Can sharing goals really reduce the likelihood you’ll complete them?

I’ve been grappling with a couple of interesting behavioural insights recently, and both relate to completion.

The first is the counter-intuitive suggestion that sharing our goals can reduce the likelihood we’ll complete them, and the second, that we better remember things if they remain unresolved.

Sharing your goals can reduce your likelihood of success … maybe

In his bite-sized TED talk that has been viewed over 4 million times, Derek Sivers cites research that suggests sharing your goal can reduce the chances of you actually achieving it.

Sivers draws on 2009 research by Peter Gollwitzer that found people who had their goal acknowledged (for instance, by an experimenter or fellow participants) were less likely to persevere in a task to help them toward that goal than those who kept the goal to themselves.

For instance, participants who stated publicly they were committed to becoming a lawyer spent only 33 minutes on a task that would help them achieve their goal, whereas those who were likewise committed but did not share their goal used the whole 45 minutes allocated to the task. When asked, the sharers reported feeling “closer to completion” and the non-sharers, “further away” from completing their goal.

From this the researchers concluded that sharing the goal “gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity”. You might have come across this when friends tell you they’ve joined a gym but never actually go!

So we should keep our goals to ourselves?

Not quite.

Social researcher Robert Cialdini lists “consistency” as one of his six (now seven) principles of persuasion. According to Cialdini, we are more likely to follow through when we have publicly declared ourselves because otherwise we would feel an uncomfortable tension between our actions and words.

We don’t want to be seen someone whose word cannot be relied upon. I used this technique by telling friends of my decision to attempt stand-up comedy.

So where does that leave us? Looking for a complicated sweet spot.

If proclaiming your goal is a way for you to feel like you are making a start, then you are undermining your chances of success. Perceiving the declaration as progress will trick your brain into feeling like you’ve done enough for now.

In effect you have counted the proclamation as a task that contributes to the goal, rather than actually doing something about it. (In my book, The How of Habits, I refer to this under its other guise, the False Hope Syndrome.),

If, however, proclaiming your goal is your way of signalling your commitment, then that will likely help you succeed. 

If you want to remember something, don’t complete it

Once we’ve completed a task or thought, we tend not to remember it. We effectively file it away and turn our attention to current, unresolved issues.

If, like me, you’ve struggled in a performance review or behavioural interview to remember details of what steps you took, you can blame science.

Named after psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, the Zeigarnik effect means we better remember incomplete or interrupted tasks. The upshot?

  • If you want to keep something ‘top of mind’, don’t complete it;
  • If you want to put something to rest, finish it; and
  • If someone is struggling to recount details of what they did, it doesn’t mean they didn’t do it, it may mean they have simply moved on.

Taken together, the insights that sharing a goal may reduce the likelihood of us completing it, and that completing a task means we stop thinking about it, point to the complexity of why we start, why we finish and why sometimes we wind up in the middle.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.

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