Rowyn (rowyn) wrote,

"Goals Don't Work" and the Utility of Experimenting on Yourself

So scientific research shows that, on average, setting public goals isn’t constructive. In general, people who proclaim “I will do [X]” are less likely to do [X] than those that don’t announce their goals. It might be that saying “I will do [X]” gives the brain the same reward that actually doing [X] does. Having announced it, it feels like it’s already been done and therefore doesn’t require additional effort.

I started writing fiction at 14. By age 32, I had drafted one (very rough) novella, written one novelette and two short stories, plus four other short stories as class assignments. I’d started 10+ other novels. My total word count for fiction, over the course of around 18 years, was about 200,000.

Around age 32, I started posting my writing plans and goals on my blog. I continued to do so sporadically and in a few different fashions for several years, before settling into my current method of yearly lists of goals.

Now, about 18 years later, I have published eleven novels, one collection, one standalone novelette, one novelette as part of a shared-world anthology, written four additional novels that are not yet published, and written another 20+ flash fics/short stories/novelettes. My total word count for fiction was around 2,500,000.

It is, of course, unfair to compare my teenage self to my thirty-something self (although I wrote more fiction in some years as a teen than I did in some years in my 30s). There are many factors that intersect. My current productivity builds heavily on lessons I learned when I was younger and struggled much more to figure out what I was doing. It wasn’t a matter of “Setting goals is magic and as soon as I did that, I could write 12x as fast.”

But it’s also clear that announcing my goals helps me to achieve them. I feel an obligation to myself to do what I said I would. I take pride and pleasure in accomplishing a stated objective. Writing down a list of goals gives me something to reference when I’m bored and don’t know what I want to do: “I could doomscroll more? Or wait, let me look at my list of things I want to accomplish and see if any of that looks good.” I am writing this post right now because I put “write more posts” down on my goal list for 2021.

I am not writing this to prove that “those studies saying goals don't work are WRONG!” My own experience proves almost nothing about the average person.

But likewise: the aggregate experience of all people proves relatively little about me. Or about any given individual. Yes, there are a range of things that apply to literally everyone -- we all need oxygen, water, and food to survive -- but there’s a huge range of things where individuals vary dramatically. Take two humans of the same age, gender, height, weight, and activity level: will their bodies burn the same number of calories in a day? Probably not. If they each eat identical diets at identical times, will they experience identical levels of hunger? Probably not.

If a scientific study shows that something works or doesn’t work “on average”, that can be a useful starting point to guide your own decisions. But unless the details of the study show that there's almost no variance in results -- that it fails or succeeds for 99%+ of people -- it’s not a good end point. It’s more useful to pay attention to what works or doesn’t work for you, personally, than to assume that your own results will match the average. One way or another, most people won’t match the average.

And that is even more true for anecdote-based advice on “how to succeed in business” or “how to write a novel” based on the author’s own experiences. YMMV.

Which, of course, includes this post. You should definitely ignore this, if it doesn’t work for you.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
Tags: goals, philosophy

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