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Goal Factoring

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Sometimes the things we want are in conflict, and we apparently have to choose.

??A picture, which shows an archetypical example of that pattern

Longer paragraphs discussing the problem.

Sometimes we find ourselves facing apparently zero-sum conflict between two (or more) things that we want. For example, imagine that you are sitting at home at the end of a long, hard week, preparing to make plans for the evening. One of your friends is throwing a party, and has urged you to come. At the same time, there are delicious leftovers in the fridge and a movie you’ve been hoping to watch, and you’re feeling pretty lethargic.

When making this sort of decision, most people do some form of weighing—whether explicitly, with System 2, or viscerally/intuitively, with System 1—comparing the pros and cons of each option and selecting the one with the highest net “goodness.” You may consider things like who is likely to be at the party, or whether your friend would be offended if you didn’t show up; you may do some internal measuring of your energy levels, to see if you’re in dire need of some rest and relaxation. The decision might come from balancing a bunch of little things, or be based on one crucial factor.

Most people end up picking one or the other—we either go out, or stay in. Occasionally, we might come up with a sort of compromise option—such as going to the party for half an hour and then coming back home—but we rarely reach outside of the A, B, or A&B framework. The goal factoring technique asks that we approach these sorts of problems a little differently. Instead of simply comparing one choice to another, goal factoring encourages us to adopt a “third path” mentality—to assume, for the sake of argument, that there might be a way to get everything we want, and achieve all of the good with none of the bad.

Sometimes, of course, there is no way to get everything. Sometimes, we really are constrained, and have to make tradeoffs and compromises. But we tend to feel constrained more often than we really are, thanks to social imperatives and longstanding habits and assumed entanglements between various obligations. Often, there’s a lot of wiggle room that we aren’t aware of, especially if it’s been a while since we stepped back and took a fresh look from a broader perspective.

To uncover this wiggle room, the Goal Factoring technique asks you to list out, separately, the benefits or goals that contribute to making a solution or plan attractive. Then do the same for the costs or detractors from that plan. For example, if two people both reach for the last orange at the farmer's market, they might assume that they're in a zero-sum conflict. But if they each explain what the orange is for, it might turn out that one wants to eat the orange, and so is interested in the pulpy flesh, and the other wants to make mulled wine, and so is interested in the peel. In that case, it's possible for both parties to get all of what they want—and they can only see such solutions after they've factored out their goals.

Goal factoring algorithm: 1. Choose an action

2. Prepare to accept all worlds

3. Factor the action out into goals

4. Brainstorm possible replacement actions

5. Reality check


Factor your desires into the goals and costs that motivate them in order to see if there are more efficient ways to get more of what you actually care about.