Goal Setting: A ‘Maturity’ Mismatch?

“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”

Samuel Johnson

I dont’ know how to properly phrase it, but as I see it, the biggest problem with goal setting is that altruistic goals happen in small increments in most cases – small successes repeated daily, which build over time. This means that people (which we, as a species, are primarily driven by what we can ‘see’) fail to realize the success of their efforts on a day to day basis. Due to this lack or realization, most people give up on what would otherwise be worthwhile goals.

The inverse also holds true. Most activities that are detrimental to our health – smoking, over eating, a lack of exercise and execessive drinking – do not destroy us in one foul swoop. Conversely, they build up over days, months and years. These activites lead to small losses every day, and as the magnitude of their effect is not realized.

Therefore the crux of the problem is this: doing the right things day after day does not yield immediate rewards, so we don’t do it. Doing the wrong thing day after day does not yield immediate punishment, so we don’t refrain from it.

How can we solve this problem? Let’s take weight loss/nurtition as a case study. We cansee the public desire/motivation in action everytime we watch an ad. The time requried to ‘lose’ 10 pounds has gone from months, to weeks, to days. People want and need immediate realization. Can we use immediate realization in a constructive way?

Why not build an application that lets users upload their picture, their personal statistics (weight, body fat, etc.) and their goals. Then, every couple of days (or every day if they are that committed), the user can input what they ate, what they did in terms of exercise and activities, and other simple relevant information. The app would then update the picture and highlight areas of interest. Been eating out the past week, a little less healthy than you would have liked? Well the app highlights the mid-section, and tells the owner “if you were to eat like this every week for the next 10 weeks, your mid section will look something like this.” On the other side, the user eats well, exercises, and maintains healthy habits, the app updates accordingly and says “keep it up, in 10 weeks you will look something like this.” This could apply to anything – long term health effects, job potential, grades in school or university – anything where the final destination is ‘out there’.

I am not trying to push something gimmicky, but if humans are driven by short term desires but need long term goals, why not figure out a way to satisfy both? The major problem with goal setting today is that people want to see it now, or at least a representation of what it looks like.

There is a second bonus of applying a more immediate reward – it makes goal more manageable. Losing 50 pounds is hard to visualize, it’s abstract and lacks achievable steps. Losing 1 pound a week for the next year is much more appealing. When I read, I don’t set the book to be read a particular year. I pick the week, and then I set where I should be mid-week depending on the number of pages in the book. This makes the goal of reading 50+ books a year much more manageable, keeps me honest, on track and I get a personal reward much more often.

So when it comes to goal setting, my advice is this: wherever possible, try to shorten the maturity of your goal to match the maturity of your reward complex, depending on the activity. Make sure you break it down into manageable pieces, keep yourself on track, and constantly remind yourself of the long term vision.


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