Goal Setting Is a Hamster Wheel. Learn to Set Systems Instead.
Goal setting is a hamster wheel, says Adam Alter. If you want to channel your best work and get off the failure circuit, set systems instead.
Adam Alter is an Associate Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, with an affiliated appointment in the New York University Psychology Department.
Adam is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, which examines how features of the world shape our thoughts and feelings beyond our control. He has also written for the New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, WIRED, Slate, Huffington Post, and Popular Science, among other publications. Adam has shared his ideas at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, and with dozens of companies, including Google, Microsoft, Anheuser Busch, Prudential, and Fidelity, and with several design and ad agencies around the world. He is working on his second book, which asks why so many people today are addicted to so many behaviors, from incessant smart phone and internet usage to video game playing and online shopping.
Adam’s academic research focuses on judgment and decision-making and social psychology, with a particular interest in the sometimes surprising effects of subtle cues in the environment on human cognition and behavior. His research has been published widely in academic journals, and featured in dozens of TV, radio and print outlets around the world.
He received his Bachelor of Science (Honors Class 1, University Medal) in Psychology from the University of New South Wales and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Psychology from Princeton University, where he held the Charlotte Elizabeth Procter Honorific Dissertation Fellowship and a Fellowship in the Woodrow Wilson Society of Scholars.
Adam Alter: Goal setting is fascinating because it's sort of a broken process in many respects. This is the way a goal works: You say to yourself, “When I achieve (whatever the thing is), that's how I'll know I'll have succeeded, and I'm going to do everything I can to get to that point as quickly as possible.” What that means is you exist in a failure state for a long time until you reach that goal, if it's a long-range goal. And so as you evaluate your process all you get is the negative feedback of not having achieved that goal. Perhaps as you move closer to it there's some positive feedback, but if the goal is really the end state that you're seeking out, there's a lot of failure before you get there. And now here's the thing: when you do get there it's a massive anti-climax.
So there are people who achieve the highest highs; people who achieve the highest highs in athletics, in business, and if you talk to them and you ask them to describe what it's like to reach their goals they say things like, “I got there and it was an incredible anti-climax. The minute I got there I had to start something new, I had to find a new goal.” And that's partly because there's something really unsatisfying about the moment of reaching the goal. Unless it has its own benefits that come from reaching the goal, if it's just a sort of signpost; that doesn't do much for us, it doesn't nourish us psychologically. And what that ends up meaning is that we have to try to find something new.
So really if you look at life as a series of goals, which for many of us it is, it's a period of being unsuccessful in achieving the goal, then hitting the goal, then feeling like you haven't really got much from that goal, going to the next one—and it's a sort of series of escalating goals.
A really good example of this is, say, smart watches or Fitbits or exercise watches. People, when they get those watches, a lot of them hit on the number 10,000. “I want to walk 10,000 steps.” When you do that, the thing will beep; you'll feel pretty good about it for a minute but then that feels a little hollow and the goal escalates over time. People will describe going from 10 to 11 to 12 to 14,000 steps to the point where they're moving through injuries, through stress-related injuries, because the goal is there; they respond to the goal more than they do to their internal cues, and basically there's something really unfulfilling about that.
The reason the goal keeps escalating and becoming more and more intense is because when they achieve the goal they don't actually get anything for that achievement, and so goals, generally I think, are in many ways broken processes.
I think part of the problem with goals is that they don't tell you how to get to where you're going. A better thing to do is to use a system. So the idea behind a system rather than a goal is that a system is saying things like, “I’m a writer, my goal is to finish writing this book but I'm not going to think about it in that way. Eventually I'll have 100,000 words, but my system will be that for an hour every morning I will sit in front of my computer screen and I will type. It doesn't matter what that looks like. I'm not going to evaluate the number of words. I'm not going to set some benchmark, some artificial number or benchmark that I should reach, what I'm going to do is just say, 'Here's my system: an hour a day in front of the screen. I'll do what I can—bam.'”
