Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important

A friend came to me with a startup as her main goal.  I am keen on my coaching skills so I would from time to time ask her what the top 3 most important things she could be doing today would be.  She would proceed to come back with a list.  A few days later I would check back and ask her what she got done.  She would very excitedly tell me all about the other things she was doing that weren’t the top 3 things.

I watched this behaviour for a while before commenting.  Eventually I asked her about it and she conceded she was doing tasks that seem easier than the important things because they feel like progress, say by doing four small 15 minute tasks you got four things done right?  Whereas if you work on an important task for an hour you only got one thing done.


Our brains like to use Rule of thumb type judgements to know what pathways to follow.  In this case, Am I making progress towards my goal was replaced by, have I completed things which was easily gamified by, How do I do the most little things I can.

The same thing happens when people pay attention to their health.  Get healthy turns into, Lose weight, which turns into unhealthy body images and great confusion.  Although this is probably more related to us not being clear and specific on what the health goal was in the first place.

So what say you have a lost purpose.  You want to do X but you find yourself doing the remarkably similar Y.  How do you fix that?

1. Be specific

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

It’s not going to work 100% of the time, but it does help.

Imagine you told a monkey to go collect coconuts, every coconut the monkey brings back you will give him one reward.  You mean the large useful ones that you might find in a supermarket.  Knowing how important coconuts are but not really understanding the task, while collecting large coconuts he finds some smaller ones, realising he can carry two half-size coconuts instead of one large one, he goes to find more smaller coconuts, until he is collecting teeny coconuts about the size of a coin.  Strictly speaking he is collecting coconuts, but you can easily say that’s not the coconut you want.

We don’t actually work with monkeys (despite what you might think).  Your own brain as well as the brain of other people will get a good return on specific instructions.

2. Goal factoring (CFAR technique)

Goal factoring is about working out the purpose of a task that you do.  For example I used to attend a group that was often hit and miss about whether I liked it.  I broke down my intentions of going to the group as:

  • meet new people
  • learn cool things
  • hang out with friends

I didn’t notice so easily, but as soon as I had this list it was easy to see that the group was waxing and waning in such a way that there were (for a more than 6month period) no new people.  Along with this I had been there long enough that learning new things was hard simply because I knew everything that everyone else knew, so there was less “new” to learn.  The third thing that happened is that a culture shift happened and the friends I liked hanging out with were less often there than the friends I was not super thrilled about hanging with.

Consequently I left that group and rescued my weeknight.

3. Applause lights in the territory

The concept of Applause lights were not invented by me:

“…it means that you have said the word “democracy”, so the audience is supposed to cheer.  It’s not so much a propositional statement, as the equivalent of the “Applause” light that tells a studio audience when to clap.”

Applause lights are often things that sound good but are not of any substance.  We need these because sometimes we need to climb ladders of abstraction and very quickly explain what we mean without being specific.

But we also need to climb back down those ladders and get specific if we ever want to make progress towards the goal.  What is actually going to lead us to Health, or Coconuts or A successful startup or Progress towards that goal?

And how can we pursue it with the ferocity of someone who knows exactly how much time they have left.


Meta: this post is a true story.  Thanks to Sarah for the inspiration and I hope she moves swiftly towards the important tasks from here on.

Meta: this took 1.5hrs to write

Cross posted to lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/oep/

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