The Case Against Goals — and an Alternative

Goal setting is touted in many self-help books as a sure path to success and happiness. Ironically, such widespread agreement makes me want to question the whole strategy even more.

Turns out that there are plenty of people willing to join me.

Goals can fail to satisfy 

Start with Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert and his well-researched, entertaining book Stumbling On Happiness.

We often set goals based on what we think will make us happy in the future. The problem, says Dan, is that we are lousy at predicting how we will feel in a decade, a year, or even a month from today. This means that we can achieve our goals without getting the emotional payoff that we originally wanted.

Several psychologists are researching this phenomenon, which is called affective forecasting. Dan’s site lists some relevant studies.

Goals depend on sustained effort

Jeff Goins argues that “goals are a waste of time” because they seduce us into relying on planning.

How well do you act on your plans to achieve your goals? If you struggle with procrastination and follow-through, then the odds are against you.

Many achievements are unplanned

In addition, many wonderful things happen to us — such as making friends, falling in love, or finding a dream job — without planning. Focusing exclusively on our goals can blind us to surprise opportunities.

Goals highlight the gap between what we have and what we want

Shane Parrish notes that setting our sights on a long-term goal highlights the discrepancy between our current state and our ideal state:

Goal-oriented people mostly fail. If your goal is to lose 20 pounds, you will constantly think that you are not at your goal until you reach it. If you fall short you’re still a failure. The only way to reach your goal is to lose the 20 pounds. It’s a state of near perpetual failure.

Replacing goals with daily practices

Fortunately there is a way to overcome these obstacles: Let go of your goals and focus instead on small, daily behavior changes.

I’m actually skeptical about long-term goals that don’t lead to daily behavior change.

This idea is developed in a quirky and delightful book by cartoonist Scott Adams — How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. According to Scott, “goals are for losers” and “systems are for winners”:

If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.

The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavors. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system.

The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system.

Why delay gratification? 

That last paragraph is crucial. Every time that you do your small daily behavior, you experience immediate success. And if that behavior is something you enjoy, then you can savor the process of behavior change as much as the results.

My friend Judy put it this way: “Each day is whole and good all by itself. I can still accomplish things and NOT locate myself on an arduous path of incompleteness and frankly, pain.”


Where to learn more

If you want to further explore the pitfalls of goal setting and play with some alternatives, check out the following:

Also listen to this podcast, in which James Altucher urges us to forget about goals and base our daily activities on themes instead.

I wish you daily success and fulfillment.

Ditch Generic Advice for Self-Help That Really Helps

Orin Davis

Orin Davis

I’m not a huge fan of TED Talks, but here’s one worth watching. It’s by Orin Davis — principal investigator at the Quality of Life Laboratory, adjunct professor of psychology and management at Baruch College, and lecturer in Critical and Creative Thinking at UMass Boston.

Some juicy quotes:

These are a bunch of people that want you to pay them for the privilege of telling you what to do. How does that sound?

Most of the advice that you’re reading is rather generic. It’s not really tailored to you. The people who write this, they have no idea who you are. They have no idea what your life is like. They have no idea how you’ve bent, contorted, twisted yourself to deal with the contingencies that you call life. 

Even those of us who do research in positive psychology — our results are based on inferences that come from averages. Yes, they may be randomized controlled trials. And yes, we may be finding an effect across the mean. But they’re still averages. 

So as much as our results are theory-based, data driven, and jargon-laden, your mileage may vary. 

The other problem we run into in the advice industry is this thing called “best practices” — the idea that if we can find all the successful people and we figure out what made them all successful, then if we do that, we’ll be successful, too. 

The problem is the people who tried the very same strategies and failed, and we don’t know who they are. Because if you fail, you fall off the radar. We don’t track you. We don’t know how you failed. We don’t know why you failed.

How willing would you be to try these best practices if you found out that only 10 percent of the people that use them succeed?

How similar is your definition of success to that of the people we studied? Do you want what they have? Do you want to be like them? Because their contingencies are different. Their lives are different. Their goals are different. 

You’ve got your own path. You should walk it yourself. 

The most important thing we need to do is be fearless.

Also see these articles by Orin:

Making Self-Help Effective

Reverse Engineering Positive Psychology

Discovering What Works — Testing an Author’s Ideas for Yourself

Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests. After examination, believe what you yourself have tested and found to be reasonable and conform your conduct thereto — BUDDHA

Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own — BRUCE LEE

These quotes often come to mind when I pick up a book written by someone with instructions for changing my behavior. On the one hand, I feel a sense of possibility and hunger for new ideas. At the same time, I brace for disappointment.

