The Multi-step, Bottom-up Alternative to Goal-setting

If you search for “Alternatives to Goal-setting”, you’ll find a growing list of resources. It seems to be the trend now to bash goal-setting as detrimental and soul-crushing.

But the proposed alternatives, are full of “soft” ideas that don’t resonate with me.
“Follow your heart, not your head” is an example. It’s this kind of language that has turned me away from even considering alternatives to goal-setting.

However, I’ve come up with a different understanding of what goal-setting is, and the valid alternatives to it. And it’s based on mathematics, with a touch of psychology.

Focus on the differentials

As human beings, we are far better at comparing two things, than at making an absolute judgement of a single thing. This fact shows up everywhere, from comparing colors & loudness, to comparing prices.

And we do this when we set goals. We compare the present with the imagined future, and find the present lacking. So we set a target, and aim for it.

There is nothing wrong with this, in principle. But there is one major flaw to this, and we’ll need to dip into mathematics to see it. To keep it simple, I’ll use the example of “Income” as a goal.

What we are doing is saying:

  1. I know how much income I receive right now.
  2. I feel life would be easier/freer/more enjoyable if I received more.
  3. Therefore, I will set a target of doubling my income in 2014.

This kind of problem is very common in math and physics[1]. We know the start point (“now”). We know something about the direction (“more money”). And we want to know what path to take to increase our daily happiness. So we make a guess, take a step forward, check the happiness, adjust, and take another step.

Seeing goal-setting as solving an ordinary differential equation clarifies things greatly for me. Yes I know, I'm weird.
Seeing goal-setting as solving an ordinary differential equation clarifies things greatly for me. Yes I know, I’m weird.

The problem isn’t with the approach, it’s with the size of the step.
In these kinds of problems, if your step size is too large, the path you take will be flat out wrong.

This is true no matter how precisely you know the starting point, or how precisely you know the initial direction you should head towards. Not only that, but with a large step size the path you take is unstable, and the difference between where you are and where you need to be, grows with each passing step. The result is Burnout. Crisis. Depression.

This might seem obvious, and has been stated many times in the past. But for me, the mathematical analogy of step sizes also points to a simple solution:

Use a step size of a single day, compare today to yesterday, and use that to plan tomorrow.

This on its own would be enough to lead you steadily towards a better life (while being satisfied along the way), if you were able to focus only on how you feel in the present moment.

However, there is one caveat: we might live our lives moment by moment, but we are intensely aware of the overall story of our lives over the course of months & years & decades.

So, we need to add more layers of comparison (always comparing two things we already know: the present, and the path we took to get here).

At the end of every week, make a comparison, and use that to plan the next week. At the end of every month, and quarter, and year, use that to generate options for the following period.

Feelings are a valid comparison function

This “multi-step” alternative to goal-setting relies entirely on comparisons, but what kind of comparisons are we talking about?

The function I propose is, quite simply, “Does it feel right?”.

For all my love of mathematics and the sciences, I have come to understand that feelings are a valid metric. It may be the only metric that matters.
If this feels too soft for you, and you still feel the need for a harder metric, you can see it this way: how you feel in a given moment is a vast parallel-processing computation that takes into account all the variables that affect your present state. And there are more than you could possibly list and track and measure.

If your goal is to feel happy, what better metric than whether you feel happier?
It really is that simple.

The Uncontrollable: Focus on stateless functions

So far, the process I’m describing is as follows:

  1. At the end of each day, week, month, and year,
    look at what you’ve done in that period.
  2. Are things different?
    (if not, set a checkpoint, and try something else).
  3. Do the changes feel right?
  4. How can I make more of the changes that feel right, and fewer of those that don’t?

If life was constant, and if nothing happened that was outside our control, than this would be enough to lead a happy, fulfilled, and purposeful life.

However, we are painfully aware of how much of life is outside our direct control.
So, how can we prepare ourselves to be happy, come what may?

The answer is to focus on stateless functions, on systems and processes.

Let’s say the goal is “1,000 new customers next month”. Here’s an easy way to achieve it:

  1. Post site on major forum/news site.
  2. Create crazy deal offer (say, 90% off)
  3. voila, 1000+ new customers.

The goal was achieved, but what about the following month? Rinse, repeat? It may work for a while, but there are only so many major sites that accept user submitted link. There is a limit to the number of times you can put something “on sale” before it becomes the default price point in people’s minds.

