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The Four Quadrants and Goal Setting

Albert Einstein famously said “If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.” Goal setting is an intrinsic part of human life - we set goals big and small on a daily basis, either consciously or unconsciously. Goal setting is an activity that is universal, it is not limited to gender, age, nationality or class. It is one of those processes that is in motion all around the world at the same time - right now, a university student may be looking at his grades from the previous semester and setting a goal to achieve better grades the next semester, while a mother may be setting a goal to pack a healthier lunch for her school-going toddlers. F1 racer Lewis Hamilton may be aiming to hold on to a first place win at the Hungarian Grand Prix after reclaiming his place following a disappointing trio of losses to Max Verstappen. Goal setting is also a common practice in workplaces - their accomplishment is often accompanied by benefits such as promotions, bonuses and higher pay.

The appeal in setting measurable objectives was encapsulated by probably the best vocalist in history, Freddie Mercury, when he sang, “I'm a man with a one track mind, so much to do in one lifetime”. These relatable words are a good reminder that we have only a short while on earth and each of us has a desire to leave some sort of legacy or imprint behind. Cognitively, however, it is impossible for us to tackle all we want to do in unison, and hence, we break down what we want to accomplish in the long term into simpler, achievable tasks and strive to complete them.

Goals are directed by our motives, values and priorities. What unites all of these people is that “Goal setters see future possibilities and the big picture,” according to Rick McDaniel, pastor and author of 5 Habits of Happy People. Apart from this long-term vision required to fulfill goals, achieving a goal also depends on how much permission we give ourself to accomplish it, as well as the environment that enables us to fulfill it. Sometimes, we have the best environment to fulfill our goals while in other cases, it may not be ideal.

One fascinating tale of a man who had a massive goal and was motivated by a fierce will is that of Phil Sokolof. Phil Sokolof was a self-made millionaire and crusader who spent around 20 years fighting against dietary factors contributing to heart disease. His goal to get fast-food chains to use healthier raw materials in their products was spurred on by a heart attack that came as a massive wake-up call to him in 1996. Although he was thin and exercised daily, he consumed high-fat foods like hamburgers, hot dogs and tamales very frequently, to a point where his cholesterol count hit an alarming 300. Following that ordeal, he resolved not only to consume healthier foods himself, but also ensure that the general population also received access to healthier ingredients in their foods. He was successful in getting several fast-food restaurants, including McDonald’s to use vegetable oil instead of beef tallow to cook French fries, as this ingredient was shown to increase LDL-cholesterol concentrations, and increase risk for cardiovascular disease. He also persuaded many large food processors to avoid using highly saturated coconut and palm oil in crackers and cookies. He accomplished this goal by generating national attention to their practices by buying full-page ads in newspapers around the country. Some of these advertisements had messages like “McDonald’s, Your Hamburgers Have Too Much Fat!” and “We Can’t Continue to Deep-Fry Our Children’s Health.” which greatly unnerved the general population and forced massive changes within the food industry. This may have seemed an implausible goal, yet Sokolof was certain about the goals he wanted to achieve and he was able to see it fulfilled. He gave himself permission to achieve this goal - when he began the crusade, Sokolof quit and sold his successful home construction business to devote himself wholly to the cause he believed in. By doing this, he also enabled himself an obliging environment to fulfill his goal. Apart from that, he was also willing to part with millions of dollars of his own money to take out advertisements in local and national newspapers that sparked the change.

It is evident that one of the most important tasks before setting out to achieve something is to be able to understand the goal well. The Well Defined Outcomes Criteria is a handy guide that provides guidance on how to go about this first step to accomplishment. Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the co-creators of NLP defined a well-defined outcome in (1979) in this manner: “A well-defined outcome is an outcome one wishes to achieve, that meets certain conditions designed to avoid unintended costs or consequences and resistance to achieving the goal resulting from internal conflicting feelings or thoughts about the outcome. Thus, a high quality outcome is more than a vague wish or goal. It is an objective or goal that is integrated with all aspects of one’s life and has a process of accomplishment that respects and supports the current desirable circumstances in one’s life.” The criteria to examine are as follows:

  1. Be stated in the positive: The goal has to be framed positively. For instance, rather than, a goal like “I do not want to be sad anymore” following a tragic break-up would be more effectively fulfilled if phrased as “I want to be happy.” In other words, direct your goal towards what you do want rather than away from what you don’t want to accomplish. Another instance would be saying “I want to get to 50 kilograms” rather than saying “I want to lose 10 kilograms”.

