Category Archives: Goal setting

Now Brain, Later Brain

This was a discussion in my head at lunch yesterday.

Now brain: Look! Chocolate pudding!

Later Brain: Wait. You’ve been working so hard to lose weight and be healthy. You know that this won’t help. You have some pretty big goals.

Now Brain. You don’t understand. Chocolate Pudding!

Later Brain: You’re eating salad. Don’t ruin all the work you’ve done. No.


Later Brain: This isn’t what you want. This isn’t what you want. This isn’t what you want.

Now Brain: CHOCOLATE PUDDING! Oh, and with Strawberries.

Take a wild guess which brain won?

The now brain and the later brain don’t always want the same things. The later brain often is focused on long term-goals; health, relationships, retirement, buying a house. The short term brain is often more focused on pleasure, or lack of pain. It is often focused on feeling good, or feeling better. These now goals won’t always work in favor of our later goals. The chocolate pudding didn’t work toward my later goals. Was it delicious? Absolutely. Was there guilt later? Yep!

More often than not my Later brain wins. I save the money, I eat the right foods, I don’t comment on Facebook posts and I do the workout. I don’t adopt all of the cats and dogs I see on the web begging for a home. If my Now brain won, I would need a couple of houses and acres of land just for the cats and the dogs that I want to love and save.  This is because I have learned the lesson that my Now brain wants to be rewarded. So I have to find ways to reward myself when I do what my later brain wants.

Now brain and Later brain are all about rewards. The Now brain wants the reward now, and the Later brain is willing to delay the gratification until a later time, knowing that the reward will be worth it. In an effort to get my Now brain willing to participate in working toward the goals the Later brain wants, it needs rewards in the short term. It wants some kind of recognition that it did something worthy when it gave up what it wanted. There is often a level of distress when the now brain doesn’t get what it wants. Not getting the desires met can lead to minor frustration, or considerable pain. If you make the effort to deny Now brain for a long term goal, make sure to give it something, even if it is only a congrads for a job well done.

We sometimes wonder why we aren’t able to achieve the goals we want. We often have very specific goals such losing weight, not calling the ex, saving money, and then we act in opposition to those goals. The Now brain is not interested in tolerating the distress that is caused by ignoring the wants. We have to learn to deal with the distress, and to give ourselves rewards when we do. Often when we give our Later brain what it wants, we are more fulfilled in the long run. We just have to make the Now brain know it is worth it.


why diets dont work

Live life at your pace

We move through life in lock-step through about the age of 18. Sometimes even 22.  We are born, we roll over, walk, talk, skip, move through school, all pretty much at the same pace.  For younger kids, if they aren’t moving through the milestones at about the right age, then there are problems.  Because so much of our life is moving through in lock-step, we start to think that is how life should be as adults as well.  We need to get married, have kids, have the right job, buy a house, etc.  The concept that if we haven’t met the adult “milestones” by a certain age creates anxiety and shame in so many people.
At some point we stop needing to do the same things about the same time. One person may have to leave high school because life got in the way, and finishes later in their own time.  The other may not get married until their 50’s because they didn’t find the right person. We each have a path that we need to walk.  For a while it may be similar to someone else’s, but ultimately we don’t have to keep pace with anyone.

There is a path in Austin called the Hill of Life.  It is ½ a mile, with 200 meters of elevation change.  It is the very first entrance to the Barton Creek Trail system that runs through Austin, about 8 miles long. It is rocky, uneven terrain.  It is a phenomenal work-out to walk up it.  And it is exhausting.  I have found, that even with all the exercise I do, I have to take the hill slow.  On a bad day I need to take breaks and can’t finish the hill in one go.  While I am huffing and puffing there are often people running up the hill, or even college students walking from the river-bed in flip-flops.  And I’m not in a race with them.  I don’t need to keep up, go the fastest, or even need to march up it without breaks.  I need to go at my pace.  I will get to the top of the hill, I will just take longer than the others.  And I will be faster than some. It isn’t a race.  We will all end up at the same place.
The ego tells us “You should be going faster”.  The ego has a very strong belief in how the world should work.  It believes that if you aren’t moving at the same pace as everyone else you aren’t good enough. You aren’t worthy enough to live amongst the decent people that are doing “better” than you are.  With the hill example, if I work to keep up with those that are doing “better” than I am, I will in all likelihood hurt myself.  I will exceed what my heart and lungs are capable of, or I will twist an ankle, or have some other sort of problem.  When I take the hill at the pace that works for me, I generally tend to make better time than when I try to keep up with someone else.

