5 min read

Goal failure modes

In thinking about some goals I've started and abandoned, I notice a few patterns: They're too broad, consequently only weakly grounded in things I care about, and represent overcommitting.

I'm going to illustrate this with some real examples, lightly scrubbing out details where they don't matter.

Some failure modes:

  1. I didn't care (enough), often (not always) because the goal was too broad/not specific enough.
    1. Example: "Make things."
      1. This is maximally vague, and perhaps maximally unmotivating.
    2. Example: "Learn Japanese well enough to understand essays written in it."
      1. Unfortunately, it turns out I just don't like abstract "essays" enough for this goal to work even remotely well. Which essays do I care enough to learn to read? I should ideally focus the goal on one essay that I actually care about—say by an author whose work I've read and loved in translation. Hypothetically: "Read and understand Haruki Murakami's 2007 essay 'What I Talk About When I Talk About Running' in the original Japanese" (English publication in 2008). However...
      2. Why essays at all? It's not like I'm an essay buff specifically, or like I had anything specific in mind. I think I was trying to be specific, and may technically have succeeded compared to wherever I started, but failed to pick something I specifically care about. I cared about it somewhat, in the abstract, and I had a very vague idea of the kind of essays I might be interested in, but without specific examples it was hard to care. I suspect it might have worked better if I had picked a specific artifact I actually liked, say a pop song or an anime, instead of going for a "respectable" or "intellectual" option I didn't honestly care about.
      3. But I also would have needed to be realistic about the work involved, and I'm not sure I could have really understood without putting the time into this goal and then giving up on it. So while a more specific goal might have helped, I'm not sure it would have solved the most important underlying problem.
    3. Example: "Read the Blub reading list."
      1. Turns out this was a lot more work than I was willing to put in! It was challenging, approach-oriented, and immediate enough, but I think it failed because it turned out I didn't actually care about most of the books on the list. (So why did I want to read the list? That's a story for another day.)
      2. Better example: "Read [specific book from the Blub reading list] cover to cover, completing at least 90% of all exercises in the book." This isn't motivating to me now, but it's more specific, at least.
    4. Extra credit instead of commitment. Example: "Write regularly... I want to do just 30 minutes a day. Extra: Do additional things to improve at writing. For example: Seek feedback..."
      1. The writing goal here is specific such that it's easy to tell if I manage it. It's maybe a bit too strict as written, in that it doesn't as written allow for missing days. The problem is that I tacked on this other stuff (seek feedback) as extra credit, which makes it overly broad.
      2. I could have decided I didn't care enough to pursue this right now, and that would have fixed the goal. But what if getting feedback seemed important?
      3. I think it would make sense to factor this as two separate goals. One would be for writing regularly, defined as previously but without the extras. The other would be for "the dialog of writing," which would cover editing things I've written, sharing work (publicly or privately), getting feedback, reading feedback, and acting on feedback. (Which acting may include deciding "this piece of feedback doesn't help me create the story I am trying to make, so here, let me put it in the trash.") To make this more specific, the "dialog of writing" goal might be to spend at least 30 minutes each week on the listed activities.
      4. Of course, if I were really committing to this goal, I would want to have a more specific idea of who I intended to get feedback from ("Alice Smith," "the Friendly Writers Example Critique Group," ...) and where I would share the work ("Majestic Highway," "Insufficient Speed," "the Flying Purple People Eater Discord")—if it's not specified and not obvious then that becomes an implicit Reason Not To Work On This—but I'm not, so I don't need to get specific.
  2. There's a lack of clarity about why I would personally care about achieving the goal.
    1. Why is it important to me to do this? On days when it's hard to want to work on this—when the next task is hard and/or no fun—why would I bother? How in acting on this specific goal—as opposed to any goal whatsoever, or other specific goals—do I embody the virtues I want to embody?
    2. Looking back on the full goal descriptions, neither of the aforementioned bad example goals answers these questions to my satisfaction.
  3. Overcommitting. I also think of this as "Putting the cart before the horse." The problem is that I chose a juicy target, but without considering how much work it will actually be, or that I might start on the goal and find out I don't enjoy it or otherwise care less than expected.
    1. I've often been wrong about what I care enough to pursue long-term! If I pursued those subgoals separately, I might be able to complete them and establish more quickly whether I care enough to pursue the bigger goal. This is a problem for big monolithic goals like this.
    2. What's worse is that partial progress feels less meaningful when I frame it as one small part of a big goal. If I set a three-year goal and quit three months in, I might actually have accomplished something personally meaningful along the way. At minimum, I've accomplished one important thing: Learning more about what I (don't) care enough to pursue for three years running. Viewing things in terms of one big goal, completed or abandoned, makes this feel demoralizing, rather than fulfilling.
    3. Example: "Win a local [specific martial art] tournament of at least 8 people"—when I don't practice [specific martial art].
      1. To achieve this, I'd have to achieve a bunch of subgoals many of which are individually annoying and worth focusing on and celebrating separately, like choosing a studio to study with for the moment, completing a class with that studio, attending classes/practice for say six months, reaching [rank], and so on.
      2. Being realistic, this is probably two or three years of work at minimum, and I only get to check off a box at the very end—so this seems like kind of a terrible and tyrannical goal. It seems like the kind of goal I'd pursue for a few months and then drop. Which I did, in fact—if I even got to a few months.
      3. Note that this goal could also be more specific—for example, "Win the Bob Smith [Specific Martial Art] Tournament." That requires doing the research to find and choose an arbitrary local martial arts tournament, which I'm assuming is easy and painless enough it isn't worth a separate goal—but I could be wrong.
    4. Generally, it seems useful to split up long-term goals into goals that are individually meaningful, even if those goals sound boring when described out loud.

Based on these old examples, I think it's useful for me to define goals with relatively short timelines (probably in series, rather than as goal-subgoal), more specific and narrow scopes, and clearer grounding in ways-I-want-to-be.