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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How Much Control Over Your Goals Do You Have?

Warning: Control freaks may find contents of this blog post upsetting.

So, now that we've established that setting a good goal requires certain conscious parameters, such as the use of mental contrasting, which is shorthand for saying you need to make sure that goal-setting combines both positive thinking about attaining success AND practical consideration of potential obstacles to attainment and how to overcome those, let me let you in on a little secret.

According to Heidi Grant Halvorsen, much to do with goals is unconscious. That's right, readers-- not in our consciousness. We have unconscious attitudes about what we can achieve. We have unconscious desires. We have unconscious restrictions. We have unconscious routines. We even have unconscious goals.  She gives the example of pulling into the garage after driving home from work and having no recollection of the ride. Sound familiar?  That's right. Our unconscious is running the show most of the time. Basically, we are not aware of a lot of shit.

There are three types of shit we're not aware of, as a rule:

Our mindset about various aspects of ourselves.  Remember Carol Dweck? Remember her idea that people tend to be of either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset? Fixed mindset people believe they have a set amount of intelligence, or a set personality. Growth mindset people believe they can build on what they're born with and improve themselves through effort. The people with the growth mindset tend to be happier and more successful in life. Natch, Heidi Grant Halvorsen, Carol Dweck's former student, has her own terms for the very same thing. She calls them entity (fixed) or incremental (growth) beliefs.  Like Dweck, HGH says that the entity belief (fixed growth mindset) is wrong-olla. Yes, you might be born with a higher level of intelligence than someone else, and yes, if your parents are very intelligent, this will come down to you in the genes; but you can always improve your intelligence. It is not a fixed entity. It's something that changes and grows incrementally through effort. What does this have to do with goal setting? Well, if you're of a fixed mindset, you're going to avoid a lot of challenges because you will feel you don't have what it takes to win; but if you're of a growth mindset, you'll be willing to exert yourself towards your goal.

Goal contagion. This is a shorthand way of saying, for example, that if you have a really fit friend you admire who is always exercising, you'll be likely to form your own intention to get in shape whenever you spend time with her.

Triggers. These are things in your environment that evoke a response. Maybe you want to learn French, so every time you pass McDonalds you think of french fries and, you're suddenly spouting all the French phrases you know, mon dieu.  Or perhaps you have an unconscious goal to ingest as much sugar as possible, so a picture of an ice cream cone, a song about, say, "the Candy Man," or a picture of Sammy Davis, Jr., for that matter, can lead you to the register at CVS with a package of M&Ms in hand that you have no awareness of picking up off the shelf. Pretty much anything can be a trigger, as long as it's related somehow to a goal. And the other thing is, you have your personal triggers, and I have mine. Maybe you hate Sammy Davis, Jr., and maybe I love him, so hearing "Candy Man" will help you avoid unnecessary sugar, while I'll be mainlining it.

Are you worried, control freaks? Does the world seem like something you can't control? Do you soothe yourself about this truth--because it is, sadly, true--with your lists, your matching socks and undies, your germophobia, or your obsessive worrying (yes, anxiety is a way of trying to control the uncontrollable--but that's a blog post in itself, isn't it?) Do you comfort yourself with the thought that if you can't control the world, then you can at least control yourself? Sorry. Apparently, you can't.

Here's some good news, though. Remember that you can change your mindset to an incremental (or growth) one from an entity (or fixed) one and that will help you roll up your sleeves and work for your dreams.

Here's more good news. While you can be unconsciously triggered to do something, you'll never be triggered to do something that you don't want to do. Like murder your upstairs neighbor for skateboarding over the bare floor after 11p.m. Heidi Grant Halvorsen says you won't do it, as much as you might like to. "Nothing can trigger a goal that you feel is wrong to pursue, no matter how desirable it seems" she says. Right on p.48.

Here's a final bit of good news. You can plant your own triggers to motivate you. That means you can hang up that old poster of the kitten on the knotted rope and the slogan, "When you reach the end of your rope, make a knot and hang on," to inspire you to finish that novel. In fact, studies show that consciously planted triggers are just as effective as unconscious ones. See, that feels better already, doesn't it?

Now, were you noticing the same thing I was, readers? That consciously planting a trigger sounds not unlike planting a seed of intentionality (Buddhists), or saying affirmations (Wisdom Traditionalists.)

It looks like Heidi Grant Halvorsen joins the ranks of success folk who believe in the power of positive thinking or affirmations. She stands alongside the likes of Mr. Dale Carnegie, Napolean Hill, Norman Vincent Peale, Deepak Chopra, Noah St. John, and our old friend Stephen Covey.

So get out your meditation cushion, hang your inspirational posters, listen to motivational speakers, write down your dreams, whisper your affirmations to yourself at bedtime, and do what you can to control the uncontrollable. You just might succeed.


  1. This is just great! So well written and funny. And write that blog post about anxiety!

    1. Thank you! Maybe I will write that anxiety post--there's that NYTimes series on Anxiety going on . I certainly have plenty of personal anecdotes....