We all have the same finish-line.  No matter how quickly, gracefully, or easily move through life, we all end up at the same place.  If we try to live life at the pace we think we are “supposed” to often we feel inadequate, frustrated, and sometimes worthless.  We each get to find what works for us, the pace that is best for us, and find our own groove.  Push yourself, and at the same time make sure you aren’t just trying to keep up with the “shoulds”.  This isn’t a race, and if you treat it that way you may just end up at the finish line faster than you wanted to.

Climbing our own mountains

It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. Edmund Hillary




In case you don’t know who Edmund Hillary is, he is the first non-Nepalese / Tibetan man to summit Mt. Everest. He climbed one of the hardest mountains to climb and didn’t die, yet he is saying that he didn’t need to conquer the mountain. The biggest fight wasn’t with the mountain, but with himself. This is common when we set ourselves a large goal. No matter if the goal is losing weight, moving for a new job, letting go of a relationship, going back to school, running a race, or climbing a mountain, the hardest hurdle is getting past our own ego.

The ego is the part of the self that regards itself as real. It says what we can and can’t do. It also says what embarrasses us and what causes us shame. The majority of the roadblocks we have to get over are the ones our ego sets for ourselves. It starts with “I can’t”, and moves to “these are the reasons you shouldn’t do this” and “these are the reasons you can’t do this”.

Yes, there are sometimes legitimate reasons that we can’t climb our metaphorical or real mountain. If I were to decide I am interested in climbing Mt. Everest, there are physical and financial reasons that would be limiting. And at the same time, a man with 2 artificial legs reached the summit of the mountain. If it were really, truly important to me I would work with physical therapists, and find ways to raise funds. If it were truly important, I would find a way. First, I would have to get over my fears and my “I can’t” moments.

The next thing that needs to happen is pushing through the walls. I’ve previously spoken about hitting the wall. This is a term mostly used in marathons in which you hit a point in which you don’t want to go on. The days you just want to curl up with a book, or a drink, and don’t want to work toward your goal. The days when your tired, or your friends call, or you just don’t want to get up in the morning. It isn’t the mountain you have to conquer at that moment, it is yourself.

We all have a long-term brain and a short-term brain. The long-term thinks about what it what it wants in the future and what it needs to do to get you there. The short-term brain is thinking about right now. This moment. Right now, I want a Twix bar. It sounds delicious, and it would make the chocolate cravings go away. Long-term, I want to be healthy and to lose weight. The fight is now with myself, not the weight I want to lose.

It is easy to blame the mountain; it’s beyond challenging and difficult. The mountain is rarely the problem though. Our own fears and beliefs are often the greater challenge to overcome. Understanding this and working to conquer ourselves makes the mountain a little less insurmountable.

Manning up for the New Year

Welcome to the New Year! How many of you have created resolutions? To be healthier, to be happier, to exercise more, to be nicer? We spend so much time wanting life to be better.  We want a different ending to our story.  We want life to be different; we want to weigh less, make more money, have a bigger house, have a better relationship, be in better shape, etc etc.  With the New Year we often use it is a marker of when to start. The gyms fill up, diets are started. People jump in to their goals.

And then we come up with so many excuses to not get there.  We are all great at find excuses.  I see clients find every excuse in the book to keep from moving to where they want to go.  “No one supports me.” “I don’t have the time.”  “I don’t have the money.” “He/She won’t change and so I can’t change”.  What is even more difficult is when clients don’t even see the excuses they use.  We make decisions every day to do the correct thing, to do the healthy or un-healthy thing in life.  And then when our decisions don’t turn out the way we want (eg. I sit on the couch all day and I don’t lose weight) we often turn to someone else and either just complain or place blame.