And the thing is, every time you set a system and you stick to it, you're achieving something. Instead of a goal that you're failing at, essentially, for long periods of time until you reach the goal, you're succeeding every day as long as you adhere to your system. And you end up getting to the same place but that framing is so much more effective. It gives you the kind of positive feedback you seek and the system is kind of geared towards psychological well-being: this is the thing I need to do to feel good about the way I’m moving through the world, towards whatever end state I'm looking for.
Goals don't do that. They just set signposts that you're supposed to look at from afar and move towards. Systems are a much more useful way of engaging with the world towards certain ends and certain outcomes.
You've just achieved a goal you've been working towards for two years. You did it! Congratulations. Someone asks you: how does it feel? "Kind of anti-climactic, actually," you say. This scenario is quite common among those who have achieved even the highest benchmarks in business, athletics, or art, says Adam Alter, and it's because the goal setting process is broken. With long-term goals particularly, you spend the large majority of the time in a failure state, awaiting what could be a mere second of success down the track. This can be a hollow and unrewarding process. Describing an idea first proposed by Scott Adams in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Alter suggests swapping quantitative goals (I will write 1,000 words of my novel per day. I will run 1km further every week) for qualitative systems—like writing every morning with no word target, or running in a new environment each week—that nourish you psychologically, and are independently rewarding each time you do them. Adam Alter is the author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.
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A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.
- Private prisons in Mississippi tend to hold prisoners 90 days longer than public ones.
- The extra days eat up half of the expected cost savings of a private prison.
- The study leaves several open questions, such as what affect these extra days have on recidivism rates.
The United States of America, land of the free, is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. The cost of having so many people in the penal system adds up to $80 billion per year, more than three times the budget for NASA. This massive system exploded in size relatively recently, with the prison population increasing by six-fold in the last four decades.
Ten percent of these prisoners are kept in private prisons, which are owned and operated for the sake of profit by contractors. In theory, these operations cost less than public prisons and jails, and states can save money by contracting them to incarcerate people. They have a long history in the United States and are used in many other countries as well.
However, despite the pervasiveness of private contractors in the American prison system, there is not much research into how well they live up to their promise to provide similar services at a lower cost to the state. The little research that is available often encounters difficulties in trying to compare the costs and benefits of facilities with vastly different operations and occasionally produces results suggesting there are few benefits to privatization.
A new study by Dr. Anita Mukherjee and published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy joins the debate with a robust consideration of the costs and benefits of private prisons. Its findings suggest that some private prisons keep people incarcerated longer and save less money than advertised.
The study focuses on prisons in Mississippi. Despite its comparatively high rate of incarceration, Mississippi's prison system is very similar to that of other states that also use private prisons. Demographically, its system is representative of the rest of the U.S. prison system, and its inmates are sentenced for similar amounts of time.
The state attempts to get the most out of its privatization efforts, as a 1994 law requires all contracts for private prisons in Mississippi to provide at least a 10 percent cost savings over public prisons while providing similar services. As a result, the state seeks to maximize its savings by sending prisoners to private institutions first if space if available.
While public and private prisons in Mississippi are quite similar, there are a few differences that allow for the possibility of cost savings by private operators — not the least of which is that the guards are paid 30 percent less and have fewer benefits than their publicly employed counterparts.
The results of privatization
The graph depicts the likelihood of release for public (dotted line) vs. private (solid line) prison inmates. At every level of time served, public prisoners were more likely to be released than private prisoners.Dr. Anita Mukherjee
The study relied on administrative records of the Mississippi prison system between 1996 and 2013. The data included information on prisoner demographics, the crimes committed, sentence lengths, time served, infractions while incarcerated, and prisoner relocation while in the system, including between public and private jails. For this study, the sample examined was limited to those serving between one and six years and those who served at least a quarter of their sentence. This created a primary sample of 26,563 bookings.
Analysis revealed that prisoners in private prisons were behind bars for four to seven percent longer than those in public prisons, which translates to roughly 85 to 90 extra days per prisoner. This is, in part, because those in private prison serve a greater portion of their sentences (73 percent) than those in public institutions (70 percent).
