knowledge turns into internalized knowledge when it becomes ingrained in our decision making; when a theory transitions into a behavioral habit.

Robert Greene references the German term "Fingerspitzengef├╝hl," which was made popular by Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was nicknamed the Desert Fox during World War II for the fearsomely successful strategies he used to repeatedly beat the Allies in North Africa. The literal translation is "finger tips feeling," but the interpretation is that once you have achieved mastery of a given skill you operate without thinking, and instead rely on a certain level of intuition or "touch" — your "finger tips feeling" or Fingerspitzengef├╝hl. It is at this point that intellectual knowledge becomes internalized knowledge, when all of the study and learning unconsciously become permanent parts of our behavior.

The hardest part about internalizing knowledge is that more study won't help you. You have to actually implement the concepts to develop internalized knowledge, and it takes a tremendous number of repetitions and failures before the behavior becomes a habit. Acquiring more intellectual knowledge will definitely help you get better insight and expand your mindset. But are you doing anything to turn these theories into actions?


The Art of Pre-Made Decisions

I recently got into a discussion about how I feel my highly regimented dietary and lifestyle choices impact me. Ironically, I said that having a strict routine actually made my life feel easier and less stressful, instead of feeling restricted like you would expect. I would attribute this in large part to the fact that the way I have my life organized means I don't have to think all the time.

While I haven't read it yet, the book The Paradox of Choice has been cited in a number of other books I've read. The Paradox of Choice says that making decisions is a stressful process for people, and the more options a person has the more stressful it becomes. Having a wide range of choices increases the pressure we feel to make a perfect decision, since more options means there is a better chance for us to find the perfect fit. It also increases the opportunity for buyer's remorse, since there will be more items for us to think back on and wonder "Would I have been better off picking that one instead?"

Humans are exposed to more options, and have to make more choices, today than ever before. 48 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every few minutes. You can carry tens of thousands of songs around with you in the palm of your hand. All of these choices are overwhelming us. This is why I feel having a strict routine for myself is actually liberating — all of my decisions are pre-made.

Take, for example, my thought process when choosing food. The first question is, "Is it Saturday?" If yes, I eat whatever I want and don't feel the least bit guilty about it. If no, I eat a meal that conforms to the Slow Carb Diet. Problem solved.

Compare this to the person who goes out to eat with no principles to guide her. She wonders whether or not she can afford to eat an unhealthy meal, because she has to go to the beach this coming weekend. Even though the fried calamari looks delicious, maybe she should get something healthy instead. Well, what does "healthy" mean? No carbohydrates? Lots of fruits and vegetables? High in protein? Vegan? As you can see, there are far more places to drive yourself crazy during the decision making process this way than there are if you've come up with a set of rules for yourself ahead of time.

This is where the art of pre-made decisions comes into play. If you spend a small amount of time in advance determining your objectives and the lifestyle choices it will take to get you there, you will already know which path you're going to take whenever you encounter a situation that would have normally required you to make a decision on the spot. It's like putting your life on auto-pilot. Rather than deal with the hassles that come from navigating life on your own; setup a system that runs everything for you so you can focus your attention on bigger things.


Focus & Goals

Most of my recent posts have in some way involved the concept of thinking long-term, particularly by resisting the pull of immediate distractions and petty urgent problems. While I've worked hard at developing this kind of mindset, I would still like to be better at it. One area where I was failing and didn't know it was letting all the exciting things I hope to accomplish eat up my attention and force me into a state of indecision.

I use a slightly modified version of Tim Ferriss' Dreamline to first identify the things I'd like to achieve the most, and then work towards accomplishing them. In essence you pick four things you want to have, four things you want to be, and four things you want to do; then out of the twelve items you select the four that excite you the most and start working on them.

Filling out the list of possibilities was never a problem for me, like it can be for some people, who over the years have settled into their routines and lost their desire to push themselves in a new direction. I used to think having a large list of fun and ambitious goals I wanted to accomplish was a good thing, and I still do, but now I realize that it can also be a source of problems if not handled properly.

The issue is that after you've selected the four things you want to work on, the other eight items that didn't make the final cut still creep into the back of your mind. This is especially true when you experience setbacks, because you start to wonder if you should have picked a different objective instead of the one you're currently stuck on. It's even an issue if you have success though. If the four goals you've currently picked are all going well, it can cause you to try to add another item to your list — over-extending yourself in the process.

I bring all of this up because a post by Derek Sivers recently made me aware I was having this problem, so now I can work on fixing it. To be honest, I'm not sure exactly what about the post was so illuminating, but when I was done reading it I felt like my perspective had changed. I realized that when I pick my four goals at the end of the Dreamlining process, I am also actively not choosing the other eight items. That way, whenever they try to crowd my mental space, I can calmly say to myself "Yes, it would be great to accomplish that, and maybe I will some day, but I've chosen not to work on that right now." It helps kick the distracting thoughts out of my head so I can get back focusing on the goals I'm working towards now.

This post stands on the shoulders of:

Derek Sivers: "Trying to pursue many different directions at once?"

Tim Ferriss: The Dreamline process for setting and achieving goals.