The Problem with Goals

Written on August 21, 2009. Written by .

Conventional wisdom tells us that we should strive to be goal-oriented, and to most of us this sounds like good advice. There are things we want and setting up goals will keep our efforts focused on achieving those things. It’s true that goals will help you focus your efforts and thus aid you in attaining what you want, but that is also the problem with goals: they keep you focused on some target in the future. Now I’m definitely not trying to say that you should disregard the future, not at all. But if you spend a lot of time focused on the future, you automatically become attached to expectations about the future and the results of your efforts, which is likely to generate mental anguish at some point when things don’t work exactly as planned.

First of all, what do I mean by an attachment? An attachment refers to that portion of one’s mental configuration that causes one to experience mental pleasure or pain corresponding to one’s success or failure in some aspect of life. So if you are attached to making money, then you feel mental pleasure when you get more money and feel mental pain when you lose money. Attachments often end up causing problems because of what’s called negativity bias: you feel more pain for a given loss than pleasure for an equivalent gain. And what is worse is that we don’t have direct control over the attachment formation process. It happens automatically when we make conscious efforts and plan for the future.

The only solution is to avoid thinking about the future so much, but how is that possible without abandoning our desires? The solution is to establish principles and have confidence in their ability to steer your life in the right direction. The key idea here is that you only have to do a small amount of planning to get yourself on the right course, then let autopilot take over while you live in the moment.

For example, I have the principle of never drinking alcohol. So when I go to a bar, I never have to analyze if I should drink or how much I should drink, which would be contingent upon what I have to do the next day, who is driving back, if I can handle the extra calories, what people will think about me, and so on. It can be a complex decision, and making the wrong choice either way can make you feel bad the next day. For example, if you have to go to work hungover or if you did not drink and missed out on meeting someone because of it. I never have such regrets because drinking is not even a choice in my life.

This same concept can be applied to many other examples, such as the common one of saving money. Let’s say you really want to be able to travel abroad once a year. You can establish the principle that your job must pay enough to support this habit, assuming this is realistic. Then you will never be tempted by the job that seems a bit more fun, but pays less – it’s just not a financially viable option. Then you use direct deposit to have a portion of your paycheck go into a vacation account that is hidden from your sight and difficult to access. That way you don’t have to stress about how much you get to spend, as long as you follow the principle of never touching the vacation account except for use on vacations.

Of course the hard part is truly convincing yourself of your principles. If you are not fully convinced, then doubt will creep in, forcing you to re-evaluate your principles often, which constitutes further planning. That is where philosophy comes in. Philosophy takes you through all the concepts needed to make these decisions wisely. But most of all, philosophy helps you get past the fear of making a mistake in your planning, which stems from an attachment to life-quality maximization. A good philosophy will detach you from life-quality maximization so that you can see clearly that “getting the wrong answer” is not the same as making a mistake in a forced-choice paradigm. If there is no way to deduce the best option, as is often the case, then you shouldn’t think of your decision as a mistake even if it turns out poorly. The best that you can do is tweak your principles as new information comes in.

Is it possible to make mistakes that could have been prevented by active planning? I suspect so, but I think it is rather unlikely that they will be grave enough to outweigh the costs of active planning. Most probably, active planning will buy you some small extra pleasures at the cost of a big attachment liability. The reason the extra pleasures are relatively small is due to pyschology. Once our fundamental physical and psychological needs are met, additional benefits provide little additional happiness. Principles generally suffice for attaining these needs. Beyond these fundamental needs, the biggest hindrance to happiness comes from our own internal mental problems, which are only exacerbated by active planning through the attachment formation process. Continually churning on your dilemmas, as in the case of goal-oriented behavior, is not likely to get you much further, but it is likely to cause more problems for you.

Read more from the How to Live category. If you would like to leave a comment, click here: 9 Comments. or stay up to date with this post via RSS from your site.

Leave a Comment

If you would like to make a comment, please fill out the form below.

Name (required)

Email (required)



9 Comments so far
  1. bspice August 22, 2009 4:06 am

    Principals are very important to overcome cyclic psychology, and to avoid the need to deeply analyze every decision you make. Goals are important as well, for some definition of goal.

    Planning and goals allow you to get where you want to go easier, but it is dangerous to overplan, or have too many goals. If you have a few goals (easily less than 10), you can work on them gradually, and eventually achieve them. Also, it is important to remember not to become focused too much on your goals. You shouldn’t become frustrated if you are unable to work on your goal for a few days because you have other engagements.

