Does goal-setting work for you? The blog with hats, no legs and a burger

Published on Feb 15, 2022

by Dr. Duck

What’s the goal of a blog exactly? Is it to educate? Is it to promote discussion and debate?

I have a clear goal in mind regarding this blog but you’ll have to wait until the end for the big reveal. It could change your life forever so hang in there.

If you’re reading this, I might have your interest for now. Perhaps you already went straight to the end. I wouldn’t blame you. We don’t have time for games these days.

Everyone wants solutions and answers in executive summaries or abstracts. The journey on how we got there is often lost in expediency.

And therein lies a big problem. We often don’t have time for goals either because slowing down and planning the future takes time and, well, that time could be better spent with action. If we keep this up, we might just end up a society of people who react at every moment and you can only imagine how much chaos that would bring.

Yet, if you went to the end and decided to keep reading from the beginning, then I have you hooked. Maybe you aren’t expecting short, sharp easy answers. You have decided to navigate your way through the well planned and considered pros.

I can’t say I always have the patience, so I tip my hat to you. Note, I don’t actually wear hats but if I did, it would be tipped with recognition.

As an Organisational Psychologist, I should be highly proficient and capable at setting goals. That’s something we are trained to do. But, I must admit, I always need to force myself to do it.

Sometimes people ask me, ‘where do you see your business in the next few years’ and often I see lots of exciting possibilities but I can’t honestly say I’ve got that nailed. I’ve always been someone who follows their gut. My feelings nudge me along. I just move towards the right path and goal setting is usually just validating my own intuitions.

No doubt there is value in slowing down to plan. But there is also value in following your intuition as well, adapting quickly and jumping on a new idea that surprises you out of nowhere but has legs. No, not literally legs. Metaphorically legs, busily running towards opportunities and success.

If my blog has legs, then the following ideas may resonate with you. If not, well, I’ll still tip my hat to you and call this the blog with hats and no legs to confuse the reader right from the beginning. I might even weave in a hamburger just to confuse matters further.

A goal is a fantasy

Have you ever actually thought about what a goal is? We use the term all the time in planning and personal / professional development. It’s at the heart of most coaching sessions as well as something that is used to measure our future performance.

In the sporting context, it’s often used as the place to aim the ball or a line to cross that delineates finality. If you don’t aim for the goals then you simply won’t win.

A quick google search suggests the term has been around for hundreds of years and refers to a boundary or limit. That is, it’s a point at which you have gone as far as you can go.

At some stage, we started using the term to reflect a point in time where we have achieved something—the object of a person’s ambition or effort. Much of our lives are made up of goals—informal or formal ones—that we set, and our emotions are tied to them. We feel emotions when we are pursuing goals and these emotions keep us motivated. We also feel emotions when we meet or fail to meet the goals. This experience can inspire our future goals or serve as reminders why we need to try harder.

But although the original ‘goal’ was likely a ‘pole’ or physical object that we could literally see with our eyes, our own goals are always abstract and are situated in our mind’s eye. Even in writing them down in detail, we are merely representing the imagination of the future that our brain has conjured up.

In short, our goals are all fantasies (or fears) until they are met.

It’s an abstract representation of a future that may or may not happen and those abstractions need a storyteller.

A goal is a story

I like to relate setting goals to writing a compelling Hollywood movie. If you write a story where nothing much happens, that’s easy to shoot, save money and time, and doesn’t need much production, then you’ll probably have no trouble making the film but then you’ll also fail to capture an audience. This is the equivalent to failing to set a goal that is ambitious enough. For example, a social media video may get a lot of likes and views but it won’t feature as the main attraction at a cinema where people will pay good money.

If you dream up a powerful and complex science-fiction fantasy with lots of moving parts, you could have the next Star Wars on your hands or a massive, expensive waste of time that was never going to succeed.

This is similar to setting an overly complex and difficult goal that is impossible to achieve, unless you get very lucky.

Indeed, you could simply make a sequel to your previous film, make a few tweaks and improvements, and increase the budget.

This is probably closer to what we all do. We learn from something we achieved in the past and build on it rather than start something new. The problem with this approach is that over time, doing the same thing has diminishing returns, leading to boredom and complacency.

So, to be engaged with our own story, we need to write in a little excitement, interest, and drama but not so much that it’s impossible to produce.

A goal needs imagination

Our goals, therefore, need imagination and creativity.

I might have the ambition and culinary instinct to prepare the world’s juiciest, tastiest hamburger for dinner. Once I have made it—or attempted to—it will be devoured. Did it meet the goal?

How do I assess it? My brain needs to somehow draw a pattern recognition between a past imagination and the stimulation of the tongue, nose, and stomach in the present.

The brain summarises the experience and cross-references the memory (or written interpretation of the memory) to see if it meets the set criteria.

Imagine all the things that could go wrong in assessing the goal.

