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Approach Goals and Avoidance Goals — Group Brainstorm

Happy Friday or Saturday — or whenever you’re reading this :)

I want some help puzzling something out. But first . . .

An Ultimate Guide to Goal Setting?

I’m working on an “Ultimate Guide to Goal Setting.” Two weeks ago my plan was to publish the post by today. However, as I started writing and researching, I realized it was quite a rabbit hole, and I don’t want to do a half-arsed job on it. If I have my way, it will be the most useful piece of advice you read this year.

So I’m plugging away: writing, researching, and letting things marinate. It might be weeks still before the ultimate guide is truly “ultimate”. Stay tuned and be patient. I think it will be worth it.

Along the way I plan to post other useful items on goal setting (useful principles and things to try). This will help me think through the issues and give you some things to try while you’re waiting for the ultimate guide. The field of Work Motivation has undergone a complete renaissance in the last 15 years, and I want to bring the best of it to you right here.

So what would it mean to have an ultimate guide to goal setting? It might mean you could:

  • Make more money, so you can achieve financial security, have freedom to do what you want with your time, and help friends out when they need it.
  • Create cool stuff, stuff that adds value to the world (Could you create a piece of art that expresses your core values? Could you start a social group that changes the world? Do you have a novel or screenplay to write?)
  • Establish healthful habits so you can live a more energetic, happier, more productive, and hopefully longer life.
  • Collect stories of adventure to tell your grandkids – stories the grandkids would actually want to listen to and tell their friends about.
  • Look forward to social gatherings such as parties, family reunions, and seminars, with no fear of the “So what do you do?” or “so what have you been working on lately?” questions.

And what would be covered in an ultimate guide to goal setting? What would you come away with?

  1. You would understand the psychology of goal setting.
  2. You would learn which common goal setting traps to avoid — traps that lead to procrastination instead of motivation.
  3. You would have an easy, step-by-step method for taking a vague idea about what you want to accomplish and turning it into a laser-focused goal that makes you want to leap out of bed in the morning.
  4. You would know how to set your goals so they’re neither too high nor too low — so you can get the most out of yourself without adding more stress to your days.
  5. You would know the best way to break down your goals for effective execution.
  6. You would know the best mindset to have as you pursue your goals.

The guide, when finished will be published completely free right here. I only ask that if you find it useful, you pass it on to friends.

So that’s that.

Now for the brainstorming question . . .

Please post your thoughts in the comments section.

Paul Myers just sent out the following message to his newsletter (BTW, Paul’s Talkbiz news is about the only marketing list I’m consistently happy to receive in my email inbox).

Hi, folks...

Ask yourself this one question about every activity you
do in business, and you'll find your productivity soaring:

Am I doing this to achieve something...
or to avoid something?

Answer honestly, and proceed accordingly.

Try it today, and let me know what happens.


Now Paul is not normally so cryptic. He usually rambles on for pages and pages (which is just fine, because he writes so well).

But he went the zen master “one hand clapping” route today.

So here are some questions:

  1. What does Paul consider an approach goal or activity?
  2. What does Paul consider an avoidance goal or activity?
  3. How does knowing the difference make such a dramatic difference for productivity?

I should say that this is not a rhetorical question. I’m truly looking for your insights here.

It’s not that I don’t understand the course of action Paul is recommending. That’s quite clear.

It’s not that I doubt it works. Probably does.

I’m just not sure I understand why it would work so well.

In part I wonder if I’m fully understanding what Paul would consider an “avoidance activity” (Is it something I’m doing to get away from a bad outcome — in which case I may need to do it anyway? Or is it something I’m doing to avoid doing what I’m supposed to be doing — in which case it’s clear I need to stop doing those activities?).

If it’s the latter, then I’m probably already doing what Paul is recommending, and that’s why I can’t see why it would lead to great gains in productivity for me, but might for someone who hasn’t learned to recognize and counteract procrastination behaviors.

If it’s the former, then maybe Paul’s advice is revolutionary in a way I can’t see right now.

Share your initial thoughts below. And then let me ask you a final question. Are you willing to try his advice for a few days and report back here?

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  1. Jim Stone
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Approach goals are motivated by more positive emotions.

    Avoidance goals have different motivation behind them — fear, disgust, negative emotions.

