MH@H Mental Health

Do You Have Dead People Goals?

Dead person goals: graphics of a bullseye and wrapped mummy
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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 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:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-limited

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 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?

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48 thoughts on “Do You Have Dead People Goals?”

  1. Love this idea of dead people goals – not heard of it before. SMART goals I had. All great advice. Thanks Ashley. 🙏

  2. Interesting idea. I don’t know if I set dead person goals, but I do set vague goals with no clear end point e.g. “I should study more Torah,” “I should concentrate better when praying.”

  3. I set DPGs, but simply refer to them as “unrealistic” when I notice I’m upset about not reaching them. My new thing is to set smaller goals and if I even accomplish some of them, yay

  4. I think I’ve been reading you long enough to get a sense of where you’re going because I immediately thought of SMART goals after your first few sentences and that’s where we drove to. Haha. I don’t think SMART goals are as helpful as some of the more suspect self-help gurus claim, but I do still use that methodology when planning my year, month, and day and it prevents me from making dead people goals (which I didn’t know was a thing until today.) 🙂

  5. Very interesting! Yeah, I think it’s good to take into account that human nature is less than perfect at such things! Like, with me (for whatever weird reasons), if I were to set the goal of sleeping only eight hours a night and then no more, things would get real ugly, real fast. I think that would qualify (in my case) as a dead-person’s goal. The dead don’t need sleep, but the living sure do! This does seem like a helpful way to look at it! Like, why push yourself past the bounds of human nature and your own capabilities and then judge yourself harshly for it? Very good way of looking at things, in my opinion!!

      1. I’ve been doing better on 100 mg, but I’ve decided to try cutting pills into quarters and going up to 125. It might be the extra push I need!! YAY!

  6. Oh, I forgot to mention! When this showed up in my inbox, it displayed: “Do you have dead people goa” and then it was cut off. So I envisioned it in my mind, just by guessing, that the blog post was called, “Do you have dead people goading you?” And I was like, heck, yes! Who doesn’t? 😀

  7. I had never heard the term “dead person goals” and my mental picture of them when I saw your title and before I read the explanation was completely different. I was picturing dead person goals as something a dead person has already done better than you could do (eg. being a better playwright than Shakespeare, becoming the a better artist than Michaelangelo, etc.) My reaction was, well, yes, comparing yourself to others, living or dead, is generally not a strategy for success, although I am guilty of doing this. But then I read your post and realized I had a very different impression of the term!

    Now I grasp the concept. I don’t think I struggle so much with dead person goals as much as a) setting goals in the first place, because failing at them seems scary and b) having SMART goals that compete for resources and in some cases even contradict each other, such that getting started is difficult.

  8. As Alan Watts said;

    “Suppressing the fear of death makes it all the stronger. The point is only to know, beyond any shadow of doubt, that ‘I’ and all other ‘things’ now present will vanish, until this knowledge compels you to release them – to know it now as surely as if you had just fallen off the rim of the Grand Canyon. Indeed you were kicked off the edge of a precipice when you were born, and it’s no help to cling to the rocks falling with you.”

      1. He also said about the security we seek, searching for security and insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. He’s a fascinating guy. I have only recently come across him. I’ve got 5 of his books already 📚 He has certainly changed my outlook on life and stimulated my thinking. I’d highly recommend checking him out if you get chance 👍

          1. I’ve just posted a blog on the meaning of life by putting a collection of his quotes together to give a narrative

  9. Hmm, this is one of the very rare occasions where an idea you’ve written about doesn’t resonate with me.

    I totally get the benefits of SMART goals, but the whole dead person thing doesn’t feel very precisely defined or logical to me. I don’t see anything intrinically wrong with wanting something that a dead person could do better. For example, I could decide I want my week to be peaceful (like a dead person), and I don’t have an issue with that.

    Before you explained the term, I was trying to guess what it might mean. I wondered if it referred to big goals/achievements for which people are known long after their death… kinda like a legacy. Ah well!

  10. Okay, this is a blog post title I never expected! I hadn’t come across this phrase before but you’re absolutely right, some things we often aim for like quelling fear or anxiety are always going to be done better by dead folks.

  11. When I am depressed I notice I often set myself dead people goals, which starts the eternal downwards cycle of beating myself up and becoming more depressed and unable to achieve anything. Now I try to set myself a very simple SMART goal such as … I will get out of bed for 1 hour today. Achieving this tips the scales and send the spiral upwards. 😊 I’ll defo watch the TED talk. Thanks 🙏

  12. Super interesting to read more about this – something I’ve been pondering since you first brought it up (thanks for the shout out by the way 😉). One reflection I’ve had is that it’s actually quite empowering to think of goals you can set that are NOT dead people goals. Sometimes I feel like I’d be better off dead, but there are lots of goals I could set myself that a dead person could never achieve, so I must be of some use!

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