Objective Means to Subjective Ends

An objective is…objective. It’s generally specific and quantifiable. A dictionary might define an objective as something you’re working toward, such as a goal or the completion of a project. You may or may not succeed in reaching the goal or completing the project, but you’ll know whether or not you achieved your objective.

One objective may be a single step in the process of completing a larger objective. Maybe you undertake to read a particular book in order to successfully complete a class that is part of your goal of obtaining some type of certification or qualification. You’ll know whether or not you finished reading the book, successfully completed the class, and obtained the certification.

But why are you working toward that certification? What aspects of your status quo are you aiming to change? The objective change is obvious: you will have the certification or qualification you didn’t have before. However, the subjective change—your desired outcome—is likely to be much less clearly defined, if even considered.

This isn’t to say you don’t have an explanation for why you want to do something—or at least why you think you want to do it. Explaining ourselves to ourselves comes naturally to humans. You may also be clear about the potential benefits of succeeding with your objective. But having good reasons and being aware of the benefits are not the same as identifying your desired outcome.

Why (to) Ask Why

You could be going on a job interview because you hope to get hired or because you’re thinking about quitting your current job and are testing the waters or because a relative hooked you up and you feel obligated…or…or…or. Those are some reasons you might have for keeping the appointment for that interview.

Assuming you hope to get hired, why? Maybe it’s simply to earn enough to pay your bills. Or maybe you want to move up into a more challenging or more prestigious position. You might be seeking a congenial group of co-workers to expand your circle of friends. Or you might want a calmer work environment with less stress than you now have. Or you’d like a more stimulating environment. It could be a combination of factors.

If you’re clear about what you hope will happen as a result of getting the job, you’ll be better able to evaluate whether or not to take it if it’s offered to you. At the interview itself, you’ll be able to ask more informed questions and pay attention to things that are relevant to your concerns. Knowing the desired outcome you’re looking for is pretty important since it increases your chances of getting it.

But if you accept the job offer without having identified your desired outcome, you set yourself up for the possibility of being disappointed. Maybe the money’s good and the work is interesting but you wouldn’t get to interact with very many other people—and it turns out the social aspect is really important to you. In fact, you realize you would be willing to earn less in exchange for having more interpersonal interaction.

Reality Check

In addition to changing jobs, we get into or out of relationships, take up hobbies, move from one part of the country to another, decide to go back to school (or drop out), sign up for a gym membership, start a diet, buy a complete new wardrobe—or a set of patio furniture or an expensive camera or a car. We not only fail to identify our desired outcome, we also fail to identify potential obstacles we’re likely to face along the path to getting it.

Included in the “Reality Check” exercise my clients complete when filling out a Goal Action Plan are these three questions.

  1. Imagine a positive vision (fantasy) of achieving your desired outcome and describe it. How will your status quo be changed?
  2. Describe your current reality in regard to your desired outcome.
  3. Compare your positive vision of success with your current reality.

It’s important to remember that if all you do is generate and focus on a positive vision of your desired outcome without doing anything else, you are less likely to be successful in achieving it because you will have tricked your brain into thinking you’ve already got it.

Answering all three questions is a form of mental contrasting that can help you see your situation more realistically and identify the obstacles to achieving your desired outcome. If you know the obstacles you’re likely to face, you can figure out how to deal with them ahead of time instead of being blind-sided by them. Or you may realize there’s an obstacle big enough to be a deal-breaker, at least for now.

When we perform mental contrasting, we gain energy to take action. And when we go on to specify the actions we intend to take as obstacles arise, we energize ourselves even further.Gabriele Oettingen, Rethinking Positive Thinking

Evaluate and Motivate

The more clearly you can visualize your desired outcome the better you’ll be able to evaluate how likely it is that the action you’re contemplating is the best path to getting there. If it is, great! That clarity can be highly motivating. If it isn’t, that’s great, too, because you can change or revise your plan and save yourself the time, energy, and effort of going off on a wild goose chase.

The more time, energy, or effort it will take to attain your objective, the more imperative it is that you identify your desired outcome. The unconscious part of your brain is hooked on instant gratification, but changing the status quo tends to be gradual, mundane, repetitious, and tedious. Being able to remind yourself not only what you’re aiming for (the objective means) but also why it’s important to you (the subjective end) will go a long way to keeping you focused and on track.

