Steps to Achievement: The Pitfalls, Costs, Requirements, and Timelines

bylionhearted9y11th Sep 201013 comments


Reply to: Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic

In "Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic," Anna Salamon outlined some ways that people could take action to be more successful and achieve goals, but do not:

But 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;

.... or carry out any number of other useful techniques.  Instead, we mostly just do things. 

I believe that's a fantastic list of achievement/victory heuristics. Some of these are difficult to do, though. Let's look to make this into a practical, actionable sort of document. I believe the steps outlined above can be broadly grouped. I've done it with some minor rephrasing to make it in first person plural -

Identify: (a) Ask ourselves what we're trying to achieve, (b) ask ourselves how we could tell if we achieved it and how we can track progress

Research: (c) Become strongly curious about information that would help achieve the goal, and (d) gather that information (through methods like asking how folks commonly achieve this goal, especially methods that aren't habitual)

Test: (e) Test methods that might work to achieve goals, especially non-habitual methods, while tracking what works and doesn't

Focus: (f) Focus most of the energy that isn't going into researching/exploring on methods that are starting to produce the best results, (g) make sure that the "goal" chosen is worthwhile, is desired for coherent reasons, and firmly commit to it at this stage so that doubt does not consume excessive time and energy

Persevere: (h) Use environmental cues and social contexts to boost motivation, persist in the face of adversity and frustration, and not given in to temptation to quit or take it easy.

There's some implicit steps in the model. I think it would go like this:

Identify -> (make decision to begin) -> Research -> (begin) -> Test -> (analyze early results) -> Focus -> (make firm commitment at this stage) -> Persevere -> (achieve or re-evaluate) -> (back to step 1)

I believe Anna roughly laid out five key stages - Identify, research, test, focus, persevere. I believe there's seven other stages mixed in - make decision to begin, begin, analyze early results, make firm commitment, achieve or re-evaluate, repeat.

Pitfalls, Costs, Requirements, and Timelines for each stage:

Identify - the first stage to accomplishing a goal is to identify a goal. I believe this is one of the hardest stages, due to the subjective nature of it. There is no right answer. There are other potential pitfalls - people who are fatalistic ("things are already decided"), nihilistic ("nothing matters"), or believe they can't achieve will have problems with this stage. Additionally, people in this community might have another problem. People who have identities based on being intelligent tend to not want to confront goals they can fail at. The article, "How Not to Talk to Your Kids: the Inverse Power of Praise" describes a study based on praising kids for innate ability (intelligence) vs. effort.

Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.” ... Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Potential Pitfalls in the "Identify" stage: Fatalism, nihilism, low self esteem, fear of failure, or identity being wrapped up in success/intelligence can dissuade people from setting goals. Also, just plain not seeing the value in setting goals.

Costs: This stage is one of the most expensive intellectually and emotionally - this is where you are choosing to dedicate your time at the expense of other things. It's a subjective judgment with an high opportunity cost, almost by definition.

Requirements: Introspection about what you want to achieve, patience, working and re-working at goals, and taking the time to describe and elaborate what success would look like.

Timeline: Varies, but I find the loose threads of identifying goals can take a year, two years, or more to start to come together. After actively planning and beginning to identify goals, coming to a really great definition can happen fairly quickly (10 to 30 minutes, for fairly straightforward goals) or can easily take one to three months to flesh a goal out.

Make decision to begin - I believe this is an underrated component to achieving. Saying, "I have now decided start pursuing this goal." 

Potential Pitfalls: Distraction, akrasia, procrastination, overwhelm.

Costs: Relatively low, since we're only moving to the research/information gathering stage. This is more like an easy checkbox on a checklist - important to do, but not particularly taxing.

Requirements: A tiny bit of decisiveness.

Timeline: Varies - people think things over for a while. But the decision to start exploring a goal can happen instantly.

Research - This stage actually takes some researching skills. Most Less Wrong users will be pretty good at using Google, Wikipedia, searching for books, finding scientific papers, or good podcasts and video. We shouldn't forget that a lot of people are unfamiliar with these tools, and would have to learn them to get started. 

Potential Pitfalls: Not knowing how to research, not having enough knowledge to know where to start looking and good questions to ask, distraction/stimulation ("let me just check XYZ website for a minute..."), underestimating yourself and thus not studying relevant people and events (for instance, ignoring great examples of innovators and producers because "how could I be like da Vinci?", so the person doesn't even bother learning what da Vinci did).

Costs: Varies greatly depending on the goal and information coming in. Also varies depending on intensity - there's passive, casual research like reading historical fiction, biographies, stories, and anecdotes. Then there's active research, testing, underscoring, studying, internalizing, which takes a much greater amount of mental strain.

Requirements: Research skills, judgment to pick the right places to study, concentration, time.

