Kurt's Blog

July 5, 2010

Values, decisions & goals.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Kurt Häusler @ 7:53 am

Over the years I have developed a system for making decisions that seems to differ from what most people appear to universally recommend. I have tried to set far off goals, and make decisions according those goals, and achieved those goals. But most of the time, by the time I reached the goal, I discovered it was not what I wanted, and I found that in pursuing the goal, and using the pursuit of the goal as a basis for my decision making, I contradicted my principles and values. Many aspects of goal-setting raised a lot of questions:

  • How can I determine which of the choices relevant to the decision I am currently making bring me closer to my goal?
  • How do I ensure the goal I have set will still be appropriate once I reach it?
  • How do I identify suitable goals at the time I select them?
  • How can I evaluate and improve the process I use to map the goals to the choices I make?
  • How do I resolve conflicts between the choices that a goal-focussed decision leads to, and my principles and values?
  • If I do change my goal, how do I avoid heading aimlessly in many different directions and effectively staying in one place?
  • If a decision I made, expecting it to move me closer to a goal, actually made me further away from a goal, what do I change? Do I change the goal? Assuming I don’t change the goal, what exactly was wrong, and what do I need to modify to ensure I don’t make the same mistake twice? What did I learn, and where does that learned knowledge belong in the system?

I noticed a few things too:

  • Goals don’t work magically. You are not automatically pulled towards them just by selecting them and writing them down.
  • They are hardly ever relevant. They are only relevant at those few isolated, specific moments where you are making a choice that can potentially move you closer to that goal. They are far too sporadically relevant to form the basis of a decision making strategy.
  • Goals impede discovery. To make a goal it has to be something we are aware of, by focusing on things we already know and are aware of we are less likely to discover new things that we didn’t even know about.
  • Goals are extrinsic rewards, like a prize to march towards and finally enjoy despite not enjoying the actual march. It seems as though motivation theory is de-emphasizing extrinsic motivation in favour of more intrinsic rewards, at least in the category of activities I tend to engage in. It is generally expected that extrinsic motivated leads to suboptimal decision making and problem solving, and other disadvantages such as less collaboration and acceptance of help.

In the process of answering the above questions, I noticed that any decision making system has a lot more components than just goals and choices. In order of importance for me, the components of my decision making system are:

  • Values. Where goals try to pull someone along from far off ahead, like a horse in front of a carriage, values come from within and push the individual in a certain direction, like an engine. They are fairly vague, generic indicators of what makes us who we are at a fundamental level.
  • Principles. Principles link values to concrete choices. They can be vague and general, or fairly concrete and specific. They should provide a fairly strong test indicating which of a selection of choices is mostly aligned to our values.
  • Constraints. Constraints are the other main component of decision making. Often relentlessly making decisions based on our values can be as difficult or problematic as relentlessly basing them on far off goals. They provide limits to the scope of both the factors and the outcomes of the decision. Sometimes they are imposed externally, and sometimes we may impose them on ourselves. They are not really a bad thing. Constraints provide a stabilising effect, and working within constraints boosts creativity. I see them like road barriers. They may seem to restrict where we can go, and what we can do, but they also provide a guide to some future destination, and prevent us getting stuck off-road.
  • Decisions. These are the points where we select an option from a set of choices. In a goal-chasing centred approach, we attempt to make a choice that moves us closer to the goal. In a values-driven approach we use principles to select the choice most closely aligned with our values. I suppose choices, and actions are also components of the system but I will lump them under decisions for now.
  • Reflection. I incorporate the classic PDCA cycle in my decision making process. Some sort of criteria is required that we can compare with our current situation after using this approach to make and act on decisions. A hybrid approach could use goals here. They could compare where they are with their goal, and if they are moved further away from their goal they should modify their system so future decisions have a more desired outcome. I find this approach has a few advantages but suffers from many of the disadvantages of the goal-chasing. I find the best evaluation criteria to be my emotions. While the system described up till now utilizes our logical, rational facilities, we should not ignore that we are primarily emotional creatures, and I believe in using the power of emotions alongside logic and rationality together to exploit the best of both approaches. I simply evaluate the position acting on the outcomes of decisions has led me too by how I feel about it. If it feels right, I reinforce the the factors of the decision making process. If things do not feel right, I work backwards, and try and perform thought experiments on how things would work with different constraints, different principles, or different values. What I learn from this process can be embodied in changes to those constraints, principles or values. I guess if I have to be more specific, I evaluate how motivated I feel. If I am highly motivated I assume my values are pushing me along the right path, if not, I try and find out why and correct things.

So I think my value-driven approach answers those questions that goal-chasing raised.

  • By building up a strong set of principles, we can almost immediately know which of the possible choices matches our value-system the best.
  • By making decisions based on values we might not know where we will end up, but we can be pretty sure that where we end up, and what we achieve, is probably going to be a place that is appropriate for us. It is likely to at least be better than some goal we set in the past, based on what we knew then about what might be appropriate for us in the future, and we won’t be restricted to just those things that goal-chasers are aware of when they set their goals.
  • The true factors of decision making, values, principles and constraints, are concrete places to store the knowledge gained while reflecting on the how we feel about the outcome of value-driven decision making.
  • It leverages intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic, ensuring that we have an enjoyable journey towards hopefully enjoyable points along the way, rather than a hard slog between a series of sporadic enjoyable goals.

Use goals as a planning and scheduling tool rather than a decision making tool.

Goals however still have a place for me. Mostly as a planning and scheduling tool however. When my values have led me start some endeavour, or some task must be performed, perhaps required by an employer or course of study, then I can set the completion of that endeavour as a goal. It must satisfy certain criteria however.

  • Progress towards and completion of the goal must be quantifiable in concrete units.
  • There must be a start date, and an end date.
  • At any point in time it should be possible to say exactly how far I have come towards reaching that goal.
  • Given a chunk of time on any day, I should be able to make concrete progress towards that goal, which implies:
  • Autonomy. It must be mostly up to my time and effort alone to move closer towards the goal. Things that are too dependant on factors I cannot control are unsuitable goals. Progress towards the goal must be a direct consequence of my effort rather than a potential indirect outcome of my effort.


  1. Great post. In both individuals and organizations, I’ve seen the chasing of extrinsic goals result in lack of motivation and eventually lack of productivity. Setting organizational values is somewhat more challenging than setting individual values.

    Comment by Maritza — July 5, 2010 @ 9:01 am

  2. […] Values, decisions & goals. (kurthaeusler.wordpress.com) […]

    Pingback by Being Value Oriented, Monitoring and Evaluating Personal Progress to identify the miraculous | HaMob — May 7, 2011 @ 7:33 am

  3. I concur with you on that values are an internal power always present in us, whereas goals are outside forces that require our energy to pull towards us.

    Comment by kri1987s — May 7, 2011 @ 7:40 am

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