Goals vs. Wants

You may wonder why I have chosen this topic for my blog.  As I have said previously, my brother is an accomplished cognitive behavioral psychologist (CBP) who shares his observations and thoughts with me. Because so much about recovery relates to change and one’s ability to set realistic and positive goals, I have chosen to discuss this topic.  I think as you read this, you will begin to see the connection.  How a person perceives and sets a goal has a major influence on how he or she will achieve or not achieve that goal. It really is quite fascinating.  Here goes.

What are goals?  What does it mean to have a goal?  Where do you begin? I think of a goal as some kind of desired outcome and it generally is something I want to accomplish (e.g’.complete a degree or run a marathon) or have (e.g. a better job or a better attitude).  Obstacles are the things that stand in my way to obtaining my goal and could be anything from money to time.  How I respond to my goal-related obstacles is called ‘coping’ and it can be highly effective or not.  Here are a few other concepts that will contribute to my success: well-being or how I like myself and the life I am leading; mindset or problem-solving mindset is how I experience my goal related obstacles; motivation is the energy or lack of energy I display in my problem-solving efforts; action plans are the actual steps I intend to take towards achieving my goal.  It’s essential that an action plan is both realistic and healthy and that I am capable of modifying it as needed.  I will need to monitor my program and have a plan to overcome the inevitable challenges I will likely face as I try to achieve my goal. I will definitely need to develop some strategies to assist me on my venture.

First of all, I need to set a goal that is both healthy and realistic.  I am not going to be an opera star any time soon.  The truth is that an unrealistic goal can never be a healthy goal; by nature it is an exercise in defeat.  But what else defines a healthy goal?  A healthy goal is connected to well-being so the first question I need to ask is how will my goal effect my feelings about myself, my feelings about my life and my mood? I can ask this question in reverse.  How will NOT achieving my goal effect these same measures?  Who will determine if my goal is achieved?  This is called the locus of control (LOC).  Will I decide I have reached my goal or will someone else decide I have reached my goal?  If I have a goal to be chosen as a starter on my soccer team then the coach gets to decide if I have reached my goal. The idea is to identify a goal where I have the LOC, a goal that I determine such as mastering specific soccer skills that will improve my game. This is not to say that I won’t face outcomes that are determined by others, e.g. getting accepted to a graduate program. But if my goals focus on my own behavior (complete assignments, keep a GPA needed for graduate school, set up a schedule to study for a pre-graduate exam, etc.) then I am able to set the stage for future opportunities such as getting into the graduate program of my choice.

I need to think about any and all likely obstacles I will face. Some will be external while others will be internal.  Are the obstacles mainly within me or are they mostly within the goal? In some cases they are mostly in the goal: I want to win a Nobel Peace Prize.  Not many people have accomplished that goal.  I want to fly a hot air balloon around the world. Ditto.  If few people can accomplish the goal then most of the obstacles are within the goal itself.  But if many people can accomplish the goal (lose 20 pounds., quit smoking, run a marathon) then most of the obstacles are internal. Identifying the internal obstacles is a key to  success. I not only need to identify them, I need to correctly interpret them and that involves my mindset.  Do I see a goal as unfair?  If yes, then I am verging on seeing it as insurmountable which can lead me to “here’s why it won’t work.”  If I see an obstacle as challenging but fair it will lead me to thoughts of “I’m not afraid of pursuing a meaningful goal even if it is difficult.”  The first mindset is a Can’t Do Mindset and the latter is a Can Do Mindset. I have often given advice to people in the Can’t Do Mindset where they tell me their troubles and I make suggestions and they tell me why none of those suggestions will work. To sum it up, how I identify my obstacles, how I view them and describe them will be extremely important in how I address them.

Obviously I need to avoid a Can’t Do Mindset. However, pursuing goals invites uncertainty; there is no guarantee that I will succeed.  Taking a deep breath and keeping the faith might be in order. Here are four things I need to consider.  The first is Mastery, my ability to handle any goal-related obstacle. The second is Resilience, my tolerance for discomfort.  The third is Initiation, my ability to get off the couch and get started.  The fourth is Persistence, my commitment to keep at it.

Before I get started, maybe I need to spend a bit of time thinking about my past pattern of coping or my coping style. Actually two types of coping have been identified in the literature: Approach Coping and Avoidant Coping. They are pretty self-explanatory.  The first is to confront problems head on and the second is to sidestep problems.  I’ve probably been engaged in both types depending on what is involved. A sizable subset of the Avoidant Coping is centered around activities that make us feel better in the moment (drug/alcohol intake, binge eating, shopping, computer games, Netflix marathon or anything that keeps us in continual distraction). It’s not that these activities don’t work, they do make us feel better but only in the moment. Unfortunately that they don’t address the underlying problem. Makes sense.

Mixed up in all of this is understanding the difference between goals and wants.  Goals typically require significant effort up front and are likely to be achieved later rather than sooner. Wants are the opposite.  Wants generally offer immediate comfort and require little effort.  A goal would be to lose weight, a want would be to eat a second helping of mashed potatoes.  Wants follow the pleasure principle: feel good, avoid pain.  It runs on autopilot and is hard wired into our brains. Wants have a lot of clout at the decision-making table and can cause goals to self-destruct before our very eyes. Here is how my brother explains it:

So, how is it that our wants triumph over our goals so readily?  Well, wants have several major advantages over goals: 1) they are immediately rewarding (my goal is to be drug free, but getting high would feel great right now); 2) they do not involve getting out of our comfort zone (my goal is to overcome my social anxiety, but talking to people makes me nervous); 3) they require minimal effort (watching Netflix is a lot easier than hitting the gym); and 4) because wants fit our mood in the moment, they are almost guaranteed to satisfy (I wanted some comfort food and I am thoroughly enjoying my quart of Häagen-Dazs).

He also points out that Wants pretty much offer certainty of an outcome: taking this drug will alleviate a drug craving.  Yes it will. Wants fit our mood and that is why they are so satisfying.  Goals, on the other hand offer no such certainties. Going to the gym doesn’t guarantee that you will meet your fitness goals, studying hard does not guarantee that you will pass the test, etc. Often the behaviors we need to reach our goals are anything but comfortable and they are not rewarding in the moment.

This has been a brief overview but I think it is important to understand what is involved when any person attempts to change behavior, whether it is ourselves as parents of addicts or the addict who is trying to stay sober.  We live in a world that does little to support our efforts towards achieving goals and everything to satisfy our immediate wants. We almost never need to step out of our comfort zone in our day to day lives. Satisfying wants doesn’t address the underlying problem and the underlying problem isn’t going away, instead it is growing.  In my next blog I am going to talk about action plans and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.  It is often recommended for addicts.  When you read it, you will see why!

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