    But are the strategies different? Should you re-frame avoidance goals as approach goals? I’m not sure that’s always sound advice (though often it is).

    Hmmm. I look forward to seeing others’ ideas.

  2. Lyle
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Re: Q1 & Q2
    What do you mean by appropriate? What do you mean by act?
    [Jim’s Note: I edited the original post so these words are not there any more. It was a good question, Lyle!]

    Re: Q3
    To me, the question posed by Paul is sufficient. Unless one is incapable of realizing they are lying to themself one should usually know the answer. In the context of achieving a goal, what you choose to do, despite knowing the answer, the critical issue. Paul’s question is a very helpful mechanism to aid you in maintaining focus on achieving the goal.

    • Jim Stone
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Hi Lyle. Thanks for chiming in!

      I guess by ‘appropriate’ I mean, “what’s the most useful way to proceed with an approach goal?” (or avoidance goal).

      You claim Paul’s question is sufficient. How do you know? And how does asking the question help with productivity? Why couldn’t you be just as productive doing the activity without knowing whether you were avoiding something or trying to achieve something? Why does it matter why you’re doing it?

      (I’m not saying it doesn’t matter. I’m just wondering why it would matter.)

      You hint that it helps you “maintain focus on a goal”. But again, why couldn’t you be focused on your activity without realizing whether you’re approaching or avoiding?

  3. Posted August 24, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think there’s anything mystic about it. If you’re honest with yourself and can honestly answer the question then you are able to make a conscious decision.

    The challenge is that most of us are doing things rather unconsciously and slip into avoidance goals to get away from an approach goal that may be unpleasant in one way or another, but needs to get done.

    By asking the question on a regular basis you at least acknowledge what you’re doing my not be serving you in the best possible way.


    • Jim Stone
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Hi Nick.

      So when Paul asks if you’re “avoiding”, you’re taking it that Paul is talking about cases where you’re avoiding something that you’re supposed to be doing? And then the remedy would be to stop avoiding and get back to your approach goal?

      But aren’t many business activities done to avoid bad outcomes? We do the taxes to avoid jail. We fix a bug to avoid problems.

      Is the point to notice avoidance goals and re-frame them as approach goals?

      Is it obvious that avoidance goals are bad?

      • Lyle
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

        I thought about cases where you’re “avoiding” bad outcomes, e.g. the consequences of not paying taxes. In these cases that’s not avoiding your goal, as the goal is to not run afoul of the law. The person who chooses to tidy their space, surf, do email rather than file their taxes on time is “avoiding” the goal of not running afoul of the law.

        Paul’s question, I believe, is relevant in the context of goal achievement.

  4. Andy Gardner
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    I may be missing the point, but I see Paul’s comment different. I think when he mentions the activities i read tasks not goal.
    – For example: I may be doing research in order to finish a report. That is an activity to achieve something. Thus being productive.
    – Or I may be reading Jim Stones Blog to avoid doing employee evaluation. That would have a negative impact on productivity.

    When I think of goals, I believe how you state them does have an effect on motivation (thus productivity). Lets say my goal was to review code to identify bugs, this would be less motivating than if my goal was to review code to increase performance.

    • Jim Stone
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 1:21 am | Permalink

      Thanks Andy. OK, so on this reading, the extra productivity simply comes from recognizing when you’re avoiding your core activities, and then getting back on track?

      About framing goals: I agree that framing matters — a lot. I do think approach goals “tend to” be more motivating. However that turns out to depend on what kind of task is involved. When people do creative tasks they tend to respond better to positive feedback and work hard to get that feedback. When people do detailed tasks they tend to respond better to negative feedback, and work to avoid mistakes. There are some interesting studies I remember reading in this regard recently.

  5. Richard
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Q1 To me an approach goal is one that developing creative material, advancing the solution of problems, or the advancement of constructive endeavors.

    Q2 Avoidance goals are those chores that must be done to keep an atmosphere where in life can be lived. eg.. eating, sleeping, cleaning personal environment, those things necessary to maintain a life of progression rather than survival.

    Q3 Approach goals many times result in the more rewarding results. Avoidance goals are the important (but sometimes boring/unpleasant) means of staving off chaos.

