Positive and Negative Goals: Reframe the Goal for Success

Sometime ago when the startup I was working for went through a tough time, our VC gave me some sage advice: Stay focused on staying in the air and not on avoiding the trees. If a pilot is in distress and starts focusing on not crashing into the trees, the trees become the target. Our startup pulled out of  our circumstance, but this advice stuck with me.  But it doesn’t just apply to times of distress, it applies to all of our goals, particularly when we want to help one another.

In legal systems, there are two types of laws: positive laws which are prescriptive, requiring a specific action, and negative laws which prohibit a particular action. Goals can be categorized in the same way. A positive goal strives toward some better state. A negative goal strives to avoid falling into a worse one.

Negative law maximizes freedom because we can do everything except the prohibited action. To the contrary, negative goals by themselves lead us to only focus on what we are trying to avoid often leading to failure. We have a hard time not thinking about something  (e.g. st try not to think about a blue monkey). Fortunately, we can convert most negative goals into positive ones. Don’t eat dessert might instead become workout 30 minutes extra before eating dessert. A positive goal lets us focus on a critical behavior we need to carry out a longer term aspiration. This is true not only for our personal goals, but also for our work goals too. Moreover, it provides a much better platform for getting help from others.

This past week a good friend of mine and I wanted to do a better job managing our attention so we could get the right things done. Both of us generally get a lot done, but not always the most important thing. As a result we decided that we would work on trying two things:

  1. Planning out our day everyday
  2. Working on the #1 biggest priority as early in the day as we could.

Both of us had days where we got distracted and failed, but when we succeeded we both had great productive days.  Moreover,  it was encouraging and energizing to keep updated throughout the week with each others’ status.  Success bred success.

When we want others to keep us accountable, the nature of the goal makes a big difference. Accountability groups focused around negative goals often degrade into pity parties. Groups which instead focus on positive goals continue to encourage everyone on. Failure to reach perfection in a positive goal is simply a sign that we are still on the path.  Failing our negative goal, falling into that which we want to avoid, often causes us to simply feel like a failure.

How we shape our goals makes a big difference in our ability to accomplish them. How can you take some of your goals and make them positive and involve others to help you accomplish them?






2 responses to “Positive and Negative Goals: Reframe the Goal for Success”

  1. David Delp Avatar

    That is quite an endorsement. I can’t wait to hear how this all goes!

  2. […] my post about Positive and Negative Goals, I mentioned how groups should gather around positive goals as they are energizing. When we are […]

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