    Several guidelines for goals:
    1. They must be achievable, regardless of how the world works out. Don’t make them dependent on others.
    2. They must be fairly short-term, and fairly easy. They shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve that you will give up.
    3. They must not be too torturous to work on. If you enjoy working on them, then you are more likely to achieve them.
    4. They must be global things you like, not something new you will get bored with.
    5. Don’t have too many goals.

    If you follow these guidlines, you can achieve your goals. You won’t be too attached to the end result vs. the time you put in achieving the goal.

    Good examples of goals: Reading some book, study some language, create a computer program with some specific features, spend time rock climbing, try to start a company.

    Bad examples of goals: Get an A in some class, get a paper published in some journal, become the best at something, become rich, learn everything, start a successful company.

    You can have principals that align with what I consider bad goals, and your goals you do have can align with the bad goals, but they are the ones you are setting yourself up for disappointment if you focus too much on them.

  2. cspice August 25, 2009 6:03 am

    Hey bspice, thanks for the comment. It seems that you are implicitly disagreeing with something, but I wonder what part of my argument you disagree with.

    Also, I should add a bit more that I forgot to put in the post. For this strategy to be effective, one needs to be very vigilant during periods of planning. If you start getting excited about your plans for the future, then you are actively in the process of building attachments. So when you plan you should truly calm yourself by doing meditation beforehand. If you catch yourself getting excited or nervous then you should pause for another meditation break. This care that must be taken to avoid building attachments is the reason that I propose isolating special times to think about the future rather than having ever-present goals and goal-oriented thought processes.

  3. bspice August 27, 2009 6:08 am

    First I will summarize your argument:
    1. Goals help give you direction.
    2. Goals keep you focused on a target in the future.
    3. We automatically become attached to something in the future when we plan or focus on the future too much.
    4. If the plans don’t work out, we will become depressed.
    5. General principles can guide you in the direction you wish to go.
    6. You must decide on general principles to live your life by, rather than chasing goals.

    My main argument is only that by choosing goals that are impossible to fail to achieve, you won’t become depressed, because you can’t fail to achieve them. Statement 4 doesn’t apply for correctly choosen goals.

    Also, if your goals are fun to work on on their own, or at least not too bad to work on, you can stay in the present instead of staying in your mental view of the future. If you become attached to future outcomes entirely in your control, it might not be too dangerous. I agree that you shouldn’t fantasize too much about how the future could work out, but the excitement about the future can be good to feel sometimes too. You also won’t be too focused on the future if you have goals that will be accomplished relatively quickly. By avoiding goals, you avoid the feeling of accomplishment you get when you do achieve them.

    As far as productivity goes, the direction you get through goals is stronger than the direction you get through general principles. Principles are mostly useful to avoid needing to analyze every choice you make deeply.

  4. cspice August 27, 2009 4:55 pm

    bspice: Your summary is very accurate, though I think number 4 could be deceptively oversimplified. According to your argument, goals within your control shouldn’t cause too many problems, which makes sense based on your interpretation of point number 4 because those goals should always work out for you. However, I have learned from personal experience that such goals can still cause stress and anxiety. Why? Because there is never a goal that we have complete control of the outcome. We don’t even have full control over ourselves in the moment, and we have much less control over our future selves. In the future we may experience cyclic psychology, abandon the goal, then come back to it later and feel guilty that we wasted so much time. Or our own best efforts may disappoint us. The point is, any goal that is completely safe can easily be converted into a principle.

    You also bring up an interesting point about missing out on the satisfaction of completing a goal if you don’t have goals. I agree that without goals and attachments your emotional response to a success will be tempered. However, that doesn’t eliminate the appreciation of what you have done in the moment. Actually, the fact that you didn’t see it coming all along may give you that extra surprise factor.

    Your final point about productivity is the standard defense for goals. My counter-argument is that productivity is subordinate to rational hedonism. What value does productivity have if it doesn’t make your own life better?

  5. bspice August 30, 2009 4:35 am

    I suppose my argument that productivity is good will ultimately turn into circular reasoning. I define productivity as making progress towards your goals. And I value goals because they increase productivity.

    Goals are by definition the target of where you want your life to lead to. Principles are by definition the direction you want your life to go. They are very similar, but I can see how they are different, and understand why prefer one over the other. Principles focus on the present, while goals focus on the future. It seems that goals get you where you want to go more directly than principles though.

