In the post Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic, Anna Salamon writes:

there are clearly also heuristics that would be useful to goal-achievement (or that would be part of what it means to “have goals” at all) that we do not automatically carry out. We do not automatically:

(a) Ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve;

(b) Ask ourselves how we could tell if we achieved it (“what does it look like to be a good comedian?”) and how we can track progress;

(c) Find ourselves strongly, intrinsically curious about information that would help us achieve our goal;

(d) Gather that information (e.g., by asking as how folks commonly achieve our goal, or similar goals, or by tallying which strategies have and haven’t worked for us in the past);

(e) Systematically test many different conjectures for how to achieve the goals, including methods that aren’t habitual for us, while tracking which ones do and don’t work;

(f) Focus most of the energy that *isn’t* going into systematic exploration, on the methods that work best;

(g) Make sure that our "goal" is really our goal, that we coherently want it and are not constrained by fears or by uncertainty as to whether it is worth the effort, and that we have thought through any questions and decisions in advance so they won't continually sap our energies;

(h) Use environmental cues and social contexts to bolster our motivation, so we can keep working effectively in the face of intermittent frustrations, or temptations based in hyperbolic discounting;

When I read this, I was feeling quite unsatisfied about the way I pursued my goals. So the obvious thing to try, it seemed to me, was to ask myself how I could actually do all these things. I started by writing down all the major goals I have I could think of (a). Then I attempted to determine whether each goal was consistent with my other beliefs, whether I was sure it was something I really wanted, and was worth the effort(g).

For example, I saw that my desire to be a novelist was more motivated by the idea of how cool it would feel to be able to have that be part of my self-image, rather than a desire to actually write a novel. Maybe I’ll try to write a novel again one day, but if that becomes a goal sometime in the future it will be because there is something I really want to write about, not because I would like to be a writer.

Once I narrowed my goals down to aspirations that seemed actually worthwhile I attempted to devise useful tracking strategies for each goal (b). Some were pretty concrete (did I exercise for at least four hours this week) and others less so (how happy do I generally feel on a scale of 1-10 as recorded over time), but even if the latter method is prone to somewhat biased responses, it seems better than nothing.

The next step was outlining what concrete actions I could begin immediately taking to work towards achieving my goals, including researching how to get better at working on those goals (d,e,f). I made sure to refer to these points when thinking about actions I could take, it helped significantly.

As for (c), if you focus on how learning certain information will help you achieve something you really want to achieve and you still are not curious about it, well, that’s a bit odd to me, although I can imagine how that might occur. But that is something of a different topic than I want to focus on.

Now we come to (h), which is the real issue of the whole system, at least for me. Or perhaps it would be clearer to say that general motivation and organization was the biggest problem I had when I first tried to implement these heuristics. I planned out my goals, but trying to work on them by sheer force of will did not last for very long. I would inevitably convince myself that I was too tired, I would forget certain goals fairly often (probably conveniently the tasks that seemed the hardest or least immediately pleasant), and ultimately I mostly gave up, making a token effort now and again.

I found that state of affairs unsatisfactory, and I decided what felt like a willpower problem might actually be a situational framing problem. In order to change the way I interacted with the work that would let me achieve my goals, I began fully scheduling out the actions I would take to get better at my goals each day.

In the evening, I look over my list of goals and I plan my day by asking myself, “How can I work on everything on this list tomorrow? Even if it’s only for five minutes, how do I plan my day so that I get better at everything I want to get better at?” Thanks to the fact that I have written out concrete actions I can take to get better at my goals, this is actually quite easy.

These schedules improve my ability to consistently work on my goals for a couple reasons, I think. When I have planned that I am going to do some sort of work at a specific time I cannot easily rationalize procrastination. My normal excuses of “I’ll just do it in a bit” or “I’m feeling too tired right now” get thrown out. There is an override of “Nope, you’re doing it now, it says right here, see?” With a little practice, following the schedule becomes habit, and it’s shocking how much willpower you have for actually doing things once you don’t need to exert so much just to get yourself to start. I think the psychology it applies is similar to that used by Action Triggers, as described by Dr. Peter Gollwitzer.

The principle of Action Triggers is that you do something in advance to remind yourself of something you want to do later. For example, you lay out your running clothes to prompt yourself to go for that jog later. Or you plan to write your essay immediately after a specific tangible event occurs (e.g. right after dinner). A daily schedule works as constant action triggers, as you are continually asking the question “what am I supposed to do now?” and the schedule answers.

