Goal Setting: It's Best to Keep it to Yourself.

We’re one month in to the New Year and any New Year’s resolutions you made should be well and truly underway.

What had you resolved to work on this year? Was it to loose a few of those pesky kilograms that appeared last year? Or to make every recipe from Jamie Oliver’s 15-Minute Meal Recipe book and blog about it? Or was it something far more audacious like finding a new job or achieving that promotion you’ve been eyeing off.

Whatever it was, I hope you kept it to yourself.

Research by Peter Gollwitzer (2009) found that when we tell other people about our goals, we are less likely to actually achieve them.

A very surprising result, considering this conclusion is incongruous with the old adage of “tell people your goals and they will hold you to account”.

It turns out when we tell people our goals they often respond with positive remarks, congratulating our wonderful decision to pursue a goal. This type of response provides our brain with a sense of instant gratification; making us feel as though we are already on our way to achieving our goals. In turn, this makes us less hungry and less likely to put in the hard work to make our goals come true.

So what should you do? Keep your goals to yourself, or tell others so they can pressure you into doing them.

Well the recommendation falls somewhere in the middle. When you need to inform other people of your goals you can structure your announcement as a “goal-but” statement.

For example:

“My goal is to become the manager of this department in 18 months, but I will need to better understand the commercial side before that happens”.

“I am going to complete the corporate triathlon in May, but I will need to start training this week if I’m going to be fit enough”.

In the “goal-but” scenario you are stating your future intention (i.e. the “goal”), and in the same breath, providing the weight of reality and real-world behaviours required for you to achieve this goal (i.e. the “but”). By doing this you are dampening the potential accolades you could receive from the person learning about your goal. They are less likely to tell you how wonderful your goal is, which in turn is less likely to give you a feeling of gratification and ensure you stay hungry for your goal.

So next year, when someone asks what your New Year Resolution will be, tell them you don’t have one. Then work your tail off to achieve those secret goals you’ve been sitting on!


Reference: Gollwitzer, P.M., Sheeran, P., Michalski, V. and Seifert, A.E. (2009). When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behaviour Gap? Association for Psychological Science, 20, 612-618.