The Trouble with Goals

Let’s imagine you’re in training to run your second marathon in a couple of weeks. Your plan is to complete in time that’s a personal best. How would you react to the claim that quick trick could shave several minutes off your next race time?

This question was of interest to George Wu, amateur runner and professional social scientist. Thousands of marathoners answered his brief questionnaire. Half of all runners were exposed to a single extra sentence. That group ran the marathon an average of 8 minutes faster than matched peers.

What was George Wu’s magic sentence? This: “My time goal for the marathon is _hours: minutes: seconds.” It took less time to set an explicit time goal than the runners later saved in their marathon.

Every business is built on processes that pay back more than they cost. The proven effectiveness of goal-setting has been shown both in thousands of research studies and in personal experience. Helping people set goals is often treated as a direct path to helping them. Rationality requires that we make choices consistent with satisfying our desires. Setting goals, therefore, is a quintessentially rational tool. What a miraculous mental power. Our intentions, spoken or set down on paper, bring about changes in the physical world.

In this post, I come not to praise the powers of goal-setting. WHEN SET, goals, especially specific, measurable, time-bound goals, work wonders. The claim that we use only 10% of our brain has been thoroughly debunked. However, if we said that our brains use the power of goals less than 10% of the time, we’d have indisputable evidence.

We Resist Setting Goals (the Delmore Effect)

I’ve spent years designing technology to help people set even a baby-step goal. Data from financial and health apps compellingly show how few people can ever be persuaded to set a new goal. When I worked with Mint (at Intuit), the team tried every possible attention-grabbing method (emails, landing pages, bold headlines). Among Mint’s millions of users, no more than 1% took the minute or so required to set a savings goal.

The paradox of goals is not that they’re very effective. It’s that most people resist setting them. Fuzzy, relative, ‘do your best’-type goals are about as specific as most people will commit to. Across self-help domains as diverse as exercise, finance, & weight-loss, apps almost always open with a prompt to set an explicit goal. Goals don’t help if they’re never specified. Consider the well-known advantages of exercising 3x/week. The benefits are irrelevant when only a small subset actually follow through. At least on this point, medical professionals have come around. Vastly more people will pursue an incremental improvement (such as walk more). Rather than push a technique that’s most-effective-when-practiced, they now advise what’s most-likely-to-be-practiced-and-still-somewhat-effective.

I’ve long been fascinated with how difficult it is to get people to set goals. My dissertation studied the tendency of Stanford undergrads to avoid setting goals for the things that mattered most to them. The more important something was, the less willing people are to spell out their goals. I looked at how explicit people’s goals were when something was their top priority (say, friendship). Their goals were then contrasted with those who also cared about friendship, but rated it relatively lower. Top-priority goals tended to be less fluent and articulate. My research uncovered a general tendency for people to avoid goals when something really matters. This bias, called the Delmore Effect, documents our reluctance to spell out high priority goals. Since the lower-priority stuff gets the behavioral boost from setting goals, we can find our time funneled into things we know to be less important. Explicit, measurable goals define what counts as failure. Consequently, we hesitate to envision not living up to our most important ambitions.

Motivational Risks with Goal Setting

Once set, goals still face two intertwined motivational problems. First, an explicit goal can make a previously enjoyable activity feel like work. This transformation undermines our original intrinsic motivation. There’s also a related risk: When we engage in a sacrifice, we feel more entitled to self-indulgence.

Turning Work into Play

Consider the first pitfall, which can turn play into work. Let’s suppose you decide to start running twice a week. You recognize that you freely chose this goal on Monday, yet by Friday, you may begin to feel bossed around. The commitment can now feel like an imposed obligation. Considered as work, running now demands more will-power to counteract spontaneous resistance. Numerous studies demonstrate that we have a limited reservoir of self-control. In one famous psych study, people were asked to perform a set of tasks that involved either easy or difficult choices. At the experiment’s end, all participants were offered to choose a departing snack of either an apple or candy bar. Those who performed tasks that depleted their self-control were far more likely to select the candy bar.

The Halo Effect (a license to cheat)

Performing tasks that feel like work also create a knock-on risk, occasionally labeled a “halo” of self-satisfaction. After self-sacrifice, it’s natural to feel entitled to a little reward. Once you’ve run 3 miles [burning ~300 calories], it may feel fine to nosh a bagel with cream cheese to celebrate (consuming 400+ calories). Small steps, followed by self-congratulatory rewards, can more than undermine the stated goal. It’s tricky to find a way to keep people moving toward a goal, without triggering resistance, and subsequent self-rewards that provide a license to cheat.

In my next post, I’ll discuss several ways to overcome these snags. Choices can be designed to motivate progressive improvement, without demanding that people feel forced to commit to explicit goals. We’ll see how affirming the right mindset is crucial. To the extent that we connect progress to a sense of personal identity, the activity won’t inevitably feel like work.

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