It is finally time to man up and take accountability for our own decisions and the outcomes.  In real life nothing comes for free.  I will not make a million dollars without working, I will not lose weight without putting effort in to exercise and eating correctly, and I won’t have healthy positive relationships without putting in some work on myself.

We spend so much time looking for an easy fix.  We look to others to make decisions for us, to do work for us.  We think taking Acai berry (or whatever the craze is today) to lose weight, as if a pill is going to do all the work for us.  We have to get past wanting the easy fix, and just admit that we are going to have to put in the work.

I tend to fall off the wagon.  Regularly, especially when it comes to working out.  I will create a goal, meet the goal, and then not work out for several months.  Then when I need to start again I think of where I was, and getting going again, and I find it difficult to get started.  I then remember the silly saying “a journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step”.  I read somewhere that the problem with clichés how often they are true.

We truly don’t have to wait for a specific marker to get started. The New Year, the new week, our birthday, for whatever reason we set markers and say “I will start after this date”. It is better to just start when you decide to create the goal. You are more likely to binge in the time before the new goal starts if you wait. You will eat all the food, drink all the alcohol, watch all the TV, or do whatever else bad habit you are working to get rid of in excess instead of just starting the journey. For whatever reason we want to say goodbye to what we are giving up. Even though today is the first day of the New Year and many of you will start your goals today, when you do fall off the wagon don’t wait for the New Year again. Start the journey the day you decide to take it again, not when the marker tells you to.

We all have things in life that we want to be different.  We have goals and aspirations.  There is nothing to do when you have a goal but to get started.  Break it down in to smaller parts and get started on any one of them.  You can use as many excuses as you want, or you can begin to work toward your goals. It really is time to man (or woman) up.


Dream another dream

Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is like a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”—Langston Hughes


What do you think the difference between a fantasy and a dream are? How I define the difference is the possibility of one coming true while the other won’t.   I have a dream of going to Angkor Wat in Cambodia one day. I believe that is an accomplishable goal. I dream about what my retirement will be like. I have a fantasy that I will win the lottery. The last one is highly improbable.

I think some of the most heartbreaking things are when people let go of their dreams. I watch people let go of the dream of a better job, the dream of finding love, the dream of finding peace in their life. Often with basic dreams that are realistic and achievable, people get frustrated and disheartened by roadblocks, seeming failures, and nay-sayers. Even more heartbreaking are those that give up on dreams because fighting for them will make someone, either themselves or someone close to them, uncomfortable.

Dreams are worth fighting for. Dreams give us hope and direction and drive. We want to keep in touch without dreams. They can shift, and adjust to the times if necessary, and we need to keep a hold of dreams.

Fantasy on the other hand is a killer. Another level of heartbreaking is when people hold on to fantasy. I see people hold on to the belief that a relationship can work, when it has shown time after time that the relationship is toxic. People that hold on to hope that a miracle can happen when the odds are slim to none that it will happen. Those that hope lightening will strike and they will win the lottery at the same time.

The trick is figuring out the difference. Shame will tell us that our dreams are just fantasy and shame will work to kill the dreams. Shame wants to avoid more shame, which means avoiding failure. Anytime we go after something important to us we risk failing, the key to remember though is failure is required for success. Failure builds muscle and breeds innovation. Failure is part of the process, and shame is required to get out of the way to let us try.

Our dreams keep us moving. They keep hope alive when sometimes we feel as though we have nothing left. Share your dreams with others, they can help hold you accountable for the dreams and they can be your bell-weather on if you are just holding on to a fantasy. Just don’t let-go or give up.

