A top psychologist says there's a huge misconception about setting goals
Rick Wilking / Reuters
"I think goals are inherently a broken concept in a lot of respects," Alter, author of the new book, "Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked," tells Business Insider.
"Irresistible" reveals the myriad ways smartphone apps and games hijack our brains, and how they get us to act against our own interests. In the book, Alter suggests that clinicians have seen a steep rise in cases in which people have pushed themselves too hard for the sake of attaining a number on a smartwatch.
Alter blames goals.
"The nature of a goal is such that you have, for most of the time, effectively a failure state where you're not achieving whatever that goal is," Alter says. "And that's aversive. That feels pretty bad to most people."
Even if you ultimately reach your goal - be it walking 10,000 steps per day, running a marathon, or learning an instrument - you've still spent almost all of your time not hitting the target.
According to Alter, that failure state can quickly turn people off from pursuing the goal they've set. What's more, once a goal is reached, the feeling of joy is often fleeting. People feel a rush of happiness, but it quickly fades as a new goal creeps into focus.
"It's very common for people when they achieve a lofty goal to say, 'I don't know what happened, but I felt much less happy than I expected to,'" Alter says.
He is not suggesting that people avoid challenging themselves to improve. Alter pushes for a different kind of achievement, which emphasizes creating systems instead of a long-range target. As Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy has said in the past, the idea is to make goals as bite-sized and task-specific as possible.
Say you're writing a book. Your goal might be to write the book and have it published. That's all well and good, Alter says, but the way to ensure you'll actually produce that book is to have a system for writing it.
"The system would be that in the morning every day, the first thing I do is write five-hundred words," Alter says. "It doesn't matter if they're good words or bad words, but a lot of people who write practice that sort of thing."
The benefit of Alter's approach is twofold. You aren't dealing with a fuzzy, long-range projection, and you also get consistent positive feedback, since you're hitting concrete benchmarks on a regular basis.
"It's just a thing that you do. It's a habit," Alter says. "And that habit is very different from that long-range, very amorphous thing that you have when you say 'I'm going to write 100,000 words within six months, or whatever.' It tends to be much healthier."
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