The tyranny of the sub-goal

I learned the expression “the tyranny of the sub-goal” from my husband, who most frequently applies it to chores around the house, as in “We need to paint the living room but before that we have to fix the hole in the sheetrock where we smashed the corner of the washing machine into the wall.” Painting the living room is the goal, but since both of us despise doing drywall, the hole in the drywall becomes the lingering sub-goal that holds up the whole project. I had always assumed that this expression was some sort of standard IT-guy-speak but it actually doesn’t return any Google hits, so maybe it’s an original!

I think that there’s a lot of truth to the idea of the tyrannical sub-goal, and I also think that attacking these sub-goals usually takes less time than you’ve already spent procrastinating and complaining about them.  I recently experienced this when I had to update the Colorado Translators Association bylaws for our upcoming election. I’m ashamed to even calculate (much less admit) how much time and emotional energy I had spent avoiding this task, and the whole election process was on hold because of it. Once I sat down and just did it, the total time from when I opened the file until I finished the edits was 13 minutes. Right: in about the same amount of time it takes me to brew a cup of coffee and return a phone call, I was done with the task that had been haunting me for weeks. Here are some typical translator sub-goals:

  • Website and résumé updates seem to be at the root of a lot of translators’ goal achievement problems. “I have this great marketing plan but I don’t want to implement it because I’m embarrassed to send clients to my website.” “I want to pursue a new specialization but first I have to redo my résumé and it’s taking me forever,” etc.
  • Small research tasks can also tyrannize your work life. For example, I’ve been thinking of hiring an intern but first I need to research the applicable employment laws related to paid and unpaid internships, so the idea is on hold.
  • Tasks that you despise are ripe for sub-goal tyranny. For me, it’s paperwork and accounting. This year I delayed preparing my W-2, which delayed getting my tax prep materials to my accountant, etc. etc. etc.

And some ideas for defeating them:

  • Create an external deadline. A lot of sub-goals remain unconquered because unlike our regular work, the time frame for completing them exists only in our heads. In addition, when a sub-goal has been on the to do list for a really long time, we no longer have any sense of urgency about it. The marketing plan? Well, if it didn’t get done in all of 2009, then does it really matter if it happens this week or in six months? So, create a deadline. Ask a colleague if he or she is available to proofread your résumé on Monday. Invite a friend over to usability-test your website next week. Then, you have to have the task completed by that date.
  • Admit defeat and hire someone to complete the sub-goal for you. This year I decided that although I’m generally anti-outsourcing, I had to hire someone to do my corporate payroll and I’m very happy with the results.
  • Decide that you don’t want to achieve the sub-goal. When you’re generally a 120 percenter (I love this expression, coined by Michelle Obama), it’s tough to throw in the towel on a task without feeling like a failure. However, I think that it’s important to be honest with yourself about your sub-goals. Sometimes the sub-goal remains undone because a certain project no longer seems important, relevant, fun or profitable to you. Then, cross the sub-goal off your list and let it go: and move on to something that really inspires you!
7 Responses to “The tyranny of the sub-goal”
  1. Rachel April 13, 2010
  2. Riccardo April 13, 2010
  3. Cristina Silva April 14, 2010
  4. Philippa Hammond April 14, 2010
  5. Karen Williams April 21, 2010
  6. Claudine April 21, 2010
  7. Karen Tkaczyk April 21, 2010

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