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May 5, 2011 / theslowblitz

Against Goals

The key to happiness?Every time I read something about productivity, there’s always this cliché: set goals, but set smart ones. I don’t believe there can be anything called a smart goal. Goals have never worked for me in the long run, and here’s 3 reasons why:

1. You don’t know what you want

Hands up, all of you who know exactly what you want to do ten years from now, with not one shred of doubt. Anybody? All right; I suppose it is quite unfair to frame it this way, since most goals don’t last that long. Then, how about I ask you what you want to do one month from now? Will that garner more responses? I bet.

But I also bet that what you are thinking of is not what you would desire to achieve one month from now, but what you would like to achieve today. Will what you desire today be the same as what you desire one month from now? No, no and no. There is plenty of research that suggests we have no idea what we want in the future, even if it’s just one week ahead [1].

Why don’t know what we want in the future? We certainly know what we want now (though sometimes we don’t even have that). That’s why you’re reading this article; you want to pass some time, or pick up some info.

There is a disconnect between out desires now and our desires in the future. We feel in the now. We don’t know how we feel in the future. We don’t even know how we felt in the past! You might interject here and say that, hey, you remembered. But think; is what you remember the feeling, or the memory of the feeling?

Suppose you remember a trip to frosty Siberia (why you would have gone there, I cannot imagine. Let’s say you were conducting a mad psychology experiment, and you needed to be someplace where you wouldn’t be noticed). You would definitely remember feeling cold. But would you feel cold? As cold as you felt back there?

When you think about your future feelings, you think about your current feelings projected into the future, because you have no clue what you would feel otherwise. To some extent it will be true, since you would mostly be the same person now and one month from today. But you would miss out your emotional state. The way you think when you’re hungry or when you’re happy is is entirely different from when you’re full or when you’re depressed.

Suppose you make a decision to diet when you are feeling a bit down about your weight. You look through all the diet sites and form a pretty good plan to keep the calories down. Or so you think. When hunger hits, all your cravings come to fore; suddenly your willpower doesn’t seem so strong after all.

Let’s say you manage to make it through the first two days through sheer willpower alone. You didn’t help yourself to any delicious meals, so your cravings never fade. If you did help yourself to delicious meals, your self-esteem is further hammered, as is your faith in your willpower. Eventually, your willpower will be completely sapped. That’s why 95% of all diets fail [2].

A goal is a death trap; you will set goals you end up not agreeing with, but thinking that you agree with, so you end up unhappy no matter what happens.

2. You bullshit yourself

There’s just something about goals that make us want to be the best we can be. The problem is that we don’t want the effort and pain it takes to be the best we can be. It makes perfect sense too; we don’t have enough resources to get good at everything, so our brain programs us to run on the least efforts possible, overriding this mechanism only if there’s something we really desire.

I’m not saying that you don’t desire whatever it is that you desire; I’m saying that you probably don’t desire it enough. People as a whole don’t have very strong desire, only temporary ones evoked by temporary occurrences. Unless you are really fixated on an idea, or if the person’s environment keeps throwing out similar situations (both of which have their negative side effects), you will not be determined enough to blow past your restraints.

And there will be restraints. If there weren’t, you would naturally achieve what you desire even if the desire is not very great, since the cost is so low.

We like to believe we are capable of getting past our limitations; that idea is so completely ingrained within popular culture that most Hollywood movies have it. It even starts young; as far as I can remember, most action cartoons run on that principle. It makes for great drama, and it is a great moral to teach. Believing that we can go past our limits helps us keep putting in effort when we are facing obstacles allows us to get past those obstacles, which is much better results-wise than believing in an oppressive inevitability, which drains our spirits.

If you really need to do something goal-setting might help, since it would properly define the problem and clarify what needs to be done. But how often do we make a goal that isn’t necessary at all? Now, you might say that an obese person ought to set a goal to lose weight, since they would be healthier if they shed some pounds. That’s true, but is it absolutely necessary?

An absolute necessity blows past all objections. If every obese person in the world were told that they had to lose five kilos or they would die the next month, everybody would lose that weight. That’s an absolute necessity. Losing five kilos for some ambiguous health benefit twenty years down the road is not. Regardless of whatever science has to say, we discount future benefits and costs, and the future these lie, the more we discount them. This, even more so when we would like to believe whatever benefits us more now.

