Share Progress Not Goals

Don’t Share Goals

When we share goals we think it’ll help keep us accountable. We believe committing to a new career or a healthier life is easier if we have support from family and friends. And, if we start to fall behind, we’ll have people to encourage us.

Unfortunately, without asking for these supports you’re unlikely to get them. Holding someone accountable is taxing. It may even hurt a relationship. Offering encouragement may seem easy, but it can’t do much without a plan to support it.

Worst of all, if you share goals publicly, you may hurt your chances at goal attainment. This is especially true for identity goals. Those related to perceptions of you; a better spouse, or a budding doctor.

When we announce identity goals it shifts others’ impression of us. We look better in their eyes for improving ourselves. But, people taking note of our intentions elicits a premature sense of completeness, says Peter Gollwitzer.

He conducted a series of studies highlighting this effect in 2008. Each of which showed some degree of this effect hampering progress towards goals.

In one experiment, participants committed their time to studying clinical psychology techniques. Two groups were formed, one where goals were acknowledged, the social reality group, the other whose goals were ignored.

The social reality group with a strong commitment towards their identity goal spent less time working. On average they worked 8 percent less than the social reality group with a weak commitment. And, up to 30 percent less than those with a strong commitment whose goal went unacknowledged.

In another experiment, law students publicly or privately stated their intentions of becoming a jurist. Gollwitzer’s intent was to measure feelings of goal completeness after social recognition. As expected, participants whose goals were acknowledged felt closer to being jurists. A shocking outcome considering they hadn’t put in any effort.

These experiments show how sharing goals deters achievement. Not only do we assume others will view us as closer to goal attainment, but we trick ourselves as well. When we’ve felt a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment, we mitigate our own effort. Why put in the work when we’ve already experienced a sense of fulfillment?

Sharing Progress

While progress takes up the bulk of the goal attainment, planning and effort is haphazard. In fact its often completely dependent on the individual. Even if the goal itself is common, e.g. weight-loss or learning to manage finances. But what seems to matter across all intentions is progress monitoring.

In 2015 a group of researchers noticed a lack of consensus on progress monitoring. They undertook a meta study including 136 research papers. Each looked at the effects of progress monitoring on goal attainment.

Researchers found public progress sharing or reporting via electronics has larger benefits than private monitoring. It increased goal striving through commitment, accountability, public perception, and positive framing.

Progress Monitoring

Once a public commitment is made we’re more likely to act in accordance with it. This is due to our desire for consistency in self and others. While this seems to conflate with advice to not share our goals, I’d argue its essentially different. Stating a goal is nothing more than intention. Whereas progress shows a commitment to self and a change in behavior. A sticking point for consistency.

Personal accountability is a key aspect to public sharing. Progress monitoring is difficult because it forces individuals to own up to discrepancies. In private it’s easy to brush aside failures or setbacks. We understand our reasons and can make excuses. But in public we’ve got to address the self-deception. Excuses turn into calls-to-action that help rectify and adjust behavior. We become accountable to our progress rather than complicit in failure.

Acknowledgement of progress encourages further accomplishments through public perception. Each time we share our progress we receive some form of praise for our efforts. Encouragement from friends and family is something to strive for, a form of intrinsic motivation. This, in turn, creates a reinforcing loop. As we consistently progress the praise continues encouraging further progress until goal attainment.

Finally public sharing allows for positive framing of progress. While it helps track distance to a goal it also allows you to remark on how far you’ve come. Noticing the effects of hard work offers another venue for intrinsic motivation. We can pat ourselves on the back over accomplishments and embolden our work.

Focus on Getting Started

When you start working on a goal, crucial steps must be undertaken to complete it. But, when you share that goal with others it alters your social reality. You hear some praise about how ambitious you might be or how capable you are. This tricks your mind into believing part of the goal is already done. In response you feel as though you can put less effort in. “Your brain mistakes the talking for action”, as Derek Sivers puts it in his Ted talk on the subject.

Instead you should resist sharing your intentions. Focus on getting through the initial steps to get started and monitor your effort. Then share your progress to your heart’s content.

A Guide to the To-Do List

The to-do list has been around for ages, and for good reason.

Short term memory holds 5-7 items, varying by individual and what we’re hoping to retain. Unfortunately the average human has countless priorities and decisions to consider from the moment they wake up.

These tasks occupy space in working memory and are quickly forgotten when more pressing or demanding matters start to occupy our attention. Things like driving or or attending to a screaming child can make it incredibly difficult to facilitate working memory.

There’s no reason to commit any one off task to long term memory. So we either keep it active in our working memory or write it down. Writing it down frees up space in our working memory and gives you a real world space to store your tasks.

But, not all to do lists are the same. Below are several common mistakes people make when planning their schedules. Avoiding these should increase your completion rate and help you stick to your goals.

Coffee should really be listed twice

The most common pitfalls

  • Too many to-dos
  • Poor time management
  • Lack of priority
  • Uncertain Outcomes

Too Many To-dos

Your to-do list should serve as an extension of your memory, not a replacement. You list should be limited to items that can be accomplished in the time they’ve been written for. There’s no benefit to include tomorrow’s work today. Schedule an alarm or put it on the calendar if you truly need a reminder. Don’t let extraneous work creep into today’s focus.

