Goal Factoring


I find it very difficult to strategically create long-term goals. Creating the goals is easy, but the key word here is “strategically”. Some of my goals include: - learn everything I can - save the world - create a work of art that might one day inspire someone - become a recognized concert pianist

At first glance, it’s hard to see the underlying theme behind these goals, and probably the reason of this is that no such theme exists. Optimizing my life to complete all of these goals is tricky - which should I attempt to do first? Is there some task that will accomplish all of them simultaneously? Without understanding why my brain wants the things it wants, any analysis on the topic is difficult. There’s a metaphor to real life here: you will often be surprised about the interactions of corporeal objects if you don’t understand the underlying physics.

Goal factoring is a technique that can help you solve the question “why do I want the things that I want?”. It will make you a happier person, and startle you with how much extra spare time you will be able to rustle up.

Getting Started

First, grab a pencil and a piece of paper (or, if you’re feeling fancy, yEd). At the top of the page, start by jotting down an activity you seem to spend a lot of time doing, but don’t particularly enjoy. My particular example was spending time on facebook.

Congratulations! You’re officially on your way to a more accurate mental model! Give yourself a high-five, and we’ll continue.

Below this activity, write down reasons why you engage in this activity, even though you don’t enjoy it. Things on my list were staying in touch with friends, maintaining a personal identity, performing social experiments and instant messaging, among others. Try to make this list as comprehensive as you can. Once you have as many things as you can think of, try the following thought experiment: imagine that you have completely cut this activity out of your life. Is there anything about it you miss? If so, jot it down! Draw arrows from your activity to all of the subgoals you have listed.

Turtles All the Way Down

Pick one of your subgoals, and think about all of the reasons you do that. Perform the same thought experiment, and write down more reasons. Pick a new sub-subgoal, and write down reasons you do that. I’m sure you get the picture.

After a while, you will get to goals that either don’t go anywhere, or loop around in circles forever. Don’t panic! This is good! What you’ve identified here is one (or a strange loop) of your terminal goals. Common terminal goals include social acceptance, happiness, family, love, survival. You know, those things that everybody wants. The things that seem good by their own virtue. You might want to indicate a terminal goal by shading it a different color or otherwise highlighting it, so that you can quickly find them later.

Now it’s time to unwind your stack. Go back up a level, and recurse down a different subgoal than the one you chose previously. Get back down to terminal goals (it’s okay if this goal has the same terminal values), and then choose a different subgoal to analyze. Repeat this process of up-and-down graph traversal, until your original activity is chalked full of nodes.

Great! There’s no more to do! We’re done, right?

Wrong. Now we pick a new activity, and factor that. It is likely that this goal will go much faster. I found that most of my high-level activities shared much of the same goal infrastructure after two or three metalevels. Complete this goal entirely, and then pick a new one.

Keep going until you run out of things that you do with your life. Then start picking things that you’d like to do (my being a recognized concert pianist for example). Figure out why you want to do these abstract, long term things. Make a note of whether or not these long term projects have the same form as the activities that you actually do. This will be important for the analysis later.

The Reconstruction

Now that your brain is fully mapped out in terms of goal structure, we can do something about it. Starting at one of your original activities, traverse goals downwards until you cross what I refer to as the “line of enjoyability”. This is the point where a goal lineage goes from being something you don’t like to something you do. My facebook example has a relatively high line of enjoyability - I don’t like spending time on facebook but I do like staying in touch with friends. The connection between these two nodes is where you have a problem in your goal structure.

Sit for a moment, and brainstorm better ways of accomplishing the goal you do enjoy, without having to do the part you don’t. For me this could be spend time with people in real life or make more phone calls to friends - both activities I’d enjoy more than the superficiality of social networking.

For extra style points, try to group several alike lines of enjoyability, and come up with one activity which would fix all of them.

After all of the lines of enjoyability below your activity have been taken care of, you don’t need to do that activity anymore. You can get all of the same benefits more efficiently out of your reworked plans, which means you have just created a block of spare time. A block of spare time where you used to be doing something that you didn’t like. It’s just like magic, really.


This section is still under progress.

Geoff Anders says that 10h worth of goal factoring should be sufficient to notice significant benefits from this technique, and that 50h should fully exhaust your mind of goal structure.


This section is still under progress.
TODO(sandy): Cite this properly


State how you want to get as abstract as possible, with examples.
Clarify about jotting down thought experiments.
Difference between wanting/having/feeling/trying.
How this can lead to self awareness.
Also things that you don’t dislike.

Connection Theory