    • Jim Stone
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 1:27 am | Permalink

      Nice distinction, Richard. I might consider those “growth goals” vs “maintenance goals”. Pretty close to approach and avoidance. Close enough, in fact, for this discussion, even though I think there could be approach maintenance goals, for instance.

      So on this reading, Paul would not be advising us to avoid avoidance activites, then, would he? We still have to do maintenance work at times. So where does the extra productivity come from? Is it just from being clear about which kind of activity we’re working on?

  6. Phil Callinan
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Just a few thoughts Jim. Author, Daniel Pink generally looks at motivation as being either “intrinsic” or “extrinsic”. He breaks intrinsic motivation into sub-headings of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. I would think, an ideal and optimal performance,would employ these factors. The motivation for best result would also have a large degree of self-directed input. I believe the example of “taxes” etc could be classed as extrinsic motivation, i.e. carrot and stick, and will be less motivating and possibly less productive. Purely by design that others impose on you.
    In the design of goal setting I believe that a good 30% chaos effect has to be factored to realistically get anything done. If nothing else if all goes to plan, without time lost to the chaos and interruptions, you’ve just gained a bit of time back to re-purpose in your plan. ( extra cup of tea perhaps).
    I hope this may be of use to you and I look forward to the motivational guide you are creating.

    • Jim Stone
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 1:31 am | Permalink

      Thanks Phil. Yeah, I like Pink’s focus on autonomy, mastery and purpose. They resonate very strongly for me personally.

      Do you think Paul’s approach/avoid distinction maps onto Pink’s intrinsic/extrinsic distinction?

  7. Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    Jim: You are asking a very deep question about how we think and what motivates us. You had described it as a ‘Rabbit Hole’ but perhaps you don’t know how deep it actually is. As far as motivation and whether goals are to gain something or to avoid something, this question asks for an explanation of human nature. Phil touched on some of the approaches. Much of philosophy and now most psychology sets out to answer this question about motivation and whether we are moving toward something or away. Fear can be a powerful motivator. But so can hunger. If you have an unpleasant task that needs to be accomplished, just tell yourself that you will not eat until you accomplish your goal. This will motivate you if you stick to the self-made bargain. Mostly we do not what we truly want. Or we already have so much that it is hard to ‘stay hungry’. We are fat and happy even if by some measures we are broke and thin.

    Motivation mainly means doing what is difficult over what is easy. Doing what is easy only involves sitting on the couch and grabbing the remote and finding out what tv station the football game is on. Doing what is difficult means having a vision of a possible future, one that has not happened yet and then selling that vision to those who are generally skeptical. Take someone like Walt Disney. Many people tried to talk him out of making a full length animated feature film. The movie ended up costing him $1.5 million to make in 1934. He ran out of money at the $1 million mark and had to get an additional loan to finish the project.

    How motivation works to get us to do what is difficult is a complex question. Memory works like a complex set of locks and keys. Think of learning to ride a bicycle. It is difficult at first but then becomes automatic. Learning any skill or mental habit is similar – difficult at first and then we are unaware of how the process works. Our mental habits become unconscious as does the process of riding a bike. That is why changing our habits is difficult because they are unconscious and automatic. Things are difficult at first because we have to find the set of locks and keys, the right set of habits to acquire to accomplish our goals.

    • Jim Stone
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 1:47 am | Permalink

      Hi Tom. I have some background in the literature of motivational psychology. My Ph.D is in Philosophy, and my dissertation focused on motivational psychology. What I’m somewhat new to is the literature on work motivation in particular. I’m pretty impressed with how much new stuff there actually is there (over and above the literature in motivational psychology and philosophy) — and how much has come along in the last 15-20 years especially.

      It’s a deep rabbit hole no doubt. Some of the challenge comes in trying to be fairly comprehensive while keeping things simple and practical. I keep trying different schemes, and something will eventually stick.

      It sounds like you’ve got a pretty good grasp of the scope of the issues here.

      And actually, since you bring up basic drives and such, in many ways our most powerful motivations involve avoidance goals. We work hard to avoid losing what’s ours — more than to gain something that’s not ours.

      One study tracked professional golfers and found they tended to make the same putt more often to save par than to get a birdie.

      If someone gives us a coffee mug and then asks how much we would sell it for, our price is higher than if we start with no mug and are asked how much we would pay for it.

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