Your stomach might be full from another meal and you may feel underwhelmed by that burger. The burger could be juicy but too salty. You may have lost your sense of taste from Covid-19. Even your expectation could be confused. After all, The memory of the past and experience of the present are like two different languages trying to describe the same thing.

What does it mean exactly when you imagine ‘juiciness’ using your brain exactly? Could I simulate those sensations precisely in my mind? Of course that’s impossible. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need the burger if the imagination could simulate the experience 100%.

It’s also, thankfully, why we can remember pain but not simulate it as an experience. This would mean we could re-live the pain of stubbing our toes or scraping our knees as children. Our brains give us just enough data to remember without causing us terrible agony. What a (pain) relief!

So, like pain, your idea of a juicy burger is actually hard to imagine in the first place. You have a rough idea in your head but who are you to say whether it actually met expectations when those expectations are just fuzzy approximations in the first place?

This is often the biggest problem with setting goals. We often do not have the future clarity or imagination to be able to truly visualise and realise the goal.

Deconstructing goals can rob them of their personality

You may have experienced this yourself when writing your goals into ‘SMART’ goals. That is, goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based. I’ve often found this method to be deeply dissatisfying for certain goals because it is sometimes hard to put some things into writing.

Take the love for your partner, family, friends or children. You can talk about them and write about how you feel but there’s always something lost in the translation into specific words and writing. Philosophers refer to this as ‘qualia’ or the subjective conscious experience. SMART goals are objective and fail to capture what it’s like to experience events.

When the goal is truly in line with our sense of self, it feels instinctive and important—even fundamental. It might be so truly integrated that it can be trivialised by breaking it into smaller actions. Perhaps it might even take a bit of the fun or romance out our lives when we deconstruct our ambitions in this way?

Indeed, according to Construal Level Theory, future-focussed and optimistic goals tend to be more abstract and less detailed. We often imagine our future selves in a more idealistic moment in time where we have more capability, competence, and more pleasant surroundings etc.

When we start to break this down into smaller parts, a few things can happen. First, we may become acutely aware that our goals are more difficult than we believed. Second, we may discover it is hard to translate the goal into specifics and that it is time-consuming. Third, we break the future dream into little pieces, it may appear more like hard work, repetitive, and rather unexciting.

As an example, if you deconstructed a relationship to interactions and brief moments, it would be partly described as air passing through our mouths to communicate, physical expressions on our faces, gestures with our bodies, and transactions of resources.

In some ways, this can help a relationship because it can localise interactions to afford improvements. You might set a SMART goal to kiss your partner or children every day before you leave for work or pay them one compliment a week (e.g. ‘I tip my hat to you sir’).

In other ways, it also robs the experience of its romance and the qualia of being with the person. Take this blog. You could count the words and sentences and calculate its worth by how many useful statement are described. You could then rate each statement out of 10 and come up with a score for how engaging it is. Or you could just read it and enjoy it. Note. that last insight has legs. It’s worth at least 7/10!

So, should we set goals?

No doubt, goal-setting works and has been shown in countless studies that being precise and practical about goals greatly increases the chances of you reaching them. I’ve done it many times and derived lots of value from being clear about my future and goals.

Some goals that I have carefully crafted have also stayed in my head for years. Before covid hit, I set a goal to spend time each week teaching my kids to ride as well as practise the piano. Writing simple goals down allowed me to keep these smaller habits in mind each week.

But it may be time to further enhance or evolve how we think about goals beyond just habits and micro-goals and recognise where our intuition and instinct can trump simple goals.

We also need to understand what fires us up to passionately pursue meaningful goals even in the face of obstacles. It is doubtful this can be achieved by simply being more precise, incremental, and pragmatic about goals.

Perhaps we need to invest in more time understanding why something becomes a goal in the first place. Is it from an old memory, value, a deeper part of our personality or something that is imposed on us? Could it be linked to subconscious fears, such as death anxiety, as exposed by the researchers who developed Terror Management Theory?

Now for the big reveal. Actually, it’s not much of a reveal at all but something that might be of interest. I wrote this blog with no goal in mind. In fact, I wasn’t even planning on writing about goals. It just emerged as I wrote as I simply had an urge to write and wanted to discover what would materialise.

Perhaps this comes at the expense of the lack of structure of the writing. Perhaps it could have been a more interesting read had I carefully crafted the entire blog from the start with a clear, defined argument in mind.

Does this blog have legs?

I, maybe, should have left you with a sense of closure and certainty as to what action to take. This could have been prepared over several days rather than an afternoon.

But if I had done that, I probably wouldn’t have had the enthusiasm to write this in the first point. And, you know what? The blog was written. Goal met. Tip your metaphorical hats people and pass me that juicy thought burger…

by Dr. Duck

My name is Nicholas Duck. I am a Doctor of Psychology with an interest in psychology in the workplace, film and television, the media, and the fields of emotion, unconscious, and motivation psychology. You can contact me at nick@opposite.com.au.

I am founder and principal consultant at Opposite, a consultancy that takes these applied psychological findings and helps workplaces improve.

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