In book publishing, the self-help and business genres are plagued with two intractable problems:

  • Even well-researched and tested ideas might not work for you. Writers and speakers are often appealing to the masses. Authors splatter a lot of ideas on their audiences, cross their fingers, and hope that the content resonates with as many people as possible. This is about as precise as painting a barn door by throwing open cans of paint at it. Individual differences get ignored. Techniques that work for someone else might fall flat for you.

One solution is to consistently ask three questions about any idea:

  • Is this idea worth taking seriously? Be open-minded and skeptical at the same time. Yes, expose yourself to new perspectives. At the same time, keep your crap-detector handy.
  • Does this idea call on me to do something? What’s the overall outcome or big result that the author promises me? What’s the very next action that I take to achieve that outcome?
  • Did that idea work for me? As you experiment with an author’s suggestions, collect data. Monitor your new behaviors and their results. You’ll experience the power of precise awareness — and discover what truly works for you.

Translating James Altucher’s Daily Practice into Tiny Habits

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey raises an inspiring question: What one new thing could you do on a regular basis to make a tremendous positive difference in your life?

For answers, we can turn to James Altucher’s concept of a daily practice. James urges us to do something every day that promotes health in four dimensions — physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.

This suggestion becomes even more powerful when we translate James’s general suggestions into Tiny Habits as suggested by psychologist BJ Fogg.

The Nature of Tiny Habits

Tiny Habits are behaviors that:

  • You do at least once a day
  • Take less than 30 seconds
  • Require little effort

For example:

  • After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.
  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my spouse a loving message.
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.

Tiny Habits work because they’re “baby steps” — easy to do. This eliminates any need for “motivation” or “willpower.”

Tiny Habits also tend to expand naturally. If you start flossing one tooth on a regular basis, for example, then you’re likely to start flossing more of them.

Designing Tiny Habits

BJ Fogg urges us to put Tiny Habits in writing and state them in a precise way: a trigger (After I pour my morning coffee) followed by the specific behavior (I will text my spouse a loving message).

Following are examples of Tiny Habits from BJ Fogg. (For more ideas, see Designing Behavior Change — An Introduction to the Work of BJ Fogg.) I’ve grouped these examples into the four categories of daily practice. Remember that triggers vary from person to person: Choose a daily event or stable habit that you already have.

Tiny Habits for Physical Health

  • After I start the shower, I will do two push ups.
  • After I start the coffee maker, I will step on the yoga mat.
  • After I get home from work, I will put on my walking shoes.
  • After I shower, I will fill a glass of water.
  • After I get dressed, I will throw out one bad food item in my house.

Tiny Habits for Emotional Health

  • After I turn out the lights, I will kiss my wife.
  • After I get dressed in the morning, I will go downstairs and give my husband a hug.
  • After I arrive home, I will kiss my wife and baby.
  • After I get out of the shower, I will kiss my husband.
  • After I get out of bed, I will hug my partner.

Tiny Habits for Intellectual Health

  • After I clean up breakfast dishes, I will list one idea for a blog post.
  • After I plug in my cell phone to charge, I will write one sentence.
  • After I plug in my laptop to charge, I will write three words in my journal.
  • After I turn off the TV, I will recite one line of poetry.
  • After I get on the bus, I will I open my workbook.

Tiny Habits for Spiritual Health       

  • After I turn on my computer, I will take two deep breaths.
  • After I step out on the deck at night, I will look up at the stars.
  • After I floss, I will smile.
  • After I sit down at my desk, I will address a thank you note to one person.
  • After my feet touch the floor in the morning, I will say “It’s going to be a good day.”  

James Altucher on the Power of a Daily Practice  

330px-JamesAltucherMy favorite blogger is James Altucher — investor, entrepreneur, and author of 11 books. He crosses the business, spirituality, and self-help genres with writing that’s raw, funny, and insightful.

The hub of James’s work is the notion of a daily practice. This is a cluster of habits designed to keep your “four bodies” — physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual — in prime health.

I’ve culled the essence of James’s daily practice from several of his blog posts and books. Following are my notes, including selected quotes from James.

Physical Health

  • Eat well — “Do not eat after 6PM. Totally hard, but you’ll sleep better. And you’ll lose weight naturally.”
  • Sleep well — “Go to sleep by 9PM. Wake up by 5AM. The early bird gets the worm. Besides, it’s peaceful when it’s early.”
  • Exercise — “This doesn’t mean go to the power gym with a trainer. It might just mean take a walk three times a week. Whatever works for you…. Also, spending this time helps your mind better deal with its daily anxieties.”

