Is sitting the new smoking?

Our sedentary lifestyles are killing us. But is exercise enough? New research says no.

We’re all gonna die…

But some of us sooner than others.

If you live in a developed nation like the US or Canada, then you’re probably not gonna die from malaria, AIDS, or malnutrition.

Folks like us are much more likely to kick the bucket from heart disease, cancer, or stroke.

These so-called diseases of affluence are largely caused by lifestyle.

By lifestyle we mean cigarette smoking, eating sugary and fatty foods, not eating enough fruits and veggies, drinking too much alcohol, and lack of exercise.

In other words, things that are in our control, actions we take or fail to take.

We’ve been told that if we quit smoking, eat right, and exercise, then we can prevent these diseases.

But recent research suggests that sitting and TV watching are independent risk factors for death, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

Fitness professionals talk about how you can’t out exercise a bad diet. Well as it turns out, you can’t out exercise a sedentary lifestyle either.

Sitting too much is risky

A study published in 2012 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition tracked the lifestyles of 240,819 US adults aged 50-71, over about eight and a half years.

Overall time spent in sedentary behaviors was positively associated with mortality. In other words, people who sat more died more.

People who watched more TV had much greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease (like heart attack) as well as from cancer.

And get this — exercise only slightly reduced that risk.

People who watched more than 7 hours of TV or videos in a day had a 60% greater risk of dying over that 8 and half year period than people who watched less than 1 hour a day.

Basically, watching TV more than about an hour a day is slow suicide.

And YouTube or other streaming video is probably no different, nor are video games, or even Facebook.

In fact, if you are sitting down reading this right now, you might want to stand up.

Exercise more, sit less, kill your television

Check out this graph.

This is a rough approximation of a graph from the paper (you can click on those radio buttons to see more).

Basically what it shows is this:

  1. The less these people exercised, the more likely they were to die (as compared with the most fit and least TV-watching group which was given the reference baseline 1.0).
  2. The more TV these folks watched, the more likely they were to die, especially for the über couch potatoes.
  3. Exercise didn’t completely offset time spent watching TV. You’ve gotta exercise and not be sedentary.

Here’s a startling statistic: people who watched over 7 hours of TV a day and rarely or never exercised were 2.8 times more likely to die from all causes during the course of the study than those who watched less than an hour of TV a day and exercised 7 hours a week.

That’s huge.

But it’s even worse for cardiovascular disease.

By comparison, people who watched over 7 hours of TV a day and never exercised were 4.2 times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those who watched less than an hour and exercised like a fiend (7 hours a week).

So clearly exercise is important, but it’s not enough.

Not watching TV or otherwise sitting around on your butt is also important.

Together they can make a huge difference.

The most important takeaways from this study

Takeaway number 1:

While everyone’s been freaking out about sitting, from this study it appears that up to 6 hours sitting a day is pretty low risk. Slightly better is 3-4 hours a day . But a little sitting won’t kill you.

You don’t need to be as extreme as this guy who gave up sitting for a month. That’s just dumb.

However, if you are sitting more than 9 hours a day on average, you are putting yourself at a needlessly high health risk.

And it’s really easy to sit more than 9 hours a day. Our entire society is designed around sitting for most of our waking hours.

Before reading this research, I was easily sitting 11-14+ hours a day myself.

sedentary lifestyle chart
A typical day
An example

For my day job, I work 6 hours x 5 days a week, sitting at a desk. My commute on those days is about 90 minutes there and back. That’s already 7.5 hours of sitting.

To get under 6 hours, I can work according to the pomodoro schedule: 25 minutes focused time, 5 minute break, then repeat this 4 times before a longer break.

If I get up and move my body during each 5 minute break, that’s at least 8 x 5 = 40 minutes I’m not sitting. It’s also just a great way to stay fresh, focused, and productive.

For the longer break, I can go on a 30 minute walk outside. Then usually I have 20 minutes or more of tasks to do standing as well. So 40 + 30 + 20 = 90 minutes of non-sitting time at work which cancels out my driving sitting time.

Then I just have to not do any sitting before or after work on work days and I’ll be under the 6 hours. Since I have a standing desk at home, this may be doable.

