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Sharing Your Goal Will Reduce Your Chance of Reaching It

Sharing Your Goal Will Reduce Your Chance of Reaching It

This time, it’s going to work. You’re going to achieve your goal. You announce your plan on Facebook. People know what you’re doing. Failure means humiliation. A couple months later, someone asks how your goal is coming along. You mumble an excuse for why you didn’t make it. Other tasks took priority.You haven’t been feeling so good lately. You just plumb forgot about it.

But you know the truth. You lost motivation. What looked like a 400 meter sprint turned out to be a 10 mile marathon. It’s just not fun anymore. You justify quitting and announce a new goal.This time, it’s going to work. But probably not.

Announcing goals is exciting. It feels like you’ve just achieved something big. You talk about what you’re going to do and everyone pats you on the back. The grander the scheme that you dream up, the more excited people get for you. Sharing your goals with the world gives you that positive feedback and validation that you so desperately crave. And that’s exactly why you don’t want to share them.

Sharing Goals Creates an Illusion of Progress

In 2009, NYU psychologist Peter Gollwitzer conducted four tests in a German university. The purpose: find out how likely we are to achieve our goals after we share them.

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Gollwitzer set up four different tests, consisting of 163 psychology and law students. After each person wrote down a personal goal, half of them were to announce their commitment to the room, while the other half did not. All the students were given 45 minutes to work on their goals, and were told that they could stop at any time. The students that​ didn’t​ announce their goals worked the entire 45 minutes on average, and felt that they had a long way to go before their goal would be achieved. The students who did announce their goals only worked 33 minutes on average, and felt they were much closer to achieving their goals.

Is it possible that the latter group worked harder than the other? Could this be why they feel closer to their goal? Sure, that’s possible. But it’s also obvious that this group had better things to do. This group assumed it was a done deal, while the former group took on a more realistic viewpoint. Who would you bet on?

Sharing Goals Steals Your Motivation

Whether you’re looking to become a lawyer or a better parent, your brain looks for indicators that you’re moving along. According to Gollwitzer, these indicators are calledidentity symbols.

From research article, ‘When Intentions Go Public’:

Positive self-descriptions made in public qualify as powerful identity symbols (Gollwitzer, Wicklund, & Hilton, 1982), and having an audience for behavioral intentions that specify the successful performance of an identity-relevant activity should have the same symbolic impact.

Saying you’re going to do something creates the same identity symbols you’d get from actually doing it. If you say you’re going to become a great lawyer, get the body of a fitness model, or become the world’s greatest Candy Crush player, your brain already feels like you’re there. You’re going to sink back into your chair, pleased with your progress. You think about all the good things that are coming your way. Facebook just stole your motivation and you don’t even realize it.

Try TheseApproaches

How are you supposed to get motivated if you can’t talk about your goals?

Here’s an approach from NYU psychologist Gabriele Oettingen:

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What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.” Here’s how it works. Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.

This simple process, which my colleagues and I call “mental contrasting,” has produced powerful results in laboratory experiments.

A compliment to mental contrasting is an accountability group. These are groups of people who are on the same journey as you. They understand the difficulties you face, and share in the joys of small victories. Make sure to join an accountability group that is specific to your goals. If weight loss is your goal, join a group of people who are all trying to lose weight.

Another option is to tempt your friends with the almighty dollar. You may have heard the story of the Las Vegas pit boss who offered a cash reward to anyone who caught him smoking. You don’t have to offer thousands of dollars; even $25 per workout missed is enough to tempt your friends and keep you in check.

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Final Thoughts

In September 2010, Derek Sivers presented a TED Talk called, “Keep your goals to yourself”. Although this video racked up 3.5 million views (and no doubt prompted many discussions), you still see many people announcing their goals on social media. Have you ever noticed that those people never seem to reach their goal? Are you one of them?

Do yourself a favor, and save the celebration for once you’ve made it.

Featured photo credit: Nancy G via flickr.com

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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