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.