Developing the habit of identifying your desired outcome is useful in all kinds of every-day situations, such as responding to a social media post, attending a staff meeting, choosing a book to read, or planning a vacation. It’s a truism because it’s true: it’s considerably easier to get what you want if you know what that is.

Adapted from a previous post, D Is for Desired Outcome.

R Is for Rewards

Your brain enjoys rewards so much that it actually has a whole system devoted to them. The neurotransmitter dopamine—sometimes referred to as the pleasure chemical—is part of the reward system. It’s released both when you experience a reward and when you expect to experience one. As the release of dopamine fills you with feelings of pleasure, your brain associates those feelings with whatever you just did or ingested. It’s called associative conditioning.

That association is the basis of the brain’s reward system, the purpose of which is to ensure your survival by helping you learn and remember the behaviors and substances that are good for you. Many different substances, activities, and behaviors trigger the release of dopamine. Some of them, in addition to food and sex, are:

  • social interactions
  • music
  • generosity
  • scary movies, scary situations, or scary thoughts
  • psychoactive drugs (alcohol, cocaine, heroin, nicotine, etc.)
  • gambling
  • sugar
Your Brain Runs on Rewards

For the most part, your brain’s reward system functions automatically without your conscious intervention. You probably don’t pay a lot of attention to it other than being aware that some things are a lot more pleasurable than others, and of course you want to engage in the behaviors or ingest the substances that are pleasurable.

While you may have no problem thinking of some experiences as rewarding, you might be ambivalent—or worse—about using rewards intentionally to help you modify your own behavior. As a being with a prefrontal cortex, you may think you aren’t susceptible to rewards the way your puppy is. Or you might be under the impression you shouldn’t need to use rewards. You should just be able to make up your mind to do something and then do it.

Maybe you think you don’t—or shouldn’t—need to reward yourself for doing what you want to do or what’s in your own best interest. Maybe you believe knowing what you want to do, why you want to do it, and how to do it is sufficient. You’re an adult. You have self-discipline and self-control. Or you can develop it. Rewards might be OK for young children. Or pets. But you don’t need them.

If that’s where you’re coming from, well, science does not support your position. It turns out all of us are hardwired to be “insatiable wanting machines.” If you don’t learn how to use the brain’s reward system, it will continue having its way with you.

Let’s say you want to begin a new habit. If there are no rewards, or weak rewards, habits are much less likely to take hold. That’s because the basal ganglia, which is the part of the brain that turns repetitive behaviors into habits, depends on having enough dopamine to operate efficiently.

I hand out pages of stickers to the clients in my Goals, Habits & Intentions course. Some people love them and immediately figure out how to use them as rewards. Others hold onto them for weeks, wondering what to do with them. (“Why do I have these?”) Some have no problem connecting awarding themselves a sticker with getting a reward. Others go through the motions without making that connection.

A reward is positive reinforcement. It motivates you to repeat the behavior. In the case of long-term goals, small hits of dopamine encourage you to keep moving forward, so it pays to know where you are headed. And it works better to acknowledge and celebrate each small accomplishment along the way (often a sticker will do) than to wait for one big jolt of dopamine at the end (an entire spa day).

Benefits Are Not Rewards

If there were no benefit to you for embarking on a particular course of action, there would be no point in doing it. Benefits answer the question of why you want to do something. So it’s useful to clearly identify all the benefits that would—or could—accrue if you accomplish what you set out to do. But you identify benefits via the conscious part of your brain, and rewards are processed by the unconscious.

Celebrations Are Not Rewards

In behavior-change terms, a celebration is an impromptu acknowledgement of something you’ve accomplished. The difference between a reward and a celebration is in how you use it, not what it is. In order for something to be effective as a reward, you need to crave it. That’s because dopamine is triggered by the expectation of a reward. So in order for you—and your brain—to crave a reward:

  1. The reward needs to be something you really want (enjoy).
  2. The reward needs to be identified ahead of time: what exactly will you get when you complete or accomplish the thing you set out to do?
  3. You also need to follow through and actually give yourself the reward. (You might not think this needs to be stated, but it does.)
Using Rewards = Using Your Brain

You may believe that accomplishment should be its own reward, but your brain doesn’t see it that way—and it’s the way your brain sees it, not the way you do, that matters. Sure some activities and accomplishments are intrinsically rewarding, but that’s not the case for all activities. Rewards help your brain help you accomplish the things you set out to do and turn desirable behaviors into habits.

