Grand Ambitions, Modest Goals

At the beginning of this year, I set myself an exercise target. Of course, I am hardly the first to resolve in early January to get fitter; of course, this is hardly the first time I have done it myself. What’s been different this year is that I settled on a target that I knew I could achieve, with minimal disruption to my normal daily routine; but a target, nonetheless, that would require persistence over the course of the whole year, and might make some noticeable improvement to my wellbeing. Now, a quarter of the way through 2016, I’m 40% of the way to my goal, and I feel… better. A bit. I feel positive, at least. I’m almost embarrassed to state my target here. Especially given where I drew inspiration - my friend James’s epic cycle around Europe last year. I am so full of admiration for that kind of monumental enterprise, and my ‘grand ambition’ might be something similar - kayak around Britain’s wonderful coast, perhaps, or walk another of our long distance footpaths. But that kind of time commitment is just never going to fit in with everything else I like and have to do, certainly not until the kids are old enough to come along. Even the more typical schemes of the newly 40 are out for me - even if I fancied running a marathon I know from experience that I would not find the time for regular runs of any useful distance.

So instead, I decided to do 10,000 press-ups in 2016.

10,000 is a nice, large-ish, round number; but over the course of a year it’s also extremely do-able, easy even, with a minute’s commitment on more days than not. Even I can find that. I can do it late evening, I can do it anywhere there’s 6’ of vacant floor, I can even do it after a drink or two. Of course, this regime is never going to propel me to any kind of superhuman levels of fitness. At this stage, now that I’m older than pundits, coaches, even fathers of international players of sports I follow, I think I have finally let go of that dream. Oh and, if you know me - don’t expect to notice any difference in my appearance. My body weight remains a constant ‘scrawny’ more or less whatever I throw at myself; exercise merely redistributes it to somewhat more flattering locations than do food and drink. (Whether you find that enviable or not depends, I submit, on whether you grew up a chunky or a skinny teen…)

But for all that, I do feel a little better, physically and mentally, and I’m now so far ahead of schedule - and accelerating further ahead - that I might yet end up aiming a bit higher.

As for the purpose of writing this on a science blog?

Well, ambition is a great thing, a necessary thing - to paraphrase Browning, if our reach does not exceed our grasp, then what are Science and Nature for? But it’s goals that get things done. And by persistently attaining modest goals, you can end up achieving a surprising amount. This is the thinking behind the well known advice to write every day - advice I am much more inclined to heed now. As every writer knows, starting is the hardest thing, so find an easy way in: get that methods section underway, that study site description; just get a few sentences down and that paper will be written one hundred words at a time.

Listen - if you’re the Eddie Izzard type, go ahead and run your marathons and aim for the stratosphere and good luck to you. I will follow your career with respect and admiration. But if you feel crushed by such grand ambitions, why not set yourself some modest goals? Make them goals you know you can meet, that cannot be derailed by the slings and arrows of reviewer 3; make them goals that, given a fair wind, you might well exceed. For instance: I’ve not succumbed to science Twitter’s encouragement to read #365papers - I might read more papers by striving for one a day, but as soon as it was obvious that I would fall short (after about #7papers, probably…), I’d lose heart. Maybe next year though I’ll sign up to #52papers - which would still be a worthwhile boost to my scholarship, and one much more likely to get ticked off.

Which raises a final important point: keep score. My press-ups are logged in a google spreadsheet, so I can tap the day’s tally in on my phone and instantly see my running total. I am lazy, unmotivated, a procrastinator extraordinaire; but I am a competitive sod, and keeping my foot on the throat of that tally drives me on. So many metrics quantify our scientific output, but it’s up to us to record our progress towards those outputs - words or lines of code written, organisms sorted and identified, seeds sown, papers read. Get those tables drawn up, and commit to beating yourself at your own game.

Anyway. I’m unlikely to write a self-help book, and much of the above in any case is just elementary project management. But I’ve found the setting of modest goals a useful way to sidle up to grander ambitions. Talking of which, that’s my 900 words written for today. Must push on. Or even, push-up…