Should we publicly announce our goals?
You have decided to exercise more, start a new diet, learn Russian or quit smoking. Great! The next question is, do you make a giant proclamation to the world about it? The answer is more complicated than you may imagine.
Reasons to tell the world
In his landmark book, Influence: The Science of Persuasion1, Arizona State University professor Robert Cialdini makes a case for telling people.
His argument is that you should have a large public announcement. There are some compelling reasons for this.
The first is that we value what people think of us. We have pride. We want people to think well of us. Therefore, when we announce a goal to the people who we respect, we do not want to let them down.
Second, we have an inbuilt drive to be consistent. After all, consistent people are more trusted. Politicians are an excellent example of this: votes seem to regularly prefer politicians who keep going in the face of all evidence, rather than one would admit they made a mistake and changed their view.
When we announce a goal, it starts to become part of our identity. The idea is that if you repeat the idea that you are a runner enough times, when it comes time to go for a run you will think "of course I am going, I am a runner!"
Third, once we announce our plans to the world, it is impossible to take it back. We cannot pretend that we did not set the goal or change it at a later date. There are external people, outside of ourselves, that can hold us accountable.
This all sounds like a convincing argument, right? However, in a famous TED Talk, Derek Sivers makes the case against such an announcement.
Reasons not to tell the world
In Sivers's talk, entitled "Keep your goals to yourself"2, he argues that the research shows just the opposite.
The problem is this: when you tell someone that you have set a goal, they often congratulate you. Despite the fact that you have not done anything yet, you receive a small amount of gratification straight away.
The issue is that this makes you feel like you have already got some of the way there. And this change in mindset makes you less likely to follow through on the goal.
He cites numerous sources in his talk, including the work of Peter Gollwitzer. Gollwitzer's paper When Intentions Go Public3 showed that when people announce their goals, they do indeed become part of your identity and that this can cause people to put in less effort.
Maybe announcing our goals is not such a good idea after all, then.
So, what's the answer?
How do we reconcile these two views? Perhaps the best way is to take the principles of each idea and ensure that when we do announce our goals, we keep these in mind.
We should not announce our goals looking for gratification. If you want someone to be proud of you, you are telling them for the wrong reason. Of course, we are all excited to start something new. We want to tell the world. That voice must be resisted. Such temptation is the trap that the above study warns us about.
However, if we reframe the announcement as accountability, we may get better results. If you say "I don't want congratulating for starting my new diet: but I want you to hold me accountable" we make it clear that any gratification must be delayed until we demonstrate some results.
And write your goals down
Additionally, writing your goals down remains a critical factor to success. This is a form of public declaration that prevents you from later changing it while ensuring that you do not receive any premature compliments.
Publicly announcing your goals has to be managed carefully. If you do it the wrong way, and for the wrong reasons, you will reduce the chance of completing your goal.
Therefore, it is best to keep your goals private, unless sharing them with someone who can hold you accountable, and whose respect you desire to maintain.
Published 25 December 2017. Written by Chris Worfolk.
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Robert B. Cialdini. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. ISBN: 006124189X ↩︎
Derek Sivers. Keep your goals to yourself. TEDGlobal 2010. July 2010. https://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_keep_your_goals_to_yourself ↩︎
Gollwitzer PM, Sheeran P, Michalski V, Seifert AE. When intentions go public: does social reality widen the intention-behavior gap? Psychol Sci. 2009 May;20(5):612-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02336.x. Epub 2009 Apr 6. ↩︎