Essay

Reality-Based Goal Setting

By Duff McDuffee on January 1st, 2013

There is a lot of advice in books, courses, and on the internet about how to set and achieve goals, but little of it is based in the scientific study of goal pursuit.

Many times people go about pursuing a desired outcome by this method:

Naïve Model of Goal Striving
1. Commit to goal.
2. ???
3. Profit!

But goal commitment alone is not enough (see Gollwitzer and Sheeran, 2006). So others recommend a different approach:

Magical Wish-Fulfillment Model of Goal Striving
1. Fantasize about a desired outcome.
2. ???
3. Profit!

When step two is a story about brains or spiritual “laws” or the “subconscious mind,” this approach may even sound plausible. Unfortunately, it is false.

Scientific study of positive fantasies shows that indulging in the good feelings of thinking about desired outcomes can backfire (see Oettingen, 2012). In fact, thinking negative thoughts is more likely to be associated with goal success, perhaps due to considering possible obstacles and spontaneously making plans to overcome them.

In making plans, we have the beginnings of a more reality-based approach to goals:

Naïve Rational Planner Model of Goal Striving
1. Decide upon goal.
2. Make a detailed plan for how to accomplish the goal.
3. Execute plan.
4. Profit!

Yet plans often fail due to not accounting for potential obstacles along the way:

Mature Rational Planner Model of Goal Striving
1. Decide upon goal.
2. Make a detailed plan — which includes likely obstacles and how to overcome them.
3. Execute plan and adjust plan as needed.
4. Profit!

Now we are dealing with reality on its own terms. Still, how do we decide upon a goal and make a plan in the most effective manner? When do we execute the plan and when do we instead adjust the plan or even abandon the goal?

We can apply several key concepts from the psychological literature on goals to help us answer these questions. But the scientific literature is not exactly organized in such a way as to be immediately practical.

We can also apply a concept from systems theory and cybernetics (also found in Lean Startup ideas), that of the feedback loop. By applying feedback loops, we can create cycles which allow us to learn from each attempt at reaching our goal.

Goal pursuit is not exactly a linear process from A to B in X steps. Using feedback loops allows us to adjust to reality more flexibly, branching out in different directions in response to what we learn and how our environment changes. This way, we can become “antifragile” in our goal pursuit. To be antifragile is to be beyond robust in continuing to pursue our goal despite obstacles. Instead, we can actually learn and grow from stressors, challenges, and unexpected obstacles.

The model I’ve come up with for goal striving thus looks something like this:

Goal Ecology Model of Goal Striving

1. Choose a feasible, desirable, and challenging wish.

2. Starting with an aspect of the desired future, mentally contrast thinking about the desired future with an aspect of the present reality that is an obstacle. Repeat 0-3 times or so.

3. Create one or more, low-risk if-then plans that specify the where, when, and how of goal-striving, especially for all-known obstacles to goal achievement.

4. With an experimental and curious attitude (growth mindset), try out your initial plan(s) and observe carefully what happens as a result.

5. If you did not reach your outcome, return to step 2. If your goal is no longer feasible, desirable, or challenging, mental contrasting may lead to abandoning or modifying your goal. Feel free to do that if the goal no longer meets these three criteria.

6. If you did reach your outcome, keep up the good work and review your if-then plans until they are habitual. If it stops working, return to step 2 for new obstacles.

7. Consider also not striving for too many challenging goals simultaneously based on predictions of how many learning loops will be needed to complete a goal, and contextual obstacles that arise like lacking time or energy for goal pursuit. (This is technically already included in feasibility and desirability estimates, but it can be good to make explicit.)

The Creative Solutions Generator

I’ve put together a working prototype of just such a method I’m calling The Creative Solutions Generator. It is a science-based technique for pursuing challenging personal development goals such as getting in shape, quitting a bad habit, becoming more productive, or just about anything else that you would like to have happen which you find feasible, desirable, and challenging.

I’ve already tested version 0.1 with 7 or 8 people (besides myself) and got pretty good results. My beta testers were exercising more, meditating regularly, and cultivating creative habits as a result of just an hour of coaching with this method. But I learned that one session is not enough, as sometimes our solutions work for a while and then stop working, or even after trying to predict all possible obstacles there are still more unexpected ones that come along.

So now I’m doing an experiment that includes feedback loops over multiple sessions in v0.2. In the month of January 2013, I will be looking for up to 3 people who would like to try this method. The structure will be 4 coaching sessions over the course of the month of January wherein you and I decide upon a goal intention (or two) and then work together, using the science-based methods in the Creative Solutions Generator, to try out approaches to pursuing your goals, for the purposes of learning what works and what doesn’t work in attaining your chosen outcome. I suspect the success rate will be even higher than that of my initial group.

To find out more about the pricing and how to sign up for this experimental coaching, please go to my new site Scientific Goals.

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