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What can go wrong when you mistake targets for goals

And what you can do to better reach your goals


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Fergus McKeown

3 years ago | 3 min read

Setting goals is important. Whether it’s for growing a business or part of your personal development, goals help focus us on what is important. How to measure our growth is important as well.

I have always been a fan of reading. I’d read anything, fiction, history, poetry, biographies. I’d gobble up books on any topic that took my interest. But as I’ve begun working at a start-up that takes a lot of my time, as well as expanding my side hustle, I’ve had less and less time to read.

So, I set myself a goal. I would read more. I measured my reading by seeing how many books and pages I could read throughout the days, weeks, and months of 2019. For 2019 I wanted to read 24 books cover to cover, 2 per month. A modest amount, but something which I felt was a stretch without being off-putting.

I succeeded in reaching my target. By the beginning of August, I’d actually finished 25 books.

Do you know what happened then?

I stopped reading. I haven’t finished a book since then. I had achieved my goal. What else was there to do?

Well, in fact, I hadn’t fulfilled my goal. I reached the metric by which I was measuring my success toward a goal.

This is an important distinction which too often goes ignored. I wanted to read more, I measured my reading. When I reached my desired metric, I thought I had reached my goal. Reading finished. It did not work.

The problem was that I replaced my goal with the target.

Goodhart’s law is a famous economic adage.

‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.’

Companies often set up incentive schemes to push people to reach targets. They can lead to great successes.

Everyone can come up with examples of Goodhart’s law in action. At school, our targets were good grades though the goal was education. Rote memorization allowed us to pass tests, get good grades, but it might not be the best way to educate children.

One famous example comes from British India. The authorities in Delhi were concerned about the high number of venomous cobras. They put a bounty on dead snakes. People brought in hundreds of cobras. When they couldn’t catch them in the street, they began breeding them. When the government found out, they scrapped the bounty. All those cobra farmers let their snakes, now worthless, go. The result was a much higher number of cobras on the streets.

Goodhart’s law means that unintended consequences are more likely when we replace a goal with a target. There are some ways to combat this.

You must learn to recognize what is a goal and what is a target. Goals can often not be quantified. Targets make it easy to measure attainment of a goal, but they are not the goal.

Identify what you want to achieve. This can be phrased in very general terms. I wanted to read more, the Delhi administration wanted to make the streets safer.

Come up with tactics that help you achieve that goal. If you are looking to grow your customer base this could be posting on social media more often. You might then come up with a target of three posts on Instagram a day.

It might focus your mind on coming up with great posts that offer some real value to your audience. But quality could also suffer and turn people away if you are just posting things to reach your daily quota.

Don’t focus on what you do to reach the desired outcomes. Focus on the outcomes. I wanted to read more, I came up with a target of reading so many books. I choose shorter books to read. The outcome was replaced by the target.

Instead, I should have focused on enjoying reading. I used the target to focus my mind so that I would carve out time every day to read. My focus should have been on reading every day — not completing books.

Now, I’ve just carved out time for my reading. I’m not racing toward a target. But I am fulfilling my goa

In your life, both professional and personal, there are always goals we want to achieve. Be clear about what are the tactics you can adopt to reach those goals, instead of setting artificial targets to reach.

That way you won’t run afoul of Goodhart’s law.

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Fergus McKeown


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