One of the most dangerous forms of human error is forgetting
what one is trying to achieve.
– Paul Nitze

Happy New Year! Last week we talked about…nothing, for your humble author was celebrating the holidays with friends and family. But the week before we discussed the brain’s irrational overvaluing of things it owns, even if what it owns is nothing more than a preference for Coke over Pepsi. Given our love of setting New Year’s goals that are then thrown away faster than an ugly Christmas sweater, today, we will talk about settings goals that work.

My lovely wife, Devon, is a dynamo of physical activity. Every warm weekend she will be found scaling the mountains surrounding our Utah home, her sedentary husband dragged along for the fun. While my idea of vigorous exercise is setting a new record in a pie-eating contest, Devon spends her evening pie-eating time at the gym instead, eating no pies at all and doing something called “Zumba,” which I assume is either some kind of group workout or a form of exotic Mongolian throat singing.

Although Devon normally enjoys her workouts, around this time of year she comes home from the gym as grumpy as a grinch. Why? Because the place is absolutely packed. While normally able to go to class a few minutes early and get a good spot, she now finds herself having to arrive half an hour in advance to even get through the door. This has happened every year I have known Devon, but she usually keeps her cool, for she knows that by the time February rolls around the workout classes will once again have plenty of room.

Why is it that Devon and other fitness junkies can keep the physical activity going all year round while the rest of us give up within weeks, if not days? Why do good intentions crumble so quickly under the onslaught of our brains’ own desire to not do stuff?

Because brains are built to be lazy, of course.

The human brain is a remarkably high-energy organ. Despite weighing only three pounds, it uses a whopping 20% of all the calories we take into our bodies. And that’s when the brain is at rest; when thinking hard the brain can use even more. Quite impressive for just 3 pounds of brilliant gray goo.

That brilliance comes with a significant metabolic cost. From an evolutionary perspective it’s dangerously expensive to support an organ that requires so much food. To counter the danger of starvation-by-brain-overuse, the brain evolved to expend as little energy as possible. In other words, it is lazy. This is a feature, not a flaw. If the brain burns a lot of energy doing something today that ends up being meaningless tomorrow, that’s a waste of energy. So it evolved to procrastinate. If it can do a lot of work and get certain results, but could get close to the same results with half the work, it is going to do so. It evolved to look for shortcuts. In a world where calories are scarce, those were the brains that survived.

In the wealthy modern world, however, the feature becomes a flaw. Despite having more calories available than could ever be consumed, brains continue to function as if our next meal may never come, so they try to get away with using as little energy as possible to get things done.

Daniel Kahneman, the great psychologist who won a Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work, talks about this in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. (Interestingly, although his work was in psychology, Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics.) Kahneman splits the human brain into two information processing systems that he simply labels System 1 and System 2. System 2 is the thinking, conscious part of your brain, the part that you would consider “you.” It is enormously intelligent and deliberate in its thought processes. It is also slow and requires lots of energy. System 1 is much larger. It is subconscious and not terribly smart, but it is very fast and requires less energy. When faced with a challenge, the brain defaults to System 1. It only engages the smart, high-energy System 2 when it feels it has to, or when we make the conscious choice to do so.

This is where goal setting comes in. Without goals the brain is much more likely to coast, to move from challenge to challenge using the easier, dumber, low-energy System 1. The power of goals is that they can guide our brain out of System 1 and into System 2, taking what might once have been a largely subconscious goal and driving us to focus consciously on what we wish to achieve.

Some types of goals are more effective at engaging System 2 than others. Without further ado, I present 7 strategies for setting a brain-smart goal:

