Monthly Archives: November 2007

On Goal-Setting

On 43 things goals (written for 43 Things now defunct”ideas” page which invited suggestions from users on how to improve the site– I wrote this entry for the most popular idea on the page: “Create a hierarchy”).

1) On goals contained by other goals: Some of the goals one may set are contained by other goals. For example, if I “feel better,” I may also “stop procrastinating” and then I might “learn German” and “find something to do next year.” Perhaps a hierarchy of goals might solve this problem. The ability to order goals implies a hierarchy of importance, but not an order of achievement. Perhaps something like freemind ( might be a solution, since it would indicate which goals are contained by other goals. Tagging is sort of like this– perhaps it could be more explicitely so if there were tags like “meta-goal, primary goal, secondary goal, hopes, plans.”

2) On the appropriateness and achievability of goals: Not surprisingly (and not altogether wrongly), 43 Things presumes that people work like computers. If we program ourselves correctly, any goal may be met. This is the cognitive/behavioral model of psychology– if your life isn’t going the way you’d like, learn, practice, and habituate yourself to do better. This makes me think that only goals that can be achieved by working at the behavioral level should be allowed on 43 Things. If I want to “feel better,” and I think I can do it through practice, it’s a good goal. If, however, it’s a problem that doesn’t lend itself to a particular method, and I feel bad not because of the way I’m acting (and acting differently wouldn’t make me feel better, or I may not be able to act differenlty because of feeling bad) but more because of deep, inner conflicts involving my self-concept, early childhood impressions, etc., it means that A) this is not one goal (it might be split into various behavioral goals like “get therapy,” “sleep more”, etc.) and B) that it may not be solvable through behavior modification alone. Perhaps after achieving other goals I might find that I feel better, but I can’t simply “feel better” the way I can “learn German” or “visit Chicago.” This is probably why “stop procrastinating” is such a popular goal– it is the meta-goal, what it means is “figure out how to set achievable goals and achieve them” or simply, “achieve my goals.” Setting a time-limit to goals might help this. It will encourage people to set goals that can be achieved by acting differently according to a plan. Not being able to set infinitely many goals is a step in this direction– you must achieve something before you can add another thing to your list. To reiterate my point: all goals on 43 Things ought to be solvable directly by behavior modification as long as there is no built-in hierarchy, and one should be able to write an entry with a plan to achieve the goal. “Crochet better” is a pretty good goal, because I know exactly what I have to do to achieve it, and it’s more or less one thing. Even that, though, might be divided into “sign up for crochet class,” “buy some yarn for crocheting,” “buy a book of crochet projects,” etc. This makes 43 Things more of a “to-do” list than a set of hopes and dreams, and it would contain only lists of goals one can achieve by one’s own will. Then again, I understand the desire to list what one hopes for, and that all the tiny behavioral goals are for the sake of these greater ends. Some of those ends aren’t even goals– fall in love, for example. That’s an event that isn’t entirely dependent on one’s own will (at least not directly– although one is more likely to fall in love when one is happy, and more likely to be happy when one is secure, and more likely to be secure when one is employed, etc.– so set the goal to get a job and have a place to live on your own if your goal is love). If your goal is to “be in love,” or “have someone fall in love with me,” then adding it to your list won’t help you get it done (unless, you know, you meet some hottie on 43 Things who wants to help.) It seems that the best solution is a hierarchy.