Just Set the Right Goals

In his blog today, Derek Sivers pointed to a study called When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap? From this and similar studies Derek concluded that “people who talk about their intentions are less likely to make them happen.” Wray Herbert also offered similar advice in his Newsweek Mind Matters column.

This advice may be true for some intentions, but the blanket statement does not tell the whole story.  The message should be to keep talking – but with the right type of goals. More specifically:


Do not set identity-related behavioral intentions. As shown by these studies, they are often ineffective. Instead, set goals that have intrinsic reward.

For example, here are two goals.

I am learning guitar to become a musician.

I am learning guitar to play my mother’s favorite song at her birthday party in a year.

See the difference?

The first is identity-related. I announce I want to be a musician. Identity-related goals meets almost none of the classic benchmarks of goal setting. “To be a musician” is not specific, not measurable, maybe attainable, probably realistic and not time-bound.

On the other hand, “to play my mother’s favorite song at her birthday party in a year” is very specify and measurable. It is also attainable, realistic, and time-bound.

Do share your intentions. And do so with the right goals.

Continuing with the guitar example, I assert that you will be more likely to end up playing your mother’s favorite tune at her birthday party next year if you publicly commit to it now. Ask yourself: Once your dad, brothers, sisters, and long-time family friends have been looking forward to your moving performance for a year are you more or less likely to do it when the time comes? If you kept the intention private, there is a great chance you will either forget you ever had the idea or the time would come and you will feel ill-prepared and chicken out (because you want everything to be perfect).

For some goals, okay – keep quiet.  For the right goals, keep talking!

Derek shares:

Tests done since 1933 show that people who talk about their intentions are less likely to make them happen. Announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed.

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.

What his blog post does not make clear is that the studies looked specifically at “social reality” and “identity-related intentions”.

Social Reality and Identity-related behavioral intentions

Gollwitzer describes social reality in Symbolic Self-Completion.

Once others acknowledge the person for having solved the problem, having solved it becomes a social fact and thus can serve as a self-defining symbol. This line of thinking can be carried back to Cooley (1902), who states that self-definitions can come into being and remain stable only by virtue of the acknowledgment of others. Thus the sense of progress toward a self-defining goal is dependent on the acknowledgment of others. We will call this the social reality factor.

In other words, the study looked at goals that have as their success criteria the acknowledgment of others. When others observe some level of your goal identity, you are said to have made progress toward the goal.

The tests were also looking specifically at “identity-related behavioral intentions” as described by Gollwitzer:

(e.g., the intention to read law periodicals regularly to reach the identity goal of becoming a lawyer).

A concept of symbolic self-completion states that people define themselves as musicians, athletes, etc. by use of indicators of attainment in those activity realms, such as possessing a prestige job, having extensive education, or whatever is recognized by others as indicating progress toward completing the self-definition.

When people refer to themselves as “physicians,” “rally drivers,” or “guitarists,” it is commonly thought that they possess qualifications corresponding to these titles. … More generally, when a person pursuing a given activity can talk about the self positively, or otherwise attempts to gain more recognition for performing that activity, the audience for these words and gestures is likely to conclude that the person is indeed well prepared and competent. But such an inference is often erroneous.

So sure, I’ll agree. If people erroneously give you enough of your sought after identity by you talking-the-talk, then there is little motivation for you to walk-the-walk.  Your primary or supporting goal falls to the wayside in favor of the identity goal being erroneously achieved.

For my money though, I continue to find that goals – when framed right – that I announce to others more often become achieved than goals that I keep private.

What about you?

2 comments

  1. Great analysis! I agree. I’ve linked to it from the original article in the comments. Thanks!

  2. […] Blog | Always positive, sometimes relevant, occasionally useful. ‹ Just Set the Right Goals […]

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