If you work normal 8 hour days or even longer, then you’ll need to get a standing desk or an adjustable height desk (here’s one you can build for under $200). There’s just no getting around it, so best suck it up and figure out how to make it happen.

Note that standing all day sucks, maybe worse than sitting all day even, so an adjustable desk or more than one desk (sitting desk and standing desk) is the way to go if you work all day at a computer. And transition gradually into standing more so you don’t get too fatigued.

Takeaway number 2:

Sitting and watching more than an hour or two of TV a day is risky…and we should probably include YouTube videos, video games, Facebook, Twitter, porn, online gambling, and watching funny cat videos in that 1-2 hours.

That means cutting out most modern forms of online entertainment, or getting a standing desk and standing up, or doing it while walking on the treadmill. Seriously.

These two things are major lifestyle changes, but that’s the thing — it’s our lifestyles that are causing our health problems. So it’s going to be a big deal to change that.

So what can we actually do to make these major changes?

My top 7 science-based tips for preventing death-by-sitting

Ok, so sitting is deadly. What can you do about it?

1. Keep a time diary for a week. Set an alarm on your phone to go off every 30 minutes during waking hours, and write down what you were doing during that time, and whether you were sitting, watching something on the screen like TV, or doing something else. That will give you a more accurate picture of how much time you really spend sedentary.

2. If you’re chained to your screen, get a standing desk, or both a sitting and standing desk, or an adjustable height desk. Note that standing all day is painful, so if you have a standing desk take your breaks sitting or walking around. And don’t sweat it if you have to sit 4 to 6 hours a day, that’s fine. Just don’t make it 9+.

3. Watch less TV. Cancel your Netflix subscription, move your TV into a closet, or do whatever you have to do. Your life depends on it. And remember, other sitting and staring at screens probably also counts as TV in terms of mortality risk. An hour a day may be OK, but more than that and you’re committing slow, steady suicide. Get professional help you if you need it, seriously. And if you work on a screen, take lots of breaks.

4. For every hour that you spend sitting, get and move 1 to 3 times during that hour, for 1-5 minutes each time. There’s some other research which shows significant positive benefits from tiny movement breaks like this, and moderate intensity is better than low intensity. But you don’t need to go all out — save that for your main exercise sessions.

5. Exercise. Yes, it’s not enough by itself, but it is very, very important. Aim for 3-7 hours a week of moderate to vigorous intensity movement. Moderate intensity can be walking fast. Really, the more exercise the better, as long as you are adapting to it and not overtraining.

6. If you can bike or walk to work instead of driving, do it. If it takes 30 minutes to get to work this way, that’s 5 hours of moderate intensity exercise per week right there, and an hour less sitting each work day.

7. Make it fun! Replace TV watching with learning and becoming more engaged with life. Learn to dance, take up gourmet cooking, learn a new language — or whatever you want to do. And when you move your body, pick things that are enjoyable like juggling or adult gymnastics, or move mindfully to get into the flow. If you think exercise is boring or a chore, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t make it about punishing yourself or looking good. Whatever you choose to do, have fun with it.

Here’s some movement inspiration for you:

See? It can be fun. 🙂


Matthews, C.E., George, S.M., Moore, S.C. et al. “Amount of time spent in sedentary behaviors and cause-specific mortality in U.S. adults.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2012; 95: 437–445.

Read the PDF here.

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And is there someone you know who needs to move more? Email this article to them.

Thanks for reading.

What to do after you fail at your New Year’s Resolutions

How are your goals for the new year going so far? Have you failed yet? 🙂

hang in there

In NLP we have this phrase “there is no such thing as failure, only feedback.” This is the essence of a growth mindset or a learning goal orientation. Because I can improve my abilities, when I don’t immediately get what I set out to accomplish, that’s information I can use to continue to improve.

If you’ve failed at your New Year’s Resolutions already (which most people have), what have you learned that can help you to improve your goal pursuit? Did you set too high a bar and want to try lowering it? Was your goal too all-or-nothing? Perhaps try chunking it down, making your goal more feasible, but still making sure it is exciting enough to be desirable.

