On the personal nature of goal-setting


Do you consider this a shack or a nice project? Your perspective matters when it comes to goal-setting

A common tactic espoused by goal-setting advocates is to write down your goals. It's believed that writing down your goals increases the likelihood of achievement. A mythical study claimed that students of Yale's (or Harvard's) 1953 class who had written goals earned significantly more than their peers who did not. Given the nature of the fictitious study, and its fame in self-help circles, another study was completed to provide actual evidence of the claim. The study* showed that mean achievement of goals was larger for the group that wrote down their goals when compared to the group that did not.


That means we should all write down our goals, right? Well, yes, but the story doesn't stop there. The group that wrote down their goals achieved, on average, 6.08 of their goals. The group that didn't write their goals achieved, on average, 4.28 of their goals. What we don't know is which goals were achieved and which were not. Perhaps, the ~1.8 goals were of lower importance to the participants and writing them down allowed them to check the boxes prior to the final check-in. Maybe those goals were of higher importance and writing down your goals actually reduces procrastination. It's difficult to say without a deep dive into the data.


What makes this and similar studies difficult to interpret is how difficult goal-achievement is to compare across individuals. If we had an objective way to determine what goals a person should set, that balance difficulty and their current ability, then we'd have the start of a more robust experimental design. A person who is overweight is assumed to have a much easier time losing the first five pounds than trying to shed the last five pounds. On the other hand, the person who is only five pounds away from their goal may have habits that cause the final five to simply be a matter of time. We can't definitively state one way or the other without caveats.


What does all this mean?


Your approach to goal-setting necessarily involves your own intuition, but it benefits from an outsider's perspective. Your proximity to this outsider could cause you to dig deeper and set a goal that better aligns with your needs. Unfortunately they might reinforce the opposite, a push to focus on goals that lead to marginal improvements because they want to protect you from the potential for failure. Having an accountability partner, such as a coach, gives you the best of both worlds: someone who gets to know you on a deeper level and someone who has an incentive for you to improve.


In an effort to be genuine and candid, there's a real possibility that a coach would prefer smaller continuous gains rather than gains that come after struggle, though the latter may be better in the long-run. That's one reason Plant encourages experimentation and rigorous reflection with your coaching. We don't want to lose the first five pounds and call it a day, we want to organize your situation so you can solve problems of various levels of difficulty for the rest of your career.


Does having a coach help you set the right goals and hold you accountable sound like it would help? Book a training session with Plant and start your journey today!

*The study comes from Dr. Gail Matthews of Dominican University. It was presented at the 9th Annual International Symposium on Psychology, organized by the Athens Institute for Education and Research, in 2015. The presentation was titled " The Effectiveness of Four Coaching Techniques in Enhancing Goal Achievement: Writing Goals, Formulating Action Steps, Making a Commitment, and Accountability". The summary report can be found here (pdf).

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