Forgetting targets and remembering to focus
I came across Goodhart’s Law in a book called SuperThinking. It says that: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good target.
Let’s take the commonly cited example: When a factory worker is asked to reach a target of making 1000kgs of nails (that he usually makes) within a day, he might get around it by making the nails as large as possible to reduce his workload and weigh about 1000kgs instead of making the ideal sized nails that the factory is supposed to manufacture.
You might call the factory worker a cheater or fraudulent but psychologists call this the cobra effect: where the solution to a problem only worsens the problem in consideration. The cobra effect comes from a story from the colonial times in British India. The problem of too many cobras in a village led to British officers paying the villagers hefty rewards for catching cobras in the village only to realize that in pursuit of the reward, the villagers had started to farm cobras!
You may ask what do these stories of factory workers and cobras have to do with my life or productivity? Well, it is something we often resort to. While planning out stuff to do, we often make a measure of time that we need to devote to a given task during the day. How often does this pay off well when the task is something complex and easy to procrastinate? We find our ways around it just for its completion.
Example: If you have the task of ‘writing 5 pages for a good essay’ as school homework. You may start off well and write a page or two of good content. Once you feel the target is more important and weighs heavy on your shoulder and schedule, you tend to fill the rest of the pages in the middle with rubbish content and finish off the task. Quantity has killed the Quality. You may even consider copying the essay from your friend for the sake of completion and submission. After all it said ‘good essay’ not ‘authentic essay’.
You may not be the one to blame for the failure of ‘writing a good essay’ but it surely has proved the Goodhart’s law true! This might for once reveal how the education system is functioning in a way similar to the British Officers of colonial India, transpiring the cobra effect in every aspect of its system. Also there is no point in explaining the concerned system of the obvious doom because of the confirmation bias* that they hold on to.
But blaming does no good. Say who? Says me. If writing 5 pages isn’t matching your ideal schedule, you should enter the zone of Hyperfocus to only write 2 pages of the best content that might come to your mind. This surely won’t impress your school teacher but will save you from the cobra effect that is meant to doom systems sooner or later.
*Confirmation bias is simply the bias caused due to beliefs that we hold on to from the past theories and reason every new belief with the same old theories to strengthen our beliefs and values.
Takeaway: Goodhart’s law can lead to cobra effect that tends to doom systems following them. It is better to focus on tasks qualitatively and not be weighed down by targets.