Crossing Finish Lines

One of the main complaints I get from people is a frustration that it is “too late” to start, or to finish, or to try something again.  We create races we want to run and then reasonable create a course and a plan to cross the finish line.  Then life gets in the way.  Something happens, or many things happen and we have to put the goal on hold, and after a while it just starts to feel too late to get started.    Very often the concept of “too late” is only in our minds.   We have a set concept of when things are supposed to happen by.  All of the “shoulds” that run through our mind about when things “should” be done by, or how they “should” be done or who we “should” be.  If we don;t cross the finish lines of milestones when we believe we “should” we get frustrated or ashamed.  These milestones come in all shapes and forms; graduations, relationships, children, jobs….  We create a concept of how and when things “should” be done.

Having a timeline for goals is a good idea.  Timelines help keep us focused and add direction.   Rigid timelines are a different story.  When we can’t be flexible we get stuck, and start digging ourselves holes.  The shame spiral that is created starts dragging us down, a weight on our ankles as we try to stay afloat.  The rigid timelines don’t account for the roadblocks that get thrown our way.  I’ve spoken before about dancing instead of falling.  The concept of flowing with the world as it pulls and pushes us in directions that are unexpected and problematic for our goals.

Another difficulty is when we have the “how” set in our heads.  I see this often with college students, though all of us create the “should” of how.  There is a specific school we need to graduate from, or a specific path we need to take to get where we want to go. If that path closes off, for whatever reason, there is a feeling of helplessness.

We all have goals.  Either we created them ourselves, or our society sets the goals and creates the expectations of when and how. Then life happens.  Illness, tragedy, difficulties, all of these get in the way of the when and how.  Sometimes goals get put on the back burner, or even in the freezer.  Once we’ve stepped away from the goal for a while the shame gremlins get involved and start to tell us that we will look foolish, or pathetic, or stupid if we pull the goal out of the freezer and put it back on the burner.  The true question revolves around what we need, not what society thinks.  Hundreds of things can come along and derail a goal.  Sometimes we have to alter the goal in ways we never even thought we could.  People who want to be parents have to look at adoption instead of childbirth.  People who wanted to graduate from the University of Texas may have to go to a different college.  Setting in stone how or when a goal must be met makes it difficult to keep the goal alive when life just gets in the way.

It is never too late.  Some goals have to be adjusted and shifted to meet the available resources, times, or needs.  Ego’s have to be gotten over, shame overcome and unfortunately other’s perceptions need to be let go of.  If you have decided there is a finish line you need to cross, don’t let go of it.  Let the goal shift as necessary, let go of the musts, but find your way through.  We all need finish lines.  Don’t let go of yours.


Should’ve kept my mouth shut!

We all have goals. We set goals involving our careers, weight loss, relationships, finances, productivity, and health. With all of these goals we set there are many roadblocks to meeting them. Roadblocks can be both internal and external; physical limitations, environmental limitations, and emotional limitations. A big surprise is that one of our roadblocks ends up being something that we originally believed helped; telling our friends. This is an amazingly insightful talk on that discusses the concept of completing goals how sharing with our friends actually sabotages us. is an extraordinary site that give short talks on multiple topics.

Take risk

I wish I had.  I don’t like closing doors in my life saying “I wish I had”.  I wish I had said this. I wish I had done that.  I also know that I am not the only one that doesn’t like closing doors with “I wish” on my head.  I wish I had traveled more.  I wish I had loved more.  I wish I had stood up for myself.  I wish I had tried harder.  The I wishes aren’t for desires to hurt people, or to get revenge, it is about taking risks.   It is about not settling back into the simple, but stepping into the scary and the uncomfortable to be able to look back and have no “I wishes”.  These wishes risk shame, heart-break, and pain.  They also risk love, happiness and joy.   There is a difference between comfortable and happy.   We can’t grow when we stay comfortable.

What is something you wish could be in your life? I wish I had taken that job, moved to that place, asked that person out,  gotten that tattoo…. I wish I could lose weight, travel more, or climb that mountain.  I wish I could find peace, I wish I could find joy.  I wish I could let myself be loved  What is the risk that you are required to take in order for that to happen?  Is it worth it?

The first thought that comes up is “Am I making a mistake?”  Mistakes can be great.  Failure builds muscle, and we can’t grow without mistakes and failure.  Any choice you make could be the one that is a big mistake.  Risks should be calculated not crazy.  If you have $4000 in savings, don’t blow it on the trip to Africa and set yourself up for difficulties later when your car breaks down, or your basement floods.  The joy and the experience of the trip won’t be worth the stress and difficulty after.  For some people walking out of their door is a risk.  Going to the gym for is a risk for some, as they open themselves up to their fears of ridicule and shame.  Work to make sure the possible mistakes are minimal and not colossal and things will be OK.

The next thing we do is stop making excuses.  I’m too busy.  I don’t have the money (at times valid, but something to work around).  It would bother my partner, friend, or dog.  We generally start making excuses to avoid the fear of the mistakes, or shame, or embarrassment.  The excuses are ways to avoid stepping outside of the comfort zone, growing, and changing.  As a therapist my job is to confront the excuses, but if you don’t have a therapist, you have to confront your own.

I want to know that I have explored this world.  I don’t want to close the door on this life without exploring the world as much as possible.  I have made mistakes, and they have helped me learn and grow stronger.  I will continue to make mistakes as I continue to explore.  I look forward to learning more about me and the world I live in.  I won’t live in fear.  I also know the courage it takes to look at the gulf in front of me and take the leap into the unknown.  Find friends and supports that can keep you motivated and accountable.  Find the strength that you have inside of you, that even if you haven’t been successful you’ve seen other people be successful and know that it can be done.  Find that place inside of you that doesn’t want to close the doors of your life saying “I wish”.

What “I can’t” really means

What do you really mean when you say “I can’t”?  “I can’t”, or “I cannot,” truly means “I am unable to.”   If someone were to ask me to do a basketball lay-up, I would legitimately be able to say, “I can’t”.  I am unable to coordinate myself and the ball to do an official “lay-up.”  Were someone to ask me to learn to do a lay-up, if the words “I can’t,” should happen to come out of my mouth what I would really mean would be “I won’t”.  I am perfectly capable of learning to do a lay-up, though I honestly have little interest in doing so.

A good deal of the time when we utter “I can’t,” we really mean: I won’t, I don’t want to, it is too hard, or it’s to scary.   One of the worst things we do is convince ourselves of the “I can’t.”  This often comes into play when change is needed.  One of my personal “I can’t” moment came about 8 years and 70 pounds ago.  As I struggled with my weight I was referred to Gary Avignon, LPC.  After an interview and assessments he dropped the news.  I already knew I was over weight, but I didn’t know that my adrenal system had essentially shut down leading to depression, anxiety and type two diabetes.  Now for the good news.  In order to combat all of these problems I would need to completely change my lifestyle.  I would need to remove all non-complex carbohydrates from my diet.  This included most wheat products (bread, noodles, cereal), rice, sugar and potatoes.  No french fries, no bread, no spaghetti, no ice cream…Could you do it?  Veggies and fruits were a necessary part of this lifestyle, but even things like Special K cereal for breakfast was out.  As I was being told this, my first thought was, “I can’t.”  And as I thought these words I was informed that this lifestyle change would not just be until I lose the weight, but permanent, if I wish to keep the weight off forever.

In this “I can’t” moment I had to decide what was more important.  French Fries, or my health?  Bread, or my health?  But making this sacrifice was overwhelming.  Food as comfort,food is an important part of our life.  In that moment, though, I made a decision then and there that I could.  Many times in the next year or two after making the decision I didn’t want to, but “I can’t” changed to “Oh my goodness this is HARD, but I CAN!”

When working with addicts and offenders (violent, sexual, what have you) one of the most frequent thinking errors is “I can’t,” (next to “it isn’t fair”).  When working with clients facing a large change, the most frequent thinking error is “I can’t.”  “I can’t leave my partner,” “I can’t leave my job,” “I can’t leave my home,”  “I can’t exercise,” even though I am miserable.  The justifications for all of these are many, and at times surprisingly few.  Often there are reasonable justifications for the “I can’t:” “I can’t leave my job because I can’t afford my apartment without it.”  “I can’t exercise because I have (various physical problems).”  Okay, then let’s figure out what you CAN do.

