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Lost purposes - Doing what's easy or what's important

3 Post author: Elo 04 January 2017 01:26AM

Original post: http://bearlamp.com.au/lost-purposes-doing-whats-easy-or-whats-important/


A friend came to me with a startup as her main goal.  I am keen on my coaching skills so I would from time to time ask her what the top 3 most important things she could be doing today would be.  She would proceed to come back with a list.  A few days later I would check back and ask her what she got done.  She would very excitedly tell me all about the other things she was doing that weren't the top 3 things.

I watched this behaviour for a while before commenting.  Eventually I asked her about it and she conceded she was doing tasks that seem easier than the important things because they feel like progress, say by doing four small 15 minute tasks you got four things done right?  Whereas if you work on an important task for an hour you only got one thing done.


Our brains like to use Rule of thumb type judgements to know what pathways to follow.  In this case, Am I making progress towards my goal was replaced by, have I completed things which was easily gamified by, How do I do the most little things I can.

The same thing happens when people pay attention to their health.  Get healthy turns into, Lose weight, which turns into unhealthy body images and great confusion.  Although this is probably more related to us not being clear and specific on what the health goal was in the first place.

So what say you have a lost purpose.  You want to do X but you find yourself doing the remarkably similar Y.  How do you fix that?

1. Be specific

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don’t much care where–" said Alice.
"Then it doesn’t matter which way you go," said the Cat.

It's not going to work 100% of the time, but it does help.

Imagine you told a monkey to go collect coconuts, every coconut the monkey brings back you will give him one reward.  You mean the large useful ones that you might find in a supermarket.  Knowing how important coconuts are but not really understanding the task, while collecting large coconuts he finds some smaller ones, realising he can carry two half-size coconuts instead of one large one, he goes to find more smaller coconuts, until he is collecting teeny coconuts about the size of a coin.  Strictly speaking he is collecting coconuts, but you can easily say that's not the coconut you want.

We don't actually work with monkeys (despite what you might think).  Your own brain as well as the brain of other people will get a good return on specific instructions.

2. Goal factoring (CFAR technique)

Goal factoring is about working out the purpose of a task that you do.  For example I used to attend a group that was often hit and miss about whether I liked it.  I broke down my intentions of going to the group as:

  • meet new people
  • learn cool things
  • hang out with friends

I didn't notice so easily, but as soon as I had this list it was easy to see that the group was waxing and waning in such a way that there were (for a more than 6month period) no new people.  Along with this I had been there long enough that learning new things was hard simply because I knew everything that everyone else knew, so there was less "new" to learn.  The third thing that happened is that a culture shift happened and the friends I liked hanging out with were less often there than the friends I was not super thrilled about hanging with.

Consequently I left that group and rescued my weeknight.

3. Applause lights in the territory

The concept of Applause lights were not invented by me:

"...it means that you have said the word "democracy", so the audience is supposed to cheer.  It's not so much a propositional statement, as the equivalent of the "Applause" light that tells a studio audience when to clap."

Applause lights are often things that sound good but are not of any substance.  We need these because sometimes we need to climb ladders of abstraction and very quickly explain what we mean without being specific.

But we also need to climb back down those ladders and get specific if we ever want to make progress towards the goal.  What is actually going to lead us to Health, or Coconuts or A successful startup or Progress towards that goal?

And how can we pursue it with the ferocity of someone who knows exactly how much time they have left.


Meta: this post is a true story.  Thanks to Peta for the inspiration and I hope she moves swiftly towards the important tasks from here on.

Meta: this took 1.5hrs to write


Comments (8)

Comment author: Flinter 15 January 2017 11:36:29PM 0 points [-]

I think there might be an argument that what we are to face in our present day moments is so complex and fresh we are better not to project an image of what is should be and try to match it. In other words I think this dialogue is more interested when we counter with the POSSIBILITY that goal setting creates a friction that is an inability to deal with, and accept, reality as it comes.

Comment author: Elo 17 January 2017 01:25:24AM 0 points [-]

Welcome to lesswrong! It's a pleasure to meet your company. You wouldn't be the first to suggest that goal setting is bad. The most notable I know of is Scott Ddams of Dilbert fame in his book, how to fail at almost anything at still win big.

However if you take a more overarching view that having no goals at all is detrimental because you may find yourself running around in circles and never getting anything done, but having too strict goals is as you say, "Creating an inability to deal with reality". The best balance is somewhere in the middle. Somewhere where you don't confuse the map and territory, where you can both hold big ambitious goals and not let that cloud your vision of the challenges that lay ahead in reality.

Unless I have misunderstood what you meant?

Comment author: Flinter 17 January 2017 01:43:40AM 0 points [-]

Nope you spoke perfect, and a great introduction too (cheers). But there is an argument that goals are wholly irrational. So how I would make a counterpoint to you would be to suggest that you don't have to think and plan to catch a baseball that someone unexpectedly but lightly tossed to you.