As far as my goals for the new year, I’ve made some progress and had some learning too. I have one fitness goal and one career goal. I keep my goals private to increase “goal shielding” so I won’t mention what they are. Basically I don’t want to get praise for having set a goal, as that can decrease motivation to actually pursue the goal.

With the fitness goal, I’ve already failed at progressing at the speed I wanted and felt discouraged for a a little while, but then realized I just needed to slow down the progression a bit. Feedback, not failure. Yesterday I met my lowered progression goal in my training – it was hard, but I did it! I might have to keep going at a slow pace, but it will still be worth it.

With my career goal, so far I’ve already tried a bunch of things and changed my mind about what exactly I’m going for, but I feel I am making progress. I’m also going slower than expected with this goal – I thought I’d have completed a bunch of things by the end of the first week in January, but as it turns out I haven’t yet. But that’s OK – I’m learning a lot, and continuing to try things.

And if you want more science with that advice, check out this fantastic interview with Kelly McGonigal over at the TED blog.

How about you? What are you learning this year so far?

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Interesting video about going a year without speaking English


Personal development blogger Scott Young and his friend Vat decided to immerse themselves in language learning by going a year without speaking English. Their plan is to live in 4 different countries and thus see how much of 4 different languages they can learn in a year’s time.

Lots of people do this sort of thing obviously – indeed it’s one of the best ways to learn a language. But few people take lots of video footage of themselves doing it and edit the footage in an interesting way quite like this:

Learning Spanish in 11 Weeks | 10-Min Documentary from The Year Without English on Vimeo.

I myself am learning Japanese right now, through a combination of an online class, Pimsleur audio courses, and watching アニメ (anime, aka Japanese animation). I would no doubt learn much more and faster if I took a year to live in Japan, but that wouldn’t fit with my other goals right now, so this will have to do!

One thing I’ve found interesting about learning a new language in my 30’s is just how much pure memorization is required in language learning…and how little memorization is required of adults in general. In NLP trainings for instance, we never require anyone to memorize anything, even short phrases or scripts. Why not though?

We expect high schoolers to memorize thousands of foreign language vocabulary words but expect nothing of the sort of adults. Perhaps we should set some higher standards for ourselves!

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Nobel Prize Winning Biologist Criticizes Major Science Journals


Wow! Apparently even major science journals like Nature, Cell, and Science can be biased by the appeal of the popular:

[Nobel prize winner] Schekman criticises Nature, Cell and Science for artificially restricting the number of papers they accept, a policy he says stokes demand “like fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags.” He also attacks a widespread metric called an “impact factor”, used by many top-tier journals in their marketing.

A journal’s impact factor is a measure of how often its papers are cited, and is used as a proxy for quality. But Schekman said it was “toxic influence” on science that “introduced a distortion”. He writes: “A paper can become highly cited because it is good science – or because it is eye-catching, provocative, or wrong.”

via Walker Traylor and others on Facebook

You can read the whole article on the Guardian here:
Nobel winner declares boycott of top science journals

Good on Schekman for pushing back!

fake new scientist magazine

This “impact factor” strikes me as similar to Google PageRank and other metrics which have lead to the creation of linkbait (annoyingly catchy headlines and images), effectively turning the entire internet into a race-to-the-bottom popularity contest.

Consider this article from the Atlantic about the linkbait site “UpWorthy” on why these annoying headlines are now dominating social media.

…how sustainable is this? Can news organizations keep promising you that their content is not only wondtacular but also, actually, wondtacular-er? Does adjective creep in headlines exist—and, if so, how can it be fought?

Of course, in self-help and personal development, this kind of inflation in marketing claims of course the norm: “Get stronger, faster, make more money, easier and faster than you ever thought possible!”

It can be humbling to slowly, cautiously, yet persistently pursue personal improvements, or study something in depth. It is incredibly difficult to do science correctly and precisely, to actually find out what is happening without bias.

And indeed I struggle with how to market a business in an environment where everyone is promising impossibilities (in the personal development world) or no changes at all are possible (in much of the psychiatric and psychotherapy world).

I hope I can present a middle ground here at Scientific Goals that is sufficiently rigorous, but that will also not be ignored because it isn’t hype-y enough!

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Great Video on Understanding the Experience of Depression

When I saw this video, I wanted to hate it…but actually it was pretty good.