Timeline: Depends on the goal. Of course, research can be an ongoing process forever, but how much is enough to get started? Depends on the field. Younger fields probably require less research since they tend to have more long hanging fruit available for discovery/achievement, less established competition, and less regulation about beginning.

Begin - A massively underrated stage. Deciding, "I have decided, I will achieve this" goes a long ways. Most people never do this, instead half-working on their goals. There's some debate on whether publicly announcing your goals is helpful or harmful. Derek Sivers notes in, "Shut up! Announcing your plans makes you less motivated to accomplish them" that people who announce their goals get a sense of pride and feeling of accomplishment like they're already achieved. On the other hand, I wrote in "The Joys of Public Accountability" that having external commitment and pressure can help overcome feelings of laziness, procrastination, and fear. But regardless of whether you announce publicly or not, making a definite decision that "I will achieve this" seems to be very important and very underrated in goal achievement.

Potential Pitfalls: Why don't people begin on goals? Very many reasons. Fear of failure, fear of success, procrastination, feeling overwhelmed and like there's not enough time, and perhaps the biggest one - not realizing how important making a firm decision to begin is.

Costs: I find that being on the verge of beginning is intense and scary, and has a great mental cost. However, actually making the decision and beginning feels pretty good and is a release from a lot of that tension.

Requirements: A bit of decisiveness, and then, simply starting.

Timeline: Immediate, though people often take a lot of time to prepare to begin.

Test - Testing things that aren't fatal or too damaging if they fail is probably the only way to achieve in a new domain, and maybe the only way to achieve in a domain where how to succeed shifts over time. Anna identifies that testing non-habitual methods is especially key. I agree with all of it - at this stage, doing anything that could plausibly work with no serious downside is correct. A lot of people obsess over, "Where should I get started?" Well, why not start anywhere that might be valuable? There's probably some good ways to assess and choose the best jumping off point, but action of any sort that might work at this stage is quite valuable.

Potential Pitfalls: Not much, if you're dealing with things with low downside. That's the key - start by testing low-downside ways of getting your goal. If you're trying to get into something that has a significant downside by definition (investing money), be able to lose what you start out with, start slow, and pay attention to the fundamentals. You might lose whatever you put in, but if you can limit downside, there's not so many pitfalls to this stage. I suppose perfectionism could kill you here if you if you let it.

Costs: Depends on your mental makeup. Some people can stomach non-success better than others. In practical terms, it's not very expensive. But it can be embarrassing and frustrating, which does come with its own cost.

Requirements: Action orientation. Though speed isn't required, the faster you can try/implement something, the better.

Timeline: Depends on the discipline. You should start getting some feedback fairly quickly. 

Analyze early results - Here, you analyze what's working early on and put more emphasis/effort into that area. At the same time, Anna notes and I agree that you should still keep exploring things. Also, some things don't pay off often but offer incredibly high upside when they do - if you think an area offers that, it might be worth pursuing even if it hasn't shown tangible results yet.

Potential Pitfalls: Analyzing with too small of a sample size could give you bad data and make you quit too soon or be overly optimistic about a particular way. Focusing on something that produces short term gains with a relatively low local maximum could be unfortunate.

Costs: Sitting down and digging through the numbers takes a while, and a lot of people don't like doing it. It's incredibly valuable, I do extensive tracking, which I've written about extensively, including numbers/examples in "What Gets Measured, Gets Managed" on my site. Yet, it can be taxing or look scary for people. Perhaps another pitfall is thinking analysis needs to be perfect, getting overwhelmed, and not starting? This can be mentally taxing, if you look at it the wrong way. It's fun and light and breezy if you look at it from that angle and don't get overly serious.

Requirements: Analytical skills, especially with numbers, statistics, and trends help a lot here. Being able to make charts, graphs, and visualizations isn't necessary, but might help you easily spot long term trends.

Timeline: I find analyzing one week's worth of data can be done in between 20 minutes and an hour, depending on the complexity. Unfortunately though, the first time you start analyzing and you're trying to pick what to measure and how to record it, it takes a lot longer. After analyzing for a few weeks, it becomes very quickly. If you do weekly analysis, larger scale analysis (monthly, annually) becomes pretty easy - you go through your already analyzed weekly data and see trends.

Focus - Here, you isolate the one, two, or three things that provide the most results and bear down in those areas. This is why I originally posted the question that Anna replied to - why don't people focus on the areas that provide the most success? She mentioned that many people don't isolate achievement/victory heuristics. From her inspiration, I wrote this to begin to identify the pitfalls, costs, requirements, and rough timelines on each stage of achievement and victory. 

