For Motivation, Keep Goals Secret

Con­ven­tion­al wis­dom for set­ting goals and fol­low­ing through on inten­tions is to make a pub­lic state­ment of intent in order to bring about some account­ab­il­ity. How­ever the research on the the­ory is mixed.

Derek Sivers sum­mar­ises a num­ber of stud­ies that sug­gest we should keep our goals private if we want to remain motiv­ated (espe­cially if that goal is con­trib­ut­ing to a per­ceived or hoped-for ‘iden­tity’):

Announ­cing your plans to oth­ers sat­is­fies your self-iden­tity just enough that you’re less motiv­ated to do the hard work needed.

In 1933, W. Mahler found that if a per­son announced the solu­tion to a prob­lem, and was acknow­ledged by oth­ers, it was now […] a “social real­ity”, even if the solu­tion hadn’t actu­ally been achieved.

NYU psy­cho­logy pro­fess­or Peter Goll­witzer has been study­ing this since his 1982 book Sym­bol­ic Self-Com­ple­tion (pdf art­icle here) – and recently pub­lished res­ults of new tests in a research art­icle, When Inten­tions Go Pub­lic: Does Social Real­ity Widen the Inten­tion-Beha­vi­or Gap?

Four dif­fer­ent tests of 63 people found that those who kept their inten­tions private were more likely to achieve them than those who made them pub­lic and were acknow­ledged by oth­ers.

Once you’ve told people of your inten­tions, it gives you a “pre­ma­ture sense of com­plete­ness.”

The research art­icle in ques­tion con­cludes that “Iden­tity-related beha­vi­or­al inten­tions that had been noticed by oth­er people were trans­lated into action less intens­ively than those that had been ignored” and that “when oth­er people take notice of an individual’s iden­tity-related beha­vi­or­al inten­tion, this gives the indi­vidu­al a pre­ma­ture sense of pos­sess­ing the aspired-to iden­tity”.

One thought on “For Motivation, Keep Goals Secret

  1. Tim

    Ok… I see the effect in that study – but does it really apply to large scale goals that we pur­sue over long peri­ods of time in real life? As far as I under­stand this study, it was in a pretty lim­ited set­ting and in a pretty lim­ited amount of time.

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