Achieving your goals with no control

by Jack on February 2010

You are not in control of things, but that’s OK. You somehow manage to put on your underwear in the morning and get your work and grocery shopping done.

If you’re one of those people who truly believes that you’re in complete control of your life, please try to answer these questions honestly:

  • What’s your next thought going to be?
  • What’s your next emotion or feeling going to be?
  • Which part of your body will move next?

Still feeling in control? Really? If you can’t control the simplest things like your thoughts, feelings, and the motions of your body, why do you feel like you might control anything outside your own skin? This is not a problem, however. By understanding this, accepting it, and even embracing it, you can set and complete your most valuable goals much more effectively.

Goal setting is better done by sketching out the overall picture and then letting the details resolve themselves. A simple action like “walk to the kitchen and get a glass of water” has an endless tree of sub-actions and sub-sub actions – for example, remove your hands from the keyboard, push against the desk to roll your chair back, shift your weight forward to begin standing up, uncross your ankles and place your feet flat on the floor, etc, etc. Any one of these sub-actions could itself be broken down further, into smaller and smaller parts, and so on, practically ad infinitum.

If you had to consciously think about each of the most fine grained actions that you take, a simple task like walking to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water would be impossible. So don’t worry too much about the fact that you’re not in complete control – as the water glass example shows, you probably wouldn’t even want to be. You’d get bored of the details pretty quickly.

The interesting part is that the exact same approach works best in setting bigger picture goals, but you don’t always notice it because it operates at a higher level of granularity, and you may find yourself caught in micromanaging and overthinking tiny details that don’t affect the big picture. When you get up to get a glass of water, you never find yourself paralyzed wondering whether you should move your right arm or our left as you push our chair back. However, for bigger picture personal goals, and for goals at the level of an organization or institution, this kind of thing happens all the time.

In addition to micromanagement of details, when people set a significant life goal, they often attach a lot of beliefs and baggage about how it “should” manifest rather than keeping their minds and hearts open to whatever the universe might bring. For example, for many years I thought that I would correct my post-college weight gain through exercise. I built elaborate schedules, tracked my weight and BMI and minutes of exercise with moving average filters, and watched the line on the graph stay flat or drift slowly upwards. Instead of just setting the goal to live at a stable healthy weight and body fat level, and opening my mind to all possibilities that would help me get there, I thought I was smarter than the universe around me. I tried to set not only the end result, but also the specific path. When I released my attachment to that specific trajectory, opened my mind, and said “whatever it takes, I’ll do it!”, the process became much more effortless.

Just as walking to fetch a glass of water becomes futile when you try to break it down into every coordinated microscopic muscle motion, so too does micromanaging a personal goal by specifying the exact set of actions that you will take to get there. Instead, describe the goal in bold, broad strokes, and then take immediate action. Thinking is not action. Musing or contemplating is not action. Picking up the phone, sending emails, signing up for courses, tutoring, training, or workshops, getting up early to start a new routine – these are action.

Especially in the early stages of moving toward a goal, action of any kind, is far more important than careful, refined planning. Building the habit of regular, repeated action will take you much further toward a goal than having a “perfect” plan on which you take infrequent, hesitant action. As General George S. Patton memorably said, “a good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week”.

Worrying about making “a mistake” is pointless. Everyone is in varying degrees of “mistakenness” at every moment, and the decisions and actions that you take in the moment either increase or reduce your “mistakenness”. When you set the thermostat at 65 F, the room never exists at exactly that temperature – when the sensor cools off to 64 F, the heater turns on and overshoots up to 66 F; then the sensor notices the change and switches off the heater. It’s a dynamic balance, not a static one, and it is always in a state of some error, however small. The various actions that you take to fix the “mistakenness” in your own life is far more complex and far more nuanced, but the overall principle is the same. The psychological resistance to making a mistake – perfectionism – is a desire for perfect control that is impossible to satisfy, and that will inevitably lead to pain. Everyone is continuously making mistakes of one kind or another.

When working toward goals, it is also important to consider the matter of scale of effort and proximity to the goal. If you came home from a vacation to see that the temperature in your apartment was 35 F – almost freezing! – you wouldn’t need to measure things in detail and find out that the bedroom is actually 36 F while the kitchen is 34 F. The end goal would be instantly clear – warm up the damn apartment! Your reaction would probably be to use everything you could in order to return the apartment to a comfortable temperature – turning the thermostat up, turning on the oven, all of the stove burners, running the hair dryer, and as many space heaters as you could find. Yet how many of us find ourselves in our own lives working on microscopic details or plans for a goal, when what would be really effective is to turn up the heat as high as it can go in as many ways as possible?

Action first, details later. Your body knows this better than your mind does. If it didn’t, you’d be in big trouble the next time you stood up to get a glass of water.


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