Tuesday 12 June 2012

Goal setting - the element of risk and reward

So as I rambled in my catchup post, my goals are missing the risk and reward element. This element is supposed to add extra motivation for achieving one's stated, published goals.

This rant was triggered by this post about habits, and especially the part about accountability.

The problem is, I can't think of an appropriate forfeit, or if it's even an appropriate motivational strategy.

Money based ones don't work, because it's not my money I'm spending. Commitment based ones don't work, because I can't really commit to anything because I have the irritating tendency to either not sleep or sleep too much. The same goes for doing stuff forfeits.

The only one that's occurred to me is cutting my hair - and LIKE HELL THAT WILL EVER HAPPEN. It's not a forfeit I'd follow through on. Even a centimetre for each goal not met - well, it's just plain disproportionate, is what it is. The Grow The Hair Project is 4 years old so far, and has another 6 years to go. And I don't have a hairdresser I trust, either. Still - given a hairdresser I trusted with my hair, a long enough timespan, and a few other things, it's about the only idea I've had so far that makes any kind of sense. Actually, the more I think about it, the more it sounds like a good idea.

Except, should I forfeit due to things I can't control, It also raises for me the question of the value of a forfeit in my circumstance. Due to things utterly beyond my control, I may not reach my goals in the time set. In the previous six weeks, for instance, I lost three weeks: one to travel and injury, one and a half to hypersomnia and recovery, and half a week to a cold.

Without either the injury or the hypersomnia I would have had a chance. Combining the two, and I was dead in the water. Throw in travel and a cold and well, it's a good thing I'd nearly achieved my goals by week 3, because I haven't been able to work out since.

I did a lot of walking and photographing on my trip to Kirkland, true. So I stayed active and doing things - but it wasn't directly related with the goals I'd set myself. Well, except the photography for giving me fodder for a post I didn't get around to doing yet. Still - I did my best, given I couldn't run or lift weights because of my injuries (although I did bring along workout gear in case I got better enough, soon enough to use the workout facilities where we were staying). So, I did my best given I couldn't do much.

It does seem easy to me, however, to say 'well I did my best but it's not my fault, really!' as a means to get out of actually doing my best. On the one hand ... there's definitely been days where I've been tempted to use it as an excuse. On the other hand, there was a week where I woke to eat, sleep, pee, and shower occasionally. Followed by one where I walked around the house in a daze, only awake by courtesy. The first week I couldn't avoid, even if I'd had my meds available. That's simply what happens when I push myself for a week. The following week was potentially avoidable, if I'd called up prior to the trip, got a doctor's appointment, and got my meds in a timely fashion. Except - I called as soon as I got back, expecting that, as usual, I'd be able to get an appointment within a week, and got told the next available appointment was four weeks away. Even so, I could have in theory walked down that day to request a new prescription sans appointment - but it was right before the weekend, and not only a weekend, but the Queen's Jubilee weekend. That meant that it would be at least a week before my script would be ready, since it takes two working days, it was a Friday afternoon, and the next working day was the Wednesday. I was still exhausted, and decided to put the request in on Wednesday. That didn't happen, at which point the next day I could get my script was the following Tuesday (if I put it in Thursday) and between coming down with a cold and everything else, I only finally got to the practice yesterday.

Which reminds me. I forgot to call the pharmacy. Which means I can get about half my prescription filled tomorrow, and have to pick up the rest on Thursday, most likely. Great. They say the medication is too expensive to keep much in stock, so they only order in two boxes. As a result, every single time I go down there, they say 'come back for the rest of it tomorrow'. I did ask them nicely to start ordering an extra box, since my script isn't going down and I'm not going anyway, and they said 'just call us the day before you come to collect your medication'. As if it's that easy, sigh.

Right, so with that rather longwinded ramble above, I can see how setting forfeits might work - and then might make me feel like I'd just rolled a series of ones for my saving throws, and had about as much control over the outcome. That is, it's chance, not skill, that determines success or failure.

That's unsatisfactory, to me.

What's also an option is shifting the goalposts. I mean, I had half the challenge wiped out - but I got further (sometimes MUCH further) than halfway on my goals. Still - I'd give myself brownie points for getting better than halfway, rather than successes for getting halfway, if that makes sense. It feels too much like cheating, or gaming the system (Kobiyashi Maru, anyone?).

As motivation, rewards appeal more to me. They're easier to figure out what to do for them (I still want lots of things), and it's a lot easier to say 'I didn't meet the goal, so I don't get x'. I either met my goal or I didn't; being monkeywrenched just means I miss out on a shiny, not that I have to give something up. Being lazy means I don't get the shiny either. There is no way to get the shiny except by excelling.

