The design of goals

In general, I’ve found that pop psychology articles about goals are unhelpful and uninspired. I’ve tried to draw on ideas from evolutionary biology, complex adaptive systems, behavioral finance, and engineering to offer a (hopefully) unique and helpful take on the design of goals. I pray the self-help gods of Medium will forgive me for this post.

Competence without comprehension. We can learn a lot about goals from honeybees. Yes, bees! A honeybee colony can be said to have a goal (i.e. manufacture honey) even if no individual bee is aware of this goal. Honeybees have competence without comprehension. The goal of their hive system is the product of a bunch of individual mindless behaviors. Similarly, all of us have goals whether we’re aware of them or not. Goals are simply the cumulative effect of daily habits and behaviors.

When you think about it this way, you can’t really choose to not have goals. You can only choose which ones to cultivate, and which to kill. Sometimes, our goals are more like the honeybee colony. They’re implicit—the outcome of relatively mindless actions. (If you’re not designing your own goals, then someone or something else is probably doing it on your behalf). But lucky for us, we can be more self-aware than worker bees. We can explicitly define our goals. This dichotomy between honeybee colony “goals” and mindful goals suggests that goals can be either created or discovered.

Goal discovery (bottom-up design): the process of discovering your current goals is like reverse engineering. You can actually “extract” your goals from your daily habits and the ideas/questions that you’re naturally drawn to. The easiest way to do this is to map out your current habits and ask yourself, “Why do I do this?” over and over again—the way a little kid would. Usually, the things that feel like “goals” to us are 2–5 degrees of “why” removed from your daily actions.

Goal creation (top-down design): after “extracting” your implied goals from your current behaviors, you can ask yourself whether or not you like what you’ve discovered. If so, you’re all set! If not, you can take a top-down approach and create new goals. The process of creating goals is a lot like the design process in that every goal should aim to solve a clearly articulated problem. You can start by thinking about the problems you experience in your day-to-day life. Skill gaps, things you wish you were better at, recurring obstacles, etc. It’s helpful to frame your goals as questions rather than statements. Consider the difference between “Become a better motion designer” and “How might I become a better motion designer?” The former is vague and scary and audacious. The latter gets you thinking about what you should do next. You can brainstorm a bunch of different concepts or tactics for “solving” the goal.

The web of goals. If you zoom out far enough, you’ll see that every goal exists in a broader hierarchy or web. It’s really helpful to map out this system instead of thinking about individual goals in isolation. To move up the hierarchy of goals, start with an arbitrary desire and ask yourself, “Why do I want to do this?” To move down the hierarchy of goals, ask “How do I want to do this?” You can go on an adventure—up, down, and around this hierarchy for as long as it’s helpful for you. Exploring the hierarchy helps you ground your goals in guiding principles (the why) and tactics (the how). When you explore this hierarchy, you start to realize that every goal is actually a gradient from habits on one end to principles on the other. What you choose to label as a goal vs. a habit vs. a project vs. a principle is sort of arbitrary and up to you. You can zoom out and imagine a network of these goal hierarchies that are hopefully connected and mutually reinforcing.

P.S. Goals are more like markets than weather, in that they respond to predictions about themselves. Your goals will change as you do, but that’s what keeps things interesting.