The topic of dead people goals came to mind a while back when I was commenting on a post by Quiet Person Loud Thoughts. I couldn’t remember where I’d first heard of it, but with some hunting around, it looks like I got the idea from Susan David’s book Emotional Agility. The original idea is from psychologist Ogdan Lindsley, who came up with the Dead Man Test as a way of determining if something was a behaviour.
Susan David explained that dead people goals are things like “not being anxious” that a dead person could do better than a living person each and every time. Anything you want to not feel or not think, a dead person could do more effectively because they don’t feel or think about anything at all. There’s no possible way you could do a better job of that.
So, what’s the problem with dead people goals? If you’re striving for an ideal that’s unreachable even at the best of times, you’re setting yourself up for failure. And when you do fail, because you’re guaranteed to, you will probably feel like crap about yourself. Setting dead people goals is the equivalent of signing up to feel like crap.
Not feeling or thinking a certain way are pretty clearly dead people goals, but with behaviours, it can be harder to tell. At that point, SMART goals can be helpful. The exact breakdown of SMART depends on who you talk to, but one version is:
I am not going to drink any alcohol this week = SMART goal
I want to get through this work function without embarrassing myself = Dead person goal
Life circumstances can be hard… really hard. The last thing you need is to be your own worst enemy. SMART goals may feel kind of forced, and you certainly don’t have to use them if they don’t work for you, but they can help with identifying what’s not dead people goals.
The achievable and realistic bits are particularly important. Some things are totally out of your control. Anxiety is a primary emotion that will pop up when it feels like it, not when you want it to (or don’t want it to). Once it’s there, you can work with it; that’s under your control. Whether it shows up in the first place is not in your conscious control, which makes it pretty hard for that control to be achievable.
I’m all for anything that can prevent setting oneself up for failure, and the concept of dead people goals seems like a fairly handy tool in that respect. Was this something you’d heard of before? Does it sound like something that would be helpful?
The ACT Fundamentals mini-ebook/workbook provides an introduction to acceptance and commitment therapy, including cognitive defusion and aligning actions to values. You can find it on the Resources page.