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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

One cannot build one's life by setting goals

One can achieve something specific by setting goals. Therefore one obviously concludes that one can also build one's life by setting goals, as most self-help books advocate. In order to help the person track the huge number of activities and steps generated by each goal, these self-help books suggest to keep a diary , which have been specifically designed by them. It looks very 'obvious' that one should be able to build one's life with all such tools. But when a person cannot do it , he blames himself for not being able to do so. Interestingly, the person does not blame the self-help Guru that the advice is mistaken; instead he blames himself for not having enough self control. Heads you win; tails I lose. This is a perfect example of Win-Win strategy that Self-help gurus advocate and practice! ( and another example that 'sum of parts do not constitute a whole')

Researchers in Psychology*** have identified three main consequences of this practice:

1. People who manage their life by setting multiple goals worry a lot: Because goals 'conflict' with each other, these people constantly face difficult choices. For instance, you will always find 'Achieving work-life balance' is one common goal. But this constantly demands one to choose between work-life demands and family demands. Because of these constant choices, these people are constantly  second-guessing their decisions. If they spend more time in work, they feel guilty; if they spend more time for their family, they feel their boss is looking at them questioningly.

2. These people get done less work: This is surprising finding, because we feel that one will achieve more by setting goals. But 'action' is replaced with 'rumination' ( thoughts, tradeoffs and choices) . When the goals are not conflicting, researchers have found plenty of evidence that goal-setting is helpful; but when the goals are conflicting ( and which life goals are not conflicting), they are busy worrying and getting stuck.

3. Their health - physical and mental health- suffers: In the studies, these people reported many psychosomatic symptoms and complaints.As Roy Baumeister, one of the researcher, says " A hen might brood contentedly, but humans suffer when their conflicting goals leave them sitting around doing nothing."

In short, because life is not a sequential and one dimensional achievement of money or satisfaction or happiness or feeling of significance, one cannot manage one's life by setting goals. If one tries to do that, one cannot resolve these conflicts until one decides which goals will do them most good; which goals can be traded off against which goals and when to ignore certain goals. The consequences are obvious !

In short, one needs an overall Direction - D in Capitals - to lead one's life. One should know the mountain one is desiring to climb; not the detailed routes and paths one should take. One has to make the various trade-offs midway and live with them; even though they are difficult and irreversible. One cannot have a cake and eat it too. This advice that one can achieve 'multiple goals' in one's life easily and smoothly is impractical; it only causes ulcers and hypertension.

***Lot of Research work can be seen in Roy Baumeister and John Teirney's book ' Willpower: Rediscovering our greatest strength'.

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