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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 8: Planning for Life

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 8: Planning for Life

Toward a New Vision of Productivity
    This is the eighth part of a 12-part series I am posting from the end of December and into January 2009, examining the current understanding of productivity and where the concept might be heading in the future. I invite Lifehack’s readers to be an active part of this conversation, both in comments here and on your own sites (if you have one). For more discussion along these lines, be sure to check out Beyond Productivity: Living from the Inside Out, a new series of discussions featuring Charlie Gilkey, Andre Kibbe, Duff McDuffee, Jonathan Mead, Sara Pemberton, and me. Right now, only the Introduction is up, but a podcast of our talks will be avilable shortly. Stay tuned…

    What are your goals for life? It occurred to me recently that the way that I’ve talked about goals on this site (here and here) is only half the story. When we talk about goals, we’re usually talking about short-term project goals: to finish a book, to launch a marketing campaign, etc.

    But that’s only a limited kind of goal. Most of us don’t have goals like that which encompass our entire lives, where a whole life is spent working towards completion of a single project. Instead, we have a set of vague “ideals” about what we’d like our lives to look like, someday. Maybe.

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    A lot of productivity leaders deal with this. In Getting Things Done, Allen encourages readers to not only think about the immediate, material outcome of a project, but to think instead about what one’s life will be like once they’ve reached their goal.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, along with the Weekly Review, the concept of writing down objectives for every project is one of the least-remembered and least-practiced concept in Allen’s book. The bar is set pretty high (and for good reason) – Allen wants us to be clear that the projects we’re working on at any given moment will lead us to a place in our lives where we want to be. That is, if your goal is to get a promotion, what’s important to Allen is that you have a clear picture of how your life will be better once you’ve attained that promotion. Ultimately, the goal is to live a happier, more fulfilled life.

    Planning towards big goals like “be happier” or “create something of value” or “leave the world a better place” is hard to conceive of – we simply don’t have the tools for the task. Most productivity systems are great for planning towards project goals, but life goals escape us. In GTD, Allen attempts to satisfy this need with his “50,000-foot view”, the Big Picture outlook over your life as a whole, but as I said earlier in this series, it is not at all intuitive how to slip between the Big Picture view and the everyday view.

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    Instead, most of us rely on our project goals to somehow produce our life goals, as if satisfaction of our life goals would flow naturally from accomplishment of our project goals. Without any direction, there’s no reason to assume that this will happen – and I’d venture that most of the frustration and bitterness many people feel about their careers and their lives stems precisely from the failure of their work to produce a meaningful life.

    How can we plan towards life goals?

    One reason it’s so hard to plan in the traditional sense towards life goals is that there is a great deal of uncertainty at every possible step. If your life goal is to run a corporation and you’re in the mail room, there are so many factors that are out of your control between where you are and where you want to end up that planning seems ridiculous.

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    So we fall back instead on planning projects – working your way up the mail room hierarchy, perhaps. Or taking night classes in business administration. Or seducing the CEO’s jetsetting daughter or son.

    These alternatives are way out of scale with the final goal, though, so much so that they engender just as much uncertainty as chasing after the life goal directly and without a plan does.

    In fact, it is uncertainty that engenders planning in the first place. I can’t be certain that my next step will lead me in the right direction, so I plan out all my steps between where I am and where I hope to reach. But that in itself generates uncertainty, because what happens if I mess up at any point along the way or, worse yet, if my plan turns out to be flawed? (John McCain had a plan to be the next president of the United States – a life goal if there ever was one!)

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    Planning plays a minimal role in Allen’s GTD, however, for exactly this reason. In fact, he strongly discourages planning in any familiar form. Instead, Allen advocates thinking only as far as the very next action needed to move you towards your goal, after which the ”mind like water” takes over.

    “Mind like water” sounds very David-Carradine-in-Kung-Fu, and in a way it is. Although this is not the place to discuss the concept in any depth, in the context of planning it means that when a next action is completed and you have moved one step closer to your goals, you will define a new next action – which you will, as throughout GTD, “do”, “defer”, or “delegate”; if you “do”, then you have yet another next action to define, which you “do” and so on until you reach the point at which you cannot or choose not to go any further and “defer” your next action – which only then goes onto your next action list.

    “Mind like water”, then, embraces uncertainty and works to turn it into an asset. But there are relatively few of us who can manage to live sanely at the edge of uncertainty like that. Some people thrive on it, of course, but most don’t.

    What, then, do the rest of us do? And how do we make those big goals, what I’ve been calling “life goals”, in the first place? Or do we? Am I barking up the wrong tree here? Is it true that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there?

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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