Quantification and Goal Setting

Preface: I wrote this in an email exchange in early January, and the idea is still bouncing around my noggin. I’d love to get a dialogue going with anyone interested in any aspect of this content…

Before reading further, you can watch this video: TEDx talk on Keeping Your Goals. If you don’t watch it, that’s fine too. Just know this: in the video, Derek Sivers argues that when you’re setting goals for yourself you shouldn’t share those goals with anyone else because, if you do, your brain will trick itself into thinking you’ve already accomplished a lot more towards achieving the goal than you have (and thus you’ll do less work than you would if you’d kept it to yourself…). I frame my response to the video in terms of body data, lifelogging, and/or the quantified self.

I think the pith of his argument is especially relevant when body data works in some social component. And now I’m wondering how many fitness tracking devices don’t have some kind of social component. Are there any?! Anyway, with my now defunct Fitbit, I was “connected” with my father-in-law, sister-in-law, and my wife. So, they all knew I was using the Fitbit, and I can see how (even though it hadn’t occurred to me before) I might have tricked myself into feeling more accomplished simply because I was getting a social pat on the back from the people who knew I was attempting to take more steps, drink more water, etc.

With anything, I’m not sure this works all of the time. I can think of at least one reason why telling someone might be a motivating factor: shame. If I tell someone I’m trying to lose ten pounds and they check-in with me (informally, not because I ask them to) when we’re chatting, I’m going to feel shame if I’ve made no progress. Maybe potentially feeling shame will increase the odds that I’ll actually work at it…

There’s some kind of social contract forged whenever someone acknowledges their goals to others. Actually, there’s probably different kinds of contracts. One that is pure affirmation. One that is accountability. And maybe others. I do think people should receive some kind of affirmation for their goals (even just saying them out loud) but then its incumbent on the listener to hold the speaker accountable. When Sivers introduces the concept of telling someone about your goals, he uses the phrases “congratulatory” and “high-image” in reference to the listener as though this is the social contract. This is the response goal-setters get when they tell others. And perhaps he’s right. I’m usually supportive when people express their goals to me, anyway. But maybe that contract is wrong. Maybe I should be supportive while healthily realistic. Maybe rather than acknowledging the goal, we acknowledge the work that needs to go into the goal with a response like, “I’m going to check in with you every so often to see how you’re doing. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”

This reminds me of a conversation my wife and I were having where I expressed frustration over people in general looking for quick-fix shortcuts to problems; not wanting to put in the work to achieve their goals. Sivers’s talk really resonates with me in that regard. So, perhaps even just buying a Fitbit, a Fuelband, or a Jawbone is enough to make someone feel like they’ve accomplished their goals. They get the affirmation from the salesperson (assuming the bought it in a brick & mortar store) and from the company, which presumably lauds the purchase and sends many emails touting the results users have yet to achieve and the community of athletes of which they’re now a part. Just by buying the device, you’re basically telling people your goal. Funny. You buy a device to get healthy and the effect of just buying it is potentially undermining the process…

I would be curious to know more details about the Gollwitzer study [mentioned in the TED talk]. What were the demographics of the people involved? How were they selected and subsequently divided into the groups of “speak-goal-aloud” and “remain silent”? What kinds of goals did they set for themselves that 45 minutes of silent work was somehow directly related to their achievement? There’s lots to explore here..

Some Thoughts on Purpose

I’ve been skimming a wonderful article written by Per Galle called Philosophy of Design: An Editorial Introduction. You can find it in Design Issues Volume 23. Put simply, Galle’s agenda is to explain what is the philosophy of design and what it’s good for. The section I’m about to (briefly) rant about does not in any way represent the whole of the article’s content. Beware of that. The article is wonderful and should be read by all burgeoning designers..

In the section detailing what the philosophy of design is good for, I came across the following snippet of text:

Would you be prepared to tell professional designers working for you, that understanding how to do their job is all they need, while understanding what they are doing is a waste of time? To me, that does not seem like the kind of thing to tell employees whom one hopes to motivate and enable to improve one’s products, increase one’s share of the market, or boost productivity in the industry. (217)

My reaction to it was immediate and more severe than I expected because on the one hand, I read this as a reminder of the importance of inculcating a sense of purpose in one’s workforce. Perhaps this makes the everyday experience in the workplace more productive and genial. Galle is right about that. Working for something (other than a paycheck) is rewarding and motivating. But there’s another (glaringly problematic) side of the coin.

I’m being packaged and sold a sense of purpose not because its important for me to have one, but because my employer wants me to be more productive… wants me to spend more time at the desk… wants me to improve her products or the company’s market share. I don’t think it’s wise to take this point for granted.

Do a brief thought exercise with me and imagine what it might be like to work in a company where sense of purpose (outside of a paycheck) isn’t discussed and where we’re still expected to do all the things Galle mentions (e.g. improve products, increase market share, etc.). It would suck, I’m sure. But does it suck more than being lied to everyday? Maybe. Maybe not. The purpose of a business–any business–is to make money and grow market share. Is it ethical to attain such ends by telling employees that they’re there for a different purpose? Maybe. Maybe not.

EDIT: Maybe I could frame this in terms of the Matrix. We’re plugged into the Matrix when we’re being packaged and sold purpose in order to be more productive workers. The real world is grimy and disgusting, but hey, at least we’re free!

EDIT II: Who am I to say which is the reality: (1) working for a paycheck, or (2) working to make the world a better place. Perhaps it’s a matter of framing. If I calibrate my expectations for work such that I believe I am working because doing so fulfills the sense of purpose defined by my company (or, heck, even by the profession itself) then who’s to say that isn’t my purpose? The paycheck is a necessary part of it. Perhaps so too is being more productive and increasing my company’s market share. But maybe these are just necessary tradeoffs one has to make in order to attain/fulfill a sense of purpose. Am I beholden only to those structures to which I subjugate myself? Or am I fettered within structures from the outset?