How to Treat Your Goals as Experiments – and Why (13)

This is article is part of The 30-Day Challenge series. See all articles here.

There are many ways to think about success and work for it. Here’s a different perspective: treat your goal like an experiment!

How goals can be experiments

Think about how experiments work. Somebody has a hypothesis they want to test to see if it is true or false. So they design an experiment, conduct it, collect data and analyze it. Based on the results, they can tell if the initial hypothesis was right or wrong. Whatever the result it, they can go on and test a new hypothesis.

I think this is how we could – and maybe we should – approach our goals and the path to success. Your goal is your hypothesis. If you want to achieve something in a certain way, when working on that goal you are actually conducting an experiment. You are trying to see if your plan works. And if it doesn’t work, you can adjust your technique or change something until you reach your goal (the hypothesis is right) or you give up (the hypothesis is wrong).

Let’s take an easy example. Maybe your goal is to make a living from photography. You give yourself a deadline 6 months from now. So your hypothesis is “I can earn enough money to support myself by taking pictures of other people within 6 months”. Once you start working on your goal, you’re testing your goal and your method. If the initial method does not get you the results you want, you can try a new method and keep trying to reach your goal. That’s what it means to treat your goals as an experiment – whatever your goal is.

How to conduct your experiment

1. Formulate your hypothesis

Set your goal and express it as a hypothesis. Write it down using a formula like this one: “I want to see if I can achieve this goal in this way within this amount of time.” This will be the hypothesis you will be testing in the next weeks, months or years.

2. Define your methodology

Think about the ways you want to try to reach your goal. What tasks will you perform and how often? You should also decide how you will measure your progress. This way, you will be able to tell if you are on the right track or not even before reaching the deadline.

3. Perform the experiment

Work on your goal by following the plan you made in the previous steps. Do your best to perform the tasks that you think will lead to your success.

This is the stage where you actually test your hypothesis to see if it works. So do your best to implement your plan!

4. Measure your performance

As you keep working on your goal, regularly measure your performance and the results you are getting. Do you seem to be moving closer to your goal? Then you just need to keep working until you achieve your goal or until the deadline. If you do not seem to be making much progress, then perhaps your initial hypothesis is incorrect.

5. Analyze the data

Do this either after the deadline or whenever you think this is reasonable. If you are not making any progress even after weeks or months of dedicated hard work, you can stop the experiment and analyze your data. If it seems very unlikely that you will actually reach your goal, you can stop working on it. And if you do, the most important part is to look at the data you collected and interpret it to understand your experiment.

Ask yourself: what could have been the problem? Was I making progress at any point during the experiment? Have I made any mistake in implementing my plan? Did I do everything right?

Try to answer these questions (and others) as honestly as possible. The point of the experiment is to see if your plan is feasible. Therefore you need to discover the truth and understand the situation. Lying to yourself will not help. A good researcher will try to look at the data objectively because this is the best way to ensure future success.

If you analyze the data and you come to the conclusion that you did everything right, but you still have no or little chance of success, then your hypothesis is likely wrong. So you can stop the current experiment.

However, if you have failed to carry out your tasks, this means that your initial plan may be valid. You can resume the experiment and try to find better ways to do your part.

If you achieve your goal within the timeframe, this means that your hypothesis was correct. If you do not reach your goal, this means that your hypothesis is incorrect and you need to change it.

5. Adjust your plan

If you have not achieved your goal by the deadline, then think about your initial goal and make a different plan. Maybe you want to change just the method or maybe you want to test a different hypothesis (a different goal). That is up to you, but you need to change something. If you did your best and still did not achieve the planned outcome, move on and try something new.

This also applies if you assess your performance at some point before the deadline – but after you have given yourself a reasonable amount of time to make some progress.

If you assess your performance and realize that you are unlikely to reach your goal, perhaps you need to adjust your initial plan – or make a new plan entirely. I would recommend making a few adjustments first since this may be enough to help you achieve success.

After you adjust your plan – or make a new one – you’ll go back through all the phases again. Go through the first steps as many times as you need to until you reach your goals. Sometimes you may need to make adjustments and run several experiments until you find the way to reach your objective. Do this as much as you need to or as much as you want to. Setting goals and running experiments to see what works should not be a chore, but an exploration!

6. Celebrate and start again!

Congratulations! You have finally tested a hypothesis that was correct and you have achieved your initial goal! Whether you were right the first time or you needed a few trials to get it right, you should be proud of yourself! This is a good moment to celebrate.

After the celebration, you can also look back on the entire process and try to identify what worked and why. This will be useful data for your future experiments.

Now that you have achieved what you set out to do in the beginning and successfully conducted this experiment, you only need to do one last thing: come up with a new experiment!

Why should you treat your goals as experiments?

There are a few reasons why I think approaching your goals as experiments is better.

1. It encourages objectivity

When you think in terms of goals and success, you tend to get attached to your goal and your plan. While being invested in a goal is a great thing, being too attached to it may be counterintuitive. When you get so fixated on making your initial plan work, you may become too subjective to be able to tell what is wrong. Maybe you won’t want to admit that your plan isn’t working. Or you won’t want to observe what is standing in your way.

But if you treat your goal as a hypothesis and your plan as an experiment, you are more likely to be more objective. Your identity is not so attached to this goal or plan because you know it is just a trial. If it works, celebrate; if it doesn’t work, adjust and try again. I think that just a change of perspective and terms used can make a big difference!

2. You’ll feel less stressed and less guilty if it doesn’t work

If you set a goal and invest your time and energy in it, there is a chance that this goal will become part of your identity. So you are likely to come to a point where you need to make it work – otherwise your failed plans may reflect badly on your own identity. If you fail at pursuing your goals, you may feel guilty and believe that you are a loser.

This is much less likely to happen if you conduct experiments. Why? Well, by their nature experiments are likely to work or not. They can prove or disprove a theory. When researchers conduct experiments they care more about finding what is true than about getting certain results.

If you will start to think of your goals as experiments, you are likely to become more objective too. You know that even if you want to reach a certain goal, you will do this through experiments – testing your plans to see which work and which don’t.

When you know that failure may be as likely as success and you accept that, you will be much more relaxed. In the event of an unsuccessful experiment, you won’t feel as guilty. You did not fail. Your first plan did not produce the desired results. So you set a new plan and get back to work! You don’t necessarily have to give up on your plan, just make some adjustments!

I really think that this approach can take off a lot of pressure, anxiety and stress. Running experiments might encourage you to be more relaxed and, therefore, enjoy the process even more!

3. You’ll be more excited

Setting a goal is exciting in itself. But the initial excitement will fade in a matter of days or weeks. When you focus on a goal, the tendency is to think about the outcome, the finish line. And as the time goes by, the excitement might fade and the stress may increase.

However, if you plan to conduct experiments to see how you can achieve your goal, you may be more excited about the process. Thinking that there are many possibilities and that you’ll get to test several of them and see what works might make you feel more enthusiastic and creative.

By conducting experiments you’re also more focused on the how, the process and this might provide long-lasting enthusiasm.

Setting and pursuing goals will make your life more meaningful. And if you treat your goals as hypotheses you want to test and conduct experiments, this might help you work on your goal with more enthusiasm, more creativity and, I believe, more success.

I don’t know if I have managed to persuade you to run experiments in your life, but I hope I managed to at least encourage you to consider this. I am going to conduct several experiments in my life in 2020 and just thinking about in this way has already made a difference!

This article is part of The 30-Day Challenge series where I’ll share an article every day. I will mainly focus on goals, success and habits and I hope this series will help you have a higher chance of achieving your meaningful goals in 2020!

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