Targets and tortoises


Photograph of a giant tortoise from the Galapagos islandsDo you dream of crossing everything off your to-do list? For years I’ve been trying – and failing – to conquer mine. No sooner is one thing done than three more pop up. But a growing heap of to-dos can be a toxic drag on actually doing the things that really matter – from small business goals to global-scale problems. What’s the solution? Take a tea-break with me and let’s talk targets and tortoises.

After more than a year of focusing on ‘keeping going’ through various family-related troubles and, of course, the first 10 months of Covid-19, I slid into 2021 with so many to-dos that I ended up adding an extra month to my working year: I’ve designated 1 February 2022 as my ‘new year’.

Some of my to-dos have been on my ‘not urgent’ list since at least 2015 and I can’t quite bring myself to throw them in the bin. They’re things I want to do, but never have time or headspace to get started. Others are shiny and new and pinging furiously at me from my Reminders app twice a day until I tick them off with a half-hearted click: ticking things off electronically lacks the excitement of a jolly good scribble on a paper-based list.

What I’ve realised over the past year is that, although productivity gurus love a to-do list, there’s a lot more to be gained by focusing on the bigger picture – on the longer term and on the direction of travel rather than the specific route we take. In other words, on targets instead of to-dos.

But what about the tortoises?

No, I don’t have a new office companion. Rather, I have acquired a new perspective via an issue that I’ve been working on for a couple of decades: climate change.

Ready, set, detour

About 12 months ago I responded to a call from my professional membership body, the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), whose members have decided to take steps to reduce the institute’s (and their own) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and negative environmental impacts. The first step on their journey was putting together an Environmental Policy Working Group (EPWG) of members to kick-start the process.

Having written or editing hundreds of government-backed and practitioner-driven guidance documents on ‘energy and environmental management’, starting when I joined the Building Research Establishment (BRE) back in 1996, I was keen to help CIEP and its members get started on their sustainability journey.

After so many years of editing technical reports and guides on energy efficiency and climate change, and with the pace of the construction industry’s reactions seeming agonisingly slow, it was refreshing to be part of a small team of like-minded editors and proofreaders who were mainly younger and keener than I was. Together we drafted a policy, got it approved at the CIEP AGM, and have already started providing CIEP members with tools and ideas to help them understand the problems and incorporate environmental management into their working practices.

At the start of 2021 volunteering a couple of hours (and sometimes several days) a month to the EPWG had not even been on my radar, never mind made an appearance on my already lengthy to-do list. But it was something I felt compelled to take part in. Other to-dos have had to wait – including some that contribute to my core personal and business-related goals.

Was I right to take such a time-consuming detour when other promises were piling up? Yes, I think so. (Hope the CIEP does too!)

But if I had been, say, an elected member of a local authority, or even a government, or leader of an international body you could bet hard cash that my failure to achieve some of these other promises and goals would have set off Twitter storms and cynical headlines about lack of progress or worse.

Targets and consequences

One of the topics we discussed in EPWG meetings was eco-anxiety – a term that I had heard in relation to people living in places where climate change is currently threatening lives and livelihoods, but which I hadn’t realised was transitioning into a global phenomenon among younger people.

The run-up to the Glasgow Climate Conference (COP 26) in November 2021 received a lot of press coverage in the UK, mainly because the UK held the presidency for that COP – meaning it had a crucial role in steering discussions towards agreements on various aspects of achieving the goal set out in the Paris Agreement back in 2015:

Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

To achieve this long-term temperature goal, countries aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century.

In the wake of COP 26, national newspaper headlines ranged from disappointment to cynicism (no surprise there!), and it wasn’t easy to avoid the trivia – what international visitors thought of Irn-Bru, or that GHG emissions attributed to the 2021 event were apparently double the level of the previous COP in Madrid (never mind the very different climates of the venues).

The public were left with the impression that nothing much was happening, which was very far from the truth.

A few weeks later, I zoomed to an event celebrating 10 years of UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, organised by The Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources (BSEER).

Five speakers reflected on the recent COP, on the United Nations’ report (in July 2021) on progress towards achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and on the impact the Covid-19 pandemic had and would continue to have on all of these.

There were lots of positive ideas presented during the 90-minute event (now on YouTube), but the stand-out comment for me was made by Angela Francis, chief adviser on Economics and Economic Development at WWF, who – reflecting on the outcomes of COP 26 – reminded us all that:

Knowing where you are going and finding ways to get there are important skills.

In other words, we all know the goal set by the Paris Agreement (or the SDGs). And we know that complex goals such as the SDGs are best tackled by breaking them down into targets.

But the risk with target-setting is that missed targets look like failure, especially in a political context. Our political culture thrives on the fact that governments set targets which, for whatever reason, are not met resulting in a seemingly perpetual trail of false promises.

And that’s where the tortoises make an appearance!

Getting there: somehow

I happened to catch an episode of the Radio 4/Open University series Think with Pinker titled ‘Headlines and trendlines’ in which philosopher and science communicator Steven Pinker discussed people’s interpretation of news and events – and their responses to these – in relation to what we know about human behaviour and journalism. His opening remarks describe the ‘availability heuristic’, which is:

… our tendency to use information that comes to mind quickly and easily when making decisions about the future. (Source: The Decision Lab)

Pinker’s guest, James Harding (a former editor of The Times and director of BBC News, and now the co-founder of Tortoise Media), summarised ‘news’ as ‘telling many people what few people know’ and, in order to grab their attention, the news needs to be shocking – telling people about things that are going wrong, or failing to meet expectations.

This can result in, say, activists emphasising the negative, which can have the opposite of the intended effect: people digging in their heels to carry on as normal or worse. We can all recall examples of this behaviour during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Another phenomenon is ‘anchoring’ – a type of cognitive bias that results in people remembering the last thing they were told about a topic. If that happens to be gloomy news such as failure to agree global climate policies it can result in eco-anxiety or full-on fatalism among the people who aren’t directly involved in developments (ranging from the ‘it’s not my problem’ to ‘we can’t do anything unless country x takes action’).

Harding, through his Tortoise Media venture (tagline: slow down, wise up) and Pinker’s other contributor Anna RoslingRönnlund, are seeking ways to report on ‘developments’ instead of ‘events’, with the aim of showing us all how we fit into the world, and how we can influence changes for the better.

Going for gold

After that short detour into human behaviour and science communications theory you may well be wondering what this has to do with my to-do list!

Remember the Aesop fable about the tortoise and the hare? You may think the moral of that story was that the tortoise wins the races (achieves the goal) because of dogged perseverance. But that’s not the whole story.

The tortoise wins the race, not necessarily by just keeping going, but by interacting with the things it meets along the route and using knowledge (and sometimes a dash of cunning) to work around a problem, recalibrate and then continue on the journey to the ultimate goal of the finishing line.

As we have all learned in the past two years, stuff happens, and targets get derailed. Along the way, though, many to-dos will have been ticked off, including a fair few that no one had contemplated back when the target was set.

So for me, it’s time to counteract the negativity of recent months and reset my own cognitive biases after a few years of abandoned targets and gloomy personal situations.

Let’s all be more tortoise.


More to-dos for your list:

Photo credit: Magdalena Kula Manchee on Unsplash