Potential Pitfalls: The whole post has been leading up to this point - you need to have identified a goal, researched how to achieve it, started working on it, gotten some initial results, and started to analyze them in order to figure out what's giving the greatest payoff. Most people don't do that. Additionally, there could be elements of "fear of success" and general akrasia/procrastination.

Costs: The most expensive costs have already largely been paid in the earlier stages - shifting your focus into high yield/high output areas now will result in more tangible rewards and more progress.

Requirements: The ability to identify high yield areas from your analysis, and be decisive enough to focus in the highest yield area or two.

Timeline: It might take a while to ramp up the effort in the highest yield area or there might be relevant equipment/supplies needed, but the decision to do it can be made very quickly after analysis.

Make firm commitment - These might seem redundant, but I think people don't commit to their goals enough. At least, I see normal people who seem to be wandering through life without having anything particularly meaningful happen. Whereas I tend to see results from people who say, "Yes! I will!" At this point where you're getting ready to focus, you have an idea on what things cost and what the results are going to be. Do you want it bad enough to firmly commit to get it at all costs? 

Potential Pitfalls: Why don't people make firm commitments? Fear of failure, fear of success? Identity? Fear of standing out? If you've come this far and identified the key area and gotten started on focusing it, you should already be on the way to succeeding.

Costs: This might be scary, or not. It might be slightly mentally taxing, or not. It might require an identity shift, or might not. It shouldn't be too difficult, but you're getting on the verge of success - you might have to confront some inner demons.

Requirements: Decisiveness, a bit of willpower.

Timeline: Instant.

Persevere - Anna astutely noted that building an environment that's conducive to success makes it much more likely. In this stage, you're gearing up for the long haul. Getting relevant supplies, tools, outreach, building an external environment, making relevant commitments, and otherwise positioning yourself for success, and then persisting.

Potential Pitfalls: A lot of people give up. You can reduce the chances of this by making the environment more supportive of your success, getting emotional support, and the old fashioned "burn your boats behind you."

Costs: I think if you've clearly identified the payoffs, it shouldn't be too tough, but the road can get weary at times. Persistence can be hard and tiring. The most expensive cost is doing the right thing when you need to, but you're not in the mood to do so.

Requirements: Constructing an environment conducive to success, staying motivated, persistence.

Timeline: Constructing a positive environment varies in time depending on what your environment looked like before you started. How long you'll have to persist depends on the scope of your goal and the methods you've chosen.

Achieve or re-evaluate - Time to see if your beliefs pay the rent. You're either starting to achieve your goal, or you're starting to reconsider if the path you chose was correct. If the latter, you might have to go back to the drawing board. If the former, congratulations! Time to celebrate briefly, and then move on. Either way, you'll be assessing, re-assessing, identifying, and re-identifying goals at this stage.

Potential Pitfalls: Quitting too soon before success. Getting arrogant and going too far after you've crossed the finish line and succeeded. The former comes from too much pessimism and not enough persistence. The latter comes from too much optimism and not enough re-analyzing.

Costs: Completing or abandoning a project both have their costs, the latter more than the former. Either way you'll get a sense of closure after this - consciously abandoning a project where you gave it your all, but then it didn't pan out or your high level goals changed can actually be very enjoyable. Maybe you can do a last creative act to "ship" something if it didn't work out - an analysis or write-up of the event. 

Requirements: If achieving, graciousness. If re-evaluating, emotional steadfastness to not quit too early, but pragmatism/realism to know when you need to go back to the drawing board.

Timeline: Funny enough, a lot of times when you're succeeding at an abstract discipline, you don't realize it for a while. Other goals are easier to notice. It depends on the specific goal and field.

Repeat - After completing or abandoning a goal, it's time to go back to the start, to identify the next things you'll devote yourself to and spend your life energy on. This is where you start identifying goals, researching them, committing to starting, and so on.

Anna wrote:

So, to second Lionhearted's questions: does this analysis seem right?  Have some of you trained yourselves to be substantially more strategic, or goal-achieving, than you started out?  How did you do it?  Do you agree with (a)-(h) above?  Do you have some good heuristics to add?  Do you have some good ideas for how to train yourself in such heuristics?

Indeed, that was a very good and insightful post, and thank you for the inspiration and jumping off point. I have used some of these methods in my own life to become more successful, but I think this exercise of posting the fallacy, getting your feedback in "not automatically strategic," and writing this has been very valuable. I've tried to lay out the beginnings of understanding each stage in the process.

My questions for you, and everyone else at Less Wrong - do these stages seem accurate? How about my descriptions of them, along with the potential pitfalls, costs, requirements, and timelines for each stage?

I think there's a lot of potential to build out in each specific area, identify and apply these methods to common goals, and so on. Perhaps we could go through the list for developing in rationality, or becoming more healthy, or wealthy, or an accomplished artist, or any other number of valuable pursuits.