Shh! Talking About Your Goals Makes Them Less Likely to Happen

Ransom Riggs

Let's say you've just set a difficult long-term goal for yourself -- something like becoming a lawyer, going vegan or writing a 26-volume history of the Civil War. What's the first thing you do? Most people would tell their friends about this new goal, to enlist moral support and a little back-patting. But according to a new study by psychologists at NYU, "going public" with your plans might not help you accomplish them -- in fact, it may de-motivate you.

How could this be? Newsweek analyzed the results of the study:

The study's author thinks it has to do with sense of identity and wholeness. We all want to be an idealized person, and declaring our intentions to work hard is a symbolic act. It contributes to the goal of completing who we are. That is, simply stating a strategy for [in the case of the study] becoming a good lawyer made the test subjects feel like they were real lawyers, and this inflated self-image paradoxically made them less hard working. They had become legends in their own minds, and legends don't have to get down and dirty.

Announcing your goals, at least according to this study, gives you a "premature sense of completeness" and makes you less motivated to actually achieve them. Derek Sivers looked at a related study:

A related test found that success on one sub-goal (eating healthy meals) reduced efforts on other important sub-goals (going to the gym) for the same reason. You have "identity symbols" in your brain that make your self-image. Since both actions and talk create symbols in your brain, talking satisfies the brain enough that it "neglects the pursuit of further symbols."

Does that mean you can never tell your friends what you're working on? Not necessarily, says Sivers. Expressing your goals not in a self-satisfied way ("I'm really gonna do it!") but in a dissatisfied manner ("I really need to do X, kick my butt if I don't") might help to disrupt that "premature sense of completeness."

What do you think?