Because your brain’s reward system operates with or without your participation, you can develop habits you don’t want to have that may be extremely difficult to change or stop. And while the conscious part of the brain is certainly better at many things than the unconscious part of the brain is, the reverse is also true. When it comes to modifying behavior, the smartest thing the conscious part of the brain can do is recognize the value of the reward system—and learn how to use it effectively.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

O Is for Obstacles


An obstacle is something that blocks your path or prevents or hinders your progress. If there’s one thing that’s certain in life, it’s that things won’t always go the way you want them to or according to your plan. Like many people, you may think that’s always a bad thing. But obstacles and setbacks are part of life. They don’t mean anything in and of themselves. That doesn’t mean they don’t have an effect on you, but you’re the one who imbues them with meaning.

Obstacles can be external or internal. The external ones can range from a traffic delay on your way to an important meeting to an uncooperative family member or co-worker to serious illness or a natural disaster. My temperament is such that it’s easy for me to experience life itself as one giant obstacle. In Enneagram terms, I resist impact from the environment and there’s a lot of environment to go around. So I have considerable experience coming to terms with the nature of obstacles, including the fact that my attitude is not always helpful. Maybe you can relate.

A few other ways you can be your own biggest obstacle are by:

  • failing to get all the information or acting on unverified assumptions
  • dropping the ball (not following through on something)
  • communicating or behaving in a manner that results in an undesirable outcome
  • having unrealistic expectations of yourself and others

Of course the major obstacle, at least when it comes to behavior change, is your own brain, which is intent on maintaining the status quo. If you fail to recognize this particular obstacle, you’re in for a rougher ride than you need to be as you try to figure out why you keep doing what you’re doing when what you want to do is something entirely different.

One Interesting Thing about Obstacles

Imagine reading a story or watching a movie in which the protagonist faced no obstacles. Would you read a novel or enjoy a movie like that? People who write for a living are betting you wouldn’t. A rule of thumb for writers is there should be some element of conflict on every page. The more conflict, the better. The more obstacles the characters have to deal with, the better.

When something goes wrong in your life, just yell: “Plot twist!” and move on. —Anonymous

Conflict and obstacles make things interesting because they’re unexpected. They also force you out of your comfort zone. You can be proceeding through life on autopilot (System 1), driving along a familiar route, when suddenly you notice a mudslide has closed the road ahead. System 1 calls on System 2: What should we do now? If what’s on the other side of that mudslide is something you really want or someplace you really want to go, you’ll try to figure out another way to get there. Which brings us to…

One Useful Thing about Obstacles

I’m not going to claim obstacles are opportunities or tell you they’re gifts or blessings in disguise. You can interpret them that way if you like, but obstacles are just obstacles: things that get in the way of what you want to do or where you want to go. I’m also not going to insist that obstacles (or overcoming obstacles) make you stronger or tougher because maybe they will and maybe they won’t.

There is one significant benefit obstacles can provide, however, although not everyone benefits equally. Experiencing an obstacle can help you think globally—step back and see the bigger picture—not just about the obstacle you’re facing but in regard to other unrelated situations or unrelated tasks. As a result, you’re more likely to come up with creative solutions in a variety of different settings.

The basic cognitive processes elicited by obstacles help people to find more creative means towards their goals. —Janina Marguc, University of Amsterdam

But there are two caveats.

First, in order to reap this benefit, you have to be motivated to follow through with what you’re doing. If you’re not already motivated, you’ll be more likely to see an obstacle as an excuse for slacking off or giving up than as a spur to action or invention.

Second, you’re more likely to think globally as a result of encountering an obstacle if you have what is referred to as low volatility. Art Markman, Ph.D., writing in Psychology Today says:

People who are not that volatile tend to engage with a task and stick with it even when it gets difficult. Those people who are highly volatile tend to skip from task to task to task.

For the latter group, encountering an obstacle does not make them more likely to think globally. That makes sense, given that volatile means excitable, unpredictable, or irresolute. If you’re highly volatile, you prefer to move on rather than stick around feeling uncomfortable or temporarily discouraged.

But even if you tend toward high volatility, you can make it more likely you’ll achieve a goal or create or change a habit if you do the legwork up front to make sure you really want what you’re going after—that your desired outcome is extremely desirable. The more motivated you are, the less likely you’ll be to give up in the face of an obstacle.