This in turn might be due to the much higher infraction rate in private prisons compared to public ones. While only 18 percent of prisoners in a public prison commit an infraction, such as disobeying a guard or possessing contraband, the number jumps to 46 percent in a private prison. Infractions can reduce the probability of early release or cause time to be added to a sentence.
It's unclear why there are so many more infractions in private prisons. Dr. Mukherjee suggests it could be the result of "harsher prison conditions in private prisons," better monitoring techniques, incentives to report more of them to the state before contract renewals, or even a lackadaisical attitude on the part of public prison employees.
What does all this cost Mississippi?
The extra time served eats 48 percent of the cost savings of keeping prisoners in a private facility. For example, it costs about $135,000 to house a prisoner in a private prison for three years and $150,000 in the public system. But longer stays in private prisons reduce the savings from $15,000 to only $7,800.
As Dr. Mukherjee remarks, this cost is also just the finance. Some things are a little harder to measure:
"There are, of course, other costs that are difficult to quantify — e.g., the cost of injustice to society (if private prison inmates systematically serve more time), the inmate's individual value of freedom, and impacts of the additional incarceration on future employment. Abrams and Rohlfs (2011) estimates a prisoner's value of freedom for 90 days at about $1,100 using experimental variation in bail setting. Mueller-Smith (2017) estimates that 90 days of marginal incarceration costs about $15,000 in reduced wages and increased reliance on welfare. If these social costs were to exceed $7,800 in the example stated, private prisons would no longer offer a bargain in terms of welfare-adjusted cost savings."
It is possible that the extra time in jail provides benefits that counter these costs, such as a reduced recidivism rate, but this proved difficult to determine. Though it was not statistically significant, there was some evidence that the added time actually increased the rate of recidivism. If that's true, then private prisons could be counterproductive.
A new study finds an unusual genetic difference in people over 105.
- Researchers conduct genetic analyses of 81 Italian people who are over 105 years in age.
- Five unusual genetic differences were discovered.
- The differences are implicated in the routine repair of DNA, which seems to work unusually well in these people.
The oldest living person is Kane Tanaka of Fukuoka, Japan, who just celebrated her 116th birthday. The handful of people who live to be 105 years old or older are called "semi-supercentenarians." (Supercentenarians live to the ripe old age of 110 or older.)
New research, published in the Aging, Geroscience and Longevity: A Special Issue of the journal eLife, examines the genomes of semi-supercentenarians and has discovered what may be the key to their unusually long lives: Their DNA is exceptionally good at repairing itself.
People involved in the study
Men play cards in Martina Franca, ItalyCredit: sabino.parente via Adobe Stock
The researchers recruited 81 volunteers for genetic analysis from across Italy. Some participants were semi-supercentenarians and others were supercentenarians. Researchers compared the genetic makeup of the older volunteers with those of 36 healthy people from the same areas who were 68 years old, plus or minus 5.9 years.
"Aging is a common risk factor for several chronic diseases and conditions. We chose to study the genetics of a group of people who lived beyond 105 years old and compare them with a group of younger adults from the same area in Italy, as people in this younger age group tend to avoid many age-related diseases and therefore represent the best example of healthy aging."
The authors of the study collected blood samples from both groups and conducted whole-genome sequencing. Additionally, they compared their findings with the conclusions drawn in previously published research describing the genetic makeup of 333 Italian people older than 100 years and 358 who were approximately 60 years old.
Co-first author of the new research Massimo Delledonne of the University of Verona said, "This study constitutes the first whole-genome sequencing of extreme longevity at high coverage that allowed us to look at both inherited and naturally occurring genetic changes in older people."
It's all in the genes
In the semi-supercentenarians and some supercentenarians, the researchers discovered five unusual genetic changes that were often present in two genes, COA1 and STK17A, data that was consistent with the previous research.
