One Simple Tactic From the Stoics For Setting Better Goals
December 10, 2017
How many times have you failed to achieve a goal of yours? I know personally, I’ve failed to get that dream job, the client for my business or winning that competition after putting in many hours of hard work. This frustration made me ask myself, was there another way to set your goals? In this article, I explore this question, and uncover some actionable advice that anyone can implement for more effective goal setting and a better sense of well being. I also share a tool, called the Quantified Self Dashboard, that I built to make the process of tracking your goals easier.
To approach this question, I decided to turn to the ancient philosophers for advice. Specifically, the Stoics and their ideas surrounding the trichotomy of control. To give you some quick background, Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that gained prominence during the reign of the Romans and the Greeks. It's a philosophy which offers practical advice on daily living, with a specific focus on living a virtuous life that leads to less suffering. It's recently seen a resurgence in modern day culture - specifically places like Silicon Valley, thanks to people like Tim Ferriss & Ryan Holiday promoting the ideals and tenets of Stoicism.
One of the central ideas within Stoicism is the trichotomy of control. It's a pretty simple idea, yet when implemented correctly can be incredibly powerful. As the name hints, the Stoics believed that control in our lives could be broken down into three buckets: things we have complete control over, things we have partial control over, and things which we have no control over. Within the context of setting goals, we'll focus specifically on the bucket of things we have partial control over.
While some people would try to argue that you can accomplish all your personal goals through sheer force of will, the reality is that it can often be subject to the whims of external factors. Whether that be internal company politics, external forces within the market or even events in your personal life, all these have a strong influence on the outcome of achieving your goals.
So bearing that in mind, how did the Stoics recommend we deal with things we had partial control over? Their recommendation was that instead of setting external goals, we should strive towards setting internal goals - goals which we have a greater degree of control over accomplishing.
To give you some examples, imagine you're an entrepreneur who is looking to raise some money. You could either set an external goal of "I want to raise $2M by the end of this quarter," or you could focus on setting an internal goal such as "I'd like to meet with five new investors a week" or "I'd like to spend three hours a day on improving my pitch deck." Another example could be someone wanting to get their PhD. Instead of focusing on the external goal of receiving a PhD diploma (Which has shown a 50% attrition rate), the person could set the goal of 4-5 hours of deep work a day, and other health related internal goals to prevent burnout.
The best internal goals are ones which you have a higher degree control over. In the entrepreneur example, meeting with five new investors a week is not fully within your control, in contrast, spending your time working on your deck would be.
When I first encountered the idea of trichotomy of control, it deeply resonated with me. For the majority of my life, I had set external goals which I would occasionally achieve, but more often than not, I either missed the mark or changed my mind on the goal, leading to inevitable frustration. I'm now more cognizant of setting internal goals and in fact, built out a tool that allows me to track my internal goals with a built-in feedback loop.
The tool is a real-time personal dashboard for my life that aggregates and visualizes my personal data. The top view consists of three internal goals (my steps, focus time and unproductivity) along with a calendar showing me which days I hit or missed my internal goals. The rest of the page consists of a variety of pie, line and bar graphs which give me feedback on how I'm spending my time. To keep my internal goals top of mind, I have a raspberry pi hooked up to a TV monitor that displays these metrics, and throughout the day I'm able to glance to see how I'm doing.
Aside from the top view which displays my internal goals, I also have a mid-week/weekly review section which contains my coding activity, time spent online, where my focus time was being allocated, steps, weight, chess, locations I’ve visited and Spotify data. For times when I’m not near my dashboard I have a simple SMS service set up that texts me when I’m offtrack, and makes sure that I have plenty of time in the day to achieve the internal goals I set out for myself.
Eventually when I’ve gathered enough data, I’ll be able to build a simple AI that will be able to schedule time for me in the day when it notices that I’m not on track to achieve my goals, and provide weekly reports as well as recommendations on how to improve.
Now instead of stressing over whether I'm on track to meet some arbitrary external goal that I have partial control over, I can feel satisfied knowing I've spent another day where I completed the internal goals I set for myself.
Implementing a practice of setting internal goals and using this tool, I’ve noticed my mood has increased remarkably, which I’ve been tracking with 750 Words. I’ve also had several people comment on how I seem a lot more balanced, which I attribute to the peace of mind I get from hitting my internal goals instead of stressing over whether I’m going to achieve an arbitrary external goal I set for myself.
While it's tempting to set big hairy audacious external goals which can signal how ambitious you are, the more practical approach is to focus on setting internal goals. If in the process of achieving your internal goals you hit your external goals - fantastic! If not, it's not an issue because you were able to achieve your own internal goals.
Next time you’re thinking about setting goals, reflect on the idea of the Trichotomy of control provided by the Stoics. By implementing internal goals which you have a greater degree of control over, you’ll notice a huge quality of difference in your attitude towards failure and resilience when encountering obstacles. Whether you use a personal dashboard or a simple excel sheet, making sure to track these internal goals will allow you to continuously improve and accomplish whatever internal goal you set your mind to.
I now challenge you to rethink how you set your goals!
Take a look at the current goals you have, are they internal or external goals? I’d like you to take a look at any external goals you have and try to break them down into internal goals. Using the examples mentioned in this article as a template, see if you’re able to focus more on the process as opposed to the end result.
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Contributing to the global awakening
Andrei Lyskov has had experience working globally from Beijing to Los Angeles working for Fortune 500 companies such as IBM & BMO as well as Soylent, a Y Combinator and Andreessen Horowitz funded startup. At IBM he led the product growth and strategy in China for https://cognitiveclass.ai/ a massively open online classroom for data scientists, and organized Beijing’s first big data hackathon. At Soylent he was in charge of both the North American college campus ambassador and influencer programs which were responsible for driving a 6 figure increase in sales, 5 figure increase in emails, and tens of millions in impressions. He’s had his written work appear on Forbes, Huffington Post and Startup grind. He’s currently interested in applying data science and machine learning to problems within the personal health space.