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Resilient Planning: Goal Accomplishment as a Race in Stages

Tuesday October 15, 2019

I remember back when I used to write out plans based on projected goals. And I also remember the way those plans would often wither in the presence of experiential effect. For example:

  • Me in 2000: “OK, freelancing is working well so far and I just barely started! Let’s say I up my rate to $20 an hour. If I work 40 hours a week, I can easily cover everything I need to turn this into a career. If I can eventually work that rate up to $60, I will be able to live a very nice life indeed!” (Things did not go that way, and I ended up taking on full-time work. There are several obvious issues in the plan, if you have done much freelancing or business ownership…)
  • Me in 2015: “OK, I’ve lost 50 pounds at the current rate. This means that (types numbers in) I should hit 100 pounds lost in early 2016. Exciting.” (Nope! Conveniently, at this point, the same tools stopped working. I had to completely change my tool set in order to lose the next 50 pounds.)
  • Me in 2017: “OK, I really love the idea of getting better at chess. I’ll drop by the city’s weekend chess club meet and play two games all the way to the end.” (This was an interest which shortly thereafter fizzled out).

The Need for an Adjusted Approach to Planning and Goal-Setting

These initial plans were just fine as little goal-seeds. As deep and resonant as they felt at the time, they were fairly temporary snapshots of my experiential-emotional outlook at the time the plan was written. But I’ve learned since then that a plan has to be kept alive. It needs to benefit from:

  • Further hands-on experience
  • Additional subjective knowledge capture from that experience
  • Measurement and other objective knowledge capture (like research)
  • Any other refinements, questions, value changes, and experiments in general

I still love to plan in terms of design & outcomes first. I don’t think that will ever change. However, without flexibility built-in from the start, such energetic goal-setting can easily set up a mental health disaster (or other disaster), in which a big and important goal-achievement process is completely incapacitated. We are lucky if we are left unscathed.

Think about some possible ingredients for such a disaster:

  • The plan was over-protected—I felt my inner vision so strongly at the beginning that I was driven to protect my vision from outside change.
  • The plan met with unexpected resistance, and I was unable to respond in the same way I could before.
  • The plan did not work very well in actual experience.
  • The plan was left behind, without further thought.

There’s also this weird need we have. Within the typical INTJ there’s this need to be able to say, “I saw this coming,” and that can result in a very discordant feeling when things go wrong. We’re lucky if we’re able to give it a voice and think about it consciously, without directly repressing the idea that we did not see a thing coming.

This feeling can, unfortunately, cause us to ignore a poorly-performing plan or put it away without addressing needed changes.

Some Adjustments Here and There: The Race in Stages

A typical goal-setting paradigm grants us at best one stage of “Goal Adjustment” to consider. And that’s important. But I’d like to suggest another way to look at it: Stage-labeling. As in, “what would I call this stage? How would I label it?”

I believe this Stage-labeling is by itself an important, recurring task during the process of goal achievement.

In a physical race, stages are typically labeled by their sensory characteristics. “Mountain stage,” or “cycling stage,” or “breakout stage.” And I think we can do even better than that. First, we need this ability to discuss something as we see it:

The ability to say, “right now I’m in this place where the original goal just doesn’t seem as interesting to me as it once did, but I’d like to hold myself accountable to some kind of change in that direction.”

The ability to say, “I seem to be in a stage with this goal where I am encountering very difficult outside feedback.”

The ability to say, “I think I’ve reached this goal, even though the parameters have changed somewhat compared to the original goal.”

Second, we need the ability to organize these thoughts, folding in other factors: Our intuition, for example, or some sensory characteristic. For example:

The label, “My Star Trek Stage,” because this stage of my goal involves a lot of exploration of the unknown.

The label, “The Jim Halpert Days,” because this stage of the goal was continually derailed by office antics.

And let me be clear: While we might re-label those stages later, I think it’s a good idea to start labeling as soon as possible, as a way of organizing our executive processes toward resolution and forward momentum. Giving you mini-shots of dopamine as you accomplish these mini-stages.

Speaking Personally: What I’m Doing

My goal-setting paradigm is more like a race in stages, and I have seen immediate benefits from this change in paradigm. For one, I’m used to the idea of suffering and breakthroughs being not completely under my control. Circumstances matter, but they can also be analyzed and planned around.

I am more likely to set milestones, things like calendar reminders to check in. I’m more likely to think and write and talk about my goals, even griping or complaining as much as I need to. The idea being that if anything changes (circumstances, interests, or whatever), I am better prepared to modify the design to fit and be thoughtful in reference to the original design, rather than resetting.

Also, I’m looking for labels. Getting my feelings out, and developing those feelings into concrete, informational thoughts.

Being accountable to such analysis in the aggregate view also helps to build up a principles-based design over time, something qualitatively deep, which is more likely to last out the long term. In other words, I’m getting to know myself and my principles better, by adopting these practices.


If you’re working on goals, or avoiding thinking about goals that have kind of fallen by the wayside, I encourage you to pick them up, examine them, and give them labels. Which stage are/were they in? Could those stages be analyzed and completed through some kind of analytical change, something more adaptive to the nature of the stage?

As you can see by the length of this post, it’s a much more qualitative journey than most are used to. But in the end, that’s what all of us want, in this hyper-socialized, hyper-breadth-oriented world. We seek at least some of the opposite! A highly-personal, deep, and high-quality outcome.

Given the right time and attention, it’s well within reach.

Filed in: Planning /17/ | Productivity /119/ | Control /110/ | Goals /52/

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