the gold star approach (how to)

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There’s something with which I’ve been recently experimenting: Each day, sometime during the day, or not, I’ll award myself a “gold star.” I’m tracking these on a separate timesheet, just like I track meditation and exercise. Each day is a binary “yes” or “no” for getting that gold star:


Right now, for me, getting that star is contingent on strategic actions (chosen daily) around income and friendship. But, it could be anything, and I could even see it revolving around entirely ad hoc, last minute criteria each day. Anything goes. And maybe you award “putting in an honest effort” or maybe you award only outcomes. And, maybe you’ll award that star during the day upon completion of something concrete, or maybe you wait to make the judgment call right before you go to bed. Or maybe you’ll do something completely different.

Some of those choices will have predictable consequences as per the scientific literature on goal pursuit, but the important thing here is that, for our purposes, each day boils down to a binary “yes” or “no.”

I’m wondering if this will be an exceptionally valuable practice, over time, when combined with meditation. I could see daily gold stars (or not) stimulating two extremes of behavior and emotion:

1. You become highly motivated to get that star. You reach deep within yourself every day because of that moment of judgment.

2. You self-judge, you condemn, you self-torture, you place or reveal a great and terrible burden upon yourself, and so forth.

Regarding (2), I could see things getting pretty ugly. I could also see (1) becoming (2) depending on how you decide whether or not you get a gold star.

And these two extremes, and the contingency between them, is the point. The forced-choice of a binary “yes” or “no” evokes and then denies the entirety and the nuance of one’s relationship with self and one’s relationship with world, in order to boil things down to that single record for the day. It’s potentially quite a cruel thing to do to oneself, which is still the point and also the caution, because cruelty is not the intent.

I would only suggest someone try this if they were regularly meditating.

This practice, plus meditating, might lay bare the dynamics of aspiration, the dynamics of framing goals, the dynamics of choice, the dynamics of self-expectation, the dynamics of self-judgment, the dynamics of self-torture, the dynamics of self-comforting, the dynamics of desperation, the dynamics of surrender, the dynamics of aspiration, the dynamics of…

Framing a game and judging a win or loss is an intensifier of internal dynamics. And meditation, ideally, is an optimizer of internal dynamics over time. Meditation, ideally, refines experience and action on conscious and preconscious levels. Meditation, ideally, reaches deep into neural circuitry that’s prior to consciousness, prior to suffering, prior to choice and then optimizes those circuits, over time. (More on this in future posts.)

Meditation, in some senses, sets up a feedback loop that operates on timescales of milliseconds to minutes. (Understanding what meditation can and cannot do is still a huge part of the project on the this blog.) Of course, what happens on scales of milliseconds to minutes has potential impact on all timescales. A gold star (or not) per day explicitly couples the meditation feedback loop with a wider daily feedback loop. (One can easily imagine awarding binary gold stars every week, month, year… But one thing at a time.)

Back to logistics, I would hope that someone doesn’t try this as, say, yet another motivational or organizational tool. I mean, it’s fine to use it for that, too (I am, after all), and I hope it becomes a powerful tool in your toolbox if you do. The overarching reason for using it, though, is to potentially transform and restructure your relationship with action, self, and world. And the way to do that is to pay attention to the dynamics of using it: What’s going on inside when you work with this tool? And what’s going on inside you, during the day, during any cognition related to this tool?

What happens inside you as you diverge and converge on what constitutes a gold star? What happens inside you when you decide whether or not to award a star for that day? What happens inside you when you debate whether to change the conditions for awarding? And when do you debate whether to change those conditions? And what happens emotionally when you do? Do you feel energized? Afraid? Nihilistic? Do you leap to self-attack and self-torture? Do you recursively leap to self-attack and self-torture because you’re self-attacking and self-torturing? What hurts? What feels good? Where does it hurt? Where does it feel good? What’s going on cognitively? What’s going on in your body? What happens when you “fail”? What’s happening inside you when you’re struggling (or not) to “win”?

What I would hope is that over time life, in general, gets generally better, in possibly nuanced, subtle, powerful, complex, and multifaceted ways that you can’t directly control, predict, or even entirely understand.

Or it will make people sad(der) or crazy. Or it will do nothing. Or it intricately depends on the person. This should probably be a controlled experiment, but one thing at a time. In any case, if you play with this, please *strongly* consider doing it in conjunction with at least like fifteen minutes of meditation per day. It’s meant to be done as part of an active meditation practice.

So, here’s to better beyond what we can directly control, predict, or understand. Nonsymbolic and uncomputable aspiration—that should be another future series of posts…

If you try this, I’d love to know how it goes.


Edit: To be clear, you wouldn’t have multiple “star sheets” for multiple goals. You would only have one star tracker. Everything would be folded into that single “yes” or “no” per day. Of course you could track stuff elsewhere, but you only get one super-duper, extra-special gold star per day. The technique sort of revolves around the dynamics that constitute you getting your one and only one gold star or not for that day.

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