What A Drug Addict Can Teach Us About Goal Setting

by Brad Isaac on February 8, 2006


Every now and again, I am asked to prove goal setting works.  Usually this occurs at a dinner party or social gathering where I have met someone new.  The skeptic usually quizzes me on what proof there is goal setting produces any outcome above and beyond just being. 

For me, proving goal setting is simple.  I can take just about any example of human motivation and explain how goals are working in every case.  One example I like to use is not the most positive in the world, but it usually makes my point.


I ask the skeptic to imagine someone who has hit rock bottom in their life.  They have no home; they have no money, no car and no family.  Yet with all of this working against them, they can and will get a drug they are addicted to. 

How is that possible?  Street drugs cost much money.  Drug dealers are not apt to give them on loan.  Yet, a drug addict will somehow, someway always find a way to get their fix. 

You might be thinking “they’ll just use crime to get it” and I would agree with you, usually they will use crime.  But I argue the reason for the crime is they are obsessed with the specific goal to get drugs.  You see, without a strong driving passion for getting drugs, the addict would probably never commit the crime. 

Since the passion is so intense for drugs, addicts become great goal setters.   They go through a specific goal setting and action plans to get the drugs.  If you were to analyze it, what you would discover would probably amount to a structurally good (although illegal) plan.

1.   The addict will visualize exactly what he or she wants.  They can picture clearly their drug.  They can taste, smell, feel and see it without having it.

2.   They will attach great emotional significance to getting the drug.  “If I don’t get the drug, I will die, get sick, or be miserable.”

3.  They decide on a specific amount they need to get through.  Those of you who have interacted with addicts in the past may recognize statements like “I need at least 2 doses to get me through till tomorrow.”  Or, “If I can get 7 I won’t have to worry about it until payday.”  They leave nothing to chance; they decide exactly what they want.

4.  They brainstorm long and hard about ways they can get the drug.  They think of little else.

5.  They make a specific plan for how they are going to get the drug

6.  They act on the plan until they are successful.

Yes, homeless and desperate people may commit some terrible crimes.  But by giving an extreme example of goal setting, usually I can make some progress at convincing the skeptic it works.

But if that example doesn’t convince him, we only need look at our tallest skyscrapers, airplanes, lightbulbs or anything else created by humans.  How it is a woodworker can build a chair?  How is it new company can start from nothing and grow to millions of dollars in profit?  The answer, in a nutshell is they use the same goal setting strategy as our drug addict above.

1.  They start out picturing what they want.  The woodworker imagines the chair in his mind and the entrepreneur visualizes her idea of running her own business.

2.  They attach emotional significance to the outcome.  The woodworker thinks “this will make my house so much nicer, we’ll love sitting in that chair when its in the living room.”  The entrepreneur thinks, “I’ll love working for myself, I am going to be so happy working in my own shop.”

3.  They decide specifically what they need to do to get where they are going.  The woodworker draws up plans and lists out the wood, nails and screws he’ll need.  The entrepreneur draws up a business plan and secures financing.

4.  They brainstorm and think through specifics.  The woodworker thinks through the different woods and what types of cuts and designs to use during construction.  The entrepreneur brainstorms how she’ll make money short-term and long-term, how she’ll advertise, how she’ll grow the business.

5.  They act on the plan until they are successful.  The woodworker builds until the pieces of wood all form into a chair.  The entrepreneur acts until her store opens and dream realized (and then she’ll work more obviously to keep it running)

By now our skeptic is usually feeling that I have a strong argument.   But if not, I’ll simply point out his own career to him.  I’ll ask, "how did you become a lawyer, doctor or restaurant owner?  Did you simply luck into it like you are implying?  I mean were you sweeping floors when a boss said “Hey Jim, you’d make a good doctor, here you go!  Here are your doctor’n papers now get out there and remove someone’s spleen.”?  No, of course not.  You probably decided as a young student you wanted to help people, you made a specific plan for your education and you acted on the plan."

Yes, goals work in your life even if you are skeptical.

So if you find yourself questioning whether goal setting works, go ahead and question it. However, take serious time to consider the answers.  When we look at all the good in our lives, isn’t it a result of careful goal setting, planning and action?  That car you are driving probably wasn’t abandoned in your driveway and you just started using it, was it?  No instead, you probably looked around decided what you wanted (set a goal) and made a plan to get it.

