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How Many Goals is Too Many Goals?

I talk to my friends and colleagues about behavioural science, a lot. This is likely hardly surprising to anyone involved, given that I am, and most of my friends are, behavioural scientists, in some capacity or other. One of the most interesting aspects of behavioural science (to us) is behavioural change. And because we’re all young, high on energy and delusional at the best of times, we love to set ourselves a good challenge. One challenge that has “recently” gone viral is the 75 hard challenge. As far as challenges go, it’s not too difficult to understand. It has 5 basic rules:

  1. Follow a diet. There’s no specification of what a diet constitutes by the challenge’s creator (Frisella) but you can’t have alcohol or “cheat meals”.

  2. Work out twice a day for at least 45 minutes. One indoor and one outdoor session.

  3. Drink 4 liters of water per day.

  4. Read 10 pages of nonfiction a day (essentially educational or self-help reads).

  5. Take a 5-minute cold shower.

An additional sixth rule to add is that you should take progress photos every day. But honestly, compared to the rest that’s hardly a rule... The thing that throws me about this challenge is that it’s not marketed as a diet or fitness challenge (how?!). It’s a “mental toughness” challenge. Ok then… If you were to break this down as a behavioural scientist, you could argue that the first 3 rules reside solely in the “fitness” camp, the fourth is educational and the fifth is just masochism. They’re all trying to “toughen you up”, but I’m not too sure we can juggle that many goals.

There’s been a longstanding, although now settled, debate on juggling multiple goals and an individual’s ability to achieve them. The old idea in psychology used to be that if focus was shifted to one main goal, other aspects of life would suffer, especially if the other aspects were also newer goals and hadn’t turned into habits yet. This was also known as ego depletion. To give an example of this: it’s argued to not be smart to go on both a food and a financial diet. You already have to exercise restraint whilst creating the new habit of eating healthy and resisting the temptation of many lovely, but definitely not diet friendly, treats. The idea was that this resisting of temptation was already so cognitively taxing that the addition of another taxing exercise, budgeting, refusing to splurge, not give into the temptation of buying yet another pair of shoes… would essentially “break the brain”. And intuitively it makes sense. Issue is, ego depletion as a phenomenon has essentially been voided after several meta-analyses, and you can read the most recent one here. With ego depletion out of the running does that mean we can, or should, chase multiple goals at the same time? I’m still hesitant to yes. If you’ve ever read any pop. science books or papers on the topic of habit formation, they tend to emphasize that it takes time to build a single habit. And I’m not sure you can sort of “cheat” the system by trying to build several habits at the same time. So how do these challenges tend to work then? Well, they try to target people who want a change. Most people tend to get so fed up with their status quo that they think the only way to change it is to go radically in the opposite direction. This is why a lot of challenges are popular. They promise you a whole new life. You just have to stop everything you’re currently doing. As most behavioural scientists know, radical doesn’t tend to be particularly sustainable. What is sustainable is gradual change. And gradual change, in its very nature, tends to allow only small amounts of changes. Although this change is likely not linear – from what I’ve gathered you tend to start small and increase slowly, but once you’ve properly got the hang of it you can do more of it, or the results tend to be larger. So a lot of behavioural change might be more exponential (J-curve), without or potentially with a ceiling effect (S-curve). Still doesn’t answer the question on the amount of goals you can pursue at the same time, does it?

Running with the logic that sustainable change is made up out of slow and small changes, having several goals at once means a lot of small changes, likely in multiple domains of your life (health, finance, mental resilience, social etc.). Issue is, a lot of small changes tend to accumulate to what is essentially a medium to large change in your life overall, making it likely to be a lot less sustainable. Coming back to where we started: the 75 hard challenge. Do I think it can work for people? I have watched some YouTubers go through it, and I can’t say I’m intrigued enough to try it myself (where am I going to find the time, energy and willingness to do two 45 minute workouts, per day?!). Most of them didn’t last either by the way. Obviously, ranking the “goals” or challenges from easiest to hardest, it’s the twice-a-day-workouts which stand out for me. That is such a massive goal in and of itself that that would be the first I’d fail were I ever to embark on this challenge (not happening). However, I can see myself do the other 4, especially as number 1., the diet, is not super specified. I’d at least give it a solid attempt. The thing with most challenges like this, as well as with most habits, is that they require some preparation and knowledge (or experience). For example, being on ketogenic diet assumes that you know how to do keto. If you don’t, this diet is a lot harder (fiy, it means <20 grams of carbs per day, you have to learn how to not cook with carbs). It’s the same as going vegan, you need to know what the right replacements are to make it work. Which means doing research. Which takes additional time. The time it might take you to do a 45 minute workout. See where I’m going with this?

Now I know SMART (the goal achieving tool) is not exactly academic, but I’ve written about it before and I continue to stand by it. It helps a lot if goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. Focusing on the R – relevant – I do think you can have multiple goals, if they are relevant to each other. For example, the overall goal is to save more. This is not specific enough by a longshot, but it’s a start. Let’s expand on it. You want to save $10.000 (specific) in a year (timely) for the purpose of paying down your debt ($7000), as well as go on a holiday ($3000) (both are measurable). Your wage allows for you to do this (attainable) and given that you want to go on holiday and need to repay the debt before it spirals out of control, this is very relevant to your life. Why this might work is that both goals are based on the same type of effort, and research, required. If you want to save more, even if it’s for multiple goals, the actions required are the same. So the changes made to your life are likely to be a bit less intense. Depending on whether you can afford to save much at all, of course.

I’ve had this discussion with colleagues of mine before and they don’t tend to agree that holding two of these types of goals together is smart (not SMART, just smart as in, a good idea). However, I think this is just life. I don’t support the notion of ego depletion as the evidence has been nullified, but I do remember saving myself and getting so fed up with restrictions that I just wanted to give up on the whole endeavour altogether. It might be a good financial decision to just save for your debt repayments (example), but for you overall wellness this may not be the best way forward at all. No one but you can determine what’s best, granted that you can afford to do so. The balancing of multiple goals does require one thing: rules. What’s the division of resources here? Going back to the example, for every amount saved (say $1000) does $700 go to debt repayment and $300 to the holiday – a proportional split? Or are we doing 50/50? Is one of them more urgent than the other? Set yourself a set of rules and abide by them. With someone to hold you accountable and a timeline! Coming full circle: I’m going to skip 75 hard. Not because of the amount of goals but because of their intensity. The change to my life to fit the workouts is way too hardcore. But as I said before, the other 4 I could do. I’m curious to hear from you: how many goals are you balancing, if any. And if balancing, how is it working out for you? Any tips you’d like to share for all us self-improvers out there?


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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