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Discussion Forum > Goal Taxonomy

Goal Taxonomy

This was supposed to be about the benefits of setting goals that you know you cannot achieve, as long as you remember that you won't actually achieve them.'Toole/impossibledream-lyrics.htm

Goals often change categories as you learn more about them, and as the rest of your life changes. It's important to let goals change categories. Asking which category it's in is often helpful.

Star Goals. "Ideals are like stars. We never reach them, but we guide our course by them." (Poster in high school English room, 35 years ago.) They're often boring. The path is narrow and straight. Not useless, but not the most useful type, either.

Journey Goals. Usually unreachable, but I know they will take me on an worthwhile journey. Interesting, fun, educational, surprising -- worthwhile is in the eye of the doer. I expect the journey to have unexpected bits.

If you work on a star goal with an open mind and look wide, it often becomes a journey goal. If you let a journey goal rest, it often reverts to a star goal. That's better than dropping it. You can expand it again later.

Almost Doable Goals. I don't like these. If I'm not careful, I start believing I can, and should, meet it, and be discouraged when I don't. If a goal falls into this category, I try to turn it into a journey goal. Or I admit it's a bad goal and drop it.

Stretch Goals. Very similar to Almost Doable, but I'm ok with not reaching it. These are usually paired with more do-able goals.

Externally Measured. Someone else measures them. Some are more random than others. I have very little control over the other candidates for a job, but have much control over whether I pass a science test.

Process Goals. Show up and do the work, but don't worry about the results.

Achievement Goals. The only thing that matters is the results, not how much or how well I worked towards it.

Habit Goals. These prevent backsliding. Very important if you have depression.


Eg Running.

Run a marathon. Star and Journey Goal. It's not going to happen. I'm not willing to invest the time or the risk of injury. Still, it's fun to read about the physical and mental training, and, while struggling at mile 1, to imagine myself in Boston.

Run 3 miles. I did this a few years ago, and want to do it again. It's not a journey goal because I don't think I'll learn anything new by doing it. It's almost-doable or stretch. Since almost-doable is discouraging, I try to think of it as a stretch goal, or to not think about it at all.

Walk/run every other day. Definitely doable. Meets the SMART criteria, except when I'm in a rut. Then it becomes another thing I'm failing at. When that happens, I reclassify it.

Eg Be a good person.

In the simplest form, this is a star goal. Most religions say we should be good people, and also admit that we will never reach that ideal. Christianity has confession and absolution. Buddhism says craving perfection (including perfection of self) is a craving, and cravings cause suffering. We should accept that things are as they are -- which does not prevent working to make them better!

Then we start asking what a good person is (tip: answers vary) and how to be one (answers vary even more). We think and research and discuss and experiment, and it becomes a journey.

Eg Singing.

Level 8 -- just enough to enter a university music program. A stretch, but worth working towards. My goal was an exam every 2 years, which is half the speed kids usually do. At first, it was doable. Then, when I got bored and plateaued at level 5, it was depressing. So, it's an extreme stretch goal. I've asked my teacher to, when appropriate, choose songs that are in the exam repertoire. I might just sneak up on it.

Currently, it's a habit goal. I have to go out every week, meet with friends, and do some work. Singing often brings up emotions, and my teacher is often my therapist! (She says it's the same with most of her students, and many of her teachers are also her therapists.)

It's been a great journey goal. My voice is smoother. I learned music theory. I learned a lot about phonetics and physiology. More importantly, I made good friends, and, at the advice of my teacher, let my daughter join a high-demands choir, where she has grown in many ways. I probably won't ever meet my original goal of grade 8, but the journey was definitely worthwhile! (Was? Note to Self: Stay open to the possibility of this becoming an interesting journey again.)

Eg Meditating.

I wanted to try it for depression. Like all new things, it began as a journey goal, but I fully expected it to become a habit goal.

Along the way, though, it took an unexpected turn as I learned about Buddhism. That led to asking how Buddhists define "good person", and how they approach it. (Spoiler: They have as many denominations as Christians do. They started dividing around 500 BC -- many years before the Orthodox/Catholic split, let alone the Protestant Reformation.) Definitely a good journey, on that I'm still enjoying!

Also, meditation includes journeying within your own mind. In quieting the top level thoughts, the next level has a turn.


The purpose is tease apart differences and explore them, not to create a firm set of definitions.

Does anyone have other categories, or other experience with these categories? Do we need sub-categories?
March 23, 2018 at 13:38 | Registered CommenterCricket
Procedure Goals. A set of steps to follow. Often associated with a habit, process, or externally-measured goal.

Walk/Run every other day is a habit goal. Follow Couchto5k is a procedure goal. Run 3 miles is a stretch (or almost-doable) goal that is externally measured (by my GPS). They're all part of "be healthy" (a star goal).

Walk/Run is also a journey goal, since I never know what I'll see or who I'll talk with or what will be on the podcast. It also might lead me to physio (if my knee gets worse), which is also a journey.
March 23, 2018 at 14:32 | Registered CommenterCricket
I forgot emergent goals. Mark has described them well. We should copy and paste here for completeness.
March 23, 2018 at 15:06 | Registered CommenterCricket
I like what you wrote, not much to add at the moment.

I *think* emergent goals are defined like this: Look at what you're doing. Figure out why you are doing that. That why is (evidently) your goal. Thus it emerged. I suppose once you clarified it like that, it becomes one of your other goal types.
March 23, 2018 at 16:42 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
What about "More" goals?

