Archive | Goal Setting

Three Signs You Need to Check Your Premises

Ayn Rand coined the catch phrase: “Check your premises.”
A premise is a past conclusion that supports your present thinking. Her point was that if you arrive at a contradiction in the present, there is an error somewhere in your past conclusions. You need to find that mistake, because otherwise it will sabotage you.

Here’s the problem: mistaken premises can be difficult to spot. You need a special act of self-awareness to catch them and correct them.

A mistaken premise is difficult to catch because it forms a kind of a blinder. Let me explain.

At the time you formed any premise, you concluded it was true. It may even have been true then, but some factor in the world has changed since that time.

In every choice we make, in every conclusion we reach, in every outcome we predict, we rely on our past conclusions. What we have previously established as true or good or important provides an automatized context for concluding whether some new idea is true or good or important. We couldn’t function at an adult level without this context; we’d be like a mentally retarded adult, seeing only what is in front of him, without the wherewithal to project much into the future or learn much from the past.

For the most part, our automatized context of conclusions serves us well. But when there is a wrong premise in the context, it distorts the calculus. It means that a new idea is tested against a false one. You can easily reach a new mistaken conclusion.

To concretize, imagine you were in a neighborhood that you had visited many times. On your way out to the highway, you take shortcut. But en route, you see a sign that indicates the highway is in a different direction. How would you judge that new information?

You might very well conclude you know better, especially if you had an explanation for why your shortcut wasn’t marked. It is normal to trust your own mind.

However, it is possible the traffic pattern has changed, and your “better” way is no longer an option. If that’s the case, you will wind up taking the long way around, not a shortcut. You won’t figure out that you’re making a mistake until you follow the premise all the way through to failure.

When a few minutes delay is all that you risk, it may not matter how soon you catch a mistake.

But as the stakes get higher, you need an early warning system to alert you that a premise deserves checking. Here are three signs that I use to warn me that I should consider whether I am operating on misinformation:

1. Surprise

Surprise is the ultimate “does not compute” signal, and a definite sign to check your premises. And yet often people assume that the new information is misleading, rather than that they have made a mistake in their thinking.

For example, an experimental researcher I know found she had to train new graduate students to take surprise seriously. When an experiment gave a surprising result, their default reaction was to re-run the experiment rather than check their premises. But surprising outcomes indicate new factors that were unknown.

Some great inventions come from following up on surprising results to learn something new.

2. A Pattern of Failure

When things go wrong in the same way, again and again, despite your effort to the contrary, it’s time to check your premises.

For example, if you’re having the same argument escalate again with the same person, you know for sure that you are not discussing the real issue. Or if you’re having trouble getting to work on time, despite troubleshooting the issue, you know that you have not identified the root cause of the tardiness.

Such problems are vicious cycles. They are often held in place by a false theory about how the world “should” be. The argument “should” convince the other person. Or the other person “should” listen better. Or you “should” be able to get up without hitting the snooze button. Or you “should” be able to do your morning routine in 32 minutes flat.

When practice refutes theory, theory needs to change.

3. Victimhood

“I have no choice.” “It’s impossible.” “I can’t.” Whenever you see yourself as the victim determined by circumstances, you know there is a premise to check.

Don’t get me wrong, there may be an objective problem, but whether to solve it and how you solve it is your choice.

For example, I remember being disappointed that I “couldn’t” take a class on Human Anatomy and Physiology (A&P) in my senior year of high school. It didn’t fit with physics, which was required for college. My younger brother proved that premise wrong. He took physics as a junior, so he had the flexibility to take A&P as a senior. I had not valued A&P highly enough to make it a priority, which includes planning long range to make it possible. He had.

There can be circumstances which make it difficult to achieve a specific goal. But if that goal is literally impossible to achieve, it is illogical to aim for it. Having it as a goal is based on a wrong premise.

On the other hand, if the goal is very difficult, it’s important to acknowledge that going after it or not is a choice of priorities. A difficult goal may require significant time and energy. You may need to drop lesser goals that would prevent you from achieving it. You may need to plan over time to ensure you can achieve it.

It is not true that you can “have it all.” You can have what is most important to you. Facing your actual choices often takes challenging old premises.

When you have a wrong premise, one way or another it puts you on a path to failure. That’s why eliminating wrong premises sooner rather than later is so important to success. The first step? Pay attention to these three signs that you need to check your premises: Surprise, a pattern of failure, and victimhood.

September 23, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Want to be Happy? Set Objective Goals

I am often asked what’s wrong with setting a goal to “be happy” or “feel good.” The problem is that these “goals” are subjective–ultimately circular. Goals need to be objective.

To understand that goals need to be objective, first you need to understand what a goal is, and how it relates to emotions.

A goal is an intention you set to achieve a particular outcome. If you achieve the outcome, you succeed. If you don’t, you fail. It has a definite stopping place.

When you set a goal, you immediately change part of your psychology a little bit–you change your subconscious value hierarchy. The act of setting the intention gives your intended outcome a value significance to you. It is now identified as good and important to you. As a result, from that moment forward, you will feel emotions about the goal and your pursuit of it.

Absent other factors, if you see an opportunity to achieve the goal, you’ll feel desire. If you see a threat to achieving it, you’ll feel fear. If you sit around without doing anything about achieving it, you’ll feel guilt. If you take some steps to achieve it and fail, you will feel frustration.

