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Get D.U.M.B.! The Value of Unattainable Goals

Get D.U.M.B.! The Value of Unattainable Goals

Get D.U.M.B.! The Value of Unattainable Goals

    With the year winding down, many people are turning their eyes towards the future. January 1st looms, and the new year always holds the promise of a fresh start, another go-round and another try at the golden ring.

    It’s a time for taking stock, filing away the lessons of our successes and failures over the last 12 months and pinning down our hopes and dreams for the 12 months to come. Some people make resolutions, feeling in the renewal of the yearly cycle the power to remake themselves to a better plan: thinner, healthier, more focused, wealthier, smarter… happier.

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    Others set goals. “By this time next year, I will have done x.” Lots of people will tell you that the key to setting smart goals is to set S.M.A.R.T. goals. Heck, I’ve said that the key to goal-setting is setting S.M.A.R.T. goals. Those are goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound; “lose 10 pounds by the end of February” rather than “lose weight”, for example.

    There’s a lot to be said for that approach, of course. The idea behind S.M.A.R.T. goals is that it gives you something concrete and realistic to work towards, and the brain seems to like that sort of thing. Vague goals give the tricksy brain too much wiggle room: “Hey, I lost weight. Only 2 pounds, but cool! I guess that means I can order an extra double-caramel fudge-nut brownie vanilla sundae surprise tonight!” Unreasonable goals simply set us up for failure, and the tricksy brain will take advantage of that, too: “Awww, I gained 2 pounds. I’m never going to lose 400 pounds this week. I might as well order an extra double-caramel fudge-nut brownie vanilla sundae surprise tonight….”

    The Power of D.U.M.B. Goals

    There’s nothing wrong and almost everything right with S.M.A.R.T. goals. You should set a bunch of reasonable goals for yourself and throw yourself into them with all your might. Absolutely.

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    But…

    I think there’s a place in our life for D.U.M.B. goals, too. Dangerously Unattainable, Monstrously Big goals. Goals that not only set us up for failure but virtually guarantee it. Great big audacious goals that make our friends think we’re crazy and our enemies think we’re… well, they think we’re crazy too.

    I’m not talking about make-believe goals, here – goals we have no intention of pursuing. Like “Marry Angelina Jolie” (it will happen!) or “Take over IBM and turn it into chain of shoe stores”. I’m talking about goals that fulfill our wildest dreams, goals that are maybe a little too big for us but not completely unattainable. The kind of goals that you have an outside chance of reaching, the kind where you can point to someone not all that different from yourself and say “Why her and not me?”

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    More importantly, I’m talking about real goals, goals you will throw yourself into, with every intention of reaching them even though the odds are against you. Goals like:

    • Triple my income.
    • Start a million-dollar company and show a profit by the end of the year.
    • Invent something everyone needs and nobody’s ever made.
    • Start a website and get 100,00 visitors a day by June.

    If you follow the logic of S.M.A.R.T. goal-setting, D.U.M.B. goals are a very bad idea. They aren’t A – Attainable. They’re Dangerously Unattainable, Damn-near Unattainable, Deliciously Unattainable. You’d have to be an idiot to set D.U.M.B. goals – you’re just setting yourself up for failure, and failure, it is implied, is a Bad Thing Indeed.

    But I wonder. Has anyone ever reached success without failing along the way? Haven’t the biggest successes had – or at least risked – the biggest failures? Here’s one, off the top of my head: in the early ‘80s, a young Bill Gates stole an operating system and walked into IBM’s offices and told them to buy it from him. I mean, really – some punk kid tried to sell an operating system to the world’s leading computer manufacturers! That’s D.U.M.B.!

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    Here’s the thing: failing is good for you. OK, not every failure – failing to stop at a 4-way intersection when there’s a semi truck with its breaks out bearing down on the cross street probably isn’t good for you. But in most things, it is failure that teaches us the lessons we need to succeed.

    The emotional cost of failing to attain our goals is great, I won’t deny that. But what is the psychic cost of failing against the psychic cost of not setting goals beyond our abilities out of fear and lack of confidence in ourselves? That is, what is the value in not trying because we fear, before the first step is taken, that we’ll fail?

    Indeed, what are we setting ourselves up for by playing it S.M.A.R.T.? A life of coloring inside the lines, of keeping all our ducks in a row so that someone else can have the pleasure of picking them off in the shooting gallery?

    I’m not telling you to abandon S.M.A.R.T. goals. Frankly, if you want to get something done, S.M.A.R.T. is the way to go. But make sure you also play D.U.M.B. once in a while. Set your tidy attainable goals and then set a couple more beside them, a couple of goals three or four or 20 or 2,000 steps out of your reach. Go for the gold, shoot for the stars, cliché for the cliché!

    This year, the smart money is on D.U.M.B. goals.

    More by this author

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    Last Updated on January 13, 2020

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    More on Building Habits

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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