More profit (the goal of most businesses)
More purchases from return customers
More time with family
More throughput

"Less" goals are really a subset of "More" goals:
Less recidivism

The closest thing on the list seems to be "Star" goals. But in contrast to "Star" goals, these are never boring. :-)

Theory of Constraints generally recommends to express all goals as "more" goals. Static "achievement" goals can easily morph into Almost Doable Goals, Stretch Goals, or Externally Measured Goals. As such, they often go to the extremes of being either unattainable on one hand, or not big enough on the other hand.
March 23, 2018 at 21:09 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Alan Baljeu:

No, that's the definition of an implicit goal, not an emergent goal.
March 23, 2018 at 21:48 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I guess i still don't understand what they are then.

Seraphim: in terms of habits, Less goals are very different from More goals. If my goal is Chew fingernails more, I can schedule times to chew fingernails. If the goal is Less Chewing, I need a different strategy to achieve this.
March 23, 2018 at 22:45 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Alan Baljeu:

<< If the goal is Less Chewing, I need a different strategy to achieve this. >>

Scheduling times to chew fingernails is one of the standard methods of breaking oneself of the habit. No chewing is allowed outside those times, and the times are gradually reduced.

If you are successful with your goal to get rid of fingernail chewing, you might receive so many compliments about your beautiful fingers, that a goal might emerge of becoming a hand model.
March 24, 2018 at 0:46 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I guess I see "emergent" goals and "implicit" goals as very similar, as I wrote here:

I call them "emergent" because you can discover them simply by engaging with your work, following your intuition at the task level, working through immediate conflicts, etc. The larger goals "emerge" as the combined inter-relationships of these individual actions.

Perhaps I have an inkling of the emergent goal all along, which is guiding my intuition. Or perhaps the various conflicts I encounter appear as conflicts precisely because they are two choices at odds with each other but both appear necessary. The emergent goal is hidden behind the necessity -- necessary *for what*?

This seems to be a kind of "weak emergence", where the ultimate outcome does exist at some level of my awareness, and I am working toward it, and it informs my decisions and actions, even though it may be only vaguely articulated and not fully formed.

A "stronger" form of emergent goals would seem to be those serendipitous situations where the inter-relationships between different tasks and actions create something completely new and unanticipated, and you can only see in retrospect how they all came together to create the outcome. Like individual ant behavior following very simple rules but creating very sophisticated and surprising outcomes in aggregate, which would be very difficult to predict from the behavior of any one individual ant.

Mark - how would you differentiate "emergent goals" and "implicit goals"? Can you give an example?
March 24, 2018 at 5:17 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

<< How would you differentiate "emergent goals" and "implicit goals"? Can you give an example? >>

I always have trouble explaining things which seem so obvious to me that I can't understand why people aren't able to grasp them. However there's a good maxim about this: "Nothing is obvious until it has been explained".

Implicit goals first.

An "implicit" goal is what you are trying to discover when you look back at what you have actually done (as opposed to what you meant to do) and try to understand what the motivation was behind it. For example at one stage I looked back at the main trends in my life over the previous ten years and realised that there was one overriding theme - which was to have freedom to do what I wanted to do and not what a boss wanted me to do. Realising that I had had freedom as an implicit goal all along made it easier for me to consciously move forward to the next stages.

In other words identifying the implicit goal behind what I had been doing turned it into an explicit goal.
March 24, 2018 at 9:35 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

Emergent goals now.

You'll have noticed that I didn't mention anything about emergent goals in my explanation of implicit goals.

That's because implicit goals are not the same as emergent goals, And the opposite of an implicit goal is an explicit goal, not an emergent goal.

Again I have real trouble understanding what's so difficult about the concept of an emergent goal.. That means that I have to guess at what the difficulty is and address my explanation at what may in fact not be the real difficulty. So my explanations may make the difficulty worse, not better.

Does anyone reading this have difficulty understanding what an emergent situation is? We tend to use the expression to describe fast-moving scenarios, but in fact all situations are emerging to some degree.

Emergent goals and emergent strategy are what you use in response to an emerging situation. Think of it in terms of an emergency response unit. They are called out, they arrive on location, they have to assess the situation and decide on their reaction. It's a fast moving situation so they have to keep continually assessing and updating. Gradually the situation comes under control and their aims and strategy change to reflect this.

So what is the relevance of this to our own ordinary mundane lives? Simply this, that all situations are in a state of change, and our own actions are part of that change. When we take action in a situation the situation changes and so does our appreciation of it. Our goals and strategy need to reflect those changes, not rigidly hold us to a vision which is out of date.

In other words new goals and strategy will EMERGE as the situation changes.
March 24, 2018 at 10:09 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
So, adaptive goal setting. (I assume this is not a widely used phrase meaning something else.)
March 24, 2018 at 22:03 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Alan Baljeu:

You can call it what you like as long as you've grasped the principle.
March 24, 2018 at 23:32 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Thinking more about implicit goals (look back at what you've done / not done and see which goals those things support):

If you only work on implicit goals, you risk not starting goals / journeys / behaviours that would be of benefit.
March 31, 2018 at 20:47 | Registered CommenterCricket
It sounds to me like emergent goals, as defined by Mark, are more reactive. They emerge as the situation evolves.

I had thought they emerged from what you were actually doing, which Mark calls implicit goals.

Alan's term of adaptive makes more sense to me, possibly because I don't already associate it with something else.
March 31, 2018 at 20:49 | Registered CommenterCricket