  2. Make it compelling! Does this goal make you want to get up in the morning? If not, how can you modify it further? How can you augment it to keep this motivation going? If your goal doesn't challenge you, it's much less likely to see it being fulfilled. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology examined this hypothesis amongst a population of 80 families asked to set a goal to reduce their electricity consumption for several weeks, half of them by 20% (compelling goal) and half by 2% (easy goal). Surprisingly, the 20% group conserved the most energy and consumed significantly less electricity than the 2% group. Thus, it is evident that more ambitious goals push towards completion while easier ones may not.

  3. Evidence Procedure: Envision multi-sensory evidence of the feeling of accomplishment of this goal. What does it feel like? This will enable you to understand what you are aiming at and will give you a finish line of sorts. Apart from visualizing successfully achieving your goal, also visualize the steps you need to take to reach your goal.

  4. Ecology Check: One of the cardinal phrases in the definition of a well-defined outcome is, “integrated with all aspects of one’s life and has a process of accomplishment that respects and supports the current desirable circumstances in one’s life”. A goal that is to see fruition has to harmonize in symphony with all the current spheres of your life - financial, physical, emotional, occupational, etc. If not, this may serve as an obstacle to realizing the goal. This can be overcome by acknowledging the issue, addressing and dealing with it in a cautious manner.

  5. Self-initiated, maintained and controlled: The goal has to be undertaken of your own volition, sustained by your willpower and controlled by your interests and vision. Many a time, people undertake goals for others rather than themselves, for instance, “My mother wants me to top the class” or “My partner wants me to lose weight”. However, unless you yourself want to excel in class or become fitter, these goals are pointless.

  6. Context & Resources: Sometimes, the goal that we undertake may not be appropriate for a certain context. Say I have a goal to go on a trip spanning all the 29 states of India, however, amidst the turmoil and risks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this goal may not be appropriate to consider undertaking. Correlating our goals to our environmental, social and physical context is paramount to making sure they are achievable, for if not, we set ourselves up for failure. Apart from that, considering and organizing the internal & external resources required to achieve fruition is crucial. For instance, if I have a goal to reach a certain grade point in college, I must make sure I have all of the prerequisites - a good rapport with my professors, access to uninterrupted online classes and devices, a steady network or WiFi to be able to complete my written assignments and projects as well as the drive and self-motivation necessary to be able to study without distractions in the absence of a competitive environment.

Setting goals has definitely proved to be an effective exercise in attaining them, and there is a surplus of empirical evidence to prove this. For instance, a study conducted to examine the influence of goal-setting on performance in an industrial production process amongst a population of workers at an Energy Training Factory in München, Germany, showed that even in the absence of financial incentives, setting definite goals improved worker performance by 12-15% compared when no goals were defined. There are numerous tales of goals accomplished and goals thwarted. However, it is undeniable that sometimes despite setting great goals, individuals are unable to achieve them; I’m sure we can’t all agree with Ariana Grande when she sings “I want it, I got it”. Thus, a valid question to put forth would be, “What determines whether an individual reaches the goal they have set for themself?”.

A multitude of research perspectives have attempted to answer this question. The neuroscience perspective is the most research-backed, and it states that the amygdala, responsible for emotion, investigates how important the goal is to you, and the rewards it would yield, while the frontal lobe, the problem solver, defines the path and steps needed to reach the goal. In an ideal case, the amygdala and frontal lobe work together to keep you focused on, and moving toward, situations and behaviors that lead to the achievement of that goal, while simultaneously causing you to ignore and avoid situations and behaviors that don't. However, in most cases, initially, when we set out to achieve a goal, our focus is on the reward. We envision getting the reward and the sensory experiences attached to it which propels us into action. However, once we begin, we are confronted with the oft difficult steps required to actually reach the goal and our focus shifts from reward to effort. Sound familiar? One effective way to combat this drag would be to analyse and define goals according to the well-formed outcomes criteria. Another way would be to evaluate how important a certain goal is to us, to gain a comprehensive idea of the chances of success.