Emotional Health

  • Move toward people who love and support you — “If someone lifts me up, I bring them closer.”
  • Move away from people who drain you — “When you get in the mud with a pig, the pig gets happy and you get dirty. Cut out people that drag on you…. And I never owe anyone an explanation. Explaining is draining.”
  • Be honest — “Try being honest for a day (without being hurtful). It’s amazing where the boundaries are of how honest one can be. It’s much bigger than I thought.”
  • Be quiet — “Instead of speaking the average 2500 words a day that most people speak, it would be nice for me to speak 1000 words a day when possible.”

Intellectual Health

  • Read — “Every day, read/skim chapters from books on at least four different topics.”
  • Write down ten ideas every day — “It doesn’t matter if they are business ideas, book ideas, ideas for surprising your spouse in bed, ideas for what you should do if you are arrested for shoplifting, ideas for how to make a better tennis racquet, anything you want.”

Spiritual Health

  • Pray — “… doesn’t matter if I’m praying to a god or to dead people or to the sun or to a chair in front of me – it just means being thankful. And not taking all the credit, for just a few seconds of the day.”
  • Meditate — “Sit in a chair, with your back straight. Watch your breathing…. You can also meditate for 15 seconds by really visualizing what it would be like meditate for 60 minutes.”
  • Express gratitude — “I try to think of everyone in my life I’m grateful for. Then I try to think of more people. Then more.”
  • Forgive — “I picture everyone who has done me wrong. I visualize gratefulness for them (but not pity).”
  • Read sacred texts — “Read a bible, book on Buddha or a positive philosopher. Think positive thoughts, and appreciate your existence.”
  • Detach from negative emotions — “Whenever you notice you are complaining or anxious or nervous or scared, try to stop yourself and do two things: Repeat to yourself, I notice I’m feeling anxious. This distances you from the feeling of I’m anxious!
  • Surrender — “You’ve done all you can do. All that is within your power, your control. Now, give up the results.”
  • Stay in the present moment — “All fears from the past, all worries of the future. All of that doesn’t exist. It’s my mind pretending they exist. I give up. I can’t control the past or the future. They are empty, just like I am.”

Image from CrunchRaisin, Flickr Creative Commons

Designing Behavior Change — An Introduction to the Work of BJ Fogg

B. J. Fogg“In graduate school I realized that most traditional theories about human behavior were either inaccurate or impractical,” notes BJ Fogg, Ph D, a behavior scientist at Stanford University and consultant to businesses. “So I put tradition aside and looked for a better answer. It took over 10 years, but today I believe I’ve solved the puzzle.”

That’s a bold claim. And, it’s worth investigating.

One thing I know: If you write or speak about changing human behavior in any way, you cannot afford to overlook BJ Fogg.

What works — and what doesn’t

BJ wants to eliminate guesswork about changing behavior. We’ll do this, he says, by designing new behaviors for individuals or groups with three principles in mind:

  1. Get specific about the behavior you want.
  2. Make that behavior simple and easy to do.
  3. Trigger the behavior with an appropriate cue.

Perhaps that sounds simplistic. Actually, it reminds me of the old saying — simple, but not easy.

Most plans for behavior change are destined to flop, says BJ, because they ignore the above principles. Instead, those plans are based on failed strategies such as:

  • Presenting information with the vague hope that people will eventually change
  • Using persuasion techniques — such as threats of harmful consequences that will happen if people don’t change
  • Guiding people to choose a “big, hairy, audacious goal” and achieve it with motivation and willpower
  • Moving people through a series of psychological stages that eventually result in change

Start with Tiny Habits

The most concrete way to explore these ideas is to test them for yourself. Start with the free Tiny Habits course. This is a week-long series of short, daily emails from BJ that coach you to form three new habits. I found this to be fun and life-changing.

I’ve already posted an overview of Tiny Habits, described how to present Tiny Habits to readers, and suggested using Tiny Habits to write daily.

For now I’ll just note that Tiny Habits follow a precise syntax — a trigger followed by a simple and concrete behavior. For example:

  • After I brush, I will floss one tooth.
  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my mom.
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.
  • After I walk in my door from work, I will get out my workout clothes.
  • After I sit down on the train, I will open my sketch notebook.

If you want to experience this at a much deeper level, check out the Tiny Habits Academy directed by Linda Fogg-Phillips, MS. You can join a virtual master class and even get certified as a Tiny Habits coach.

