Some Thoughts on Goals

by Max Rohde,

With a new year just having started, it is high season for goal setting. I myself had no intention before the turn of the year to make any specific effort to set or revise goals. However, ever since the date switched over to 1/1/2021, it is like some dark gravity pulls me towards wanting to reflect upon the past year and to define plans for the new one. I eventually succumbed to my urges and have been meddling with a review of my year and my goals. In the context of that, I had some general thoughts on goals and goal setting that I thought I share in this post.

Goals Should Provide Direction Not Be Yardsticks

One very popular tenant of management (often attributed to Peter Drucker but I couldn't find a primary source for this) is that you cannot manage what you cannot measure. The idea being that we need a feedback loop with precise measurement to see if we tracking nicely towards our goals. The first fallacy in my mind regarding this, is that we often limit ourselves to quantitative methods when we think of measurement (things that we can measure with numbers) and overlook that oftentimes qualitative methods are a better way to assess the achievement of something. Think of a comedy movie; can we measure how good it is by the number of jokes in the movie or how many people have seen it in the cinema, or will be need a more nuanced approach to assess its quality. The second fallacy is known as Campbell's law which essentially says that once we measure a goal with a metric, we will work towards achieving the desired change in the metric rather the goal itself. Think of a clerk being measured by the number of cases they process; surely that number will go up but whether that leads to better outcomes in the processing of these cases is uncertain.

Thus if we set ourselves goals such as loose 10 kg we do not set ourselves up for success. We may loose these kgs, for instance using a Keto or Atkins diet but we may be loosing water rather than fat and overall harming our health. It is also a sure recipe for finding yet another way to beat ourselves up about our evident failures. A better goal may be to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

The next time we may be tempted to go to McDonalds, we can then remind ourselves that this would not be in alignment with the goals we have set for ourselves. A goal can still be very powerful in directing us in every day and long term decisions, even if it is not linked to any measurable metric.

Fewer is Better

Since goals should be about direction, it is important to have as few of them as possible. If your goals are to take evening samba classes, get a promotion at work, spent more time with your children and do regular date nights with your partner, it is easy to foresee that conflicts between these goals will quickly emerge. A set of goals that makes it more difficult for us to make decisions rather than easier, is not a good set of goals. We do not like to limit the number of our goals though, since taking a goal off our list is like denying us the benefit of that goal right from the onset (which admittedly it does). We want to learn samba and we want to get a promotion. But a few minutes of tough thinking can spare us many hours and days of fruitless effort. How often do we actually achieve our goals? Certainly not as often as we like. Thus, maybe for the New Year, it is enough to start just with a single one.

Goals Do Not Imply We Are Lacking

It has never really occurred to me that there is a potential dichotomy between self acceptance and self improvement until I watched this YouTube video recently: I WAS WRONG - How I Set Goals for the New Year. I am still not convinced that this dichotomy exists but it this certainly got me thinking. Generally I think we should keep in mind that we should not see our goals as a way to overcome our intrinsic shortcomings but rather as a way to realise our potential. You are okay just how you are, even if you fail to do dental flossing and wake up at 5am every day.

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change. - Carl Rogers

Goals Should Spark Joy

By now, just about anyone should be familiar with Marie Kondo and her Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The key premise is even known to those not having read the book (such as myself): that we should discard of all the things that do not spark joy as we hold them.

I actually do not think this a very good strategy for material possessions, with so many useful and necessary things leaving me emotionally untouched. However, I think it is quite a useful way to look at goals. One of my goals (I had defined in previous times) is to be filled with purpose every day, and I have been struggling with how to achieve this. I came to the realisation that maybe what this goal needs most of all, is goals. While purpose does not necessarily need goals, and the ultimate purpose may be to indeed have no goals at all, I think at least those of us on the lower rungs of the ladder to enlightenment may be well served with goals that bring some direction to our messy lives.

Now let me give an example to illustrate what I mean when I am talking about goals that spark joy. Lets say that your goal is to become a homeowner. Maybe if you think of this goal, great happiness fills your heart and you imagine the happy times you and your family will have in your new home. That is good. However, you may also get stressed out about this goal. Maybe you think you will never get the necessary deposit, maybe you are worried about how you will become a serf to a financial institution shackled down by a crushing mortgage.

Thus our goals should not necessarily be what we deem good and sensible but something which provides us emotional comfort; something that pulls us in with a warm embrace, rather than something we are driven towards by the whip of a guilty conscience or external expectations.

Think About Goals

I think we live in a time where we often do not take time to think. Thinking is hard. Much easier to check for notifications on our phones. A good goal can change our life. We can become kinder, fitter, healthier, richer and wiser with the right goals. However, while I believe there is some value in having any goal over having no goals at all, a wrong goal can be potentially harmful to ourselves and others. Thus do not choose goals lightly. As mentioned above, it is good to have as few goals as possible; so best to make them count.

I hope that this post may provide some motivation and guidance with thinking about goals. Goals, I believe, are powerful and their power is often used to ill effect both in the professional and personal realm. Goals should not be things that make us feel good about ourselves for a few hours or day; they should be the pathway to happier, more successful and wholesome lives.