Video via Kaine DeBoer on Facebook.

In particular what I liked was that the experience was described very well, at least from my own personal experiences with feeling depressed. It also fits with how people usually experience their symptoms, which is as something happening to them, not something they are doing. This video also transitioned nicely from symptoms to proposed strategies for resolution, and one of those strategies in particular was really good in my experience – that of embracing the parts of me that I didn’t like and considered “other.”

There are many types of “parts therapy” like this, but the one I found most effective for my own depression is called Core Transformation. (Note: I work for the creator of this method and facilitate sessions of it as well.) I myself practiced this method hundreds of times before I achieved a full and complete resolution of any depression symptoms…which is pretty remarkable, because I had depression symptoms for years, and like this video indicates, often depression recurs or even gets worse for many people. That was just one of the things I did, but it was by far the most helpful.

embracing the black dog of depression

I also like that they mentioned that exercise has been shown as good for depression as anti-depressant drugs. (see “Exercise for mental illness: A systematic review of inpatient studies” and “Exercise for depression” for a couple of recent examples.) Of course that’s just saying that both aren’t all that good…but at least exercise has positive side-effects, unlike anti-depressants which often have negative side-effects and are notoriously difficult to come off of (if ever).

However, there are also a few things I didn’t like about the video.

One thing I didn’t like is that they didn’t mention how anti-depressant drugs don’t appear to be any more effective than placebo for all but the most severe cases of depression according to several meta-analyses:

Initial Severity and Antidepressant Benefits: A Meta-Analysis of Data Submitted to the Food and Drug Administration.”

Antidepressant Drug Effects and Depression Severity: A Patient-Level Meta-analysis.”

The magnitude of benefit of antidepressant medication compared with placebo increases with severity of depression symptoms and may be minimal or nonexistent, on average, in patients with mild or moderate symptoms. For patients with very severe depression, the benefit of medications over placebo is substantial.

Almost all people prescribed anti-depressant drugs have mild or moderate symptoms, which means they probably shouldn’t be taking these medications at all!

In this meta-analysis, anti-depressants seem to perform slightly better than placebo and equally as well as psychotherapy, and a combined psychotherapy and anti-depressant approach seems to work best: “A Systematic Review of Comparative Efficacy of Treatments and Controls for Depression.”

The authors of this study conclude that perhaps the most important thing may be to get people involved in their own treatment. That certainly seems better to me than simply passively ingesting a pill and hoping one’s life changes as a result. In fact, I tend to think that the opposite of depression is not a cheery optimistic mood, but a sense of personal empowerment, and that personal power shows up as taking an active interest in dealing with life’s difficulties and challenges.

Publication bias may also unfairly present SSRIs as more effective than they actually are in treating depression. See “Selective Publication of Antidepressant Trials and Its Influence on Apparent Efficacy“. Indeed, there’s a lot of money riding on the idea that these drugs can make you feel better, and money can lead drug companies to shelve studies that don’t show their drugs as working.

The increasing consensus seems to be that SSRIs are no more effective than placebo for mild to moderate depression, but might have a significant effect for severe depression.

In terms of therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the #1 most recommended approach to treating depression and has a lot of evidence to support it being more effective than other approaches. However, publication bias has almost certainly overstated CBT’s effectiveness for depression. (See “Efficacy of cognitive-behavioural therapy and other psychological treatments for adult depression: meta-analytic study of publication bias.“)

My personal experience with CBT for depression is that it was quite helpful in identifying my patterns of thought which were causing me to depress myself, but not especially effective in eliminating those patterns of thought. Having learned numerous much more effective techniques of personal change from Steve and Connirae Andreas, I see standard CBT protocols as still in the dark ages – using conscious, willful effort to try to change unconscious processes…a method that will never be as effective as just changing the unconscious processing.

In any case, depression is a big topic that I have a lot of thoughts about, and I think only a bio-psycho-social approach will really do the trick.

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How can we evaluate scientific claims?

From Nature magazine, the excellent science publication:

…we suggest 20 concepts that should be part of the education of civil servants, politicians, policy advisers and journalists — and anyone else who may have to interact with science or scientists. Politicians with a healthy scepticism of scientific advocates might simply prefer to arm themselves with this critical set of knowledge.