The most practical and realistic approach to take when you want to achieve something is to assume the path ahead won’t be a smooth, straight line. Then you can figure out ahead of time how to respond to the twists, turns, and bumps you’re bound to encounter.

If you get as many of your ducks in a row as you can, you’ll be in a better position to deal with the obstacles you will inevitably encounter. And if you encounter one that’s an actual deal-breaker, it will be easier for you to identify it as such, stop beating your head against that particular boulder, and scrap your plan without guilt or regret. That’s worth a little upfront effort, isn’t it?

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

G Is for Goals


“Goal,” I once wrote, isn’t one of those four-letter words. Nevertheless, it’s often treated as if it is, which is unfortunate. Becoming proficient at identifying, setting, and achieving goals is essential to mastering the art and science of change. So what exactly is a goal? The definition I use (not coined by me) is this one:

A goal is a specific state of affairs that a plan is intended to achieve and that (when achieved) terminates behavior intended to achieve it.

That means you are now here; you want to be over there; you figure out how to get from here to there; you take the steps to get from here to there; and when you arrive you stop taking steps because now you are over there.


  • are concrete, time-bound, and involve planning or multiple steps to complete
  • require ongoing conscious (System 2) attention
  • may be short-, medium-, or long-term, but always have an end point; once you arrive, you stop trying to get there
  • when achieved, result in a change in the status quo

It turns out that people who set low goals or no goals tend not to accomplish much. On the other hand, people who do set goals not only get more done, they also tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives. In addition, people who set and achieve challenging goals increase their self-confidence and self-esteem.

Two factors that will greatly increase the likelihood of achieving a goal are:

  1. Knowing why you’re doing it.
  2. Making a commitment to doing it.
Knowing Why You’re Doing It

Knowing why you’re doing it means identifying how the goal relates to what’s most important to you. What are the things in life that really matter to you? Your goals should not be ends in themselves, but rather the means of having more of what you really want. If you know what you want, you can either hope those things will come your way or you can identify goals and take the necessary steps to help you get them.

Knowing why you’re doing it also means identifying your desired outcome. What is the change in your status quo that you expect to have as a result of achieving your goal? You need to identify your desired outcome so you’ll know what you’re aiming for and will be able to tell when you’ve arrived. Once you’ve done that, however, focus your attention on the steps it will take to get there—on the process. Focusing exclusively on the outcome will actually decrease the likelihood you’ll achieve your goal.

Making a Commitment to Doing It

There’s no point in putting time, effort, and energy into doing something half-heartedly or half-way. If you aren’t sure why you’re setting or working toward a goal, you’ll have a harder time making a commitment to achieving it.

Of course, making a commitment doesn’t mean you can see into the future and know what the outcome will be. There are no guarantees. But if you build escape clauses and wiggle room into your goals right from the start, you’re probably wasting your time. Once you know why you want to achieve a goal and have made a commitment to doing what it takes, these three steps can increase your chances of success:

  1. Write it down. Writing out your goal can help you clarify it and solidify your commitment.
  2. Make it SMART. That means Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
  3. Develop a plan. A plan consists of the action steps you need to take in order to achieve that specific state of affairs you are now committed to creating in your life.

A goal without a plan is just a wish. –Seth Adam Smith

Just Do It

If you know what you want and have an idea about how to create more of that in your life, you’re likely to find working toward your goals exciting rather than tedious. Of course you won’t be excited about every single step and you won’t be excited every minute of every day. No one is. That’s where having a plan—and a system of rewards—comes in handy. But if you discover you’re not passionate about your desired outcome, let go of the goal and find something else to work toward.

alphabet-changeThe best way to approach a goal is by breaking it down into manageable baby steps and rewarding yourself for each step you complete. Your brain is wired to work toward obtaining rewards, so you might as well take advantage of that. It’s also important to pay attention to feedback and adjust course as needed. There’s nothing in the definition of a goal that prevents you from being flexible or responding to new information or insights. After all, it’s your goal.

To summarize: if you want to change your status quo, which is what a goal is intended to do, you need to focus your conscious attention on completing the steps you’ve outlined until you’ve achieved it. Maintaining focus is not easy. It helps to have a plan that includes a means of measuring your results and rewarding yourself for your accomplishments. If you don’t get your brain to go along with your plan, your brain will get you to go along with its agenda. The unconscious part of your brain is much more interested in immediate gratification than it is in long-term satisfaction—which is why doing whatever you feel like doing in the moment is so appealing. Your brain is generally at the ready to divert your attention to any nearby bright, shiny objects. In the majority of cases, going with the flow is less a philosophical choice and more the path of least resistance of the unconscious part of your brain.

