January 4, 2022

Setting Goals


 New year, new resolutions! Right?

I certainly have a long list of goals for this new year, a number of them with requisites to boot, as well as some significant changes to my lifestyle I'd like to implement. Of course, I know that I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew, which has often led me to give up on my goals in the past. However, this time around, I'm confident that I can hit most of the goals on my extensive list, without losing my motivation, my passion, or getting burned out.

Over my short break between the end-of-year holidays, I was able to catch up on a lot of podcasts that had been accumulating (like my never-ending TBR pile, it seems). And it was while listening to one of them on Flow(1), that I discovered this great book, The Art of Impossible*, by Steven Kotler.

One of the chapters in the book is on Goals. In it, Kotler states that, although it's been understood for thousands of years that goals are "primary motivators of human behavior," (a notion advanced by Aristotle, way back in the day), "not every goal is the same, nor is every goal appropriate for every situation and--most important--the wrong goal in the wrong situation can seriously hinder performance and actually lower productivity and motivation."

So, goal-setting is important (it can increase performance and productivity 11-25%, based on research by Latham and Locke), but it needs to be properly assigned.

To understand why having goals has such an effect on us, Kotler explains that it's all about how our brain's wired. Our brain evolved to be amazing at predicting outcomes by acquiring of information, recognizing patterns, and then deciding what to do based on the results from those. And because our brain's constantly flooded with info, but can only handle an finite portion of it(2), it's very important to give it specific goals so it can focus only on the targeted info, and filter out the rest.

Therefore, setting goals has been primordial to our survival.

But for goals to be most effective, we must first know our true motivation (our passion and drive). Not only that, but the greater the goal, the better the outcome and probability of success!

So, how should one go about setting these big goals? There are several chapters in The Art of Impossible that discuss the finer details of this, but essentially, you need to find what Kotler calls a Massively Transformative Purpose (ie, your mission(s) in life, based on your true passions) and set High and Hard Goals to move along the path to fulfilling that purpose.

High and Hard Goals should therefore be set based on how they help you advance your mission. Anything else should be considered a distraction and discarded. 

It's important to reiterate here that your goals and mission in life need to be aligned, for "[b]ig goals work best when there's an alignment between an individual's values and the desired outcome of the goal. When everything lines up, we're totally committed--meaning we're paying even more attention, are even more resilient, and are way more productive as a result."

AKA, you're less likely to give up on them.

The only word of caution Kotler gives, however, is that you should not be talking about your goals with others. Because doing so will give your brain the impression that it's already achieved those goals, and therefore make you less likely to achieve them.

Momentum, on the other hand, matters the most. You must set goals that are difficult, but still achievable. Otherwise, you'll give up (too much stress to handle). 

Of course, these High and Hard Goals can sometimes take years to achieve, so you also need to have smaller steps that get you to those bigger milestones. These smaller goals are designed to stretch you a little bit, but no be so hard that you're overwhelmed and lose your motivation. They do need to be clear, however, so that your brain doesn't have to wonder what to do next. This, in turn, means you'll be able to concentrate better. And, as an added bonus, it will also increase your motivation!


For example, one of my life missions is to become a storyteller that entertains people and fills them with wonder and inspiration. To do that, I need to write a lot of books (each an important milestone), and make them as good as possible. Smaller goals would thus be for me to write 1000 words a day until one book is done, then editing it, taking classes/reading more on the craft of writing, etc.


Basically, to figure out what your daily goals should be, you need to find a way to break down your bigger milestones into smaller, bitesize pieces: "this is exactly what the road to impossible looks like--a well-crafted to-do list, executed daily." Because these are manageable goals, you can accomplish these every day, and checking them off your list gets a dopamine boost as a reward. This, in turn, will make you crave to repeat your accomplishments the next day as well, and the day after that(3).

"Stacking little win atop little win atop little win is always the road toward victory."

So, in conclusion, Dream Big and Dare Greatly (4) :)

I wish you a wonderful and healthy 2022!


Sources and additional information:

(1) Flow, as Kotler defines it, is "an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best." When I'm writing, it's the state where I've managed to completely immerse myself in my story, nothing in the outside world exists to me in that moment, the words are pouring out of me almost faster than I can type them, and everything feels just right.

(2) Kotler states that "[e]very second, millions of bits of information floor into our senses. Yet the human brain can only handle about 7 bits of information at once, and the shortest time it takes to discriminate one set of bits from another is 1/18th of a second." According to Csikszentmihalyi who studied Flow, the max humans can process is about 126 bits of information per second. Kotler explains what this means by giving the following example: "To understand what another person is saying takes about 40 bits. If three people are talking at once, we're maxed out."

(3) Important note, Kotler states that it's important to also have some time off. "Recovery is critical to sustained peak performance." Being a workaholic is not the right approach either. You need downtime. So figure out what the max number of daily tasks you can perform each day on your road to greatness--not too few, but not too many either--and when you've checked them all off, that's your cue that you've had a successful day and you can get some R&R (without feeling guilty)!

(4) Inspired by a book from Brene Brown, Daring Greatly*, whose title was itself inspired by a speech from Theodore Roosevelt.

*Disclaimer: Please note that some of the links are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I may earn a commission should you choose to buy the recommended item. If the link is an Amazon link, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

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