Should you share your goals? The science behind the decision

Updated: Aug 17, 2018

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

It occurred to me a few years ago that I needed to be more formulaic about what I wanted to achieve in life. Up until that point I had been, in my mind, "lucky" in work. I'd taken opportunities and calculated risks when they arose and worked damned hard (although being typically female I put this down to "luck"), and as a consequence, some areas of my personal life had suffered. I wanted to create more of a balance; to be honest with myself about which goals were a priority, both in work, socially and personally. I needed to consider all of my goals, how they interacted with each other, how I would accomplish them, and importantly, if I achieved what I desired I could look back 20 years from now and be comfortable that I had not lost track of my core values.

With that in mind, I started writing down what I wanted to achieve, over time fine-tuning how to manage each goal and ultimately built a 7 step methodology - the core of which are listed in a previous blog.

It's worth stating that Goal Setting Theory (GST) is a well-established motivational technique. It is well researched, with general acceptance, that if people are encouraged to pursue a goal that is specific and difficult, yet attainable, they are more likely to return better results than if they pursue something that is viewed as too easy or too vague. I merely took the basics of GST and adapted it for what works for me.

I use this process for every major goal in my life; If I don't apply it, then I'm not serious about it. However, a new goal started to form recently, something that's been bubbling away for a while, something that to succeed in, is likely to be at the detriment of other goals. I will need to decide what to sacrifice. I'm on the verge of committing to this goal. However, the size of it, the work involved, the uncertainty of its impact on other areas of my life, and probably the fear of failure are, for now, stopping me from giving it the commitment it requires. But it's there in the back of my mind, nudging its way into my thoughts, indifferent to whether I want to think about it. It's like an incessant itch that needs scratching - maybe it's not something I can't ignore.

What I really need to do is chat through the pros and cons of this goal to an impartial observer.

Or do I?

Is sharing goals a good idea?

I have very mixed feelings about sharing significant goals. My personality trait is to keep such information inside. I like to mull things over and have them fully formed and committed before I share them with others; if in fact I ever share them. Of course, everyone needs critique but in my experience sharing goals too early can be their death knell. Too many negative opinions can sap motivation, dampen confidence and create unnecessary doubts. Of course, this isn't always practical - the goal may affect others, who warrant inclusion, or it's something I need collaboration on, or I'm simply too excited about to keep to myself.

The action of vocalising a goal certainly doesn't make it happen. Accountability doesn't occur solely from that action - not for me anyway. And is accountability on its own a good enough motivational technique?

Maybe this depends on the level of engagement and desire. For instance, I might tell my husband I'm going to stop eating cake for a month, but I don't really want to, and I fail pretty quickly. On the other hand, I might announce that I'm going to cycle up the Pyrenees next year, I'm utterly engaged and start meticulously planning for it, both physically mentally and by making the necessary arrangements. Each step of the way I'm cementing the likelihood of it happening. Just vocalising with no further actions to cement the goal isn't going to help you achieve it. But, vocalising it to be accountable and supporting that goal with measures to help you succeed - surely this helps?

Is it the actions and the commitment that matters, not the vocalisation? Or both? Vocalicising doesn't create accountability on it own and doesn't miraculously make your goals happen. In fact, is sharing goals less likely to make them happen?

To share, or not to share?

I believe you have to be extra careful when choosing who you share your goals with, but I wanted to know if others felt the same way, and whether this was my personality trait whether there was any "science" favouring one choice over another.

There are a lot of blogs already on this subject, with a mixture of opinions. But I wanted to find some proven psychology behind the decision, not just a view from a self-help guru.

My research took me down many rabbit holes, reading a lot of regurgitated opinions, misquoted findings and blatant assumptions, before finding proven research.

I've done the hard work, so you don't have to!

What I found surprised me. There are thousands, literally thousands, of blogs and articles on this topic, from physiological and scientific communities as well as casual observers like myself, as well as numerous vocal self-help gurus making a living from providing you with their secret to success. Therefore, I had presumed this was a well-researched topic. However, when you trace each of these blogs back to the original source – the scientific studies where the hypothesis has been proven - there is actually only one study specifically analysing this question.

(side note - when researching goals and wanting to get to the source experiments, not conjecture, search for "intentions")

The core research:

This 2009 study by Peter Gollwitzer and colleagues from 3 Universities was in the form of 4 experiments, some with law students and some with psychology students, each seeking to observe how effectively individuals would, under specific conditions and constraints, succeed in their publicised intention.

It's a detailed study, but the core of the finding concludes that for committed individuals, publicising behavioural intentions compromises the performance and outcome. This happens because sharing your intentions with others can create a sense of progress towards a goal, even if you haven't actually done anything yet.

The study does not consider what factors could counteract this outcome but suggests further research is undertaken. Explicitly recommending further studies on whether increasing accountability or applying if-this-then-that staging principles to the goals (if X occurs, then I will commit to Y) increases the likelihood of success. Additionally, the subjects analysed are a specific pool of individuals, academic students, who themselves might have certain personality traits which influence the findings.

I have to say, I’d exhausted my research appetite on the subject so didn’t look further to see whether these suggestions had been studied (although, I didn’t come across them in my funding’s or in any citations).

Please, if anyone has found alternative studies, specifically on the impact of vocalising goals, get in touch.

Other valuable studies of note

Of course, there are other studies with tenuous links to whether vocalising goals (intentions) influences achievability.

There’s Ovsiankina and Mahler research from the 1920 and 1930’ regarding completing or revisiting interrupted tasks.

Peter M. Gollwitzer's preceding 1982 study on self-completion theory and the impact of social recognition in identity relevant behavioural intentions.

Effecting Durable Change: A Team Approach to Improve Environmental Behavior in the Household. 2004,Staats, H., Harland, P., & Wilke, H. A. M. 2004. Incorporating about 150 people over a 3 year period, studying household behaviour and what may influence positive change.

The synopsis of this study was that within the constraints and influences of the group examined, the behavioural impact of making group-wide intentions public encourages accountability and consequentially encourages the behaviour required from the individual to pursue the intention.

A research paper worth noting is “Accounting for the effects of Accountability”. 1999, Lerner & Tetlock. This paper reviews the well-trodden research path of accountability. It cites hundreds of studies on the topic and questions how accountability affects outcomes in an enormous range of paradigms. It goes on to deduce that in some circumstances accountability will increase effort, sometimes it won't, and sometimes it makes the situation worse. Additionally, the authors conclude that it is difficult, if not impossible, to reduce the findings into a single framework such as, accountability x drive + circumstance = behaviour outcome.

So, there it is.

In the world of psychology, personality and neuroscience there are so many subtle variables, numerous hypotheses can be used to justify why one action influences a particular outcome... your personality type... your emotional state,...the nature of the goal.

All this highlights that there is no firm answer to the question - Should I share my goals or keep them to myself?

What I can conclude is that you need to be aware of what you are vocalising, your reasons for doing so and how you go about it. If you are vocalising to gain accountability pick your audience wisely.

If you are vocalising because you are excited about the goal then are you in danger of narcissism getting in the way of success?

And fundamentally do you really want feedback and are you ready for it?

In conclusion to my own goal, I think I'll keep it to myself a while longer...

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