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.

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