Tag Archives: goals

To Complete Goals, Concentrate on ‘The Big Picture’ (Not Subgoals)

To help con­trol and man­age pro­gress on a dif­fi­cult or long-term goal, we often split that goal into many indi­vidu­al sub­goals. Once we begin to com­plete these sub­goals, our con­tin­ued motiv­a­tion and pro­gress toward the main, or super­or­din­ate, goal can be com­prom­ised.

A study pub­lished in the Journ­al of Per­son­al­ity and Social Psy­cho­logy in 2006 shows that by put­ting people in mind of their sub­goal suc­cesses or on their main goal com­mit­ment causes drastic dif­fer­ences in their future effort (the lat­ter is bet­ter):

The authors show that when people con­sider suc­cess on a single sub­goal, addi­tion­al actions toward achiev­ing a super­or­din­ate goal are seen as sub­sti­tutes and are less likely to be pur­sued. In con­trast, when people con­sider their com­mit­ment to a super­or­din­ate goal on the basis of ini­tial suc­cess on a sub­goal, addi­tion­al actions toward achiev­ing that goal may seem to be com­ple­ment­ary and more likely to be pur­sued.

via Derek Sivers (Yep, via the post I linked-to in my pre­vi­ous post. I felt that this needed its own post as I wanted to provide a bal­anced view on the study, not just say­ing, some­what incor­rectly, “suc­cess on one sub-goal […] reduced efforts on oth­er import­ant sub-goals”.)

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”.

Letting Go of Goals

Designed to help you find focus and tackle “the prob­lems we face as we try to live and cre­ate in a world of over­whelm­ing dis­trac­tions” is focus : a sim­pli­city mani­festo in the age of dis­trac­tion.

This is Leo Babauta’s latest book and he is pro­du­cing it iter­at­ively online. One issue I have is that if there are two cur­rent trends that I’m unde­cided about and feel have been blow out of pro­por­tion it’s the min­im­al­ist life­style and the notion that mod­ern life is dis­tract­ing.

Regard­less, I enjoyed the fol­low­ing from the chapter let­ting go of goals, describ­ing why we should do exactly that:

They are arti­fi­cial — you aren’t work­ing because you love it, you’re work­ing because you’ve set goals.

They’re con­strain­ing — what if you want to work on some­thing not in line with your goals? Should­n’t we have that free­dom?

They put pres­sure on us to achieve, to get cer­tain things done. Pres­sure is stress­ful, and not always in a good way.

When we fail (and we always do), it’s dis­cour­aging.

But most of all, here’s the thing with goals: you’re nev­er sat­is­fied. Goals are a way of say­ing, “When I’ve accom­plished this goal (or all these goals), I will be happy then. I’m not happy now, because I haven’t achieved my goals.” This is nev­er said out loud, but it’s what goals really mean. The prob­lem is, when we achieve the goals, we don’t achieve hap­pi­ness. We set new goals, strive for some­thing new.

Perceived Complexity and Will Power

While will­power and ded­ic­a­tion mat­ter con­sid­er­ably in sus­tain­ing a res­ol­u­tion and reach­ing a desired goal, the per­ceived com­plex­ity of the pro­cess can have a big influ­ence on wheth­er we are likely to achieve that goal or not.

This con­clu­sion comes from a study show­ing how the sub­ject­ive “cog­nit­ive com­plex­ity” of a diet was a major factor in wheth­er people suc­cess­fully man­aged to stick to a diet.

“For people on a more com­plex diet […] their sub­ject­ive impres­sion of the dif­fi­culty of the diet can lead them to give up on it,” repor­ted Peter Todd, pro­fess­or in IU’s Depart­ment of Psy­cho­lo­gic­al and Brain Sci­ences.

[…] This effect holds even after con­trolling for the influ­ence of import­ant social-cog­nit­ive factors includ­ing self-effic­acy, the belief that one is cap­able of achiev­ing a goal like stick­ing to a diet regi­men to con­trol one’s weight.

“Even if you believe you can suc­ceed, think­ing that the diet is cog­nit­ively com­plex can under­mine your efforts.”

This agrees with the con­clu­sions drawn from sep­ar­ate research show­ing how some simple tricks to mak­ing suc­cess­ful res­ol­u­tions include redu­cing our “cog­nit­ive load” and accept­ing the lim­it­a­tions of will­power.

Will­power, like a bicep, can only exert itself so long before it gives out; it’s an extremely lim­ited men­tal resource.

Giv­en its lim­it­a­tions, New Year’s res­ol­u­tions are exactly the wrong way to change our beha­vi­or. […] Instead, we should respect the feeble­ness of self-con­trol, and spread our res­ol­u­tions out over the entire year. […] A tired brain, pre­oc­cu­pied with its prob­lems, is going to struggle to res­ist what it wants, even when what it wants isn’t what we need.

Determination, Long-Terms Goals, Success

Determ­in­a­tion and long-term goal-set­ting may be more con­trib­ut­ory to suc­cess than intel­li­gence, sug­gests research being con­duc­ted by Angela Duck­worth and her con­tem­por­ar­ies.

These two traits (per­sever­ance and keep­ing long-term goals in mind) are affec­tion­ately called ‘grit’ by research­ers in the field and—according to a 2007 paper on the sub­ject (pdf)—play an import­ant role in many aca­dem­ic achieve­ments.

Research­ers are quick to point out that grit isn’t simply about the will­ing­ness to work hard. Instead, it’s about set­ting a spe­cif­ic long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached. It’s always much easi­er to give up, but people with grit can keep going.

[…] These new sci­entif­ic stud­ies rely on new tech­niques for reli­ably meas­ur­ing grit in indi­vidu­als. As a res­ult, they’re able to com­pare the rel­at­ive import­ance of grit, intel­li­gence, and innate tal­ent when it comes to determ­in­ing life­time achieve­ment. Although this field of study is only a few years old, it’s already made import­ant pro­gress toward identi­fy­ing the men­tal traits that allow some people to accom­plish their goals, while oth­ers struggle and quit. Grit, it turns out, is an essen­tial (and often over­looked) com­pon­ent of suc­cess.

“I’d bet that there isn’t a single highly suc­cess­ful per­son who has­n’t depended on grit,” says Angela Duck­worth, a psy­cho­lo­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Pennsylvania who helped pion­eer the study of grit. “Nobody is tal­en­ted enough to not have to work hard, and that’s what grit allows you to do.”

Duck­worth cre­ated a sur­vey to meas­ure this “nar­rowly defined trait” (which you can take online), and it was actu­ally found to be a bet­ter indic­at­or of suc­cess than an IQ score in the 2007 Scripps Nation­al Spelling Bee.

For more on this top­ic In Char­ac­ter’s short inter­view with Angela Duck­worth is worth a read, as is Cal New­port’s excel­lent take on ‘grit’:

Main­tain a small num­ber of things that you return to, and do hard work on, again and again, over a long peri­od of time. Choose things that actu­ally interest you, but don’t obsesses over choos­ing the per­fect things — as per­fect goals […] prob­ably don’t exist.