Most intriguing, the genetic variations appear to be linked to increased activity of the STK17A gene in some tissues, a gene involved in three critical cell repair activities: managing cells' response to DNA damage, prompting badly damaged cells to die off, and controlling the amount of dangerous reactive oxygen species in a cell. Cells unable to perform these types of repair activities are more likely to become cancerous.
The COA1 gene is involved with energy production by promoting communication between the cell nucleus and mitochondria. The researchers believe that the genetic variants they detected reduce the level of COA1 activity, which in turn reduces energy production as well as aging. (One of the leading theories of aging is that energy production produces reactive oxygen species that damage cells and promote aging.)
Finally, the researchers noted that the genetic variants they identified are also linked to increased expression of he BLVRA gene in some tissue. This gene is also involved in the elimination of dangerous reactive oxygen species.
"Our results suggest that DNA repair mechanisms and a low burden of mutations in specific genes are two central mechanisms that have protected people who have reached extreme longevity from age-related diseases."
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
How do archaeologists know if someone was buried intentionally tens of thousands of years ago?
- The oldest known burial ritual in Africa has been discovered on the coast of Kenya.
- A small child appears to have been buried intentionally in a cave 78,000 years ago.
- This new research offers insights into ancient funerary practices.
How did the emergence of Homo sapiens affect ideas around death? What legacies have been passed down from ancient times? And can these give us insights into the origins of our current rituals around dying?
Possible answers to these questions could be derived from a new study in Nature, led by María Martinón-Torres of the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain. It focuses on a two- to three-year-old child found buried in a Kenyan cave roughly 78,000 years ago. While this isn't the oldest burial grounds for Homo sapiens — to date, that is in Israel — this new discovery of a seemingly intentional burial offers insights into the evolution of how humans treated death.
The dearth of excavation sites in Africa has made studying ancient funerary practices difficult. The remains of this young child were discovered in a pit in the Panga ya Saidi cave site located in a tropical region of coastal Kenya. Taphonomic evidence, which examines the process of fossilization, suggested that the child was intentionally placed in a flexed position (sort of curled up like a ball) in the burial pit.
The burial of Mtoto
The original excavation of this pit took place in 2013. By 2017, archaeologists dug into Middle Stone Age (MSA) layers, uncovering the partial skeleton of the child. The poorly preserved bone fragments were plastered and transported for laboratory analysis, first to the National Museums of Kenya and then onto Burgos, where Martinón-Torres and her team began their work.Besides the seemingly deliberate position of the body, the team noticed a few clues that suggested the child was swaddled in cloth, possibly with the intention of preserving the corpse. They also speculate the body was placed in a cave fissure — known as funerary caching — before being covered with sediment.
Plan view of the 2017 excavation next to a superimposed image of Mtoto to better depict the position of the child.Courtesy of Nature.
The child, who they named Mtoto, appears to have been intentionally buried. The authors reached this conclusion based on: the identification of a clearly dug pit; evidence that discriminates the burial fill from the surrounding layers; the completeness and integrity of the skeleton; the body's tightly flexed position; and the notable differences between the child's remains and the remains of animals in the same layer.
Other burial sites
Two earlier excavations in Taramsa, Egypt and Border Cave, South Africa were similar to the one in this Kenyan cave. However, the Panga ya Saidi remains appear to predate the Egyptian ones by 10,000 years and the South African ones by 4,000 years. Taken together, the team writes that these three digs reveal important insights in the funerary practices of our ancestors.
"The [Panga ya Saidi] child, in combination with the infant burial from Border Cave and the funerary caching of a juvenile at Taramsa, suggests that H. sapiens populations were intentionally preserving the corpses of young members of their groups between about 78 and 69 [thousand years]. Before 78 [thousand years], we know of no unambiguous burials of modern humans in Africa, despite the fact that earlier [Middle Stone Age] populations demonstrate sophisticated forms of symbolic expression."
The researchers are excited to have made headway on the cradle of civilization — a continent that rarely gives up its secrets. While researchers have discovered symbolic representations in Africa dating back at least 320,000 years, these new insights into death rituals are important for understanding the evolution of human consciousness, as well as how we view mortality.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."