Saturday, June 20, 2009

Hide Your Goals

In this post, my friend Aaron links to another blog that basically argues that telling people your goals typically leads to positive affirmation. Sounds good, right? I mean, one of the recurring fears that people express about trying to make big life changes (new career, body transformation, relationship changes, creative pursuits) is that they'll get mocked or criticized for their plans.

But it turns out that this positive affirmation for something you haven't actually accomplished gives you a false sense of satisfaction, as though you have already achieved the goal you shared. When in fact you are just stating your desire and intent to pursue and achieve that goal.

The ironic result is that the encouragement and support of others for your stated goal ends up undermining your efforts to reach that goal. You start acting and thinking as if you had already accomplished the goal you set for yourself. This takes away from your focus and drive. So you are less likely to achieve the goals that you share with people.

A few thoughts.

First, I wonder if these results hold true for goals revealed at different stages of the process. For example, telling people that I got a gym membership and I'm going to be working out three days a week and lose weight right after I get the membership is probably a bad idea. Whereas telling people halfway through the process of reaching that weight loss goal seems a little less likely to derail me, as I've already established some of the work habits needed.

To me the key seems to be establishing and ingraining the habits needed to achieve the goal before you start telling everyone about it. Because by that point you've got a bit of mental fortitude built up to help you resist the urge to pat yourself on the back too much if you get positive reactions from people. And everyone needs some positive feedback at some point.

Second, I wonder how this jibes with the idea I've read in various texts on modern magical thought that acting and believing "as if" a goal has already been achieved is a key to attuning yourself to receive whatever positive potential related to your goal is out there in the world. Maybe the key difference is between being active and passive. Or there could just be a strong disconnect between these two types of thinking about the world.

Third, I wonder how this process relates to the idea of giving yourself daily, positive self-affirmations when working toward your goal. In other words, does giving yourself positive reinforcement also undermine your likelihood of achieving a stated goal, or does the negative impact occur only when you share your goals with other people? I'd be curious to see a study evaluating this aspect of the hypothesis, because positive self-affirmations and visualizations have been shown to have a positive effect on actual, real-world performance. So perhaps only the social aspect of praise--the role played by others in developing our self-image--has the potential to derail our pursuit of our goals.

From my personal experience, I suspect that the broad claim about not sharing your goals with others in order to be more productive about reaching those goals is true. It never pays to tell people what I'm writing about or planning to write about. I never get as good a reaction when I tell someone what I want to write as I do when I actually show them what I have written. It's just too hard to explain an outline or story out loud and I always feel a little embarrassed.

Someone whose name I've forgotten noted in a guide to writing that one should "Tell everyone that you are writing. Tell nobody what you are writing until it is done." If you allow for sharing manuscripts with people for review during the process, which has been very valuable for me, I think this advice is solid.

This is another reason, I think, to break goals down into specific, manageable chunks, because then it takes less time to achieve them, at which point you can tell somebody until you get some positive feedback and encouragement and then set out upon your next goal with some renewed energy and sense of accomplishment. And you don't tell anyone any specifics about that goal until you've reached it.

For writing and physical health, some manageable goals that I've attempted with some success are:
  • Write X amount of words a day for Y many consecutive days or until a total of XX number of words have been written.
  • Write for X amount of time each day for Y many consecutive days or until a specific target date.
  • Lose five pounds in X amount of time and keep the weight off for Y amount of time en route to reaching a bigger weight loss goal.
  • Do X amount of cardio exercise Y many days a week.
  • Improve a particular lift by 2.5 pounds each week until you can lift a desired amount of weight.
One of the biggest challenges, of course, remains continued motivation after a goal is reached. That's why I think the most successful approach is to integrate habits and behaviors that support your goal into your daily routine and everyday lifestyle, so that you stop thinking about them and simply grow to appreciate them as part of your life.

That's also why it's hard to focus on too many goals in life--you can only accommodate so many aspects into a consistent lifestyle.

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