There is necessity, and there is what we think is necessary. We know when there is necessity, because we feel it our bones. But when there is no necessity, a goal-setting mentality fills in the space, searching for necessities that aren’t very necessary at all.  We put obstacles in our own path and give ourselves trouble. Then, finding them too troublesome, we will kick them out of the way and continue as we have always done.

When we lower out bar for deeming something necessary, we also wind up with far too many goals we seek to accomplish. basing it on narrative as opposed to unceasing desire,. These desires will be fairly strong, but they won’t make the cut for necessity. These desires stem from the way we see ourselves, or more rather the way we don’t fit our images of ourselves. We want to believe we are X (good-looking, healthy, smart, etc.), especially when our narratives are put into the spotlight when goal-making.

When we are not X, rather than revising our image of ourselves, we convince ourselves that if we do something, we’ll match up. But this thinking ignores all the factors that led us to be who we are.

We know it won’t be easy. But we don’t feel that way. We have been acculturated to believing we can work past any obstacle. At the same time, we haven’t been thought how to see things as they are beneath the surface. We know the reason we aren’t fit is that we don’t go to the exercise enough. We do not know the reason we don’t exercise enough is that we don’t want to do so much work, that we aren’t making enough time for exercise, that we don’t believe we should even exercise!

We listen to only one side of our feelings, our wants, ignoring our don’t wants. You say, “hey, I hear you,” but really, you don’t. And it will be you who regrets it, after wasting your half-hearted efforts.

3. You will not follow rules

Even if you’re the one who made it. Especially if you’re the one who made it. There are ‘natural’ rules, rules that you want to follow. These rules describe your identity. Do you believe yourself a moral person? Then your rule would be to never do another person wrong. Do you believe yourself an honest person? Then your rule would be to never tell a lie. Even if you fail in following these rules, you try again, because you can’t simply give up your identity.

Meanwhile, there are written rules. These are rules imposed upon you, whether you like it or not. If you like them, good; they fit in with the way you perceive the world. If you don’t like them, too bad. You can try to change them, or if you don’t have means to do so, adapt to them. We are fairly good at adapting to rules when we have no choice but to follow them.

When you set a goal, you are creating a written goal. That you had to set it all is proof that it is not innate. There is a gray zone here: when you write down something like ‘I will not lie anymore’, you will write it when you are feeling guilt about lying, or dissonance from having lied but believing that you are honest. Even an honest man will lie sometimes, so the honest man might try out goal-making as a way to resolve the threat to his identity. In the end, the honest man will probably not lie any time soon, but does it mean that the goal has helped?

When a less honest man write does down ‘I will not lie anymore,’ he probably will break his self-made rule, since he views lying as less serious than the honest man (otherwise, he’d be the honest man!). He only made the goal to resolve his guilt from lying by convincing himself he’s otherwise honest.

The honest man has made a written rule that happens to coincide with his natural rule, so it will appear that the written rule works, even though the honest man will remain honest regardless of what he had written.

Meanwhile, the less honest man will find that his own feelings contradict the rule he has written, and feel a desire to disobey the rule. He might say that he will not break the rule, but the rule is imposed upon himself only by himself. If he chooses to not impose the rule, that would be the end of it. And that will be the end of it.

There’s good reason not to follow rules: feelings do a good job of telling you what you want to do, and in the end you cannot do anything other than what you want to do. Rules meanwhile, assume certain conditions. If the assumptions are solid, and nothing is missing, rules are very useful in telling you what to do. But at the point of creating rules, your mood and expectations skew your perception, causing you to get assumptions wrong and miss out other possibilities.

Goals are not flexible enough to deal with unexpected possibilities. The whole point of setting goals is to achieve them. In changing goals to  suit changing needs, you will lose your desire to chase an ever-shifting end point. You will give up. And that makes sense. There is no reason in chasing an arbitrarily defined goal (I will be happy if I do X. I will not be myself unless I’m Y.) You know that, you just don’t know that you know that. But now you do.

[1] Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2000) Miswanting: some problems in the forecasting of future affective states. (via
[2]  Grodstein, F., Levine, R., Spencer, T., Colditz, G.A., Stampfer, M. J. (1996). Three-year follow-up of participants in a commercial weight loss program: can you keep it off? Archives of Internal Medicine. 156 (12), 1302. (via

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