    If you can truly live without goals, then you live without a target for where you want your life to lead. I think you can deceive yourself into thinking you don’t have goals, by ignoring them and focusing more on the present, but eventually they will creep back up and you could have regrets that your life didn’t end up the way you’d hoped earlier. Just because you don’t state something as a goal doesn’t mean that it isn’t a goal. It seems most people who reach middle age have a midlife crisis because they tried to ignore their goals. You can overcome this disapointment further on if you do have goals, or if you have very well thought out principles. I think goals are just easier and safer in this scenario.

    With regards to getting upset about not accomplishing goals, cyclic psychology is the main killer here, and I think it needs further analysis. We should analyze why we suffer from cyclic psychology, and how to overcome it. I’m guessing the modern technological lifestyle with instant feedback, and information at your fingertips is probably a major cause.

  6. cspice August 31, 2009 8:16 pm

    When you say “you could have regrets that your life didn’t end up the way you’d hoped earlier,” there is an underlying assumption that you need to _get something_ out of life in order to remain happy and if things don’t go according to your plans then you are doomed to live in misery. Psychology doesn’t support this idea; instead it tells us that people adapt to their situation with a sort of psychological immune system. I would argue that misery is not usually caused by eternal regret, but more often it is caused by the fear of future regret, which is what you are addressing here. So you can choose between setting goals, which feeds your fear of future regret or abandoning goals, which reduces your fear of future regret.

    I believe that there is no set amount of achievement that we need to attain in order to be happy. I believe that we just need to satisfy our needs and avoid psychological sabotage, such as the fear of future regret. Of course one of our needs is a feeling of significance and meaningful work, but that can still be found without goals.

    As for mid-life crises, I view them more as a result of following goals than ignoring them. If the middle-aged worker didn’t have goals, then why would they still be in a job they don’t truly appreciate?

  7. bspice September 24, 2009 5:10 am

    I’m not sure I can agree with you yet about goals having problems that principles overcome.

    A goal is simply something you want to achieve. It is something you are actively deciding to work toward achieving. The only difference between this and any other need/want is that you have identified this as something to focus on.

    It is impossible to get rid of all of your wants. If you have no wants, you will just sit there until you develop some wants (perhaps due to boredom). Once you have a want, you have 3 options – start working to get what you want now, put your want in some mental list to work on later, or you could just ignore the want. Both of the first two options are deciding to have a goal, as you are deciding to work towards one of your wants.

    You can feel that you don’t have any goals, mostly by ignoring wants that will take a long time to achieve, but they can still come up sometimes. One of my arguments is that you can’t ignore long-term wants forever – this will lead to regrets in the future.

    Perhaps you can achieve long-term wants by well choosen principles rather than having goals, but this could be less efficient. If your principles are explicitely choosen to avoid thinking about the future, you might decide against principles that align with long-term wants.

    My other main argument is that there is a trade-off between thinking of present happiness and future happiness. Well choosen goals can maximize future happiness rather than current happiness, and may lead to higher expected life happiness overall.

    There is a problem with goals: you can become focused on some target, and simply live your life like a computer – you are just running a program until you reach the destination.

    I haven’t seen enough psychological analysis to see whether there is a benefit or not of goals. I think I need to see more scientific evidence one way or the other rather than philosophical arguments.

    Also, I’d be interested in seeing what principles you have choosen.

  8. cspice October 18, 2009 6:53 pm

    bspice, you said “Perhaps you can achieve long-term wants by well choosen principles rather than having goals, but this could be less efficient.”

    This concern over efficiency is what I call “attachment to life-quality maximization”, which I claim to be a dangerous attachment to have. This is the difference between maximizers and satisficers. Satisficers are less attached to life-quality maximization. Indeed, they are thought to be slightly less efficient, but they are also much happier on average. The important fact here is that “getting what you want” does not bring much of an increase in happiness beyond a certain, relatively low threshold determined by “what you need.” This is why active goal usage is more of a cost than a benefit.

  9. cspice March 29, 2010 3:25 am

    I found a good video that makes a similar point about the problem with goals. The speaker’s main points is that we should “invest in the process, not in the outcome”. Toward the end he says that everything we do is “going on a journey” and suggests that we ask ourselves “is this a journey I want to take?” I also agree with his implicit assertion that people tend to blindly fall into activities that lead them to suboptimal enjoyment like watching hours of semi-interesting TV instead of finding a really good movie.

© Copyright thrive by design - Powered by Wordpress - Designed by Speckyboy