I am a Stanford Engineering grad, an MBA, and I am no exception. I use goals extensively, but I recently fell into two traps that seemed logical and made sense, but they were actually giving me problems.
Now, it’s not that I believe that goals are no good. On the contrary, I am all about goals, otherwise I would not be where I am. And it’s not just me – wanting to improve our lives is only natural for everyone on this planet. We all aspire to expand and grow. That’s what goals help us to do.
Effective goals are SMART goals. Goals that are specific and measurable. I agree. Specific, measurable goals keep you on track and help you compare your progress. They give you a clear target to go after.
But reality is not rose-colored and it is not as simple as it seems. Danger lurks in the bushes. We must watch out for traps all throughout our path, even in those corners masked as “logical, sound, and making sense”. Acting a little crazy may be all we need
Goal-setting trap #1: Deadlines.
Through 2011 and 2012 I was doing research on why we don’t do the things we want to do. For example, most of us care about our health, yet why do few of us actually take steps in this direction, like eating right and exercising more?
In July 2012 I decided that it was time for me to write a short guide about a few of the things I learned about health and behavior change. I aimed for 20 pages.
Then, 20 pages became 40. 40 pages became 80. 80 pages became 120. In the end, I wrote more than 200 pages.
Similarly, my initial “deadline” was in early August. Early August became late August. Then, late August became early September. Early September became late September… I published the book “Surprisingly…Unstuck” in October. Phew!
In the meantime, I felt bad about my progress. Even though I recognized that the scope of “Surprisingly…Unstuck” was changing, from a “short guide” to a comprehensive book, and that was why I was devoting more and more time to it, I detested the deadlines that I “missed”. This whole deadline thing made me feel unproductive. Deadlines made me spend time worrying about my progress rather than focusing on my work.
But I was not unproductive. I wrote a 200-page book! I should have felt proud instead!
I did not realize I had fallen in the deadline-trap until after I published the book. Better late than never to be less rational and more crazy
Goal-setting trap #2: Grandiosity.
Many people fall into this trap. Companies do too. When the reward of achieving a certain goal is great, or maybe too great, then there are actually fewer chances to achieve the goal. Counter-intuitive? Yes. True? Yes.
Behavioral Economics Professor Dan Ariely in his book “The Upside of Irrationality” details how high executive bonuses actually hinder than encourage performance. Ariely tested high and low bonuses and the respective employee performance at companies. He also measured scores NBA players achieved in low- and high-pressure situations. The result was the same: When the stakes are high, performance drops.
Obviously, I am no exception to this rule.
When I first set out to build my new web-based service “Exercise Bliss” I was exhilarated. I would be teach people how to exercise more without pressuring themselves but by being kind and gentle! I would help them be happier and healthier! I dreamed about the online community, the exercise videos, the “happiness drops” all throughout the platform, and felt amazing.
Then, I spent the rest few days being stressed and oversensitive. Even though I wasn’t really thinking about Exercise Bliss, as I had a lot of other projects to finish before I started building the Exercise Bliss platform, Exercise Bliss was somewhere in my mind. It manifested through my irritable behavior and the nights I didn’t sleep well.
Things changed once I put things in perspective, and instead of focusing on the big reward of that one moment of the launch (how happy I would be of having everything in place and people coming in), I focused on the smaller rewards after accomplishing each step (how happy I would be after creating the first membership program, after creating the website design, after creating and editing the exercise and habit-related videos, etc.).
Once I switched from the one-time big reward to frequent smaller rewards my irritability went away. And my sleep improved. Big rewards were hindering my performance, while smaller rewards improved it.
Rational or not, I choose results.
If the facts show that performance slows down, then we should examine the rewards dependent on it. But it seems so counter-intuitive that smaller rewards could increase performance, and that higher rewards hinder it, that we refuse to even examine this possibility.
Similarly, deadlines are supposed to keep us focused. They are not supposed to increase our time spent worrying. If deadlines act against our best interests, then we might as well drop them? Woo, no deadlines?! It sounds so liberating but so crazy at the same time, don’t you think?
Regardless of whether something sounds rational, or irrational, I opt for the method that brings the best results. If that’s acting crazy, then doing so is okay by me. What about you?