Emergent Goals

February 21, 2021 • ☕️ 5 min read

I’ve been thinking a lot about goals because recently I decided to embrace review processes as if they were going out of fashion. To be honest, I’m not sure they were ever in fashion.

A shift in perspective I’ve been playing with is seeing goals and projects as emergent phenomena. That might take some unpacking, so allow me to explain.

When it comes to goal setting, we might think that we have to sit down one afternoon and come up with our 10 year plan. This is top-down control, where our past self dictates what actions we will take for years to come.

What I’m proposing is that regular reviews allow for an inversion of control, allowing goals to surface from our day to day lives in a bottom-up approach. Our job shifts from setting goals, to recognising ones that we’re already pursuing but haven’t made explicit. This way, it is the reality of our day-to-day actions that shapes our project management system, not the other way round.

Getting specific

An example of this approach came earlier this year. I finished my January monthly review and had a clear aim for the month. I’d finally finish Leo Gura’s Life Purpose course, which I’d bought 4 years ago and have been trying to get through ever since. This time I knew I was going to do it. My life purpose for January became doing the work to find my elusive life purpose.

Yet, after a couple of weeks it was impossible for me to ignore the complete lack of progress on this project. This is the point where most of us will start berating ourselves. Why can’t I just do what I set out to do? It’s hopeless. I might as well just give up!

Once my inner critic had their say, I decided to look a little deeper. Another impossible to avoid fact was that I’d been working hard. I knew I’d been getting up early and filling my mornings with productive activities. Mornings were the time I’d set aside to the course, so where had the time been going?

I realised that without noticing I’d taken up a new project. What was interesting about this project is that I never made an explicit decision to take it on. It’d slipped in to my life unannounced, and without me realising had pushed Leo’s course to the wayside.

So what had happened? Had distraction and a thirst for novelty derailed my well laid plans? Was I procrastinating once again?

Emergent Goals

I’d been spending the time I’d set aside to do the course on reading a book on systems thinking. This book had been on my radar for some time, and I’d decided to start on it because it aligned with the start of a work project on designing digital systems for my team.

Reflecting on this, it became clear that the context of my life at this particular moment meant that it made more sense to read the book than to complete the course. A goal setting framework called Windows of Opportunity explains why this was the case.

Summing it up briefly, this framework says that there are particular times where special conditions come into place that make the chances of a project succeeding much higher.

In this instance, I knew that I’d be much more likely to grasp the wisdom contained in the book if I wasn’t solely consuming its contents, but also applying them to solve real world problems I was facing.

What’s interesting about my pivot is that it wasn’t made consciously. I didn’t think about the Windows of Opportunity framework when deciding to start reading the book. It was a more intuitive process, where one morning I just decided to take a look at this book that had been sitting on my Kindle for a while.

In a sense the project emerged out of a higher intelligence. While I wasn’t consciously aware of the choice to replace one project with another, a part of me knew that this shifting priorities would lead to more favourable conditions.

Aligning our system with reality

Yet, because it wasn’t a conscious decision, I didn’t think to update my project management system to reflect my new priorities. This led to some unnecessary cognitive dissonance.

For a few weeks I sat down to do my weekly review and saw no progress on the course. This was demotivating, with feelings of guilt coming up for not doing what I’d set out to do. Feeling this way is exactly the opposite of what I’m aiming for when using my project management system. I want to look at my goals and feel inspired and motivated that I’m making progress on them.

The thing is, I was making progress on goals. Just not on the ones that I’d written down! If only my system had more closely mirrored the change in my behaviour I would have been feeling proud of what I’d accomplished during the week rather than hopeless over my lack of commitment.

This has led a shift in how I carry out my reviews. Now, I reflect on the differences between what I set out do and how I’ve actually been spending my time. For example, as soon as I realised that my aim for January had shifted from finding my life purpose to learning about and creating systems, I took the course commitment off my projects list. This felt like lifting a weight off my shoulders.

By explicitly reducing my commitments, space was opened up to double down on my systems learning. Now that I’d noticed the emergence of the project, I could consciously think of ways to optimise for it. Maybe instead of just reading the book and creating the systems for my team, I could write a post about what I’d learnt. This would take my learning to the next level, maximising my original goal.

Closing thoughts

Our project management system is a model of reality. When that model doesn’t align well with our actual behaviour then it becomes self-defeating. We’ll become discouraged and swear off ever setting any goals. I feel that this is why most people give up on implementing GTD-type systems in their lives. What fun is it to constantly feel like we’re behind?

This invite then is to look for what you’re already aiming for and start from there. When we stop and make explicit our unstated goals, we may feel embarrassment, judging them as not worthy enough. I’d encourage you to let go of these judgements and start honouring these desires. When you do this, you’ll start to develop trust in your inner compass.

Making your project list be a reflection of this inner guidance will align your intellect with the wisdom of your heart. With these two in powerful alliance the conditions will be perfect to set off in the quest for your dreams.