A handy tool for understanding and weighing our goal that originated from philosophy, and developed from multiple dimensions and perspectives, is the four-quadrant method. This method was taught to me by my teacher, Robert Dilts, as part of a class in 2008. It has personally helped me in understanding, undertaking and organizing my personal goals. It is based on an age-old method called the “Descartes Square”. It is named after its creator, 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes, as part of his belief that people should cultivate a capacity for sound judgment, which he identified with “good sense” and “universal wisdom” rather than chase after blind faith. Apart from his contributions to philosophy, he was also an engineer and mathematician who established a relationship between algebraic symbols and analytic geometry. He is most known for his well-known dictum, Cogito, ergo, sum, which translates to “I think, therefore I am”.

The four-quadrant method seeks to provide a visual layout of the possible outcomes of a goal that we contemplate undertaking. The most fascinating facet of this method is that it allows us to explore the consequences of not acting on a goal. Most goal setters ask themselves the question, “What will happen if this happens?”, however, not enough people consider the implications of the events that might, or might not, occur if they do not achieve a goal.

The method is as follows:

When formulating a goal, take a page, then divide it into 4 parts and write the following questions in each:

  1. What will happen if I reach my goal?

  2. What won’t happen if I reach my goal?

  3. What will happen if I don’t reach my goal?

  4. What won't happen if I don't reach my goal?

Now, all you have to do is write the answers you come up with to each question in the quadrant.

The method can be better explained visually.

1. The first quadrant, i.e. quadrant A, entails all that will occur if the goal is fulfilled. In other words, it answers the questions, “What will happen if I accomplish this goal?” or “What will I enjoy when I reach this goal?”. There are obviously some specific rewards that we look forward to as part of attaining this goal. All of these can be explored within quadrant A.

Within this quadrant, there can be another classification - which of these occurrences/happenings are a rarity or a one-time occurrence? While all of the rewards might be appealing, there may be a few specific rewards that may be unique to that time frame, and may not be available again.

For instance, let us consider that I have a goal to be in a different geographical location during a particular time frame - I want to go to the USA in the month of June.

Quadrant A would tell me everything I will enjoy when I reach the goal, like:

  • Meet my teacher’s teachers - Judith Balonger, Rober Dilts

  • Stand on UC Santa Cruz soil

  • Eat burgers

  • Be part of the Legacy Master Class

  • Get a photograph taken with all the attendees and instructors

  • Meet my cousins

  • Receive a certificate from the hands of the very people who created neurolinguistics

Amongst all of these smaller goals, which are absolutely non-negotiable? Which of these will I never be able to receive again? In other words, I consider these events as significant losses that I will incur if I do not go this time. Because they are limited to that time frame only, and I may not be able to avail myself of those opportunities again. After careful analysis, I come to the conclusion that there are only three such goals. By going to the USA in June, I want to:

  • Be part of the Legacy Master Class

  • Get a photograph taken with all the attendees and instructors

  • Receive a certificate from the hands of the very people who created neurolinguistics

While all of the other goals are also important to me, there is an excellent likelihood that I will be able to accomplish them on any other occasion, that is, they are negotiable factors - for instance, I could meet my cousins on their bi-annual India visit or I could visit UC Santa Cruz sometime in the spring.

2. The third quadrant, Quadrant C, asks us what will happen if things remain as they are. In other words, we 0need to collect the pros of this thing not happening. What will we keep, or gain, if our goal is unfulfilled?

Considering the previous example, I would remain in India, if the goal was unfulfilled. Instead, I would probably try to complete other tasks I had previously planned for my fall calendar, or complete tasks I had been putting off for ages. For instance, I could -

  • Take a TED talk that was scheduled in June

  • Host seminars

  • Renovate the office

  • Write a book

  • Train a new batch of interns

  • Go on a well-deserved vacation

  • Attend my 30th wedding anniversary party

One important aspect amongst these quadrants is to pit them against each other. Ask yourself - is there anything within this quadrant that I consider extremely valuable, that I will lose out on if I do accomplish the goal? For instance, if I received the news that Oprah Winfrey would also be speaking at the TED convention the same day that I would be speaking, I would consider this a great honour and I would estimate the value of that experience higher than I previously had. This might, in turn, affect how I visualise my goal of going to the USA.