So there is still function without such pre planning, and I am suggesting that type of function I describe is rational and pre planning (aka goals) is not, because it presupposes we can control our own fate (by psychologically projecting a future) which is unfounded.

Comment author: Elo 17 January 2017 01:55:50AM 1 point [-]

goals are wholly irrational.

I am not sure what you mean by this.

catch a baseball that someone unexpectedly but lightly tossed to you.

This sounds like a System 1 task (from Daniel Kanemann's Thinking, fast and slow) Do you have a different example?

I have written a lot about goals from time to time; you might like to read some of; list of common human goals, should you share your goals. and some of my current series which can be found here

presupposes we can control our own fate (by psychologically projecting a future)

Certainly not. We can't project the future but we can make a goal and then work out how to use what is within our control to steer closer to the goal. For example: If I want icecream, I can sit on a couch all day wanting icecream and it will never come, or I can decide to get icecream to fulfil my wanting. So I can go to the shops and buy icecream. Thereby using goal-seeking to achieve what I want.

Comment author: Flinter 17 January 2017 02:07:11AM *  2 points [-]

K I skimmed that and I think I can speak to us in a re-solving manner. System 1 yes, that is easy to see relates. But system 2, does this involve projection of the future? I don't think it is necessary, even for complex tasks. I think projection gets in the way of efficiency of the action.

This speaks to goals as well. So I might not prove goals are wrong and bad, but I can suggest that there can be friction such as "Oh no, I'm not achieving my goals" and this friction is "bad".

Now of course if you are thinking of achievement X (which is a clear projection of a future event btw), then not setting a goal and missing X might seem "bad".

But how is it, one has claimed they want X, but then they do something else, and somehow still state they wanted X?

I am suggesting wanting X is a fallacy. There is no substance to it, and so setting goals for these arbitrary ends (x )creates a friction with what actually happens.

But I am also suggesting that people that are free from such friction live incredibly efficient existences.

Comment author: Elo 17 January 2017 02:40:01AM 0 points [-]

I can speak to us in a re-solving manner.

I am not sure what you mean by this.

system 2, does this involve projection of the future?

It's generally taken that both s1 and s2 are good systems and better at some things than others. For example S1 is great at catching baseballs, or fast movements, S2 might be better at working out how to save money (even if this involves teaching S1 how good it feels to "have already saved money" when deciding in S1 whether to spend money right now).

This speaks to goals as well.

I am not sure what "this" you are referring to.

"Oh no, I'm not achieving my goals" and this friction is "bad".

LW culture is big; you might like to also read some of Nate Soares' guilt series at minding our way , to make sense of those guilty feelings around should be doing X. I don't want to keep dumping links on you to read, I am sorry to do that. It's really good and makes a lot of sense.

not setting a goal and missing X might seem "bad".

Goal setting - in the sense of setting personal goals is a completely objective experience. There is no subjectivity to "I want icecream now and if I don't get it that will be bad". That is that it is still part of the very human battle to do what you want to do.

one has claimed they want X, but then they do something else, and somehow still state they wanted X?

You might appreciate revealed preferences, from Paul Samuelson - an offshoot of Keynesian economics, I started writing about it here but I would like to rewrite it soon.

wanting X is a fallacy

I think you might be looking for a different word in the place of "fallacy" but that's okay.

There is no substance to it

If you mean to say there is no subjectivity to it, then yes, there is only personal objective opinion on whether that goal-thing is relevant or valid to you.

creates a friction with what actually happens.

I am excited by this idea because it relates to my recent post about the time that you have or choosing to align your actions and thereby your "revealed preferences" to your stated goals in life. I think you are hitting on the same idea. But these things are notoriously hard to communicate.

Comment author: Flinter 17 January 2017 02:51:45AM 0 points [-]

Yes its related. But I come from a wildly different perspective in which you are unknowingly making assumptions that I don't subscribe too.

What does it mean to you, if instead of creating goals that might (likely) be desires that are eventually contradicted as such by our actions, we create goals that are inline with our actions?

So we change our desires to match our actions rather than our actions to match our desires.

The link was broken, and I don't mind them, I expected it, and I think they are useful, I certainly skim them and re-read them if I don't feel I got the point.

Comment author: Elo 17 January 2017 02:59:42AM 0 points [-]

wildly different perspective in which you are unknowingly making assumptions

Most of my assumptions are hopefully presented as guesses. I don't really know, feel free to correct me.

What does it mean to you

Which "it" are you referring to now? Can you be more specific?

if instead of creating goals that might (likely) be desires that are eventually contradicted as such by our actions, we create goals that are inline with our actions?

I said in this post

Revealed preferences work in two directions. On the one hand you can discover your revealed preferences and let that inform your future judgements and future actions. On the other hand you can make your revealed preferences show that they line up with your goal.

take stock of what you are doing and align it with your desired goals.

The link was broken

Does this work: http://mindingourway.com/guilt/