I already have a list of things I can reward myself with. New corset, new thinkgeek or threadless tees, new earrings from Etsy, something like that. Something meaningful, that I'll use and think of frequently, worth about £60 or so for achieving all my goals. Not so much something like new camera kit - that's too expensive for a 6 week turnaround. Well, until I can work or have an income, anyhow.

The flaw here is that I am tempted to set my goals too low. 

A solution exists, in the form of Extra Credit and Make It Up goals (kudos to Serenity of Nerd Fitness for this idea). Extra Credit goals are the stretch beyond your set goalpoint. Make It Up goals are that 10% you fell short by due to poor circumstance, but made up by substituting similar goals that are still achievable. Extra credit goals let me set goals that I will need to stretch for, without the guilt of falling short if I get monkeywrenched. Make It Up goals let me still attain goals if the bad things happen. Together, they allow me to set a framework up within which I think I can succeed. It's a lot more work than my usual goalsets, and I'll have some hard thinking and self-analysis to do.

So after all that rambling - with this upcoming round of goals, I won't be using a forfeit framework for motivation. I'll be using a reward framework, and a goals framework which includes substitution options for when I'm ill, and extra credit options for when I'm not. This will allow me to both not panic about falling short of my goals, as well as pushing me to reach for my limits.

That's the plan, at any rate. I'll see how it goes, both motivation wise and whether or not I actually improved sufficiently during the period with all things taken into account.


  1. That's a sophisticated problem. The thing that resonates with me is the idea that "it's chance, not skill, that determines success or failure". It certainly feels unfair to punish yourself based on factors beyond your control not being aligned. I think using goals and rewards is a better system in your situation and mine (recent shoulder injury due to motorbike accident) than targets and forfeits.

    On the other hand, I'm trying to reduce the amount of carbohydrates I eat - resisting the temptation of eating the provided biscuits at work, for example. There's no reward there if I don't eat one. But most of the time I succeed in resisting the temptation. I have to pat myself on the back and be content with that. Sometimes we don't get rewards and benefits for everything we do right. I still give in occasionally, but the long-term motivation is still there and I can still feel like I've done something right each time I resist that temptation.

    It may help to see some of your goals that way. It's not your fault when you don't do it - and you'll know when you're using it as an excuse - but when you do, sometimes that's enough as it is.

    1. Well, I'd parse your example this way: If I succeed in not having the office biscuits for six weeks (my challenge cycle), I get a reward. Or, if you're making more sweeping changes - I will eat no more than n grams of carbs per day at least x days per y. I'm doing similar things this upcoming cycle - going for grains no more than two days in every four, excepting when I'm travelling, as part of my transition to a more Paleo diet.

      The reward isn't instant, I'll grant you - but it's a reward you get at the end of a cycle for developing a habit and consistency of behaviour.

      Still, I imagine there are as many successful ways to parse this kind of issue as they are people successful in reaching these kinds of goals.

  2. I think that if the result of the effort isn't in itself worth the effort ... maybe it's not worth doing? For example, if you're setting yourself a goal to increase your fitness, and you do so - aren't you rewarded by being more fit? And if that isn't good enough, then is being more fit as important to you as - say - sitting on the couch on your butt?

    Assuming you do wish to work on a goals/rewards system, then I would set the goals differently. "I will genuinely do the best I can to improve my fitness, with an acceptable benchmark being BLAH." If you have genuinely done your best to meet your daily benchmark, but some days you are honestly unable to do so, then those days just don't count. It only works if you're actually honest with yourself though (and you are usually very critical of yourself in my experience, so I believe you can do that). If you punish yourself for things that are beyond your control (and denying yourself a reward is just an inverse punishment) then the days where you WERE meeting your goal will not feel so satisfying. Knowing that a spanner may fly into the works means that there is a certain fear of defeat at the very beginning.

    At the moment, I reward myself (with guilt-free time to myself) for a solid half an hour of housework. I would *like* that to be an hour, but IF it was an hour it might not happen at all. A child might wake up, or the laundry may finish and need hanging, or I might get a call from school ... but half an hour? Odds are I'll get my "me time". So during that half an hour I push hard to see just how much I can get done, because the reward is waiting RIGHT THERE and I take pride in earning that reward. What I achieve isn't what the reward is for - the reward is for making the effort. Achieving extra in that little bit of time is its OWN reward - I look around with pride.