The moment we become honest with ourselves and use “I won’t” or “I don’t want to,” or “I’m scared,” or “that’s really hard,” we take a step forward.  You can leave your job.  It will make life very difficult in some cases, and will be very scary, but you can make that change.  You can’t do certain exercise, but you can find exercises you CAN do.  Anneli Rufus wrote a book called Stuck, Why We Can’t, or Won’t Move On.  While I disagree with some of her extremes, generalizations, and some of her “all or nothing” thinking, her concepts are sound.  She covers the concept of “I can’t” very well.  People come to me when they hit a point of stuckness they don’t want to tolerate anymore, but are often not ready enough to do the things they need to do, or admit the things they need to admit to themselves, in order to become unstuck and move past “I can’t”.

Next time you use the words “I can’t,” be honest with yourself.  Are you truly unable to, or is it too hard, scary, or difficult?  This admission is incredibly difficult to make, because the next step is to admit that you CAN.  You may not have the resources (emotional, financial, physical) but often you are able to obtain these things, if you look.

Are you ready?


Learning to know what you want

What do I want to have happen?

This question is about outcomes. When I move through this situation, what to I want to have happen for me and those around me? When this situation is finished how do I want to feel? This question is about not only what I want now, but the bigger purpose and bigger goals you want to accomplish.

We often get lost in the immediate goal of feeling better in the moment. That doesn’t always move us toward success in the long term, or feeling better overall. In fact, if we aren’t looking at the bigger picture trying to just feel better in the moment can actually set us back.

Think of a situation you are struggling with right now. In the long term, what do you want to have happen? What do you want the long-term outcome to be, how do you want to feel about yourself, and how do you want to feel about the situation when it is finished? Are your short-term goals moving you toward your long-term goals?

I’ll use a common example of wanting to lose weight and decreased depression.   The long-term actions to meet the goal are to eat healthy foods and exercise on a regular basis. Foods are related to mood, and if we eat mostly junk our bodies will struggle to run, like putting bad gas in your car. Eating healthy will be like putting premium gas in your car with fuel boost. It will give you more energy and more fuel to run on. Exercising will help burn calories and help with weight, as well as release endorphins and improve serotonin and dopamine production to help with mood overall. The long-term goal of losing weight and being healthy sometimes call for sacrifices in the short term. After a long day though, a cheeseburger and a beer can sound really good.

Kids that I worked with who were on probation would often sacrifice long term goals of finishing probation (and sometimes getting out of treatment) for the short term goal of not feeling powerless. Sometimes they either didn’t know what they wanted to have happen overall, or they didn’t believe they could accomplish the bigger goal. They would use aggression, theft, self harming and drugs to try to feel less hopeless, helpless and powerless. These can distract or hide the pain in the short-term, and long-term make more problems.

What do I want to have happen? When I start to believe that it is possible, and I start to identify what the overall goal is, I can start to work toward making it happen.   Identification of our larger wants isn’t always as easy and we make it sound. The short-term wants are often siren calls distracting us. The larger goals often seem too big and too scary, making them elusive. Being able to recognize our strengths instead of just our limitations will help make those larger goals seem less impossible, and make them less elusive.

We aren’t as lost as we feel. We all just want to find peace, happiness and meaning in our lives and relationships. Being able to figure out what that means for you individually and believe that you are worth it means you can start finding the bigger goals and start taking the steps to reaching those goals. Understanding that taking power from others, hurting ourselves or others, and distracting from pain will not move us closer to our goal helps begin to identify what we can do to start the journey to peace happiness and meaning.

I want to feel more connected to my partner. I want to feel loved. I want to feel useful. I want to feel at peace. I want to feel happy.  I want to enjoy the work I do.  These wants are often masked by surface wants.  I want my husband to do the dishes. I want my boss to stop being a jerk.  I want