In fact the more tasks that go incomplete, the more likely you are to trigger the Ovsianka Effect. The act of tricking yourself into believing that work you set for yourself really wasn’t the useful or worthwhile.

Poor Time Management 

The more time you have to finish a task the less likely you are to get it done. A bit of a paradox but easily explained. We’re lenient on ourselves. If we estimate something will only take an hour and have four to finish it in, we’ll try and put it off. We pretend that spending those first few hours relaxing will set us up for serious productivity. In reality, it’s all but impossible to pull ourselves away from whatever we’re engrossed in. We have to fight mind, body, and soul just to get off the couch to get get going. It’s better to work first and relax later.

As an added bonus once you’ve completed that work you’re completely free to enjoy the day as you like. There’s no transitioning away, no guilt from forgetting to do something. Just you, being completely present.

So minimal. So unrealistic.

Lack of Priority

If something needs to get done you shouldn’t bury it at the bottom of your lists. Put it front and center and do it first. If the task itself seems to daunting you need to break it down into manageable chunks.

Humans prefer work that improves over time. As we transition away from our most difficult tasks we feel a sense of relief that what’s ahead of us will be even easier. On top of that we get a rush of accomplishment from squaring away our biggest task straight away.

On the other side, if we try and check off our easy tasks first we may end up tricking our brain into believing we’ve earned a break. While you probably have, you end up exposing yourself to interruptions. Not only will you have to shift back from play to work, but some overwhelming distraction could completely derail your day. Leaving you with the task of finding more time to complete your daunting work.

Unclear Outcomes

If you’re trying to include tasks that’ll take multiple days or weeks to accomplish you’ll only be setting yourself up for failure. With unclear goals the work you end up doing becomes difficult to track and could upset your pacing.

Your daily goals or new routines should be concise. Allowing you the opportunity to reflect on whether you’ve done enough or have the ability to fit a bit more in each day.

Instead of “clean the yard” break it down into chunks. Clean up after the god, mow the lawn, water the plants, and weeding. Doing so helps arrange your work day and keep track of time. On top of that knocking off multiple items feels good and looks more accomplishing.

How do I do it?

My best results come from organizing and planning my work early in the morning or, ideally, night before. This adds a natural flow to my day, checking off my priorities as I go means my time is well managed and there’s never a question if I have time for a longer break in my day.

At most I put 7 tasks on my todo list. And I commonly get to five or six, though recently I’ve been completing everything. And yes, I’m bragging. I think it’s important to give yourself a pat on the back. It’s one of the best parts of accomplishments. And, there’s probably a fair amount of science agreeing with me.

Further Reading

Lifehacker – Master the Art

NYMag – A Neuroscientist on the Calming Powers of the Todo List

TheMuse – 8 Expert-backed Secrets to Making a Todo List

Ovsiankina Effect – Why we give up on work

The Ovsianka Effect state that’s an interrupted task, even without incentive, values as a quasi-need. It creates intrusive thoughts aimed at completing that task.

Let’s say you start some work, a blog post, and midway through your phone chimes letting you know you’ve received a text. It’s rather simple question, your friend is asking you where you wanted to go for dinner; Chinese, Mexican, Italian. Obviously you’d like to give a decisive response, but you couldn’t care less and you end up have a short pointless conversation. Eventually you make that decision, but now you’ve been on your phone long enough to trigger your thoughts towards other distractions and start entertaining yourself.

Around dinner you remember your work and start beating yourself up for getting distracted. You should have finished your work before going out with your friends. And worse yet, it’s the second time you’ve done that this week. Your actions aren’t aligning with the values you’ve set. It’s those darn intrusive thoughts, or what psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

These thoughts won’t just disappear. Our brain works to stop cognitive dissonance, after all it’s literally mental stress and that’s unhealthy. If we couldn’t do simple mental gymnastics we’d constantly beat ourselves up for all the missed opportunities and procrastination.

Initially we’d consider the right thing to be going home and completing your work, but that’s not likely to happen. You’re having a good time, and you suspect your friends will mock you if you leave to do work.

So, how do you get closure? One of the common mental outs is a change in beliefs or values.

You tell yourself that you’ve worked hard enough this week, you’ve spent plenty of time being productive and you’ve earned this break. After all, how can you be expected to keep going if you don’t recharge every once in awhile. This tiny lie allows your beliefs to fit your actions. Poof, no more stress, what you’re doing is perfectly acceptable.

Worse yet, what if you convince yourself what you’re doing wasn’t even worth your time? Maybe that blog post wasn’t going to be well written anyway, you’d have given up on it, the topic was no good Your excuses are endless and the impact is long lasting.

Research suggests you’ll go so far as to seek the feeling of closure elsewhere. After your night out, you come home and see your laptop still on. You’re reminded of the work you’ve left yourself and start the process over again. But this time, you’ve realized there’s no way you’re going to write. Instead you take your energy and focus to another task, doing the dishes or cleaning your room. It’s almost the same right? And all the time you’ve saved here will let you write get straight into writing tomorrow.

If only it were that easy.

More likely than not you’ll have to start your writing process over. The work you’ve done today was for naught as you didn’t leave yourself in an easy spot to pick up from and your mental gymnastics affirmed that your writing wasn’t worth the time anyway.

Best to start completely over. At least, that’s what you’ve convinced yourself.