Big Goals: Tell or Don’t Tell?

When it comes to big goals, your perseverance, follow-through and focus are key factors to achieving what you want.

But motivation and progress can fade over time, especially in the face of setbacks and obstacles.

To make your grand plan happen, do you tell others about it or do you zip it?

Conventional wisdom states that you share your goals with others to sustain your motivation for meeting them. The idea is that social pressure and outside accountability will help you stay on track.

But in a viral 2010 TED Talk titled “Keep your goals to yourself,” Derek Sivers argues that telling someone your goals makes it less likely they will happen. He says the good feeling you get from sharing your new plan can keep you from doing the real work. He notes that acknowledgment from others makes you feel like it’s already done, so you become less motivated to do it.

Gollwitzer’s Study

To support his talk, Sivers cites to the work of Dr. Peter Gollwitzer, a leading authority on goal achievement and a psychology professor at New York University. In a 2009 study, When Intentions Go Public, Gollwitzer concluded that when others take notice of your intentions, your performance of the intended behavior is compromised.

Sivers summarizes the study as follows: The 163 subjects were asked to write down a personal goal. Half of them announced their goal to the room and half of them didn’t. They were then told they had 45 minutes to work toward their goal, but they could stop at any time.

Those who kept quiet about their goal worked the entire 45 minutes on average. When time was up, they reported that they still had work to do to reach their goal. Meanwhile, those who shared their goal quit after 33 minutes on average. They believed they were already close to reaching their goal and didn’t need to use the entire time working toward it.

In truth, Sivers pulls data from just one of the four tests in Gollwitzer’s study. That test included only 30 law students who were committed to a career in law. They were asked to complete a questionnaire, which included this critical intention item on the first page: “I intend to make the best possible use of educational opportunities in law.” Students responded to this item on a 9-point scale ranging from “definitely yes” to “definitely no.” Half of the students then placed their surveys anonymously into a drop box. The other half had the item acknowledged by the researcher.

The students were then given 45 minutes to conduct complex legal analysis, but were told they could stop whenever they wanted. Those who stated their intention to make the best possible use of educational opportunities in law worked less intensely when their response to the item was acknowledged by the researcher than when it was not. They worked for 41.52 minutes on average. The others worked for 45.65 minutes on average.

It’s not clear how Sivers came up with the 33-minute number. The students also did not announce their goals to the room as Sivers claims in his TED talk. Gollwitzer’s paper also does not discuss how the students felt about their progress toward their goals.

Sivers himself later published a post clarifying that the studies only referred to identity goals (goals that are “usually related to personal development” and “that would make you a slightly different person if completed”). Identity goals include I want to be a marathon runner, I am a world class chef, I want to be fit, I am a good parent.

Gollwitzer generally concludes that announcing an intention goal can lead to complacency and an inflated self-image.  Both talk and action create identity symbols in your brain. If you mistake talking for doing, you might experience a premature sense of completeness that stops you from pursuing your goals.

But it’s not always possible (or wise) to keep your mouth shut about your big goals. Your line of work might require you to go public with your strategic plans and long-term vision. And in many cases, it helps to share your goals with others to get their support and input.

How do you reap the benefits of outside accountability without sabotaging your efforts?

1. Know that your mind frequently mistakes talking for doing.

Discussing how you bought running shoes, joined a gym and created a diet plan is different from becoming a marathon runner. Talking about how you will churn out 1,000 words each day is different from writing your book.

Don’t get so caught up in the social gratification of talking about what you will do that you neglect to do it. Sivers notes that if you do tell someone about your intention, state it as dissatisfaction (“I need to train five times a week for this marathon, so if I don’t, call me on it!), instead of as a satisfaction (“I’m going to run the marathon!”).

2. Do not confuse accountability with judgment.

Share your plans with family, friends, colleagues, mentors and coaches who you trust. Encourage them to ask you about your progress and give them permission to hold you accountable.

Decide whether you will discuss your goals daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly or yearly. Regardless of the frequency, it helps to have a set date for when you will reveal your progress.

Choose people who will tell you when you are off track, but won’t judge you for it. You value their opinion and you appreciate the high standard they set for you. But they don’t beat you down or infuse negative energy if you’re struggling.

3. Practice good timing.

Tell your trusted circle about your goal only when you are truly interested in achieving it. If you lack commitment, getting cajoled by others will have little effect. Accountability can start to backfire if it feels like you’re being nagged or forced to do something that’s really not right for you.

Typically, going public on Facebook and Twitter or on your blog and website is not ideal if you’re still deciding what you want. Such online forums can be good for sharing ideas, getting feedback, and generating solutions.

But before you go public with your goals, make a specific plan and commit to follow through. If you have the interest and the commitment, social pressure can give you the extra boost you need.

4. Get specific with your intentions.

Don’t just state what you want to do. Say when, where and how you will do it. Create actionable, discrete steps. Without a good roadmap and the right tools to get you where you want to be, you could wander off course, lose traction, or perish from the elements.

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Putting yourself out there carries risks, such as being criticized or getting your ideas stolen. But your trusted circle will help you bare the brunt of judgment. And it’s hard for thieves to break down your ideas into actionable steps and actually execute them. Outside accountability often boosts your perseverance, follow-through and focus.

What’s your approach to achieving your big goals? Do you tell or don’t tell? Does it depend on the goal? Experiment and see what works better for you.


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Photo by: spo0ky, Anne-Sophee Liens