How to Achieve Your Goals, Step 5: Keeping Your Feedback Loops Running Smoothly

Previously in this series, we’ve covered some ways that your goal-seeking behavior can affect your emotions. For one thing, you can feel varying degrees of happiness or depression, and relief or anxiety, respectively, depending on whether you’re trying to move toward a desired state or away from an undesired one. Also, there is the matter of how deeply you hold a particular goal: the more salient it is to your identity, the greater impact it will have on your feelings.

If you’re wondering why it matters what feelings arise while you’re pursuing a goal, then remember that humans have a natural tendency to avoid unpleasantness and pursue pleasure. Therefore, the feelings that come up while you’re pursuing your goals can affect how motivated you are to keep going.

Meta-Feedback Loops Revisited

If you recall from our past articles, what has the biggest impact on your feelings is the difference between your rate of progress toward your goals and the rate of progress you’d like to be achieving. Your mind is always monitoring this rate and making adjustments (a “meta-feedback loop”) and if your progress is slower than you’d like, then you’re likely to have negative emotions, and vice versa. The distance between you and your goal is really secondary to the pace you’re setting.

Sometimes, your hoped-for pace is explicit, like if you set a goal to reach a certain career milestone within two years. But often your timing expectations are vague and unarticulated, and may reflect values that you've passively absorbed from the environment. (For instance, a cultural expectation regarding the age by which you should be married.) In the same way, sometimes you are deliberately monitoring your meta-feedback loop to determine whether you’re on track to achieve your goal in time, and sometimes it’s happening without you, in the background. The third option is avoiding information regarding your progress.

The Head in the Sand Approach

In a recent paper, British researchers explored the reasons why people sometimes turn a blind eye to information about their progress (and dubbed this phenomenon the "Ostrich Problem”). They make a strong case that your decision whether or not to seek and accept such information depends on whether the potential benefits of the feedback exceed the costs. Also, that people’s desire to assess and improve themselves often runs afoul of the desire to reinforce and enhance their self-image.

For instance, let’s say you want to lose weight. It’s well-documented that regularly assessing your progress toward a goal makes its achievement more likely. So, it would be advisable to start weighing yourself and keeping a record of your progress as you proceed with changes in your diet and physical activity, let’s say.

However, if you can tell that you haven’t lost any weight yet, either by looking in the mirror or by how your clothes fit, then you could be reluctant to weigh yourself and make your lack of progress evident, because you might feel worse about yourself. There is a conflict between, on one hand, wanting to monitor your goal progress and improve yourself and, on the other, wanting to preserve your self-image as someone who is able to exert self-control and make progress toward a goal. In order to do the latter, you need to ignore the available information.

People often come down on the side of maintaining their self-image, and researchers find evidence of blissful ignorance-seeking everywhere. Examples include people with diabetes who don’t check their blood sugar; people who are told they’ve done poorly on experimental tasks avoiding subsequent tasks that might highlight their shortcomings again; and terminally ill patients consciously avoiding acknowledgment of that fact. Unsurprisingly, when people aren’t doing well, they are reluctant to have their noses rubbed in it.

Remaining Receptive to Feedback

However, closing yourself off to feedback information poses a big problem for your goal-seeking plan, because without input regarding your progress there is nothing for your feedback loop to work with. It would be as if you removed the thermometer from your air conditioner’s thermostat: without a way to tell the current temperature, how would the unit decide whether to blow hot or cold air?

Sometimes sticking your head in the sand serves a worthwhile purpose. If you’re learning a new skill, it’s helpful to hear encouragement and recognition of what you’re doing right, and not just how slowly you're achieving proficiency. But too often, your desire to maintain and enhance your current sense of identity can keep you trapped in it and keep you from building a new one.

Clearly, what can be helpful is cultivating a greater ability to tolerate and accept the way things are, and the latest research suggests two ways of doing so: practicing mindfulness meditation and self-compassion. It should come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that we at the Right Life Project are big believers in the transformative power of both of these.

Mindfulness helps to break down the fully understandable, and often problematic, desire to avoid unpleasantness and replace it with a willingness to approach your experience, whatever it may be. By breaking down the aversion to discomfort, you will, by definition, break down the aversion to change—since change demands leaving the comfort of the known and exploring the unknown—and thereby open the door to growth. And when change requires facing suboptimal progress toward a goal, self-compassion enables you to withstand and soothe (and perhaps even avoid in the first place) negative self-judgment, which makes for a much healthier and more productive long-term plan than just closing your eyes and ears.

If you think of the feedback loops that provide direction and motivation to your efforts as machines, then avoidance gums up the works. Mindfulness and compassion are the lubricants that allow the full benefit of your efforts to be converted into motion.

Next: How to Achieve Your Goals, Step 6: Considering Your Motivational Chains

Jim Hjort, LCSW

Jim operates a psychotherapy practice, helps people overcome roadblocks to self-actualization as a Right Life® coach, and appears at speaking and teaching engagements. He studied Sociology and Abnormal Psychology at UCLA and holds an MSW from USC, with a specialization in Systems of Recovery from Mental Illness. He has also been awarded the Certified Mindfulness Facilitator designation from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. 

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