Having a goal list and daily schedule has increased my productivity and organization an astonishing amount, but there have been some significant hiccups. When I first began making daily schedules I used them to basically eschew what I saw as useless leisure time, and planned my day in a very strict fashion. The whole point is not to waste any time, right? The first problem this created may be obvious to those who better appreciate the importance of rest than I did at the time. I stopped using the schedules after a month and a half because it eventually became too tiring and oppressive. In addition, the strictness of my scheduling left little room for spontaneity and I would allow myself to become stressed when something would come up that I would have to attend to. Planned actions or events also often took longer than scheduled and that would throw the whole rest of the day’s plan off, which felt like failure because I was unable to get everything I planned done.

Thinking back to that time several months later, when I was again dissatisfied with how well I was able to work towards my goals and motivate myself, I wished for the motivation and productivity the schedules provided, but to avoid the stress that had come with them. It was only at this point that I started to deconstruct what had gone wrong with my initial attempt and think about how I could fix it.

The first major problem was that I had overworked myself, and I realized I would have to include blocks of unplanned leisure time if daily schedules were going to actually work for me. The next and possibly even more important problem was how stressed the schedules had made me. I had to enforce to myself that it is okay if something comes up that causes my day not to go as planned. Failing to do something as scheduled is not a disaster, or even an actual failure if there is good reason to alter my plans. Another technique that helped was scheduling as much unplanned leisure time as possible at the end of my day. This has the dual benefit of allowing me to reschedule really important tasks into that time if they get bumped by unexpected events and generally gives me something to look forward to at the end of the day. The third problem I noticed was that the constant schedule starts to feel oppressive after a while. To resolve this, about every two weeks I spend one day, in which I have no major obligations, without any schedule. I use the day for self-reflection, examining how I’m progressing on my goals, if there are new actions I can think of to add, or modifications I can make to my system of scheduling or goal tracking. Besides that period of reflection, I spend the day resting and relaxing. I find this exercise helps a lot in refreshing myself and making the schedule feel more like a tool and less like an oppressor.

So, essentially, figuring out how to actually follow the goal-pursuing advice Anna gave in Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic, has been very effective thus far for me in terms of improving the way I pursue my goals. I know where I am trying to go, and I know I am taking concrete steps every day to try and get there. I would highly recommend attempting to use Anna’s heuristics of goal achievement and I would also recommend using daily schedules as a motivational/organizational technique, although my advice on schedules is largely based on my anecdotal experiences.

I am curious if anyone else has attempted to use Anna’s goal-pursuing heuristics or daily schedules and what your experiences have been.


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2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:37 PM

Habit formation is really difficult. The way I like to think about goal lists and daily schedules is as productivity supporting habits rather than directly productive habits.

It's not unusual to have some productive habits. Going to the gym before work, doing X hours of uninterrupted work each weekday, cleaning your home once a week, etc, can be hard habits to build, but it can and is done. The problem is that you need to do the habit formation work every time you have a new goal.

Other habits can help support productivity even if they aren't directly productive themselves. Being in the habit of creating schedules and sticking to them (or effectively using a to-do list) can help support other productive activities, but isn't directly productive itself. These type of habits are nice because you only need to build them once. If you always follow your schedule, you can engage in a variety of productive activities without building each habit individually; that habit can serve as an action trigger.

Obviously it's not always this simple. I think building up the habit of actually completing the work listed in your calendar can be very challenging, perhaps more so than building up individually productive tasks. I wasn't able to do it, even after scheduling in leisure time. I settled on a to-do list workflow (styled off of GTD) that works nicely for me. I now use calendars only for hard times (events, deadlines, birthdays, etc), otherwise I start to feel like everything on the calendar is as flexible as the daily work that I schedule in.

Doing some of the meta work described in the Anna Salamon piece would likely improve my goal management. I'll try to work some of those heuristics into my existing goal list, which is likely too vague. I wonder if there is a way to work some of those heuristics into a calendar or to-do list habit to improve their efficacy.

The general idea for me is using the heuristics to form the goals, which in turn suggest concrete actions. The concrete actions are what go on your schedule/to-do list. I'd also advocate constantly updating/refining your goals and concrete methods of achieving goals, both for updating on new information and testing out new methods.

It's possible that a daily schedule just doesn't work for you, but I will say that I had to try a number of different tweaks before it felt okay to me. Examining negative feelings the schedule gives you and then looking for a way the problem might be ameliorated I found to be very helpful, if schedules are still something you're interested in.

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