A knock against goals is that they limit you, which is true, but not having goals also limits you. You face limits no matter what you do because when you’re doing one thing, you can’t be doing something else at the same time. Trying to keep all your options open doesn’t enhance your life; it keeps you from living it.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

B is for Baby Steps


I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s excited about the idea of taking baby steps. Most of us want faster and bigger results. We want immediate gratification. We want to stop or start a habit in 21 days—preferably less. We want to overhaul entire areas of our lives by the end of the month. As soon as we think about something we want to accomplish—a project or a goal—we feel like we’re already behind schedule and disappointed it hasn’t yet come to fruition.

We’re impatient. And easily distracted. Not to mention overscheduled and stressed out.

Never mind that our unrealistic expectations keep producing the same unsatisfying results. Our inner voice insists we need to do—we should be able to do—so much more than take baby steps. Baby steps are just not enough.

Well, baby steps are more than enough. If you take them.

Go Back to Start. Do Not Pass Go.

Like most of us, you probably have a habit you’ve made more than a couple of unsuccessful attempts to change, maybe over a span of years or even decades. When you repeatedly try to change a habit (make a different choice) and fail, you don’t simply remain stuck in place. You actually end up worse off than you were before.

We tend to use our lack of success as evidence that there’s something wrong with us. Perhaps we have less willpower or self-control than other people. Or maybe we’re sabotaging ourselves. Or we don’t really want to change. We think the problem is us rather than the way we’re going about things.

The problem is that the more often you say you’re going to do something and don’t do it, the more you persuade your brain not to take you seriously when it comes to changing your behavior. Those multiple failed attempts reinforce the mental model your brain maintains. As a result, the status quo becomes even more entrenched, which makes it that much harder to change the next time you try.

Attempting to accomplish too much too soon is a recipe for failure because the chance of succeeding is miniscule at best. When you try to do too much or too many things at the same time, you’re giving yourself many opportunities to fail. Instead, you need to give yourself more opportunities to succeed.

Opportunities to Succeed

Taking baby steps puts you in a much better position to succeed. You can see your progress and build on your success. For one thing, it’s easier to take baby steps than it is to run sprints or leap tall buildings in a single bound. For another, it’s easier to add to the foundation you’ve built—no matter how close to the ground it may be—than it is to keep failing and having to start over again.

alphabet-changeIf you want to put a morning routine into place that includes a sequence of steps, pick one of them to start with. Don’t add anything else until the first one has become a habit. There’s no formula to determine how long it will take before a behavior becomes a habit. You’ll know when it happens because you’ll find yourself doing it automatically without having to remind yourself, and if you forget, a nagging inner voice will remind you to do it. Then you can add the second step. As you proceed building your routine, you’re likely to discover that it takes less and less time for the additional steps to fall into place.

If there’s a project you want to undertake that feels overwhelming, break it down into baby steps. When I was writing fiction many years ago, every time I sat down at my desk I felt like I was writing the entire novel. It was so daunting that I got very little writing done. So I decided I would fill two legal-pad pages every day, seven days a week. If I felt like writing more, I could, but two pages was something I could easily commit to.

Not only did those baby step lead to the accumulation of at least 14 pages each week, they also helped me turn writing every day into a habit.

If you want to develop a habit that involves doing something multiple times during the day, start out by creating an intention to do it once a day—or even every other day. Once you’ve succeeded with that, you can expand on it.

Dream Big. Take Baby Steps.

Lofty goals are great. But the way to achieve them is to break them down into manageable components and take one step at a time. The unconscious part of your brain resists change. When you attempt to make a big or an immediate change, it reacts by mobilizing forces to get things back on track. In fact, it responds the same way it does when your body experiences a sudden change, such as a drop in temperature, by trying to return it to homeostasis (the status quo).

If you want a new behavior to become status quo, you need to work up to it gradually without alarming your brain. Don’t give it anything to resist. The good news is that once your desired behavior does become status quo, your brain will work just as hard to maintain it as it did to maintain the previous status quo.

When you aim to do it all at once and miss the mark, you end up with nothing but a reinforced sense of ineffectiveness or inadequacy. But success breeds more success—and success is motivating. Learn to identify and take baby steps. It’s much easier than the alternatives—and it works.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.