Avoiding the wrong goals

Setting goals and referencing the goals we set is the most important part of any strategy. If we set wrong goals or do not address our goals when we make critical decisions, there is no way to know what direction our project will take. In this article, I want to discuss some common mistakes people make when setting a goal. You can find more information  here, here, here, here and here.

Copying somebody else’s goals

All of us routinely copy each other’s goals. There are even bucket lists of life goals, where we can find common chosen goals if we are lazy. While borrowed goals are not insane, they might not align well with our personality, physical shape, and more importantly – our value system. Every person is unique, and the things that make us happy and highlight our unique capabilities should be equally unique. It is OK to try the things other people enjoy if we do not know ourselves. Once we do know ourselves, we should be true to who we are.

The common scenario with a common goal is one of hidden disappointment. For example, this is a typical mistake I made. Several years Anna and Lev decided to invest a large sum and as many vacation days as we could get into a travel to a popular destination. Once we arrived there, we got frustrated because all the good spots were filled with tourists. So we tried to see less popular spots, but then we felt that we are missing the main attractions. We became frustrated and fought. Each of us went to see different spots. Eventually, we ended the quarrel. Being tired from the tension during the last days we spent our time not far from the hotel. We did not see what we wanted and clearly, we overpaid for the experience. We simply asked our friends not to talk with us about it. Next year we went for four days vacation into a city we wanted to visit far from popular tourist routes. The vacation was cheap, great, and utterly enjoyable.

Having unclear goals

Once we understand ourselves, we would probably not copy somebody’s goals without proper adjustments. Probably we prefer to set our own and unique goals. When we set our own goals, we are responsible to check that the goals are meaningful. Quite often we set amorphous goals. We kind of feel what we want to achieve, and each time we review these goals they sound a bit differently. Eventually, we change our goals to correspond to our new understanding. What is the problem with this approach? The goals should define the direction of our progress and not describe in hindsight the vector our historical progress. Having unclear goals, or zigzagging between several interpretations of our goals is almost like having no goals at all.

How do we know our audacious goals are achievable?

Some of my students come to me and claim that if everybody else wants to read 1000 words per minute, they want to read 2000. They do not really understand what is involved in reading at high speeds, and how every step above 1000 words per minute requires rigorous training. It is OK to set audatious goals if we are committed, have the relevant resources, understand the risks and the benefits, and believe we have a very high chance to can succeed. When we set up the goals arbitrarily, hoping for the best, and knowing that somebody else could achieve something similar, we will probably fail. Failing an audacious goal is not that bad as long as we reach a more reasonable goal and do not overstretch our resources. From my experience, most people who set their expectations too high will look for the ways to cut corners, create a mess, and experience a burnout. Setting up several milestones and alternative progress paths we reduce the risk but do not eliminate it completely.

Can the progress be clearly monitored?

Quite often we cannot clearly monitor the progress because we need to leapfrog to the next milestone, or might be lacking the appropriate metrics. A zen monk does not have a schedule for achieving enlightenment and can spend ten years working on one koan. Most of us simply do not have time, motivation and social support to attempt leapfrogging the obstacle. We have no other choice but to opt for gradual and measurable progress. The Catholic way to say several times some major prayers for the redemption of minor digressions appears to be easier and more productive, even if it might be overall less effective. We do not really choose our religion by evaluating the efficacy of its methods, but we do set up goals and align them with our values, which is almost a religious experience for an atheist project manager.

Do we really have what it takes?

We can work hard, be disciplined and allocate the time and money needed, as long as we do it for a short period of time. Over time we can meet several issues. Some new threat or a new opportunity may take priority. We might get sick or tired and our discipline will drop dramatically. We can simply get bored, and instead of meaningful progress, we will monitor a checklist. About half of Anna’s students do not finish the program as intended, take a break and need to be reminded a couple of times before returning to the program and this time finishing it. Probably 20% of students take multiple breaks before finishing the program.

Do not get discouraged if you fail once

Recently I was approached by a student asking for eidetic memory training. This is an advanced subject we sometimes show to our advanced students. But the person that approached me was a beginner. I explained that visualization and mindmaps or memory palace should be learned before learning the more advanced materials. The guy said he tried memory palace with a different group of teachers and was disappointed by the experience. So he was adamant this time to use the eidetic memory instead.

If you fail once, this could mean a lot of things. Maybe you should simply find a different teacher, and maybe something in your methodology is wrong and needs to be reevaluated and modified, or maybe you simply were unlucky one way or another. An important goal is worth a second and a third attempt. Small changes usually work better than huge changes, as we can use our previous experience.

Limit the number of goals

If someone wants to learn artificial intelligence, teach children in Afrika, and master four foreign languages – it is best not to approach all these goals at the same time. Reaching one big goal is hard enough, reaching six big goals almost impossible. Being fully focused can be hard, and we may want two or three smaller secondary goals both as a back-up and as recreation.

Be careful with metaknowledge

Metaknowledge is a knowledge about the knowledge. People routinely overestimate the quality of their knowledge. There are things that we know, things we know we do not know, and things we do not know we do not know. The last category is usually by far bigger than the first two categories together. The experts usually have more humility, as they know much more questions they do not have an answer to.

Focus on choices rather than the effort invested

It is very hard to manage the effort properly. Some things simply take more efforts than the others. As long as we make progress, and the work does not appear to be wasteful, it is better to focus on the choices we make: big and small. Correction of bad choices usually requires much more effort than the effort which is wasted on procrastination and rumination.

Be focused on the priorities

Typically there is a critical path, and we cannot fail on that path. For example, if we do not remember what we read we should not try to read faster. On the other hand, some results can be achieved in multiple ways, so failing a specific training exercise might be irrelevant to the ultimate success.

Do not let the motivation disappear

Usually, if we want to achieve something significant we are driven by greed or fear. These are great motivators. As we reach the intermediate milestones, the original needs might already be fulfilled. Sometimes we get motivated by commitment or by love to the things that we do. If we love what we do too much, it may become our main activity. If we are not committed enough, the motivation disappears. This is very clear when we are on a diet: once we get to the target weight the motivation usually disappears and we start to gain weight. For people who are motivated by greed (promotion) keeping the status quo is often much harder than achieving the original target. For people that are motivated by fear (aversion), it is harder to start. Since most of us are strongly motivated by both of these powerful forces, it is hard both to begin and to keep the status quo.

Invert your goals to detect the pitfalls

When we invert our goals, we find all those things that can stop us. So, you want to be a better student. Then, how do you become a worse student? You do not study enough, try to cheat and cut corners, do not remember what you learn, do not do hands-on practice.

Practice, patience, perseverence

To reach any big goal we need practice, patience, and perseverance. Occasionally I, Anna and our kids cry that the life is simply too hard, but then why should it be easy? An easy goal can be reached fairly quickly. Trying to reach a worthy goal is usually hard. We need to improve our skill set, be extremely disciplined and deal with all sorts of obstacles. Then, once we reach our goal, we have a lot of memories and deep appreciation for the achievement,

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