Goals are good motivators. They give us a clear target to aim at.
“I hope to finish writing that novel by the end of this year”
But goals can be fragile. Orienting ourselves around merely a goal can set us up for failure. No wonder most goals, like new-year resolutions, are not followed through.
The major problem with goal orientation is optimism bias. Daniel Kanheman and Amos Tversky have demonstrated how we are likely to plan our goals with an extra helping of optimism. This is due to our tendency to imagine good outcomes better than bad ones. However, outcomes in the real world are random, and can throw our estimations off. No wonder that 90% of large projects have time or budget overruns. When we assume that a particular task can take half an hour, on rare occasions, it takes 20 minutes. But more often than we imagine, it can 2 hours to produce the expected quality. And when that happens, we are likely to get discouraged.
Another problem is procrastination. When we have ambitious goals, we are likely to encounter obstacles along the way. When this happens, our tendency to wander off and procrastinate is at its highest. Each instance of procrastination makes the ambitious goal even harder to achieve, leading quickly to its abandonment.
So how do we strengthen goals? By shifting everyday focus on a process rather than the goal.
While output is random, we can control inputs. When we define a regular process for achieving a goal, say daily, or every other day, this offers several advantages. For instance, if the quest were to write a novel, our target could be 30 minutes of focused writing per day, regardless of the output.
How does this help overcome the challenges mentioned above?
With process orientation, comes regular positive reinforcement. The day is won, so long as the process has been followed, and this can easily lead to consistency. Consistency leads to habit formation and improves quality over time.
Secondly, process orientation has been shown to counter procrastination effectively. Obstacles are less likely to derail our practice. In our example, reaching a difficult point in our novel’s plot need not derail our process of half-an-hour of daily writing, regardless of quality.
Process orientation is effective because it bridges the gap between intention and action through a series of small, everyday victories. This regular positive reinforcement, over the long run, can help us meet intended targets, and forge on even if we do not meet them.
And this is what makes it an anti-fragile approach.