Action Planning and Goal Setting: III

III

 Actions must successfully lead to the goal. Since it is always unknown whether our actions will move us closer our end, we need to continually reassess both the goal and actions. But when should we reassess our aims? It seems utterly foolish to never reassess since our actions could have consistently failed to draw us any closer to our goal. Yet it seems unproductive, if not impossible, to continuously reassess our position after every action.

I think an optimal strategy for reassessment would be at milestones: points in our action plan that we judge (whether rightly or wrongly) to be strategically important for accomplishing our goal. We can call these milestones sub-goals, because they serve as short-term goals and are not ends in themselves. Sub goals contrast with our final end, that which we can call an ultimate goal, as (a) it should be an end in itself, and (b) no goal should succeed it.

Sub-goals are an important part of an action plan. A good sub-goal will have three attributes. First, a sub-goal will give the appearance of being an end in itself. That is, a sub-goal appears meaningful and does not just seem like an unnecessary grind or box to tick. Second, a sub-goal will be a strong motivation for an agent. This second attribute is generally a consequence of the first point. Third, a sub-goal should provide a clear and obvious path to the next goal (whether that goal is the next sub-goal or the ultimate goal itself).

Sub-goals should serve as necessary success points for an action plan. If you succeed on all sub-goals, one will (most likely) reach the ultimate goal. However, upon failing a sub-goal, according to the current action plan, there is no chance of arriving at the ultimate goal whatsoever. Since a sub-goal serves as a pivot point of an action plan, whether one succeeds or fails can change the course of the entire plan, or the abandoning of the ultimate goal itself.

So, the time in which we should assess our position is at the point of a sub-goal, whether we have succeeded or failing in achieving that goal.

As aforementioned, I described a sub-goal as having the appearance of being an end in itself, as opposed to an ultimate goal that actually is an end in itself. In the next post, I’m going to tease apart this difference, and explain how I conceptualize such a distinction and how distinguishing the difference between the two can help the construction of action plans themselves.

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Action Planning and Goal Setting: II

II

If a constraint of goal forming is that an aim must be within our power to accomplish, then we should think seriously about what actually is within our power and what is not. Prima facie, the things that constrain what is possible for us to bring about are imagination, luck, and resources.

By imagination, I mean our ability to find action plans that will bring about our goal. Many things have been taken to be out of our grasp. Going to the moon, for example, or the idea of a wireless connection accessible anywhere on the planet might be another. Or a machine that can compute high amounts of data in every home or pocket.

Our imagination limits our ability to see how we can achieve the goal. The inputs of our imagination seem to be knowledge and creativity. Knowledge of how the world is help us figure out how unlikely a goal is to be achieved, while our creativity helps fill in gaps where knowledge ends. For example, while going to the moon might have been thought a pipedream, those with enough knowledge can gauge how difficult achieving a moon landing could be and, given the end of knowledge, creativity picks up to figure out how to bridge the gap.

By luck, I mean those things outside of our constraints. For while creativity can form a plan to chart the unknowable, it is always an uncertain hypothesis until tested. And, that uncertainty is what we intuitively call ‘luck’. Getting a computer into every home was lucky because nothing like it had been done before. We cannot account for certain variables, but only do the best we can and hope our creativity got things right.

By resources, I mean the time, energy, knowledge, creativity, money, and other things required to achieve some goal. Knowledge of our resources allows us to make better, more calculated decisions about how we ought to approach a goal. Suppose you have a goal of producing a piece of software – you have to figure out how to produce it. Do you know how to code? If so, do you have time to do it? And, if ‘no’ to either question, is the goal still achievable given those resource constraints?

I imagine the relationship between imagination, luck and resources is recursive, with the action plan needing to be updated incrementally as the plan itself is implemented. Given a stage of an action plan, new information is added, resources are used, and those uncertainties have played themselves out. But a problem remains as to when we are to update an action plan and reassess our goal. In the next entry I want to consider one model of how action plans are updated and how goal assessment fits into that picture.

Action planning and Goal Setting: I

I

Since ending my thesis, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about the decision-making process. Specifically, the condition/s needed for there to be action, and what the relationship is between those conditions. Thus far, it seems to me a necessary conditions required for action are goals. A goal, it seems to me, is a desire to bring about of some state-of-affairs at a later time (that is, a time after the present).

Goal forming has certain constraints. First, it appears that goals need to be achievable by the agent, or agents, who form them. For example, a desire to travel beyond our solar system would be better described as a hope or a dream, rather than a goal. Second, goals are future orientated projects; goals can’t be aimed at a past time or present moment. If I desired that I had eaten a salad instead of a burger, such a desire could not be described as a goal, but rather a regret. With such constraints in mind, it doesn’t even seem we can rationally conceive of forming such goals (or even maintaining them).

If the above is right, then actions require aims that are (a) future orientated and (b) are within the agents own power to bring about (i.e., a goal). And action planning is just forming a series of actions that bring about the aimed for state-of-affairs (i.e., a goal).

This means, according to my view, that actions aren’t possible unless there is some goal in mind. Goals give our actions meaning – they give us a reason to act and justify our actions not just in our own minds, but others too. Goals help us constrain the possibly infinite set of actions we could take. For example, if I form the goal to eat a salad, then (if I am to act rationally, i.e., actions that will achieve the goal) I make all non-salad eating actions non-possible. Only actions that will result in eating a salad will be open to me. And being a creature of finite resources, I’ll form an action plan that results the shortest number of actions to achieve my goal. Goals are a necessary condition for the occurrence of all actions between the present moment and all times prior to the goal.

One interesting observation in all this is the relationship between goals, action, and time. We could summarize such an observation as: to move forward, we need to plan backward. What does this mean? I have already explained how goals help direct our actions in the future (i.e., moving forward). But to know how to act requires forming a goal and then figuring out how to achieve it. To do so, it seems, requiring working out actions in reverse order; the step leading to the goal, the step before that step, etc. (i.e., plan backward).

The past, then, cannot guide our actions but only constrain possibilities. Just because in the past Jane played football does not mean she must continue to do so. However, what Jane is capable of achieving will be limited due to the large quantity of resources (e.g., time, energy, etc.) she dedicated to football. We are limited by our past but not held hostage by it.