In other words, an important function of your emotional system is to alert you to information which seems relevant to your achieving your goal. Both positive and negative emotions are useful in this regard. Emotions are an integral part of your value system.

Your value system is partly biological, partly chosen. A baby is born with a functioning value system, based on certain physical needs, such as food, water, and a comfortable body temperature. If the baby lacks one of these, he cries. From the time of birth, anything associated with fulfilling physical needs gets stored as a value in his value system.

As a child develops his mind, a new factor is involved in forming values: choice. The child learns that his choices affect his life. He learns the importance of gaining knowledge and initiating action to meet his needs and achieve his goals. This is why setting a goal infuses the goal with value significance.

But of course, he can make mistakes in figuring out what goals to set and how to achieve them. This is why as adults we all have philosophies–to help us figure out what’s true and what’s good.

If you’ve been reading my writing for long, you know that all of the ideas about psychology that I share are developed on the basis of my particular philosophy, Objectivism. Two key conclusions from Objectivism relevant to this discussion are:

1) The standard of good is what promotes man’s survival–man qua man the rational animal. The standard of good is that which is necessary for a living organism that survives by the use of its mind to flourish. On this standard, happiness is both possible and desirable.

2) Because this standard is based on actual facts about what a living, breathing, thinking human being can do and needs to do, there are no inherent conflicts within a person’s soul.

On this view, emotions are an important alert that there is a value at stake. When emotions conflict, they are alerting you to an internal contradiction in your goals and values that needs to be found and corrected, if you want to flourish.

But conflict is wearing. It is much better to avoid conflicts between your goals by using an objective test for them when you set them. Here are my three tests for a goal:

  1. Does it objectively achieve values needed for human life (deep rational values) in some way–is it pro-life?
  2. Is it achievable by you by your effort–i.e., is it possible to you?
  3. Is it worth the effort relative to the other goals you have set–is it a high enough priority?

A goal like “feel good” or “be happy” doesn’t meet the first two tests.

First, such a “goal” does not actually direct you to any specific values. Feeling good or being happy is a consequence of achieving life-supporting goals. So it’s circular.

But worse, when you set “feeling good” as a goal, every time you feel bad, you’ll feel doubly bad, because the implication is that you are doing something wrong, because you are failing at your goal of “feeling good.”

But bad feelings are not “bad” for you. They are alerts–important alerts about your values. You can’t flourish without them. If you try to eliminate bad feelings, you get yourself into trouble. You either become repressed (and can’t feel good feelings, either), or you turn to drugs or other mind-altering experiences in lieu of doing the work of achieving values. Without a willingness to experience “bad” feelings, you cannot flourish.

Second, how you feel is not under your direct control. Success doesn’t always bring joy, even if achieving the goal is objectively good for you. The joy you would normally feel can be covered up by emotions coming from “old baggage,” such as limiting beliefs like “I’m never good enough” and the like. Or the joy you would normally feel can be undercut by conflict, if the goal you achieved turns out to be incompatible with some other big value.

For these reasons, you are setting yourself up for failure if you set “feeling good” or “being happy” as your goal. If you aim at this outcome directly, you will fail.

That said, the desire to be happier is a great source of motivation for making life changes that can lead to happiness. It is certainly worth it to influence this outcome. In another newsletter I will discuss what practice you can embrace that over time will make you happier and happier.


August 19, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Four Reasons Why Reviewing Written Goals Helps You Achieve Them

Here’s a piece of advice you may know: Write down your top goals and re-read them every day. Simply implementing this daily review can make a significant difference in whether you achieve the goals.

If this sounds like some kind of magical thinking, it’s not. Re-reading your goals helps you achieve them through an entirely
understandable process:

  1. When you write out the goal on paper and re-read it every day, you give yourself a chance to test it and refine it. All goal statements are not created equal. If you formulate your goal in a vague or unrealistic way, you can’t achieve it. Just the act of writing the goal down helps you notice and correct these problems. But even if you don’t catch a problem immediately, every time you re-read the goal, you have a chance to spot an issue and refine the goal accordingly.
  2. Every time you re-read your goal, you reinforce your desire for it. That motivates you to take action. You can see how this works when you plan a vacation. Every time you think about what you’d like to do, you get a little more excited about the vacation, and eager to plan the details to make that happen.
  3. When you re-read your goal every day, you keep the idea activated. It is easily triggered by outside circumstances, so you think of it at helpful times. For example, suppose your goal is to carve out time for exercise. If an appointment is canceled, you would like to realize “I could use this time for exercise.” If you reviewed your goal this morning, you are quite likely to make the connection. On the other hand, if you last thought about exercise a week ago, it’s off your radar, and probably won’t occur to you.
  4. When you re-read your goal every day, you automatically notice your progress (or lack thereof). Tracking progress is crucial to achieving goals, because it gives you the information you need to correct your course as you go. They say Apollo 11 was off course more than 90% of the trip to the moon–but they still got there, because they constantly corrected the course. So, just by re-reading the goal every day, you support making the changes you need to actually achieve it.

As you see, there are good reasons why writing down your top goals and re-reading them every day helps you to achieve them.

But it’s not magic. If you aren’t committed to the goal, then clarifying it, reminding yourself about it, and noticing your progress won’t help a bit. Ultimately, you will only achieve your goal if you choose to act toward it. Writing down the goal and
reviewing it every day simply helps you see the opportunities to act.

January 13, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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