A Tutorial on Goal Selection: Focus on Effort, not Results

It’s easy to set yourself up for failure with poor goal-selection strategies. In this post, I hope to provide some specific actionable insights to help avoid that.

I previously wrote a tutorial for creating effective success spirals. One core component of that tutorial is creating a spiral structure: A comically low starting goal that is impossible to fail; an ambitious yet achievable “end-goal”; and, the next stage of the step function that will take you from the comically low starting goal to the ambitious “end-goal”. Clearly, goal selection is integral to constructing a spiral structure. If I had to distill my experience with goal selection into one sentence, I’d say: select specific, effort-based goals as opposed to ambiguous, result-based goals [1].

An effective success spiral. You start well lower than your current ability to make it impossible to fail. You gradually build up expectancy and climb step-by-step towards an ambitious end-goal.

Let’s say that you want to learn how to play the piano. What’s a reasonable spiral structure?

One method is to select result-based goals, where you “succeed” if you produce a certain result. In the case of playing the piano, a result-based goal would be to play Yiruma’s “River Flows In You”. This is a bad goal selection strategy. Selecting a result-based goal forces you to estimate your own future abilities based on limited data. You’ve never played the piano before — how are you supposed to know what is a reasonable goal for yourself in 3 months? At a long enough time scale, it’s easy to overestimate what you can accomplish (and vice versa for short time frames). In 3 months, you’ll likely be no where near fluent enough at the piano to play a piece as intricate as “River Flows In You”. That failure will force you to an expectancy hit: you’ll believe in yourself just a little bit less. You’ll decide that maybe piano isn’t for you. And this failure and corresponding expectancy hit will percolate into other aspects of your life.

Even if you manage to succeed at your result-based goal, you make it difficult to systematically grow. What’s next after playing “River Flows In You”? Maybe another ambitious piece or two. But, it’s hard to objectively “grow” from there. You’ve certainly made future goal selection difficult. And if you can’t pick a good goal, it becomes difficult to motivate yourself to continue.

Still, result-based goals aren’t useless. Wanting to play “River Flows In You” is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s exactly the sort of thing that might motivate you to become a great pianist. But it shouldn’t be a “goal”, it should be an “intention”. It should be your “why”, not your “what”.

In my experience, effective goals are effort-based, not result-based. That means that you succeed when you put in the time or do the routine. It should have a concrete objective function that you can guarantee will be met as long as you try, even if nothing concrete has come out of putting in the effort. So, rather than playing “River Flows In You”, your goal should be to play piano for 30 minutes per day.

In practice, selecting effort-based goals is not always easy. Indeed, it can sometimes be difficult to separate effort-based goals and results-based goals. For example, is writing 500 words per day effort-based or result-based? It’s result-based. You can fail at writing 500 words per day even if you put in a consistent amount of effort. Sometimes you just don’t have 500 words you need to write. If the goal was, instead, to write for 10 minutes, it is impossible to fail as long as you spend 10 minutes.

But what about doing 10 pushups? Is that effort-based or results-based? That one’s harder to objectively classify. Not everyone can do 10 push-ups, so it’s not quite “impossible to fail” as long as you put in the time. On the other hand, it’s also not obviously a “result”. I can’t give you a perfect answer to that. That’s really something you should know about yourself and your intention. For example, if my intention was to get fit, I would consider doing 10 push-ups an effort-based goal based on my current level of fitness. I know it’d be impossible for me to fail at doing 10 push-ups if I tried. In this context, a result for me would be something like lose 1lb of fat or gain 1lb of muscle. I might fail at doing those things even if I worked out consistently and ate healthy. Conversely, you might also have the intention to get fit, but consider doing 10 push-ups a result that you want to achieve. In that case, a better effort-based goal would be to exercise for 30 minutes with push-ups being one of your routines.

The rule of thumb is to pick goals that are guarantees given a realistic amount of effort. Time is a good, universal unit for effort-based goals. But you can also get more creative with other types of effort-based goals that are impossible for you to fail given effort (e.g., walking a certain number of steps).

To recap: choose specific, effort-based goals rather than ambiguous, results-based goals. Grow your effort-based goals gradually with success spirals. Do this, and there’s a good chance you’ll get the results you want without obsessing over every mis-step. It’ll take work, but you’ll have the peace of mind of guaranteed success every step of the way.


[1] This isn’t necessarily an original idea. I believe I read similar strategies in The Motivation Hacker, but they might have been called input versus output based goals. I like effort vs. results because I think it’s a bit more broadly applicable.


Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrPin on Pinterest

One thought on “A Tutorial on Goal Selection: Focus on Effort, not Results

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *