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Goalodicy – the pursuit of idiotic goals

The last book I read was Scott Adams’ “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life“. The current book I’m reading is Oliver Burkeman‘s “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking“. Coincidentally, and unbeknownst to me before I began reading the books, both authors trash the dogma that setting specific goals is a worthwhile idea. Burkeman has this (and much, much more) to say on goal pursuit:

A business goal would be set, announced, and generally greeted with enthusiasm. But then evidence would begin to emerge that it had been an unwise one – and goalodicy would kick in as a response. The negative evidence would be reinterpreted as a reason to invest more effort and resources in pursuit of the goal. And so things would, not surprisingly, go even more wrong…. There is a good case to be made that many of us, and many of the organisations for which we work, would do better to spend less time on goal-setting, and, more generally, to focus with less intensity on planning for how we would like the future to turn out. – Oliver Burkeman

Scott Adams is even more critical of the “best practice” of goal-setting than Burkeman:

Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways. To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable… Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. – Scott Adams

If you’re a laser-focused, SMART goal-oriented person, you might want to revisit some of the foundational bricks in your worldview in light of what Burkeman and Adams have to say. But then again, neither Burkeman nor Adams are absolutists. They don’t emphatically advise against all goal-setting. They simply suggest considering alternative, less psychically destructive methods of attempting to better our lives (devise/use a system;  envision a qualitatively desirable future and move toward it).

You might say every system has a goal, however vague. And that would be true to some extent. And you could say that everyone who pursues a goal has some sort of system to get there, whether it is expressed or not. You could word-glue goals and systems together if you chose. All I’m suggesting is that thinking of goals and systems as very different concepts has power. – Scott Adams

There is plenty of very real research testifying to the fact that the practice (of goal-setting) can be useful. Interpreted sufficiently broadly, setting goals and carrying out plans to achieve them is how many of us spend most of our waking hours. – Oliver Burkeman

Goal Setting

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