  1. Write it down. Reading is a function of System 2. By writing and then reading our goal (rather than simply thinking it), we force our smart System 2 into action. Do not write your goal and put it in your pocket; it’s too easy to forget. Put the goal where you will read it regularly, ensuring that it often enters your conscious thoughts. You could place your goal right next to your computer screen or in a prominent place on the wall. You might choose to laminate it and put it in the shower or by your sink so you see it every morning. Make it visible, and commit to reading it regularly.
  2. Focus on what you control. People often fail by writing goals like “I want to be wealthy,” or “I want six-pack abs.” Because such things rely so much on good luck, other people, or (with regard to the abs) genetic predisposition, people often set themselves up for failure before they even begin. Instead of writing a goal focused on final outcomes, write a goal focused on what you control: the process. For example, instead of “I want six-pack abs,” the goal might be, “I will do X exercises for Y amount of time three times a week.” That type of goal is largely within our own control, and is therefore much more likely to be achieved. Even if we don’t get the six-pack, it would be hard to argue that such a goal would not have positive outcomes.
  3. Be VERY specific. This is perhaps the most common trap people fall into when setting a goal: they make it too vague. The goal, “I want to be wealthy” is an excellent example of such a trap. As in the previous strategy, instead of focusing on some fuzzy final outcome, get specific about what you plan to actually do. If one wanted to improve their financial situation, a good wealth-growing goal could look like this: “I will set up automatic bank transfers so that X dollars of every paycheck are automatically transferred into savings. I will limit the amount of money I spend on food/entertainment/electronics/etc. every month to X. I will set up an automated investment account with low fees and put X dollars in it every two months. At work I will uncover three of my boss’s unspoken needs and put together a plan to address them by year-end, thus increasing my value to the company. I will also finish the book I’ve been writing by March and find a literary agent to get it to a publisher by June.” Notice that the overall focus of our example is still to build wealth, but now it’s built on details, not dreams. In reading it, you can likely see many ways I could make the goal even more specific. Good! As a general rule, be as specific as possible. (In theory one could write forever, getting more and more specific each time. You can decide for yourself what level of specificity is too much, but if you must err, it is better to err on the side of being too specific than not specific enough.)
  4. Set milestones. Goals should have multiple steps with milestones along the way. As a thought is pushed further and further into the future, our brains are built to care about it less and less. By setting regular milestones with small victories along the way, our brain doesn’t forget a faraway end result. Milestones are also a great way to track our progress, and to enjoy the emotional and mental boost we get each time we accomplish a step in our goals.
  5. Make yourself accountable. Remember, brains are slothful little devils. If they think no one is watching, they will often try to get away with the easiest, lowest-energy path (i.e. not accomplishing the goal). Because we evolved as social creatures, one powerful tool against our own laziness is built right into our heads: social pressure. Find a support person (or support group) to share your goal with, people who will hold you accountable, ask you regularly about your goal and rejoice in your successes. These people act both as a cheerleading squad and a nag-and-tag team, keeping your goal in the forefront of your mind. (Be warned, if you do not like your progress, it can be very annoying to have people ask you about your goal. Remember, they are doing you a great kindness in following up, and it drastically increases the likelihood that you will succeed.)
  6. Make it matter to others. If other people care about your goal, they will be motivated to help you achieve it. Not only does this increase the odds of positive results, but it can make the goal-achievement process much more fun. Does my significant other appreciate rippling pecs and biceps that can crack walnuts? Then they’ll likely be generous with their support! This is also a great way to get others to help with the accountability strategy above.
  7. Make it matter to YOU. It can be surprisingly tempting to set goals that we don’t really care about. If you don’t feel invested in physical fitness, no amount of goal setting will bring you back to the gym day after day, month after month. Without a passion for the goal, it is unlikely to mean much even if we achieve it (which is unlikely). This is the biggest thing that separates pie-eating people like myself from physical fitness paragons like Devon: enthusiasm for the activity. Here’s the good news: sometimes just changing the way we think about a goal can allow us to find real passion where once there was only dread.

The following story relates to that final point. Some years ago I met a gentleman named Brian. Brian was an exceptional engineer who had climbed to the top of his field at one of the most prestigious engineering companies in the world. One day external circumstances caused his company to take a massive hit. Large layoffs began. Brian, being one of the best engineers at the company, was safe, but a lot of his friends and coworkers were not. It was at that moment Brian found himself saddled writing a proposal to win the company a new contract. Brian hated writing proposals. If you have ever done so yourself, you know that for most people it is not enjoyable. It is long, tedious, frustrating work. Brian didn’t choose the goal; it was given to him by his superiors. So it was that a man who had always loved his work found himself dreading coming into the office each day.

Then Brian decided to crunch some numbers. After a couple of quick calculations he found that if his proposal was accepted and his company won the contract, it would bring in enough money to keep an additional 500 people employed and safe from layoffs. Suddenly Brian had a reason to care. His work on the proposal would save the jobs of hundreds of people, many of whom he would know personally. Even though the goal was unchanged — write the proposal — he now had a deep, motivating reason to care about the goal. (Brian’s company won the contract.)

Goals can often feel like nothing more than unnecessary busywork, especially in the workplace. But if we set goals that are specific and based on things we truly care about, then it’s not about the paperwork. Strong goals that utilize the strategies above really do increase the probability of success — personally and professionally — and make the journey all the more enjoyable.

Whatever your goals for the New Year, may it be your best year yet!

For Your Consideration

  1. Do an analysis of your current goals — personal and work goals — then simplify. A single detailed goal is more effective than multiple broad goals. Consider setting just one or two personal goals, then work on making them as specific as possible. At work, consider just one or two goals as well. If they are detailed and challenging, a single strong goal in the place of several weak goals will be accepted by most bosses.
  2. Do you have any goals for which you lack an innate passion? If you want to be physically fit but don’t have a passion for physical fitness, is there a way you can rewrite the goal to connect it to something for which you do have a natural enthusiasm? Or say you set a goal to read a certain number of books this year, but don’t have a passion for reading. Is there a particular topic you are so passionate about that it can overcome your disinclination toward reading? If so, you can select books about that topic and let your excitement carry you through. If there are any goals you cannot find a passion for, eliminate them.
  3. When selecting your accountability partners, pick your people based on the goal you set. For a work goal, pick someone who knows your work well and finds it interesting. For an exercise goal, select someone who loves physical fitness and exercises regularly. Your best partners are those who know you well and find your goal personally appealing.