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Are Your Goals Distracting from Your Goals?
When the dashboard obscures the road ahead.
Hello everyone, welcome to the Stuff They Never Told You about goal-setting. Goals can be a tricky subject. We all set goals (although often they are just dreams). We need ways to measure our progress, but measuring the wrong things or the right things in the wrong way can actually move us backward.
This week we’ll look at how the same cognitive bias that co-opts our political process also corrupts our personal goals. Let’s get into it!
Are Your Goals Distracting From Your Goals?
I’ve broken countless hearts in my life and most of my heart-breaking took place at work. My younger brothers used to joke that I told people that they are fat for a living. Their assessment was not entirely wrong.
I used to work for a mobile body composition testing service. I traveled to gyms and corporate wellness programs to test body fat and lean mass percentages before and after a fitness and nutrition challenge. When I returned to retest after six or eight weeks, I found a common trend. Upon first sight, I could often tell that a person had lost several inches from their waist. When I offered admiration for their hard work, nearly all of them would shrug off the compliment, tell me that they hadn’t lost any weight, and admit to seeing zero change in their physical appearance. I would let this dismissal pass until we got the results from their retest.
Their hydrostatic weight test would confirm my observation and show that they had reduced their body fat by a few percentage points. They hadn’t seen a drastic change in their total weight because they had gained muscle while losing fat. When I told them that, for example, they had lost eight pounds of fat while gaining five pounds of muscle, their outlook shifted entirely. Instantly, they could deem the last six weeks a success. Their total weight did not reveal the entire picture. They hadn’t failed. They just used the wrong metric to measure their progress.
Similarly, the people who weighed themselves daily often made less or even negative progress. Obsession over total weight led many people to restrict their daily calories, causing them to lose muscle. This also causes your body to act as though it’s in crisis—your body sees a famine and hangs onto its precious energy stores, ie. body fat. Rather than being an angel of good news, I often had to deliver a disappointing message: Yes you’ve lost weight, but most of it was muscle and you’ve actually gained a few pounds of fat…sorry.
This trend can arise anywhere, far beyond our simple health and fitness goals. In any new change or old pattern, we can fall into the trap of aiming our efforts to satisfy a specific metric rather than our primary goal.
When the Metric Becomes the Goal
Goodhart’s Law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. We often need many different measures or metrics to track our progress toward a goal, but when we shift our focus to meet only those metrics we distract from (or even reverse) our progress. This seems counterintuitive. How could a focus on approval rating interfere with a candidate’s main objective? How could a focus on grades diminish a student’s ability to learn? How could tracking daily calories stunt progress toward your dietary goal? When we zoom in too far on any one metric, we can lose sight of the larger picture. Goodhart’s Law serves as a stark reminder of what happens when we focus on outcome over process.
The executive management at my last corporate engineering job fell into this trap when tracking our sales numbers. The sales and marketing departments’ combined goal was to communicate the value of our products to encourage people or companies to buy them. The weekly and quarterly sales figures of the various product lines gave a measure of how well the company was accomplishing that goal. But, placing too much emphasis on the sales metrics—the number of units sold, the quarterly revenue or any other specific metric—over that primary objective encouraged the company to compromise its values.
The sales team would make last-minute deals at heavily discounted prices to meet their sales goals. The sales quotas—meant to measure how well they were demonstrating the value of our products—now became the goal itself. The company shifted tactics to satisfy a specific metric. The sales team not only failed to measure their effectiveness but eventually undercut the value of our designs as vendors learned to wait until the end of the quarter to place discounted orders. They succeeded in meeting their sales quotas but did not actually meet their original goal to communicate the benefits of our products well enough to sell them at our standard price.
Goodhart and the Political System
A recent CNN morning show hosted a discussion of the Democratic party debate from the previous night. While examining the two frontrunners for the 2020 Democratic nomination, the hosts commented on the different tactics that each employed and how their strategies evolved over several debates to boost their approval rating. One host suggested that Elizabeth Warren dodged one pressing question well but that Trump wouldn’t allow her to skirt an issue so easily, insisting that if she wins the nomination she will need to refine her tactics on that particular issue. I thought:
This exemplifies everything wrong with our political system. The fact that coverage like this has become the norm is the deepest problem of all. Is this sports or politics? Aren’t the candidates supposed to use the debate platform to outline their views and explain why their proposed changes will best address the current issues?
The candidates' approach and the mainstream media’s coverage of their tactics completely distract from the true purpose of the election—to find an executive who can lead us toward a better future. Their approval ratings and debate “success” are only supposed to be measures of how well each candidate accomplishes this primary goal. Instead, these candidates (bolstered by media coverage) changed their tactics to directly improve their ratings. By pandering to a specific metric, they forestall or even damage their progress toward their initial objective to clarify their values and proposed changes.
