If You Want to Achieve Your Goals, Keep Them to Yourself
Being quietly confident could increase your odds.
I’ve always been quietly confident. I work damn hard to get the results I want and create plans to reach my goals. But until I’ve had confirmation that I’ve managed to pull them off, very few people know about them.
On the day of my driving test, I told everyone I was ill to explain my absence from work. On the morning of school results day, I told everyone I thought I’d failed; it was only after I got the result I wanted that I proudly told my friends and family.
I don’t like to count my eggs until they’ve hatched. Revealing my hand prematurely puts unnecessary pressure on the task. If nobody knows I’m attempting it, they will be none-the-wiser if I fail.
Rather than talking about it and putting success on a pedestal, I’d prefer to downplay its importance, shrug off any pressure, and just get the job done.
As it turns out, you’re much more likely to achieve your goals if you don’t disclose them in advance. Here’s why.
Less Talking, More Doing
It’s natural to believe that making a public declaration will increase the likelihood of achieving your goal. If you want to quit training for that marathon a month in, the social pressure will motivate you to stick with it… right?
Sure, telling others we’ve given up is embarrassing. But goal-directed behavior is much deeper than that. According to a study by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer, the more people you tell, the less likely you’re going to achieve it.
In his research, Gollwitzer asked students to commit to studying for an upcoming exam. In the control group, they were asked to keep their study plans to themselves; while in the experimental group, they were told to announce their intentions to their peers before they started.
He discovered that those who revealed their intentions beforehand ended up studying less.
This research has been tested across a variety of different goals and activities — and the findings were consistent — regardless of whether you have long or short-term goals; the more people you tell about them, the less effort you're going to put into achieving them.
The Intention-Behavior Gap
Psychologists call the discrepancy between our plans and actions the “intention-behavior gap,” and announcing your plans only widens the gap.
The reason why is biological.
According to Peter M. Vishton, Ph.D., when we set our sights on a goal and achieve it, our brain delivers dopamine to the nucleus accumbens… which causes us to experience a burst of pleasure. So when you decide to do something, your body is motivated to see it through as it prepares for a dopamine injection at the end.
But when we tell others about our goals, we cheat our way to that dopamine injection. According to Vishton:
“The reason why telling people about your goal is a problem is that when they give you positive support, you get a little bit of that sense of accomplishment and that pleasurable dopamine boost”
When that happens, you’ve already gained the reward without doing any of the work. It’s not surprising that your motivation to complete the tasks drastically drops, because you reduce the physical drive in you to want to achieve it.
So if you want to achieve your goals, keep it to yourself, and let the anticipation of that future dopamine kick drive you to your desired end.
Avoid Receiving Person Praise In Advance
Psychologically speaking, there are two main types of praise you can receive when undergoing a task:
- Person praise: Feedback relating to the individual. For example, acknowledging their inherent traits and abilities.
- Process praise: Feedback relating to the choices and method taken.
According to research by Kyla Haimovitza & Jennifer Corpus (2009,) receiving person praise drastically demotivates us, while receiving encouragement and praise for the process is much more likely to inspire us.
During their study, 111 college students were asked to complete three puzzle tasks. After the first two puzzles, half the students received person praise: “You must have a natural talent!” while the other half received process praise: “You must be using some really effective strategies!”
Across all ages, their findings proved that people with process praise were more driven to see things through. While older students, in particular, experienced a significant increase in motivation after person praise.
This led Haimovitza & Corpus to infer that:
“All age groups beyond preschool appear to be more positively affected by process praise than person praise after encountering failure.”
People who are “naturally good” at things rarely have to put in much work to achieve. Person praise tells us that our core traits entail that we’re naturally good at something — for that reason, we experience a drop in motivation as we start to believe we can achieve our goals with minimal effort.
When you announce your goals in advance, it’s natural to expect praise for your intentions. Having not done the task, the only form of praise your peers can give you is person praise. This study shows that receiving compliments about your inherent traits isn’t very helpful: it could demotivate you and decrease your odds of succeeding.
To avoid person praise in advance, don’t reveal your intentions until the job is done. When you’ve achieved your desired end, your peers are more likely to compliment you on the results you achieved, or the skills and tactics you used to get there — which will motivate you to work hard and do the same in the future.
Prematurely revealing your hand could make you think your goals are less likely than you once thought. Picture the time you told someone about your plans, only for that person to point out that lots of people are trying to achieve the same thing.
In a 2010 study, Henry Wang & Bill Yang found that, when someone perceives there to be too much competition — the goal can feel impossible to achieve — so they stop trying. In doing so, they “win by not losing.”
While there are a few instances where competition does boost motivation, it’s much better to keep your goals to yourself. Rather than letting others get in your head, be quietly confident and unaware of the competition. Doing so will help you get the job done to the best of your ability, rather than getting distracted by the actions of others.
It’s natural to want to shout about your big plans. We naturally assume that doing so will make us more accountable and determined to see them through. As it turns out, the complete opposite is true:
- The more you talk about your goals, the less likely we are to achieve them and the wider the “intention-behavior” gap.
- Receiving in advance person praise makes us think that, because of our inherent traits, we’re naturally good at the task in hand and will achieve it with ease. As a result, we put significantly less work into the process and working to get results.
- Talking about your goals could allow others to get into your head and reveal the competition out there. You’d be better off giving it your best shot, and worrying about the competition later.
On the whole, psychological research highlights it’s better to be quietly confident — focused on your goals — rather than shouting about them. Because the more you share your plans, the less likely you are to achieve them.
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