You can read their suggestions here: Policy: Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims
Article via Michael Perez on Facebook.

In addition to their tips, I suggest a few more. In personal development and self help, fake science claims are made all the time. In particular, pay attention to these things:

  • “Studies have shown” – Which studies specifically? What researchers? What were the titles of the papers and what publication were they published in? There have even been cases of complete fabrications of studies, such as the infamous “Yale Goals Study” which never existed, despite Tony Robbins and others continuing to “reference” it.
  • “Science shows us that…” – Again, what studies specifically?
  • Referring to a single study that is not a review of many studies. A single study may later be overturned or otherwise contradicted by other studies and so should be taken with a grain of salt. Usually people will refer to a study without again saying who the researcher is and where you can read the full text or at least the abstract of the study.
  • The only source is a popular report of the science. Very often there is significant distortion of the research findings when translating the original research paper to a press release or news article. One of the most common errors is to take a single study and draw very large conclusions from the study, framing the results as making a really big difference in our understanding of something. Almost all studies make a very minor difference in our total understanding, but over time our understanding can change quite a bit.

Good science is a combination of being intensely curious and willing to experiment while also being intensely critical and focused on rigorously eliminating bias wherever possible, whereas most personal development and self help authors and speakers are really just trying to sell you something and are willing to bend or distort the truth to do so.

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Should we buy experiences instead of things?

On this special Christmas episode, Duff asks deep questions about consumerism and happiness.

Many people these days are focusing on buying experiences instead of things. But don’t we buy things because they give us experiences? And aren’t things a better buy in terms of experiences than purchasing experiences directly? Also, why are we even asking this question instead of broader questions about happiness, meaning, and ethics?

Duff rants and raves for 10 minutes on these topics. Press play to listen now:


Give Well
Against Malaria Foundation
Give Directly
The Life You Can Save

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Why low fat diets might be increasing heart disease risk

If you’ve been around the “paleo” or “ancestral eating” movements at all, you’ve probably heard that low fat, high carb diets may be making us fat (well not me, but most people).

My friend Alistair Donnell has been putting in a ton of research into this subject and in this article lays out the science for why low fat diets might actually be increasing the risk of heart disease.

It’s a bit of a tough read, but I urge you to take the time to read it anyway. Your life may literally depend on understanding this information and acting accordingly.

I had heard many of these conclusions before, but not the precise science behind why. In particular I hadn’t heard why polyunsaturated fats could be bad.

What I’m taking away from this is to have a good ratio of Omega 3s to 6s but limit these fats overall in favor of saturated fats like butter, lard, coconut oil, etc., while also reducing sugars and simple carbohydrates so that carbs are in better proportion to proteins and fats.

And of course, there will no doubt be individual differences as well, but as a general societal trend our attempt at reducing heart disease may have been to do more of what is causing the problem! (A classic systems problem.)

Click here to read the article: Likely Drivers of Atherosclerosis

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Skinny Guy Problems – Success! Gained 5lbs

Most people in the United States would like to lose a few pounds. Then there are skinny guys like me.

I’m not complaining, but a few years ago I was 138lbs at 6’5″. That’s really skinny, unhealthily skinny even. I ate and exercised my way back up to about 155lbs using bodyweight exercises and healing my gut (thanks to my herbalist).

At the end of 2012 I switched to lifting weights and wanted to continue the upward trend which had stalled for many months. Historically when I don’t focus on gaining weight, I tend to lose weight, so gaining lean muscle is like health insurance for me.

So on January 1st I set a goal to gain 5lbs, ideally of lean muscle mass but I’m wasn’t measuring too closely (still can see my flexed abs in good light which is good enough for me). To be precise, my goal was to weigh 167lbs, as weighed first thing in the morning — without clothes, before eating, and after using the bathroom.

I set this goal using the well-tested psychological method of mental contrasting with implementation intentions (see Oettingen, 2012). In other words, I first chose a desirable, highly feasible goal. Then I thought first about an aspect of the desired future, then contrasted that with an aspect of the present reality or obstacle that stood in the way. I repeated this process a few times. Then I made if-then plans to overcome each obstacle, like “if it is breakfast, I will cook and eat 5 eggs and 3/4 cup of oatmeal!”

