March 2, 2020

On Achieving Goals

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The Bankruptcy of Recent Self-Help “Advice”

What’s this I hear about Secrets, vision boards, and 4 hour work weeks?1 About fueling our way to the lifestyles of our dreams sheerly by wishful thinking and good intentions? Could it really be the case that attaining perpetual bliss is simply a matter of finding our passion?

Apparently these ideas are pretty popular, seeing as they’re espoused in a not insignificant number of best selling books. What this tells me is that a sizeable percentage of the world’s population is in need of a serious News Flash:

Reality doesn’t work like the plot of a Disney movie. Jiminy Cricket was a liar. Whatever our hearts desire won’t just come our way.

The problem with this new wave of self-help “advice” is that it treats goals as if they magically come to fruition just by the mere act of formulating them. This idea might emanate warm and fuzzy feelings, but it completely neglects what it actually takes to pursue our goals. It avoids the truth that nearly anything of lasting value in life will come from serious effort and having a plan; from abiding by a set of actions that we must take to reach our intended goals.

The Relation Between Goals and Actions

Even those under the witches spell of the Secret or some other such nonsense understand deep down, as do all of us, that any goal we seek to attain will require completing at least one step, regardless of whether the goal is short-term or lifelong, good or evil, general or specific. All it takes is the tiniest bit of abstract reflection on the basic structure of goal attainment to see this:

“If we want to attain goal G, then we must follow set of steps S.”

An old dead philosopher named Immanuel Kant used to call any statement with this form a “hypothetical imperative.” They’re hypothetical because they’re based on a goal we’ve set ourselves, rather than something we absolutely have to do. Yet they’re imperative in relation to attaining that goal, because we’d still be required to take the prescribed action or actions if we are to have any hope of meeting it. For anyone serious about seeing a goal come to fruition, the first task is to reflect on the related hypothetical imperatives, the steps that constitute the plan to attain that goal.

How to Set Goals Using Hypothetical Imperatives

Let’s consider an example of a specific goal to see how this works. Suppose you just recently found out during a doctor’s visit that you’re 30 pounds over the ideal weight for your height, age, and body build. You resolve to lose that weight, and after talking with your doctor, you identify the areas in your diet, exercise, and work habits that have triggered the weight gain.

Although you eat a relatively balanced diet, you find that your penchant for sweets tends to give you a higher caloric intake than the calories you burn. To lose the 30 pounds, you’ll need to cut out the sweets. You and your doctor then devise a dietary plan that assures you get all the nutrients you need without exceeding your caloric requirements, and still even allows for sweets on occasion.

Second, you don’t consistently engage in rigorous activity. You play basketball with friends every once in a while for an hour or two and sometimes go hiking, but that’s about it. To lose the 30 pounds, you’ll need to engage in regular exercise. You and your doctor come up with an exercise plan that renews itself every 6 weeks, which provides focus on building muscle in each major muscle group to facilitate muscle gain and fat loss.

Finally, you spend most of your working hours sitting at a desk. This has adverse effects on the body’s metabolic processes for maintaining a healthy weight. To lose the 30 pounds, you’ll need to find another arrangement that doesn’t require you to be sedentary. You meet with your boss, explain to him your situation, and come to an agreement to allow you to work in a standing position for portions of the working day, which helps counteract the effects of being sedentary for extended periods of time.

If you want to lose 30 pounds, then you must…

  • reduce caloric intake by following the diet you have devised with your doctor,
  • increase rigorous physical activity and build muscle by following your exercise plan,
  • use a standing desk at work for a large portion of the day.

Of course, each of the actions related to the goal of losing 30 pounds have sub-actions that we could go into, but you should get the picture from the above example. By reflecting on hypothetical imperatives, we arrive at a roadmap on how to reach our goals. We generate a to-do list for ourselves containing highly actionable items, which makes clear that a committment to the goal entails committment to the actions that one must take to meet that goal.

Related Article: The CORE of Happiness

The Final Word

Before we wrap things up, let’s dwell on this last point for a moment. Goals are the result of following a plan, a plan is a set of steps, and steps are commands that we must follow if we are to attain the related goal. When we set a goal, we become responsible for giving focus to the related acts. The goals we set for ourselves make a claim on our time and energy. They constitute our life, and pursuing them (or failing to pursue them) define who we are as persons. When we choose to pursue a goal, we have affirmed it as something of value; it reflects something beyond our tastes, representing how we envision the world. Thus, in considering the imperatives related to our goals, we should consider whether those goals are in line with the kind of persons we want to be and with the kind of world we want to live in.

So now that we’ve made clear the not-so-secret way to set goals and achieve them, you can put down those costly best seller self-help books (preferably before you spend money on them), take some time to reflect on worthwhile goals in life that you’re committed to pursuing, jot down the hypothetical imperatives that are related to achieving them, and begin taking action!

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1. To be fair, Tim Ferris, author of The 4 Hour Workweek, states quite explicitly that it takes a lot of initial work to get to the point where one has a “muse,” i.e. a virtually passive income stream that requires only a few hours of maintainance each week, which frees up one’s time to live life rather than sacrifice it for a wage. The target of this post is not Ferris’s thesis in The 4 Hour Workweek, but the notion that some mistakenly draw from it, viz., that one can have the life of one’s dreams little to no effort.

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