3. The second quadrant, Quadrant B examines “What will not happen if I fulfill this goal?” Now we switch to the downsides of this goal being accomplished. This quadrant operates within the negative. Consider the same example as before: If I did go to the USA, These are the things that would not occur:

  • My 30th wedding anniversary celebration

  • Any probable honours/awards like the Bharat Ratna, which are only awarded once in ceremony

  • Speak at a TED Talk with Oprah

This quadrant consists of all of those things that are absolutely non-negotiable from Quadrant C. While some goals like training new interns, renovating the office and hosting seminars are events that are mundane and ever present, only a handful of these experiences I deem as extremely worth my while. These are included in Quadrant B. How we value the experiences that we will likely miss out on if we do accomplish a certain goal is a decisive factor in understanding whether the goal is really something that we can execute. If there is something in this quadrant that we hold high in esteem, there is a good possibility that we may not be able to execute the tasks necessary to achieve the goal, as we have extremely attractive fringe benefits even in the absence of goal fulfillment that may come very close to or even surpass the perceived benefits that attaining the goal offers us. This may cause us to abandon our goal.

4. The last quadrant, Quadrant D, answers, “What won't happen if I do not accomplish this goal?” or “What is it that we will lose or miss if we are unable to reach the goal?”. This last quadrant can be tricky, as it answers the negatives of an unreached goal. We might find it extremely similar to Quadrant A, especially because this is a double negation, but let us examine it more carefully. Quadrant D includes all of those non-negotiable aspects of Quadrant A that we had earlier discussed. In my case, those were:

  • Be part of the Legacy Master Class

  • Get a photograph taken with all the attendees and instructors

  • Receive a certificate from the hands of the very people who created neurolinguistics

These experiences or outcomes are the defining factors that will either make or break my goal. If I consider the loss of these experiences extremely burdensome, then there is a high likelihood that I will be able to achieve my goal.

The science comes down to this - Quadrants A & B offer ground for negotiation as they force us to evaluate what we deem more important than the other. However, Quadrant D is the ultimate dealbreaker. If the consequences in Quadrant D seem unbearable to live with, this is a sure sign that we will achieve the intended goal. One simple hack is to identify the non-negotiables within Quadrant A and identify their value. By doing this we single out the overriding factors that will push us to complete the goal.

The effectiveness of this method lies in the fact that it provides a highly balanced and holistic view of an individual’s present predicament and his tentative position upon accomplishing certain goals. This method is especially useful when there are a lot of outcomes that seem flexible in the process. As humans, or in other words, cognitive misers, we often tend to fixate only on one point when we’re in a situation that requires us to make the tough decision of beginning a journey. The four-quadrant method lets us evaluate the same situation from four different angles, thereby allowing us to make a conscious decision on whether or not to follow through with a goal. One aspect that we should pay attention to while answering the questions framed by the four quadrants is that of integrity. The more honest we are with ourselves while examining priorities, the more definitive a theory we can frame about the goal itself and all that it entails.

Goal setting is not a difficult task. However, if you do want to gauge your chances at success, or understand the salience of a goal to your entire being, the four-quadrant method provides a straightforward, fruitful analysis. Also, if you think the outcomes of your goal seem a little hazy and you’re open to discussion, this is it! Have you ever admired a Phil Sokolof in your life? Have you ever wondered how they were able to pull off seemingly insurmountable tasks and achieve phenomenal results? You can employ this simple yet amazingly effective tool in your life, and witness breakthroughs in your personal and professional life.


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This article on ' The Four Quadrants and Goal Setting' has been contributed by Rhema Blessie Merigala who is a clinical psychology student from Amity University, Mumbai.

Rhema is a part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP), which is mentored by Anil Thomas.

Rhema has broad research interests at the intersection of child and health psychology. When she's not reading the newest book on the lot, you can find her either catching up on her favourite podcasts or baking up a storm.

GIRP is an initiative by (International Journal of Neurolinguistics & Gestalt Psychology) IJNGP and Umang Foundation Trust to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.

Anil is an internationally certified NLP Master Practitioner and Gestalt Therapist. He has conducted NLP Training in Mumbai, and across 6 other countries. The NLP practitioner course is conducted twice every year. To get your NLP certification


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