Should you tell people your goals?

I ran into a TED video last night about telling people your goals. It’s a very short video, worth looking at before you read the rest of this post.

So Sivers claims that we should keep our goals to ourselves. When we tell someone else our goals, they often give us approval and praise right away just for setting the goal. The boost we get from this can actually discourage us from pursuing the goal. We have already gotten the reward.

This idea annoyed me a bit, because it did make some sense. I can think of goals I’ve set for myself recently where I did talk to people about the goal early on. They were suitably impressed and stroked me for just stating the goal. And so far, I have not gotten very far attaining those goals. But the real reason this annoyed me is that it flies in the face of other research too.

I’m reading a book called 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, an evidence based self help book. In one chapter, he specifically says that he has conducted experiments where the opposite is true. In his experiments, subjects who told people their goals publicly were more likely to do them. Wiseman sites other studies which support this hypothesis, so I don’t think it’s clear one way or the other. Perhaps it does help to get support from our friends and for them to hold our feet to the fire a bit when it comes to our goals. The fear of disappointing them and feeling like a failure might motivate us, as will the anticipation of their admiration when we succeed.

So it got me thinking. Would there be a way to publicly commit to a goal without publicly committing to it? What if we could commit to a goal privately, but when that deadline was up, the goal would show up as our Facebook status and our friends would be able to tell if we met that goal. Would the anticipation of that day drive us? Would we fear looking like a failure and work harder? Would we crave their approbation and hit our targets?

If I were a scientist, I’d love to test this. The experiment would be simple, get a pool of people who have a goal. Have half of them post their goal immediately into their Facebook status. Have the other half use an application like Later Bro to set a future Facebook status with their goal on the deadline date. And then see which method is more effective. I suppose you would need another group which would do neither. They would keep the goal a complete secret. After all, that might be the most effective way to do it.

I think this might be a great way to do New Year’s resolutions. Instead of announcing your resolutions on January 1st, you set them to be announced on December 31st of next year. Then at your next New Year’s Eve party, your friends can either tease you for not making your goals or congratulate you on the goals you met.

5 thoughts on “Should you tell people your goals?”

  1. I think your idea puts too much focus on the Goal and not enough on the Process. The problem with accomplishment in general is that people spend too much time focused on visualizing the end state and how good that will feel, and not so much on the drudgery of how-to-get-there.

    If you scrutinize the phrasing used to announce those goals, I’ll bet there’s a difference between the instances where it helped and where it did not. Sivers makes it pretty clear that the problem isn’t simply announcing it, but announcing it and receiving approval. He even says in that video that announcing “stop me if you see me eating junk food” is better than “I’m going to lose 10 lbs” (paraphrasing). There’s a clear difference; the former case is about process, not the accomplishment.

    There’s also the issue of accountability: failing to meet a goal posted on the Internet is not as high stakes as it might sounds. It’s not like I’m going to lose my friends if I fail to meet my goal. Personally, I want to lose weight, but I’m harder on myself about it than anyone else I know. If I fail to lose 30 lbs by the end of 2011, I’ll already feel pretty bad about it; my friends would have to be monsters to pile on. I know this, so I know that the impending announcement won’t really change things.

    I think the key thing to take away from the research isn’t “zip it” (Sivers’s catchy title emphasizes the wrong thing) but to focus on the HOW instead of the WHAT.

  2. Telling other people about your goal is just one of many points that Wiseman talks about in his book. His treatment is a bit more thorough, albeit confusing on a few points. It does seem clear that creating a step by step plan is helpful. If your goal is to be a rock star, but you don’t break it down into smaller steps (like saving up to buy a guitar, taking lessons, playing at an open mic, etc.), you are less likely to achieve the goal.

    He suggests that dwelling on the positive consequences of your goal should help, as should rewarding yourself when you achieve the progress. Lastly recording your progress in a journal or a chart should help too.

    The things that don’t seem to help are focusing on a role model, thinking about the negative consequences of not reaching the goal, trying to suppress unhelpful thoughts, relying on willpower, fantasizing about how great your life will be when you get there. One thing that is confusing is that last point, since it seems very similar to thinking about the positive consequences.

    For me the thing that most seems to help is breaking those goals down into smaller goals, and keep focused on what I need to do tomorrow, next week and next month.

    Here is what I’m going to take from Sivers. Those larger goals that I want to achieve, the ones which are at least a year or more away from, the ones that will take many steps to achieve and are bit more of a reach. I’m going to keep those to myself. But the smaller goals, the ones that are in progress, that I’m likely to achieve within the next few weeks or months, I may talk about more openly. When I’m within striking distance of those goals, I think talking about them does solidify my will to achieve them. It’s the difference between telling my friends that I’m taking guitar lessons, and that I want to perform a concert at Metro here in Chicago.

    Ironically, I have scheduled some work for myself right now, work to achieve a particular goal that I’m putting off by writing this reply.

  3. Interesting! I have a goal of losing 50 pounds and I announced it on my blog in July 2010 and then I used to post my exercise everyday on Facebook. I liked the thumbs up on the Facebook and that inspired me to continue to post the exercise everday – so that was working. BUT when people see me and say “wow you look great” this derails me and makes me lazy. I have lost 30 pounds so far – but I lost it in the first 5 months & have been on a big giant plateau since then and have 20 more to go; I’m happy that I haven’t re-gained it, but I’d like to get to the end of this goal. Interesting to think about the announcing it publicly thing; I still think writing goals down contributes greatly to achieving the goals.

  4. Sometimes you need support to lose weight, especially from those you live with and often who you work with too. So, I don’t think it’s good to completely keep it a secret. Mostly, I think it’s best to keep the big goals to yourself for as long as you can. If you want to run a marathon, start running and keep the big goal a secret until you actually sign up for the race.

    Congratulations on losing 30 pounds. The first pounds are always the easiest. I’ve been stuck with about 20 pounds that I can’t get off for about four years now. It’s frustrating. I think we are in a similar situation.

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