We do a great many one-off things that might reach our goal, but we may damage our morale, our direction, our reputation, our life balance in order to achieve it. Or, we get lucky and blast past the goal due to actions we didn’t anticipate (and may never happen again). Reaching the goal this way doesn’t lead to lasting change.

What if instead of “1,000 new customers next month” we broke this down into:

  1. “A function that takes vague ideas, and produces traffic-worthy content.”
  2. “A function that takes uninterested visitors, and turns them into curious trial users.”
  3. “A function that takes trial users, and turns them into educated users who see how to use our product solve their problem.”
  4. etc…

This means we are able to focus on each aspect separately, improve it in some lasting sustainable way, so that it works regardless what the inputs are.

More personal (and common) examples would be to focus on writing every day, instead of on “publishing two books this year”. To focus on your training regimen, and not the marathon itself. On your exercise routine, not your weight. On how you learn, not what exam score you get.

The Final Process: Evolution

So this is what we’ve come to. At the end of each day, week, month, and year, ask yourself:

  1. What actions did I take in that period?
  2. Is the outside world different because of my actions?
    (if not, set a checkpoint, and try something else).
  3. Do the changes I’ve made feel right?
  4. In the next period, how can I make more of the changes that feel right,
    and fewer of those that don’t?
  5. What changes have I made to my systems/routines/processes in that period?
  6. Do the system changes feel right?
  7. How can I make more of the changes that feel right, and fewer of those that don’t?

Very quickly you’ll realize that it’s impossible to improve a system if you don’t have clear documentation as to what that system is and does. A blueprint of it.

So you are taking a blueprint of what you have, making mutations to it, and evaluating the result. In other words, you’ve built yourself a way to evolve your life.

Being able to have a blueprint like this was one of the many reasons I wanted to create a document structure that was vast, but not overwhelming. Complete, but able to be focused and isolated. Here at Gingko we are slowly building what we call “The Tree” , where we are collecting all the processes we use (from how we run our meetings, to how we develop the product).

If you want to try this approach, you can start with Gingko’s default “Timeline” template, work on your daily tasks as usual, but ask and answer the questions above at the end of every period.

This process itself will evolve over time, but for 2014 my only resolution is to ask myself these questions day after day, and week after week, month after month.

[1] These kinds of problems are called “Initial Value Problems”, and as usual, a link to Wikipedia is more likely to confuse than elucidate, unless you already know what this is:

[2] I’ve used simple numerical methods for solving ODEs as the examples in this case, but I think a more directly applicable method would be “Multi-time step Monte Carlo”. Basic idea is: you take an action, compare the result, if it’s better, keep it. If it’s worse, possibly revert, possibly move on. It’s a very powerful method for finding solutions to problems with essentially infinite possible configurations. The “multi-time step” variant does the same, but makes comparisons at higher levels in the time hierarchy as well.

2 thoughts on “The Multi-step, Bottom-up Alternative to Goal-setting

  1. How interested would you guys be in coding an app that does this? Or are you already?

    I developed a minimal system back in 2007 which I called the Confluence Model, which consists of four simultaneous systems (one human), one of which I think derives the results you are talking about above. I believe it is about intention, relative to various periods of time. Sharing this with others, creates a visualisation of the vector field graphic you show above, an accurate reflection of the concurrent psycho-social space.

    I believe the ideas you are presenting here, this selection and composition, indicate fine systemic design thinking, and I’ve already used your tool and appreciated its intuitive ease. You guys are good.

    1. Hi David,

      In a sense, we are coding an app that does this: Gingko!
      It’s our ultimate goal to use Gingko for all aspects of a person’s life and workflow. From receiving work tasks, to programming, to journaling, to management, to learning and teaching, etc etc etc.

      Your confluence model sounds interesting. Is there a link or screenshot or article that you could share on this?
      I am not sure how a vector field like this could actually be created for someone’s life… far too many variables!

      (hmm… large parameter space? Maybe I should be using a Monte Carlo analogy instead…)

      Thanks for your thoughts, David.
      All the best,

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