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Strategic Goal Pursuit and Daily Schedules

3 Rossin 20 September 2017 08:19PM

In the post Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic, Anna Salamon writes:

there are clearly also heuristics that would be useful to goal-achievement (or that would be part of what it means to “have goals” at all) that we do not automatically carry out.  We do not automatically:

(a) Ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve; 

(b) Ask ourselves how we could tell if we achieved it (“what does it look like to be a good comedian?”) and how we can track progress; 

(c) Find ourselves strongly, intrinsically curious about information that would help us achieve our goal; 

(d) Gather that information (e.g., by asking as how folks commonly achieve our goal, or similar goals, or by tallying which strategies have and haven’t worked for us in the past); 

(e) Systematically test many different conjectures for how to achieve the goals, including methods that aren’t habitual for us, while tracking which ones do and don’t work; 

(f) Focus most of the energy that *isn’t* going into systematic exploration, on the methods that work best;

(g) Make sure that our "goal" is really our goal, that we coherently want it and are not constrained by fears or by uncertainty as to whether it is worth the effort, and that we have thought through any questions and decisions in advance so they won't continually sap our energies;

(h) Use environmental cues and social contexts to bolster our motivation, so we can keep working effectively in the face of intermittent frustrations, or temptations based in hyperbolic discounting;

When I read this, I was feeling quite unsatisfied about the way I pursued my goals. So the obvious thing to try, it seemed to me, was to ask myself how I could actually do all these things.

I started by writing down all the major goals I have I could think of (a). Then I attempted to determine whether each goal was consistent with my other beliefs, whether I was sure it was something I really wanted, and was worth the effort(g).

For example, I saw that my desire to be a novelist was more motivated by the idea of how cool it would feel to be able to have that be part of my self-image, rather than a desire to actually write a novel. Maybe I’ll try to write a novel again one day, but if that becomes a goal sometime in the future it will be because there is something I really want to write about, not because I would just like to be a writer.


Once I narrowed my goals down to aspirations that seemed actually worthwhile I attempted to devise useful tracking strategies for each goal (b). Some were pretty concrete (did I exercise for at least four hours this week) and others less so (how happy do I generally feel on a scale of 1-10 as recorded over time), but even if the latter method is prone to somewhat biased responses, it seems better than nothing.

The next step was outlining what concrete actions I could begin immediately taking to work towards achieving my goals, including researching how to get better at working on the goals (d,e,f). I made sure to refer to those points when thinking about actions I could take, it helped significantly.


As for (c), if you focus on how learning certain information will help you achieve something you really want to achieve and you still are not curious about it, well, that’s a bit odd to me, although I can imagine how that might occur. But that is something of a different topic than I want to focus on.

Now we come to (h), which is the real issue of the whole system, at least for me. Or perhaps it would be clearer to say that general motivation and organization was the biggest problem I had when I first tried to implement these heuristics. I planned out my goals, but trying to work on them by sheer force of will did not last for very long. I would inevitably convince myself that I was too tired, I would forget certain goals fairly often (probably conveniently the tasks that seemed the hardest or least immediately pleasant), and ultimately I mostly gave up, making a token effort now and again.


I found that state of affairs unsatisfactory, and I decided what felt like a willpower problem might actually be a situational framing problem. In order to change the way I interacted with the work that would let me achieve my goals, I began fully scheduling out the actions I would take to get better at my goals each day.

In the evening, I look over my list of goals and I plan my day by asking myself, “How can I work on everything on this list tomorrow? Even if it’s only for five minutes, how do I plan my day so that I get better at everything I want to get better at?” Thanks to the fact that I have written out concrete actions I can take to get better at my goals, this is actually quite easy.


These schedules improve my ability to consistently work on my goals for a couple reasons, I think. When I have planned that I am going to do some sort of work at a specific time I cannot easily rationalize procrastination. My normal excuses of “I’ll just do it in a bit” or “I’m feeling too tired right now” get thrown out. There is an override of “Nope, you’re doing it now, it says right here, see?” With a little practice, following the schedule becomes habit, and it’s shocking how much willpower you have for actually doing things once you don’t need to exert so much just to get yourself to start. I think the psychology it applies is similar to that used by Action Triggers, as described by Dr. Peter Gollwitzer.

