Goal Setting

If you wanna improve your life, keep your goals a secret. Or at least, if you don’t, be warned that it may decrease your chances of actually meeting them. This seems somewhat counter-intuitive, and goes against some of the conventional wisdom and motivational advice out there. Especially with goals like quitting smoking, people are encouraged to tell others about their plans, to “make themselves accountable” for sticking to them. This feels good, because telling other people about your goals provides the same dopamine boost, the same sense of satisfaction, that the brain would produce after actually meeting the goal in question. The problem is that this makes your brain less “hungry” for that same boost, and takes away one source of motivation which can help you meet your goals. So try not to short-circuit your plans by telling them to other people, at least not prematurely.

The other thing about goals is that there are two kinds, at least. The normal idea of a goal is an achievement-based goal, where it’s about where we get to, where we’re going. The other way of looking at it is a behavioural goal, which isn’t about where we’re headed but about how we get there; it focuses on the journey, not the destination. So an achievement goal would be “I want to write a book.” A more realistic version of this would be “I want to write a book by the end of the year.” A behavioural version of this goal would be “I want to write a thousand words a day.” These behavioural goals are more useful for many people than achievement goals. If you plan to write a book at a specific time then you plan to spend the intervening time writing a certain number of words with a certain amount of regularity. The achievement goal is impossible without your first meeting the behavioural goal. There’s a quote, that “People don’t really decide their future; they decide their habits, and their habits decide their future,” which I find summarizes the whole idea about these two types of goals succinctly.

Behavioural goals are related to the growth mindset I outlined in a previous post, while achievement goals are kind of like the static mindset I talked about. They’re similarly opposed and fall into the same kinds of thinking. Static ideas and achievement based goals do seem to be much more common than the growth mindset and behavioural goals, but are markedly less effective. Another important point is that you should set yourself small, realistic goals to meet today, or tomorrow, or this week. If you give yourself a specific time and make your goals easy, maybe even fun, without setting the bar too high, then you get your brain into the habit of following through and seeking that completion reward, rather than just enjoying the rewarding feeling of having a plan without the need to follow through with it.

The other thing is that even if your goals are behavioural, they can still be unrealistic. Saying “I want to work out every day and never make a mistake and study for two hours every night” is pretty much impossible, and setting yourself up to fail like this makes it less likely that you’re going to succeed in the future. This means there’s something like a meta-level of behavioural goal setting. I want to behave in positive ways which can, over time, improve my understanding and physical and mental fitness, but I also want to accept my mistakes and see them as part of the learning process, rather than evidence that it’s not going to work, and beyond this I also want to be able to slowly and realistically improve the consistency of my behaviour, rather than planning to start a new, high-powered routine immediately and being incredibly disappointed and demotivated if I fail to stick to it after the first week.

So, to get to where you want to be, it might help to plan to behave in ways which lead to success, to de-emphasise specific goals about what grand accomplishments you’re going to make, to give yourself small goals in the short term which are easy for you to meet, to increase the challenging intensity of your goals over time, and to keep the whole thing a secret, at least until it’s well under-way and you’ve already started to receive some of those mental rewards rather than getting all of your satisfaction from the positive ideation itself, and the related affirmation you get from telling your friends.