Rule #1 About Your Goals: You Do Not Talk About Your Goals!

So, imagine this. You spend your Saturday over at a friend’s apartment, where you sit on the couch all day eating pizza and marathoning Puella Magi Madoka Magica with Starship Troopers as a finale. Productivity-wise, the day is a complete waste – but it was fun and that’s all that matters.

To make up for it, you spring up off your friend’s couch at the crack of noon and exclaim:

Shiiiiiiit dawg, I’m gonna get my entire networking assignment done today. Yeah. The whole thing. I’m just gonna lock myself in the bowels of the library and crank the sucker out. I’ll even throw in my management assignment. Man, I’m gonna be so productive. 

Whoa. Whoa now. Back up, Mr. Taco McSparkles, because you’ve just made a grave mistake. As it turns out, announcing your intention to do something actually decreases the likelihood that you’ll follow through and, you know, do it.

“Wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute!” you say, (holy crap, Yosemite Sam was racist! Ok, back on track) “I thought announcing your goals was actually a good thing, because, you know, accountability and stuff!”

Nope

You’d think that, wouldn’t you. I did. I think most people do. It seems like common sense to tell somebody about a goal you’re planning on meeting; doing so suddenly creates an external motivator (not letting down said person) which should help you stay motivated.

Well, the first thing I see wrong with this assumption is, well, another assumption: you assume the other person actually gives a shit. In most cases, they don’t. Now, I’m not saying your friends and family don’t care about your goals and dreams, or that they won’t be supportive. I’m sure they do and they will. It’s just that most people are either too busy or too lazy to actually make you accountable. When’s the last time your buddy called you and asked how your diet was going? Even if they did that, did they come over and slap you in the face for eating that pizza? Probably not.

However, that isn’t the reason you should keep your trap shut. The real reason is SCIENCE. Yup. Allow me to explainticate.

Psychological researchers have been studying the intention-behavior gap, and the stuff that affects it, since the 1920’s. Basically, we as humans like to dream. A lot. We have tons and tons of dreams, goals, and fantasies. We are also (usually) smart enough to see the first steps we need to take in order to achieve these goals. Oftentimes the first step is right in front of us, whether it be a quick phone call or an application.

There’s another thing about us humans, though; we seem to have trouble actually taking that first step. And the steps after that? Friggin’… FORGET IT! Those steps are taken even less frequently. That’s why those psychologists call it the intention-behavior gap. 

Peter Gollwitzer and some other researchers at NYU released a paper a few year ago entitled, “When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap?” In this paper, they detail the findings of their research on the effects of announcing one’s goals on the intention-behavior gap.

In the experiments they conducted, they asked a group of people to define a goal they’d like to achieve. For the experiment, they would be given 45 minutes to work on the goal. Here’s the play: half of the group announced their goals to the room, while the other half kept their traps shut.

The results were pretty astounding. The group that didn’t say anything tended to work for the entire 45 minutes, and when asked about their progress, they said they had a lot more work to do until they were done. However, the group that announced their goal quit after only 33 minutes on average, and they tended to say they felt much closer to completing the goal.

Bam. The proof is in the pudding. See, when you announce your goal to someone and they affirm it, you feel good. You feel like you’ve actually taken a step towards the goal. It gives you some satisfaction. This is called a social reality. The affirmation of your goal by people whose respect your desire actually makes you feel like you’ve somewhat achieved it, even though you haven’t done jack squat.

As a result, you’re much more likely to quit like a baby. Still not convinced? Check out Derek Siver’s TED talk on the subject (my inspiration for this post):

So, for the most part, I’d recommend not announcing your goals to people. There are other ways of committing yourself to them. Create a progress notebook in Evernote. Design a desktop wallpaper that reminds you of your goal. Develop a legitimate habit of working on them so it’s automatic. (Want to learn more about habits? There’s some exclusive content with your name on it if you subscribe to my newsletter using the box below this post. Wink.)

If you really feel like you should tell someone your goal, I think you should ask them to commit to it with you. Obviously this doesn’t work for every goal, but it does work for things like healthy eating, exercise, and committing to wear silly hats every day.

Alright. I hope you learned something. I did (that’s why I’m not telling you about the big goal I’m working on). Now go out there and work on your goal!

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Thomas Frank is the geek behind College Info Geek. After paying off $14K in student loans before graduating, landing jobs and internships, starting a successful business, and travelling the globe, he's now on a mission to help you build a remarkable college experience as well. Get the Newsletter | Twitter | Facebook

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7 Comments:
    • You know, you may be onto something there. I’ll get right to that after I finish my very important session of thumb dexterity exercises, which I efficiently combine with reaction time training utilizing interactive productivity software.

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