Off-Goal Targeting

by phil on Wednesday Mar 26, 2008 1:34 PM

Off-Goal Targeting is the most powerful strategy for success and productivity that I've ever used in my life. It's something I came up with in November of 1997, when I was in Los Angeles during the ThinkQuest web design finals judging round. I had walked in there expecting to place if not win the entire competition. Our team didn't even place. I was crushed. I had spent the entire summer and much of the previous school year working on that project. I shut myself in my hotel room, my teammates knocked on my door trying to get me out, but I wouldn't budge.

In that moment of despair, I considered how doubly tragic the whole thing was. Not only had I not won what I wanted to win, but I hadn't really learned anything while entering the contest. I had spent all this effort just trying to impress the judges with fancy buzzwords like JavaScript and CGI that I never even learned those technologies. I just learned how to pretend that we had a mastery over those tools.

And in that moment I promised myself that I wasn't going to lose the next year. And the way to guarantee that I wasn't going to lose was to set my conditions of victory to be my education. I told myself, if you really get a deep understanding of web technologies this year, then you've won already.

And it worked. That year I read two Perl books back to back, I spent a lot of time teaching myself Flash (which was really new at the time), I went through a lot of Photoshop Tutorials, and in the process I was transformed from a so-so web designer into a pro. Naturally our team's entry that year was much better, simply because the tools and technology used in it were so much better. Plus, the site benefited from having less of a focus on pleasing judges and a focus more on educating users. Because I also determined myself to learn how to develop a usable site. So the whole time, I was thinking "usability" "usability" "usability." Not "win contest" "win contest" "win contest."

The primary result first of all is that come November of 1998, I felt already satisfied. A year before I was a young nobody webmaster, and now I had the skills necessary to be a freelance web designer. And then we made it the finals anyway. And then we won the "Design Award" which was nearly the same size as the grand prize for the competition.

I had kind of felt in my gut this was going to happen, even when I formulated the idea to focus on learning. I knew that if I just focused on learning, that my will to win the competition wouldn't just go away. Rather it would be minimized so that it wouldn't interfere with my creativity. At the same time, it wouldn't be so minimized that I wouldn't take the essential steps necessary to win the contest.

I knew it was going to be an exercise in doublethink. While I genuinely wanted to learn, I really wanted to win. So focusing on the goal of learning was a "nod nod" "wink wink" move because I knew that it would really help me with my goal of winning.

And it was nice because if I didn't win, I wouldn't have been crushed, because I wasn't expecting it.

And you hear about this strategy all the time in self-help books, it just doesn't have a name. You can tell you're reading an example of it when somebody says, "If you focus on x, then y ends up happening naturally." For example, in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Covey talks at length about following your principles. But really the doublethink is that if you focus on this separate task of developing your principles and being effective you'll probably get the things you really wanted when you read this book: more results at work, better relationships, happiness.

I think this is important in a lot of fields, and I think people naturally apply this idea of Off-Goal Targeting without thinking. Here are goals that I think really benefit by having Off-Goal Targets:
- Making more money
- Finding a mate
- Being happy
- Becoming famous
- Getting recognition

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