Written by Dotty Winters

Voices

Own Goals

Ever wondered why the goals you set yourself don’t always hit the back of the net? Dotty Winters reckons your Facebook timeline could have the answers.

football in goal netI love a bit of research and evidence, and like most people, my most favourite science is anything which confirms something that I already thought.

So, you can imagine my relief to discover that setting goals for ourselves and announcing them on Facebook may well be utterly pointless.

We may be well past the date when we are all supposed to have quit our new year’s resolutions, and yet my social media timeline still seems to be stuffed full of people making public proclamations and fishing for compliments on their progress towards achieving their dreams.

It seems we’ve all been absorbing the same self-help books and motivational memes: If you want to achieve something you need to set a goal, break it down into smaller goals, tell people you are going to achieve it, and post smug minute-by-minute updates on progress across your favoured social media platforms.

“Announcing that we are going to read a classic novel convinces us that we are so cultured, we probably don’t need to read any actual books and a quick scan of the nutritional info on our cornflakes will suffice.”

Turns out, though, that if you look at the evidence, there a few things you should consider before you grab your craft supplies, start making a dream-collage, create a Pinterest board with pictures of a desert island and a dress you haven’t fitted in since you were 14, and begin a humble-brag campaign.

A number of academic studies show that announcing your goals publicly make you less likely to achieve them, and that an over-emphasis on goal setting can lead to:

• Loss of focus
• Loss of motivation
• Tendency to increase effort, spend and resources on the wrong things, rather than divert them; and
• Being an insufferable bore to all who know you, with a tendency to behave like a 1980s motivational poster. (This one may not have been included in the research, because it’s bloody obvious.)

The research also gives a few suggestions as to why all this goal setting works against people.

Firstly, announcing you are going to achieve something gives us a premature sense of achievement. In effect, announcing that we are going to read a classic novel, convinces us that we are so cultured, we probably don’t need to read any actual books and a quick scan of the nutritional info on our cornflakes will suffice.

Secondly, goal setting assumes things are linear. So, if I set myself a goal to eat 10 Jaffa Cakes (I’ve done this for real, for research purposes), there is no way I can eat 10 Jaffa Cakes, without eating two, four, six and then eight Jaffa Cakes, in that order.

I’m fairly sure this is true as I ran this experiment a lot of times.

However, if I set myself a goal to ‘get fit’ my progress is unlikely to be linear. I may, for example, go to the gym every day for a week, but then accidentally fall face-first into a black forest gateaux and inhale it. Our brains are programmed to focus on one linear aim, but don’t cope well with more complex goals.

“Whatever you decide you want to achieve, you probably don’t need to update us all on Facebook every 10-12 minutes and become some sort of living, breathing TED talk.”

Achieving goals works best if you can shut everything out; goal-driven individuals narrow their focus till it’s laser-sharp and trained exclusively on their goal. This can have serious implications for your family, friendships and your ability to hold a conversation which doesn’t bore other people.

Very few people are willing to improve their ability to conjugate French verbs at the expense of their family life.

All of this means that unless you truly wish to achieve just one thing at the expense of all other things, goal setting isn’t an evidenced way of increasing your success.

And as soon as you have multiple goals (even if they feel like they go together, like weight loss, eating more healthily and getting fitter), goal setting can act against your ability to succeed.

In addition, whatever you decide you want to achieve, you probably don’t need to update us all on Facebook every 10-12 minutes and become some sort of living, breathing TED talk.

So before you decide to give the world a blow-by-blow account of your progress via a learn-to-crochet podcast, ask yourself what you really hope to achieve… and maybe just Instagram a picture of your dinner instead. It’s much less annoying and might do more to increase your chances of crocheting something truly spectacular one day.

Footnote: If you want to line up the evidence to support the diet/exercise plan/language course you aren’t announcing on Facebook, some good places to start might be:
Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting, Ordóñez et al, Harvard Business Review 2009; or When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap?, Gollwitzer NYU 2012; or you might like a book called Obliquity by John Kay.

@DottyWinters

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Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.