Where to learn more — information from BJ

I’ve never seen a person with more websites than BJ. He recommends that you start with his “dot org” site for an overview and then go to his “dot com” site for information about current projects.

If you want more from BJ, there’s plenty. Following is a partial list:

BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model states that behavior happens only when motivation, ability, and a trigger coincide. This site describes three core motivators, six simplicity factors (ability), and three types of triggers.

Design for Lasting Change ebook is my favorite source of practical suggestions from BJ.

The Behavior Grid: 15 Ways Behavior Can Change

Fogg Method 3 steps to changing behavior

Choice Model by BJ Fogg, PhD

The Behavior Wizard: Easy Access to Powerful Strategies

Behavior Wizard: A Method for Matching Target Behaviors with Solutions by B. J. Fogg and Jason Hreha (requires a purchase)

Think Like a Behavior Designer by BJ Fogg, PhD

Tiny Habits of Love and Affection

Go Tiny for New Year Resolutions that Work

A Behavior Model for Persuasive Design by BJ Fogg (PDF)

Behavior Design with BJ Fogg

Think Like a Behavior Designer

BJ Fogg on Behavior Design — Where Art Meets Science

Also search YouTube and Vimeo with the key words BJ Fogg and tiny habits.

In addition, BJ teaches an in-person, two-day Behavior Design Bootcamp in Healdsburg, California. Find out more here.

Where to learn more — information from others

BJ’s work inspires much interest. Again, what follows is a partial list of examples.

Simplicity Labs’ Recommended Resources for Behavior Design — another BJ Fogg link feast

Examples of recipes for Tiny Habits from Diana Hoppe, MD

How to get unstuck (new 1-hour mini-course with BJ Fogg) by Ramit Sethi (a former student of BJ’s)

The master of persuasion: Interview with BJ Fogg and Ramit Sethi

The new rules of persuasion from RSA

The No-Gimmick, Fastest Way to Make Real Change by Leigh Newman

What’s Next Health: BJ Fogg — a Pioneering Ideas podcast from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Stanford’s School Of Persuasion: BJ Fogg On How To Win Users And Influence Behavior by Anthony Wing Kosner

Tiny Habits by Jennifer Chang

Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab from Stanford University

Design Resources for Behavior Change from Stanford University

How Reporters Get Psychology Research Wrong

Back in 1998, the Internet was still new to most of us. Newspapers could get mileage from headlines such as Isolation Increases With Internet Use.

Yet the story behind such headlines is a reminder to keep your crap-detector up and running when reading about research on human behavior.

What made those early headlines about Internet use so misleading was a patina of credibility. After all, a published study was often cited — Internet paradox. A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being?

The abstract for this article even noted that:

… greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants’ communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness.

What the reporters forgot is that all studies are not created equal. Reading beyond the abstract for this one, you discover that:

  • The study involved only 256 people from a single city in the United States — Pittsburgh.
  • Before the study was completed, 87 people dropped out.
  • Only people new to the Internet were included. Anyone with an existing online connection was excluded.
  • Depression and loneliness were measured subjectively. Rather than being assessed by an expert, people simply reported how they felt.
  • Even the heaviest Internet users reported only slight increases in depression and loneliness.
  • The above limitations were openly acknowledged by the study’s authors.  (Notice the question mark at the end of the article’s title.)

In fact, later research indicates that greater Internet use links to having more offline relationships.

The lesson here is to think critically about any research report. Ask questions such as:

  • How many people were included in the study? (In research parlance, what was the sample size?)
  • Can we generalize findings about those people to the population at large?
  • How did the researchers measure the critical variables in the study (in this case, Internet use, loneliness, and depression)?
  • Does the study actually support a cause-and-effect relationship between variables (such as Internet use causes social isolation)?
  • Was any cause-effect relationship strong enough to matter?
  • Could something else explain the relationship between variables (perhaps Internet users were depressed and lonely before the study began)?
  • Do other relevant studies point to a similar — or different —conclusion?

For more suggestions, see the entertaining Joe Hanson on Crap-Detecting Science News.

Turning Complaints Into Commitments

In their wonderful book How The Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey note that many workplaces are dominated by NBC — nagging, bitching, and complaining.

The good news, however, is that our complaints are actually clues to what we value. For example:

  • The person who complains about gossiping and back-stabbing among coworkers can also say that she values direct communication.
  • The person who complains about boredom at work can also say that he values being challenged.
  • The person who complains about her overwhelming work load can also say that she values completing projects on time.