The principle of Action Triggers is that you do something in advance to remind yourself of something you want to do later. For example, you lay out your running clothes to prompt yourself to go for that jog later. Or you plan to write your essay immediately after a specific tangible event occurs (e.g. right after dinner). A daily schedule works as constant action triggers, as you are continually asking the question “what am I supposed to do now?” and the schedule answers.


Having a goal list and daily schedule has increased my productivity and organization an astonishing amount, but there have been some significant hiccups. When I first began making daily schedules I used them to basically eschew what I saw as useless leisure time, and planned my day in a very strict fashion.


The whole point is not to waste any time, right? The first problem this created may be obvious to those who better appreciate the importance of rest than I did at the time. I stopped using the schedules after a month and a half because it eventually became too tiring and oppressive. In addition, the strictness of my scheduling left little room for spontaneity and I would allow myself to become stressed when something would come up that I would have to attend to.  Planned actions or events also often took longer than scheduled and that would throw the whole rest of the day’s plan off, which felt like failure because I was unable to get everything I planned done.


Thinking back to that time several months later, when I was again dissatisfied with how well I was able to work towards my goals and motivate myself, I wished for the motivation and productivity the schedules provided, but to avoid the stress that had come with them. It was only at this point that I started to deconstruct what had gone wrong with my initial attempt and think about how I could fix it.


The first major problem was that I had overworked myself, and I realized I would have to include blocks of unplanned leisure time if daily schedules were going to actually work for me. The next and possibly even more important problem was how stressed the schedules had made me. I had to enforce to myself that it is okay if something comes up that causes my day not to go as planned. Failing to do something as scheduled is not a disaster, or even an actual failure if there is good reason to alter my plans.


Another technique that helped was scheduling as much unplanned leisure time as possible at the end of my day. This has the dual benefit of allowing me to reschedule really important tasks into that time if they get bumped by unexpected events and generally gives me something to look forward to at the end of the day.


The third problem I noticed was that the constant schedule starts to feel oppressive after a while. To resolve this, about every two weeks I spend one day, in which I have no major obligations, without any schedule. I use the day for self-reflection, examining how I’m progressing on my goals, if there are new actions I can think of to add, or modifications I can make to my system of scheduling or goal tracking. Besides that period of reflection, I spend the day resting and relaxing. I find this exercise helps a lot in refreshing myself and making the schedule feel more like a tool and less like an oppressor.


So, essentially, figuring out how to actually follow the goal-pursuing advice Anna gave in Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic, has been very effective thus far for me in terms of improving the way I pursue my goals. I know where I am trying to go, and I know I am taking concrete steps every day to try and get there. I would highly recommend attempting to use Anna’s heuristics of goal achievement and I would also recommend using daily schedules as a motivational/organizational technique, although my advice on schedules is largely based on my anecdotal experiences.


I am curious if anyone else has attempted to use Anna’s goal-pursuing heuristics or daily schedules and what your experiences have been.

Comment author: Rossin 16 September 2017 10:49:00PM 0 points [-]

Another method that I have found effective in getting rid of the self-critical brain loop is asking myself "have I already learned the lesson of the mistake here?" If the answer is no, I use the technique you described of trying to figure out what the mistake(s) were that lead to the event and how I could fix them. However, I found that figuring this out alone did not stop the loop, so it is important that whenever the answer to the question becomes 'yes' to the question of whether you learned the lesson to enforce very strongly in your brain that there is nothing else useful to be learned here, I am wasting my time. This technique was harder the first few times, but once it became a habit for me I was able to start breaking the loop pretty easily just by logically showing myself that I was being stupid.