    What I do probably isn't as habit-forming as the method you are describing. It lets me have days off, so to speak. I can be slack, and then I miss out on my guilt-free time (slack time is guilty time). But at the moment it works for me. How am I eating my elephant? One bite at a time.

    1. Whilst in principle I agree with you ... the immediate payoff I get from healthful exercise is feeling really sore for two days. I don't actually get to the rewards bit until several months of consistent exercise. And then whilst intellectually it's awesome, and it's nice to feel quite so ineffective all the time, it by itself isn't enough to really feel worth all that pain. Tangible, luxury rewards are a way of both giving myself something I can really appreciate in a short timespan (every seven weeks) and have a reminder that I achieved something - even if right now I feel like balls and want to curl up and sleep.

      Essentially, the tangible rewards are to offset the punishment my body doles out. Even so, there's quite a bit of lag between the effort and the prize.

      The way my goals at present work are on a six week cycle. Most of my goals fitness-wise I set my baseline on the first day of the cycle, and have a desired endpoint goal. For example, last cycle I tested my pushup max repetitions - I came in at a stunning 6 full crouched pushups. My goal, therefore, was to push that maximum out to 12 full crouched pushups. What I achieved was 10 full-extension from knees pushups, which is a massive overshoot on my goal, and I'm very happy about that. This cycle, I'm considering upgrading that to being able to do 1 real pushup, or perhaps 2. I have to think on that very hard. I don't want to make the goal trivial, on the other hand, it's been ... quite a significant amount of time since I was able to do a full pushup.

      Also, this round I awarded myself my prize because up until the point I got thrown off the rails I was doing excellently at my goals. Actually, I made no progress on my goals after the 14th May, so the goals I achieved I had already achieved halfway through the cycle. That's a pretty awesome effort.

      What this round also told me was that my goal setting - in terms of difficulty - is about right, because it's at a level that allows me to at least not fail outright. On the other hand, my habit formation is something I really need to work on, because those habits failed drastically.

      ... And at this point I went back and reread your comment, and actually thought about what you meant by effort vs achievement.

      I work on a slightly different wavelength, I think. Without an achievement to work towards, my effort isn't directed enough to do me any good. I've been putting in huge amounts of effort to shower and eat daily, but that kind of steady-state achievement does nothing for me, emotionally. I just don't value staying in the same place. There's no reward for me in getting to where I was yesterday, except the kind of 'well at least I haven't gone backwards today'. I want to improve, not maintain.

      I also have a tendency to get sidetracked. I'll go into the kitchen to get a glass of water, and end up back at my desk an hour later without said water, but having cleaned the benches, stacked and restacked the dishwasher, put a load of laundry on, and swept the floor. And then have to go back to the kitchen for the water. Without memorable, specific goals I just randomly flail around - often doing things that in and of themselves are laudable or useful, but are steady state rather than forward movement. I've certainly expended effort, but I haven't moved towards achieving what I want, and, in fact, may have worked against that achievement.

      It's an interesting train of thought. There might just be another blog post in this ;)

  3. I do that too, I get side-tracked VERY easily. I suppose my goal regarding housework is primarily to tread water, and hopefully dig away at it. So the doing is itself a reward, and then I get an immediate bonus too. I can see how long-term goals might not work that way. But then, apart from "I'm going to lose weight" which is a bit of a fuzzy goal for me at the moment (must get started on that ...) I don't really have any long-term goals. I'm just surviving at the moment.

    1. The NerdFitness guy has what he calls 'Level 50' goals. Those are things that are long term endgame goals, as you'd guess.

      I need to really sit down and think about those; one of the things that the hypersomnia has taken away from me is my long term goals. You know me well enough to understand how that's affecting me - I'm all about the long term plan. Not having one is really hurting me, emotionally. So yes, I need to do that. Soon.

      Still, I'm finding this six week cycle to be working thus far. It lets me set non-immediate, but still pretty short term goals. It lets me put numbers to things, and say whether I've moved forward or backward.

      Going for anything shorter would be setting myself up for fail, given how easy it is for me to just lose a week or two. But six weeks (with a week for review, reflection, and thought) is about right.

      Another element is the number of goals I have for any given period. I'm limiting myself to five. The balance of what those go towards at the moment is fitness, because that's my primary treatment plan for my primary problem. When I get to a maintenance level - that is, I'm fit enough that all I'm doing is incrementing the numbers, not experiencing massive physical change - I'll focus more on life goals. Reclaiming learning, upskilling, rounding out my life, and whatever I'm having issues with that cycle. I'll never run out of things, I'm sure.

      Something similar might work for you? When you've got the energy to sit back and take stock, which is a luxury I know.