Focus on the Task at Hand - Big, Audacious Goals


Some people are big proponents of setting big, audacious goals. Dream big because if you don’t then you will just get the same old ordinary results as everyone else. The reality is, however, that most people are just like everyone else. And there is nothing wrong with that. Steve Jobs was the anomaly in his ability to shape the world to meet his vision. And, yet understandably so, he is often the model for being the quintessential American entrepreneurial titan.

Part of the American psyche and myth is our exceptionalism so we honor the truly exceptional because only in America can they take the chances they did, march to the beat of their own drummers, change the world, and earn the riches of a king.

Realistically, however, the odds of being wired the way Steve Jobs (or Bill Gates or Elon Musk) was wired and following the path he followed are infinitesimally small. Trying to be like Steve Jobs will most likely result in disappointment. On the other hand, following countless other successes who have ground it out over long periods of time and benefited from the power of compounding their skills, relationships, health, and capital, are the best models to pattern one’s life after in my opinion.

Success and mastery tend to come to those who have built great habits that foster discipline, seeing the benefits of delayed gratification, patience, consistency, persistence, keeping the bigger picture and vision in mind but recognizing that getting there requires countless little steps and commitments that compound over long periods of time.

I have written previously that goals can actually be a disservice but being process focused can generate tremendous benefits. Goals can be too future-oriented and take us out of the present. That is why it’s important to develop systems and processes that break down goals into understandable and attainable tasks that build commitment and persistence on the road to the destination we are traveling towards.

I recently read a study that confirms the benefit of this approach. It is called Using Goals to Motivate College Students: Theory and Evidence from Field Experiments.

Approximately four thousand students participated in the study and the researchers looked at performance-based goals, how well someone does in the class and task-based goals that relate to a particular study task. According to the authors,

In the task-based goals experiment, students were randomly assigned to a Treatment group that was asked to set goals for the number of online practice exams that they would complete in advance of each midterm exam and the final exam or to a Control group that was not.

Specifically, we studied the effects of goals about the number of practice exams to complete on: (i) the number of practice exams that students completed (which we call the ‘level of task completion’); and (ii) the students’ performance in the course. The experimental design was identical across the Fall 2014 and Spring 2015 semesters.

So what were the results?

We find that task-based goals are effective. Asking students to set task-based goals for the number of practice exams to complete increased the number of practice exams that students completed. This positive effect of task-based goals on the level of task completion is large, statistically significant and robust. As well as increasing task completion, task-based goals also increased course performance (emphasis mine).

And now I know why my wife feels compelled to send me lists of things to do and to constantly remind me to complete them. This is another interesting finding.

Interestingly, we also find that task-based goals were more effective for male students than for female students, both in terms of the impact on the number of practice exams completed and on performance in the course. This finding is consistent with evidence from other educational environments that suggests that males have less self-control than females.

And did having performance-based goals impact course performance? Not really.

We find that performance-based goals had positive but small and statistically insignificant effects on course performance.

The authors theorize that people often suffer from present bias and overconfidence with regard to the relationship between effort and performance. The former results in a lack of control because they place far more value on the present than they do the future. And in the absence of goals, they will under-invest in the effort. This results in caring less about falling short of meeting goals because performance in the class is realized in the future. One way of counteracting this is to use commitment devices to bind their future selves. Smaller, more immediate tasks can go a long way towards achieving longer-term objectives. Little victories can build upon themselves and keep the present bias individual focused right in his comfort zone, the present, and let the future sneak up on him.

The overconfidence component is a bit more sinister because it results in people having incorrect beliefs about how to increase their performance (somewhat akin to a “get rich quick” mentality). And this overconfidence with regard to effort and performance can nullify the benefits of having goals because they may not induce productive effort. My sense, in this case, is that one then has to learn from the school of hard knocks and acknowledge that he is not getting the results that others are and not be satisfied with this underperformance. And from this dissatisfaction springs a desire to know what the others are doing that he’s not. And once he figures out what he is not doing, he then needs to want to change so that he can put in the time and productive effort to generate the improvement he is seeking.

He will come to learn that those succeeding have a system and consistency that allows them to expand their knowledge base methodically throughout the term of the course such that when exam time comes they are not cramming in the sense of learning the material for the first time. Instead, they have a working knowledge and growing understanding so that they are well prepared and their odds of success have risen dramatically relative to those who are overconfident with regard to effort and performance.

From a parenting perspective, if the teachers do not require task-based goals, then it may be wise for parents to establish continuous milestones for your children to help them stay on track and see the benefits of these little investments and commitments paying off through better performance. And of course, this should have beneficial spillover effects on all aspects of one’s life. It’s also critical to nip any overconfidence in the bud, which of course is easier said than done. Perhaps some sort of incentive system for achieving task-based goals could come in handy to lessen the chances of this.

The bottom line is we all want to develop great habits in ourselves and our children to induce continuous improvement and compounding such that we are constantly stretching ourselves, taking on new challenges, and giving all we have so we can share our ever-expanding gifts to the world and get the most out of life during our short time here. While we may not make a dent in the universe like Steve Jobs sought to do, we can sure make our presence felt in our own very unique ways.




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