How to Achieve Your Goals, Step 3: Taking Your Rate of Progress Into Account

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So far in our series on setting and achieving goals we’ve discussed two fundamental forces that affect your movement. Attractive feedback loops help you close the gap with a desired new situation, and aversive feedback loops propel you away from states or qualities you don’t like.

We’ve also covered solitary aversive feedback loops—ones that aren’t paired with an attractive loop. These “rogues” can destabilize and demoralize you because they provide a motivational force away from something, but not toward anything else in particular.

Hopefully you’ve been following along and doing the exercises I’ve recommended to identify and work with the feedback loops that are salient to the areas of your life that you would like to work on.

In future articles, we’ll return to look more closely at the merits of your aversive and attractive goals and their interaction, but for now I'm going to move ahead with building out a framework for motivation and achievement in general so that you can see how all the pieces fit together.

Since people are generally referring to desired states when they think about achieving goals (and since you’ve hopefully begun pairing any rogue aversions you have with attractive goals), I'll be talking about attractive motivators here.

We’ve been conceptualizing your goals' feedback loops as a sort of web of interdependent forces of different magnitudes pushing and pulling you this way and that. Now, at any time you could take a snapshot of your position relative to your goals and reach a simple conclusion about the distance you have left to go, and leave it at that.

However, in practice, that isn’t what happens, because your objective isn't just a destination—it's a destination coupled with an expectation of the time you'd like to arrive there, so your pace enters into the equation.

Your speed matters. A lot.

Knowing your location and your destination gives you a sense of the scale of your overall journey and the direction you need to head. But if you’re trying to make it to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, then knowing your speed and when dinnertime is become important parts of achieving your goal.

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If you're using a navigation app in your car, then you have an estimated time of arrival displayed for you. As a result, you have a real-time sense of being behind schedule, ahead of schedule, or on time as you’re driving, and a corresponding emotional tone: relaxed, hurried, or whatever.

Humans have similar goal-navigation functionality, in the form of "meta" feedback loops. Just as attractive feedback loops help you minimize the distance between yourself and a desired state through a process of comparison and adjustment, those feedback loops themselves are being monitored by meta loops that help you minimize the discrepancy between your actual pace of progress and your desired one.

Whether you realize it or not, you’re conducting these calculations with your goals all the time, whether because you've set an explicit timeframe for yourself, or because a timing preference has become attached to your goal through social or cultural influences.

And it’s important to start realizing that, because it turns out that your distance from your goal is much less important to how you feel than is the pace at which you’re progressing toward it.

Much interesting research has been done in this area. In a classic experiment, Christopher Hsee gauged people’s satisfaction with a variety of hypothetical salary trajectories. He found something that you may find surprising: people would rather grow their salary to a high level than have a high salary to start with.* 

Subsequent research has confirmed that it’s the rate of movement, and not one's current location, that people derive the most satisfaction (or suffer the most frustration) from when it comes to pursuing a goal.

Why good enough might not make you happy

To the extent that their progress is exceeding expectations, people are happy, and the opposite is true: underperforming relative to your goals tends to make you unhappy. But here’s the kicker: when their desired and actual pace of progress are the same, people tend to feel neutral.

That is, when you set a goal and are on track to achieve it, there isn’t much "juice" there. This is very important, so let’s look at a table adapted from one produced by researchers Carver, Lawrence, and Scheier to make it clear:

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Do you notice a problem here? In three of the four possible scenarios, you’re actually making progress toward your goal, but in only one of them are you especially happy about it. And in another, you’re unhappy!

These dynamics seem to argue against setting aggressive timeframes for achieving your goals. In the best case, you meet your expectations and feel lukewarm about it. Otherwise, you fall short of them and risk a perpetual sense of not measuring up—even though your pace of progress may seem blisteringly fast to an outside observer.

It’s by setting low expectations of progress and exceeding them that you’re most likely to feel happy and satisfied, it would seem.

Not so fast (ha)

But wait a minute, you say. Must you really choose between optimal achievement and feeling good? Is using easily-exceeded goals to "manufacture" happiness worth selling your potential short?

And are you even capable of making that bargain? That is, if, in your heart of hearts, you want to lose 20 lbs. in the next year, is it even possible to trick yourself into an artificial goal of five pounds, just so that you can exceed it?

These are all excellent questions, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Because of their meta feedback loops, people tend to make adjustments in predictable, sometimes unconscious, ways when progress is happening slower or faster than desired. (That's the function of a feedback loop, after all: to compare two values, and adjust as necessary.) These adjustments have to do with still more variables that influence how you achieve, and how you feel while achieving. Those topics lie ahead in our discussion.

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For now, what would be useful is to look at the salient goals you’ve identified for yourself and write down your timing expectations for them. These expectations can be:

  • Imposed or influenced by another entity (“finish school by next summer, before my financial aid runs out”);
     
  • Influenced by society (“be married by age ___”); 
     
  • Ones that you've created from scratch (“make my first million within the next five years”); or
     
  • Ones that reflect some combination of these or other factors.

As with your aversive and attractive goals, some of them might be quite explicit. If you're an organized go-getter type, you may even have time-sensitive goals stuck to your refrigerator. Other meta-goals may be much more subtle—particularly the ones that emerge from social pressure.

Although your speed toward your goals is important, your speed in completing this and the other exercises isn't. Just take it easy, and approach the task with an attitude of openness and curiosity, holding lightly any negative judgments about yourself that might arise.

Also, don’t worry about analyzing the rationale for the timing expectations or inventing new ones. Just look and observe as closely as possible the time pressures that you feel relative to them. Often, it's what goes unsaid or unexplored that has the biggest influence on your life, so this is an opportunity for you to relax and provide the space for those things to emerge.
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*  People would also rather have a low salary all along than have a high one and lose it, but this is a topic for another time.