Imagine if you were to muster up the same passion for your goal as the addict has for getting drugs.  How would spending more time visualizing what you wanted affect your ability to get it?  How would quick and decisive planning help you get further?  And how would an attitude of absolute determination in succeeding in your goal ensure its achievement?

I recommend we recognize we are already setting goals.  And since we are already doing it, we can assess how well our goal setting has paid off so far.  Has it brought us what we want?  Or have we been a little less successful with them?  Goal setting is how we get almost everything in our lives, so by working to become better goal setters, we can attract more of what we want.

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February 8, 2006 at 9:26 pm

What we think about the most…materializes! Good post. What’s his name visualized writing a book and appearing on Oprah…fairy tales can come true :)

John February 9, 2006 at 7:01 am

IMO, a classic example of goal setting is Kennedy’s goal to put a man on the moon by the end of that decade.

MonsterMan February 10, 2006 at 10:06 am

Nice post! Reminds me of the stuff on Paul’s Tips a bit.

TrickyDicky February 11, 2006 at 10:39 am

I never had any problem about how goal setting works – the example of a drug addict is perfect and try any top class sportsman. But, what about its effectiveness in meeting the 20 or more goals that companies seem to throw at us simultaneiously?

jlevarre February 12, 2006 at 3:42 am

drug addicts dont visualise their goal,
they are driven by a neurochemical receptor
screaming for its chemical mate…the non addicts equivelant of having they’re butt
set on fire…just a tiny motivator…

no amount of visualisation will give you
that core biochemical motivation

good metaphor for non addicts though,
thanks for the article..

Occ November 28, 2009 at 6:27 am

The visualizing stuff always strikes me as a little bit silly — in that when we intentionally “visualize” things, its just trying to force a process that comes naturally. When we want something, don’t we always “visualize” it? If I want to make money so I can do XYZ, obviously I’m “visualizing” — I doubt this is the issue. The most important thing is to continue working towards the goal, while OCCASIONALLY reevaluating your strategy based on what you learn through failure and smaller successes…and OCCASIONALLY reevaluating the goal itself. If I spend too much time visualizing, I end up doing no actual work ;)

February 12, 2006 at 10:53 pm

I prefer not to try ;)

February 14, 2006 at 9:44 pm

“But, what about its effectiveness in meeting the 20 or more goals that companies seem to throw at us simultaneiously?”

Well, if your company is throwing 20 goals your way, then they don’t understand what a goal is. Company goals would be things like: improve customer base by 20%, earn 15% more over the next year, reduce employee turnover by 30%. If they have 20 of those all directed your way, they need to hire more people.

But likely, you are talking about projects.

nicola February 15, 2006 at 1:05 pm

being a drug addict *and* a entrepeneur, i can say that you’ve hit a nail here. the drive that a deep urge -like the drug-induced-chemical imbalance – produces in personal life really bust the decision making and the focus in highly limited goals.

Meth Addict March 12, 2006 at 11:41 pm

As someone newly in recovery, I find this article to be blatantly patronizing and disrespectful.

Brad Isaac March 13, 2006 at 7:51 am

I’m not sure how I’m being disrespectful, so please explain.

Best of luck on the road to recovery, btw.

Omar May 3, 2006 at 11:58 am

A harsh driver results in great goal setting? Sure!

Chemical imbalance, butt on fire, all work well, but beg the question:
What does this do to the overall balance of a person’s life. Is the balance in a drug addicts life as out of whack as the balance in a very driven entrepreneur’s life?
Interesting thing to contemplate.

Perhaps, the single overriding goal would be (to paraphrase the commercial), achieve new balance. Other goals are then all in support of that one.

Kathy November 13, 2008 at 12:48 am

I liked this. It’s true. The article was about goal setting and the steps are the same for each of us whatever the goal happens to be. I am currently doing a research study about students’ math self efficacy scores and their relationship to student math achievement. This topic came to me while sitting in a class in which the professor suggested I drop until I had more time to devote to it. I chose not to drop it, and reach my goal of passing it. Despite the circumstances, I said to myself, ” I can do this.” It was then that I examined what made me continue in the face of adversity when so many students, young and old alike, give up before they even get started. The post about companies “throwing” goals at their people is interesting. Most people are aware that people must help create their own goals in order to own them. I suggest that if your company is making goals for you, you should look to those goals as the company’s focus and use those to help guide the creation of your own managable goals. Good luck.

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