Comment author: tadasdatys 08 September 2017 09:52:17AM 1 point [-]

I think the problem isn't that your actions are inconsistent with your beliefs, it's that you have some false beliefs about yourself. You may believe that "death is bad", "charity is good", and even "I want to be a person who would give to charity instead of buying a beer". But it does not follow that you believe "giving to charity is more important to me than buying a beer".

This explanation is more desirable, because if actions don't follow from beliefs, then you have to explain what they follow from instead.

Comment author: Rossin 08 September 2017 06:31:40PM 1 point [-]

I think that's a fair assessment, I have an image of myself as the sort of person who would value saving lives over beer and my alarm came from noticing a discrepancy between my self-image and my actions. I am trying to bring the two things in line because that self-image seems like something I want to actually be rather than think I am.

Comment author: Lumifer 08 September 2017 03:55:01PM 1 point [-]

From this argument it's only a small step to concluding that people who buy beer instead of contributing to AMF are Nazis.

Not too long ago this would have been ridiculous. In 2017, not so much.

Comment author: Rossin 08 September 2017 06:27:46PM 2 points [-]

I'm a little worried if it came across that way because that is not at all what I am trying to argue. The example was intended to show that if one sees something in the world that they think is bad (people dying in Africa of preventable disease) and yet they end up doing nothing by convincing themselves not to care, the mental process going on in their head is likely not very different from the one that occurred in people living under Nazi rule, who themselves felt uncomfortable about their Jewish neighbors being rounded up by the Nazis but did nothing. I am not comparing people who aren't donating to charity with the actual Nazis, and I'm sorry if it seemed that way.

Inconsistent Beliefs and Charitable Giving

3 Rossin 08 September 2017 07:33AM

There is common tendency in human life to act in ways contrary to what we believe.

The classic example is the German people under Nazi rule, most of whom likely thought of themselves as good people—the kind of people who would help their neighbors even at risk to themselves, but did not do anything about the rounding up of Jews, Gypsies, and Homosexuals into concentration camps. They didn’t want to give up their self-image as a good person, but they also didn’t want themselves and their family to potentially face the wrath of the SS. So, many convinced themselves that they didn’t care about what was happening. That was far easier, less painful, than admitting that they were not quite as moral and upright as they thought or having to put themselves in mortal danger.


I used to think that I would have been one of the few who did in fact shelter the “undesirables” from the Nazis. Now, I am less confident. But I want to be better. Just recently, I realized I have been similarly inconsistent by not donating to organizations that help people dying of preventable diseases and can measure lives saved in relatively low numbers of dollars.

If you had accused me of this up until a few days ago I would have given you all sorts of excuses for why this lack of action and my belief “the death and suffering of others is bad and I should prevent it if I can” were not inconsistent. I would have told you how I feel terrible about the dying children when I think about them, but I am prioritizing other problems. And besides, I’m a college student with very little disposable income and it’s really just financially prudent to save all my money in case of an unforeseen contingency. Once I start making more money later on in life, then I’ll start contributing to organizations that send people malaria nets.


But that’s all a self-deception. The truth is that my beliefs and actions were inconsistent. Because I quite firmly believe that saving lives is more important than beer, yet I continually find money for beer and yet none for the Against Malaria Foundation.

I think the root cause of this kind of inconsistency is often a feeling of being overwhelmed. If you imagine a single child dying of malaria, feverish and convulsing weakly in her bed while her parents look on in helpless horror, you’ll probably wish you could do something to stop those people’s pain.

When you think about the thousands in the same position, when you think about the difficulty of doing something, how much money it would cost to actually save a life, the need to ensure that the organization you’re sending money to actually will use it effectively to help people in need…well, the whole thing just seems too complicated. Not only that, there are so many organizations claiming that donating money to them will save lives, and few of them are likely to admit other organizations are doing the same job better. Decision paralysis takes over and it’s very easy to decide that this is one of those things that’s better not to think about, at least for now.

On the other hand, grabbing drinks with friends is quite simple to execute, and it is very easy not to notice the opportunity cost (Note: I am not saying that I think I should or anyone should stop spending money on enjoying themselves, just that if I have enough disposable income for getting drinks with friends, I would consider that I have enough to spend on saving lives).