The To-Do List Double-Edged Sword
A to-do list can be an effective tool to collect and prioritize work. I use a daily list to help me accomplish my essential tasks, but I have to be extremely wary to maintain the purity of my list. It can easily become a justification for distraction rather than a tool for focus.
The top of my list is always filled with the most important and essential tasks. These fill my attention and naturally flow out first when I build my list. But I have to force myself to stop there. If I continue listing, eventually I’ll draw from the bottom of my mental priority barrel. I’ll list errands, housework, and what I call “admin work” (paying bills, organizing files, responding to non-essential emails, and giving Shane the constant positive reinforcement that he requires to get out of bed each day). When we look around and try hard enough, we can create a nearly infinite list of admin tasks.
Even when I list only the essentials and sit down to my first vital piece of creative work, I still feel the inevitable resistance rise. Wanting to feel the “success” and satisfaction of crossing items off my list, I’ll add a few menial tasks to the bottom. From there, I can justify opening my email or closing my computer altogether to start a podcast and clean the house.
Lists are an elegant tool, but only when we use them to prioritize and motivate the essentials. When the metric of checking off list items becomes the goal, we feel incentivized to fill our lists with the low-hanging fruit that distracts from our original goal: focused work on our essential tasks.
The Dark Side of Fitness Tracking
There is an obvious upside to the Fitbit, smartwatches, and other similar step-counters and fitness trackers. Inherent in measuring your daily steps and calorie expenditure is the challenge to maintain your daily streak or continually outdo yourself. Add in the social component of friendly competition and you’ve created a very potent motivating factor. But, in no other area can our metrics co-opt our progress than in fitness and nutrition tracking.
Counting calories, especially with little regard for where those calories come from, is laughably ineffectual. Logging and controlling your macronutrient levels can give a more accurate picture of your overall nutritional landscape. But without considering countless other factors you can “succeed” in meeting your quotas while failing to improve your health. It is possible to fulfill a “healthy” macronutrient prescription by eating only donuts, cookies, and bacon.
Similarly, to focus simply on burning calories gives no priority to how you do it. You might choose exercises that burn many calories quickly but do not serve your larger goal of becoming leaner and stronger. You might neglect movements with a longer learning curve but that bring greater long-term payoff for your mobility or coordination. You might repeat the same few high-caloric-output activities and never seek out new exercises or movement patterns. Max Shank likens “burning calories” to “killing time,” two phrases whose very wordage demonstrates how hollow they can be.
Calories measure the amount of work that you do. They say nothing of the effectiveness of that work toward any higher goals. With a focus on burning calories, you can delude yourself into believing that you are making progress while neglecting your true fitness and movement goals. Your efforts could be as meaningless as cleaning the bathroom while your essential project awaits your return. To burn calories, do jumping jacks all day. To move better, build strength, and develop a more intimate relationship with your body, remove your focus from your caloric output.
Defining Better Metrics (or Maybe None At All)
We need to periodically check in with our progress. We need metrics that measure our current place relative to where we started and where we’re headed. Without good metrics we cannot tell the difference between steady progress, walking in circles, or moving backward. You can’t improve what you don’t measure.
By their very nature, metrics only measure a single aspect. Focus on only a single metric means inherently ignoring many others. We need to look at a broad array of metrics for our success, but also think intentionally about what each measure might be telling us. Reality is often very different from our initial perception.
When you obsess over any single metric, you ensure that you’re failing to understand the whole picture. You distract from your original objective or, worse, move in the opposite direction than you intended. You gain body fat while believing that you’re getting healthier. You pander to specific demographics to improve your approval rating but demonstrate your superficial values and lack of moral fiber in the process. You burn a ton of calories without actually moving closer to any of your fitness goals. You get to feel “productive” while remaining blissfully ignorant of your procrastination and lack of focus.
You have to measure your progress, but select a set of metrics that give the most accurate assessment of your primary goal. Then, do not put undue faith or meaning into any one metric and always try to see the greater truth behind the numbers. Keep an internal measure of “success” rather than allowing the external metrics to define your journey.
While we need to check in occasionally, sustainable growth and progress come from setting a direction rather than a destination. We built the 30x30 challenge around the tools that help you discover and define your direction. It provides a launching point to develop healthy patterns and trends while instilling the core habits that will allow you to maintain them. Regardless of how you define your goals, set your sights on a specific horizon and allow the individual landmarks to reveal as you approach.
Thank you for reading this week and remember, life is too short to let the dashboard pull your attention from the road and the scenery!