The key is to ask yourself: What is the commitment behind this complaint? Posing this question can create an immediate shift in perspective and behavior.

Complaining drains energy, alienates people, and changes nothing. Stating your commitment starts a new conversation, clears a path to behavior change, and invites people to join you.

For ideas about what to do after stating your commitment, see Immunity to Change — How We Sabotage Our Best Intentions and Overcoming Immunity to Change — Run a Smart Test.

Overcoming Immunity to Change — Run a SMART Test

1736_500Why do so many of our plans for behavior change tend to fizzle out and fade away?

In Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey offer one answer: We hold a Big Assumption — often laden with emotion and hidden from conscious awareness — that undermines our intention.

In a previous post, I gave an example. A woman says that she intends to stop gossiping at work. At the same time, she holds a Big Assumption: If I refuse to take part in gossip, my colleagues will see me as “Miss Holier-Than-Thou.” Given this assumption, it’s unlikely that her behavior will actually change.

Acting yourself into a new way of thinking

Discovering a Big Assumption is liberating. Once it’s openly stated, you can detach from it, think critically about it, and experiment with a new behavior.

Kegan and Lahey recommend that you run a SMART test of the Big Assumption by acting against it. The acronym stands for Safe, Modest, Actionable, Research-based, and Test:

  • Safe and Modest — Ask yourself: What is one small thing that can I do differently to challenge my Big Assumption? Remember that you can still hold on to your Big Assumption most of the time. The goal is to suspend it temporarily, and only in certain circumstances.
  • Actionable — Choose a behavior that you can do immediately.
  • Research-based — Remind yourself that you’re simply running a Test. This means acting against your Big Assumption in a small way and then observing what happens as a result. The goal is simply to collect data — not to “improve” yourself.

An example

For instance, the woman who values honest communication could set a new intention: When I’m tempted to repeat a rumor about my boss, I will remain silent.

This plan involves a modest change in her behavior. It’s also something that she can do immediately. In addition, it’s relatively safe: Her statement involves only one behavior in a specific setting.

According to Kegan and Lahey, the SMART test is about “gradually building up a psychological space between ourselves and our Big Assumptions in order to move them from subject to object, where we can look at them, turn them around in our hands, and consider altering them.”

Even small changes in our Big Assumptions can enlarge our sense of possibility — and start breaking down our immunity to change.

Immunity to Change — How We Sabotage Our Best Intentions

078796378XWilliam Perry, an educational psychologist who taught at Harvard, once described his response to people who asked him for help: “I listen very hard and ask myself, What does this person really want — and what will they do to keep from getting it?

In How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey refer to our “hidden immune system.” This system creates psychological antigens to change, effectively locking our current behaviors — even those that create suffering — firmly into place.

Kegan and Lahey aim to expose this hidden immune system. By understanding how it works, we can stop defeating ourselves and start changing for good. This involves a four-stage process.

1. Describe your commitments

Complete this sentence: I am committed to the value or the importance of … .

For example: I am committed to the value or the importance of more open and direct communication at work.

2. Describe what you’re doing — or not doing — that undermines your commitments

Kegan and Lahey quote this example from a woman who said that she wanted her colleagues to communicate openly and honestly and avoid back-biting: I don’t speak up when people are violating the norm I value. Silently, I collude in it being OK to talk behind one another’s back.

3. Describe your competing commitments

Now imagine yourself actually changing the behaviors you listed in Step 2. Does this lead to any fear or discomfort? Those feelings probably stem from a hidden commitment that contradicts and competes with your first commitment.

For instance, the woman who said that silently colluded with back-biting discovered that she was also committed to “not being seen as the Righteous Crusader, Castrating Bitch, or Miss Holier-Than-Thou… .” She wanted coworkers to feel comfortable with her—not to see her as a self-appointed enforcer of rules about how to communicate.

4. Describe the Big Assumption behind the competing commitment

This is an assumption about what will happen if we violate the competing commitment. For example:

I assume that if people did see me as a Righteous Crusader, Castrating Bitch, or Miss Holier-Than-Thou, then I would eventually be completely shunned, have no real connections in my office other than the most formal and functional, and actually I’d find work a nightmare from which I couldn’t wake up.

The Big Assumption reveals the raw core of our immunity to change. Once this assumption is openly stated, however, it starts to lose its power. We’re free to suspend the assumption, question it, and actively test it.

Real change becomes possible once we look at our assumption rather than look at the world through it.