And that is the way I chose to be indifferent about something I would have cared about if my beliefs were consistent. I’d like to rationalize it as prioritizing other things, rather than just deciding not to care, but that is not the truth. The truth is I understand exactly how most of the German people under Nazi rule made themselves indifferent to the rounding up of their “undesirable” neighbors. When something bad is happening and we don’t quite know how to stop it, or the sacrifice needed to help stop it feels painful, choosing to be indifferent is frighteningly easy, even about truly horrific things.

Having noticed this inconsistency the problem becomes obvious. I did not think about the true opportunity cost of non-essential purchases, which is that the same money could be used to help save lives. When I look at a buying anything I do not strictly need from now on, I am going to try to remember that opportunity cost, so that, even if I do end up buying the thing anyway, at least I have not stopped caring.

www.givewell.org will help you estimate what that opportunity cost is and there are very good posts on here as well about effective giving, if you’re interested.


In response to comment by Rossin on P: 0 <= P <= 1
Comment author: gwern 08 September 2017 03:08:35AM *  3 points [-]

If you could come to the wrong belief because of brain damage, you could come to the other belief because of brain damage too; this is a general skeptical attack on the possibility of knowledge or using a priori proofs to convince yourself of something without making a lot of other assumptions about your intactness and sanity (akin to how it's hard to come up with good arguments to believe anything about the world without including some basic assumptions like "induction works"), related to the Kripke/Wittgenstein attack on memory or Lewis Carroll's rule-following paradox. So while the cogito may be true in the sense of 'a person thinking implies their existence', you can't use it to bootstrap yourself out of total Cartesian doubt & immunity to the evil genius, much less into being a Bayesian reasoner who can assign P=1 to things.

In response to comment by gwern on P: 0 <= P <= 1
Comment author: Rossin 08 September 2017 07:14:49AM 1 point [-]

Fair enough, I suppose there is a possibility that there is some way I could have experiences and somehow also not exist, even though I cannot imagine how. My inability to imagine how such evidence could be logically consistent does not mean that it is actually, certainly impossible that I will observe such evidence.

Comment author: Rossin 06 September 2017 07:02:17AM 0 points [-]

Asking for advice in online forums such as this one seems like a good idea. For most fields, you're likely to find someone who has spent enough time on the subject to have read the most highly accredited textbooks about it and can give reasoning for the merits of one book over others.

Comment author: Rossin 05 September 2017 09:47:20PM 0 points [-]

I've been confused for a while about why it is so awkward to receive compliments in certain contexts while it feels natural and enjoyable in others. Now that I think on it, the times compliments make me feel awkward is when they're from someone lower status and I tend to just mutter thanks. Whereas when someone of higher or equal status compliments me I generally will quickly respond with a compliment of my own or hearty thanks. This analysis is very much in keeping with my experiences.

Comment author: Rossin 05 September 2017 12:35:10AM 2 points [-]

Does anyone have any tips or strategies for making better social skills habitual? I'm trying to be more friendly, compliment people, avoid outright criticism, and talk more about other people than myself. I can do these things for a while, but I don't feel them becoming habitual as I would like. Being friendly to people I do not know well is particularly hard, when I'm tired I want to escape interaction with everyone except close friends and family.

In response to comment by Rossin on P: 0 <= P <= 1
Comment author: gwern 03 September 2017 08:34:53PM 0 points [-]
In response to comment by gwern on P: 0 <= P <= 1
Comment author: Rossin 05 September 2017 12:20:40AM 0 points [-]

That's a very interesting condition, and I will agree that it indicates that it is possible I could come to the belief that I did not exist if some event of brain damage or other triggering event occurred to cause this delusion. However, I would only have that belief because my reasoning processes had been somehow broken. It would not be based on a Bayesian update because the only evidence for not existing would be ceasing to have experiences, which it seems axiomatic that I could not update upon. People with this condition seem to still have experiences, they just strangely believe that they are dead or don't exist.

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