One Simple Tactic From the Stoics For Setting Better Goals

How do you set your goals? If you’re anything like the average goal-oriented person you likely have goals related to career, money, lifestyle or health. Goals such as earning a six figure salary, getting a promotion, moving to a nicer neighbourhood, or getting a washboard abs are all far too common amongst well intentioned goal-oriented people.

But is that the best way to go about setting your goals? To approach this question, I decided to turn to the ancient philosophers for advice. Specifically, the Stoics and their ideas surrounding the trichotomy of control. To give you some quick background, Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that gained prominence during the reign of the Romans and the Greeks. It’s a philosophy which offers practical advice on daily living, with a specific focus on living a virtuous life that leads to less suffering. It’s recently seen a resurgence in modern day culture — specifically places like Silicon Valley, thanks to people like Tim Ferriss & Ryan Holiday promoting the ideals and tenets of Stoicism.

One of the central ideas within Stoicism is the trichotomy of control. It’s a pretty simple idea, yet when implemented correctly can be incredibly powerful. As the name hints, the Stoics believed that control in our lives could be broken down into three buckets: things we have complete control over, things we have partial control over, and things which we have no control over. Within the context of setting goals, we’ll focus specifically on the bucket of things we have partial control over.

While some people would try to argue that you can accomplish all your personal goals through sheer force of will, the reality is that it can often be subject to the whims of external factors. Whether that be internal company politics, external forces within the market or even events in your personal life, all these have a strong influence on the outcome of achieving your goals.

So bearing that in mind, how did the Stoics recommend we deal with things we had partial control over? Their recommendation was that instead of setting external goals, we should strive towards setting internal goals — goals which we have a greater degree of control over accomplishing.

To give you some examples, imagine you’re an entrepreneur who is looking to raise some money. You could either set an external goal of “I want to raise $2M by the end of this quarter,” or you could focus on setting an internal goal such as “I’d like to meet with five new investors a week” or “I’d like to spend three hours a day on improving my pitch deck.” Another example could be someone wanting to get their PhD. Instead of focusing on the external goal of receiving a PhD diploma (Which has shown a 50% attrition rate), the person could set the goal of 4–5 hours of deep work a day, and other health related internal goals to prevent burnout.

The best internal goals are ones which you have a higher degree control over. In the entrepreneur example, meeting with five new investors a week is not fully within your control, in contrast, spending your time working on your deck would be.

When I first encountered the idea of trichotomy of control, it deeply resonated with me. For the majority of my life, I had set external goals which I would occasionally achieve, but more often than not, I either missed the mark or changed my mind on the goal, leading to inevitable frustration. I’m now more cognizant of setting internal goals and in fact, built out a tool specifically to address this issue.

The tool is a real-time personal dashboard for my life that aggregates and visualizes my personal data. The top view consists of three internal goals (my steps, focus time and unproductivity) along with a calendar showing me which days I hit or missed my internal goals. The rest of the page consists of a variety of pie, line and bar graphs which give me feedback on how I’m spending my time. To keep my internal goals top of mind, I have a raspberry pi hooked up to a TV monitor that displays these metrics, and throughout the day I’m able to glance to see how I’m doing.

Quantified Self Dashboard

Transitioning to this style of goal setting and implementing a feedback loop for these goals has led to a much happier and more productive life. Instead of stressing over whether I’m on track to meet some arbitrary external goal that I have partial control over, I can feel satisfied knowing I’ve spent another day where I completed the internal goals I set for myself.

While it’s tempting to set big hairy audacious external goals which can signal how ambitious you are, the more practical approach is to focus on setting internal goals. If in the process of achieving your internal goals you hit your external goals — fantastic! If not, it’s not an issue because you were able to achieve your own internal goals.

Let me know what you think in the comments below, how do you think about goal setting? Do you see the value of setting goals internally as opposed to externally?

 Data Scientist. I write about Data Science and other topics I find interesting