On February 6th, I reached my goal. And I’ve maintained it or close to it since, despite going on vacation for my wedding/honeymoon for 11 days (normally I’d lose several pounds on vacation — yea, I know, skinny guy problems). I’m now solidly in the “normal” BMI for my height (not that BMI is a good measure of health, but it’s still something).

I’d actually like to gain more than 5lbs, but when I thought about a goal to get to 175lbs, it didn’t seem feasible. The most I’ve ever weighed was 165lbs…and that’s when I was taking creatine (which adds 5-7 lbs almost instantly in water weight) and stuffing myself with protein shakes on a “Body for Life” challenge. Back then I hurt for 5 days after every balls-to-the-wall workout, and felt constantly bloated and terrible due to overeating (6 meals a day) to try to gain weight. It was a totally unhealthy method based on self-hate, and I don’t recommend it.

Now I’m almost never sore after a workout, and my main strategy was to just eat slightly bigger meals 3 times a day, and eat until somewhat full each meal. I switched to StrongLifts 5×5 as my training program to make sure I was progressing in the major barbell strength exercises. I already eat relatively healthy and focus on getting enough protein in each meal in order to gain mass (about 0.7g protein per lb of bodyweight each day — I’ve found the standard “1g per lb of bodyweight” to be excessive for me).

Let me tell you this though — it wasn’t all linear progress. The first few days after I started making bigger breakfasts I had some linear progress, but then I stalled out and even backslid a bit when I approached 165lbs. I changed to StrongLifts and it took a week or for the heavy weights to kick in because the volume was less than the previous program I was on, and I also bumped up my lunches and tried eating bigger at dinner. I also threw in some cottage cheese and fruit before bed. All these things combined seemed to do the trick.

I suggest instead of a radical weight loss (or gain) plan based on self-hatred, try setting a 5lb goal (or other highly feasible, yet desirable and challenging goal) and reaching and maintaining that first through healthy habits. When you succeed, you will know what it takes, and be ready to set another 5lb goal if you so desire. And it can be tough to change one’s diet and exercise habits — another reason to set smaller goals so you can take the challenges in bite-sized chunks (pun intended).

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Second Experiment – Learning

My first experiment was a failure…but I learned from it, and have set up a second experiment which is now in process. So the failure was transformed into helpful feedback.

Since I’m still pursuing this second experiment, I’m keeping it a secret for now! But an interesting thing happened as I pursued this new goal — I found that in the pursuit, I created the philosophy page for this website, which caused me to come across information leading me to create a much larger vision for my career. Since this is a career goal I’m pursuing, the revisioning of my career took me away from implementing my plan!

When we act, we get feedback from the environment and also from within ourselves. This feedback can change how we pursue the goal (the plans). (This is the TOTE loop as taught in NLP and conceived of by Miller et al.)

The feedback we get from doing things can also change the goal itself. (This is what researchers Wang and Mukhopadhyay call the TOTAL loop.) Basically, if the goal wasn’t feasible, we might adjust it downwards, whereas if it was achieved or too easy, we might adjust it upwards to make it more challenging.

The feedback can also change whether we continue to pursue or abandon the goal. If it’s totally not feasible and we discover this by doing something and finding out it is totally unrealistic, we might abandon it altogether. Or we might find that the goal is no longer desirable to us — for instance if we discover that the costs outweigh the benefits.

And what I am adding now based on insights from today is that the feedback can change the vision or context from which the goal comes about in the first place. In pursuing one goal this week, I came up with a vision for this project which then greatly broadened my vision for my career, which put me into a different mindset (a deliberative mindset) than the mindset used for executing plans of action (an implemental mindset). (See Gollwitzer and Bayer, 1999.)

Context is hidden from us when we are in an implemental mindset (focused on how to get something done), and appears again when we are in a deliberative mindset (focused on what options we have and choosing which to do). This can be really helpful, because otherwise we’d be constantly trying to choose between options. But the implementation mindset can also be like putting on blinders.

In any case, now I have to update the flow chart I made for the Creative Solutions Generator. My learning feeds back into the process itself, making the process better!

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