Even if we added a little peer pressure to the mix by telling people what we plan to accomplish, with the hope that will help us stay the course.
Yet telling other people can actually be part of the problem: At least one study says talking about your intentions can make you much less likely to actually follow through on your intentions.
According to the researchers:
When other people take notice of an individual's identity-related behavioral intention, this gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity.
The authors call the phenomenon "symbolic self creation": Social recognition of intentions leads to a heightened sense of completeness.
Or in non research-speak, when other people think of you as, say, a person starting the business you keep talking about... you become less motivated to actually start that business.
Talking about how you'll create a business plan and identify your target market and develop a killer USP makes you feel you're farther along the entrepreneurial path than you already are.
Even though, to this point, you've done nothing but talk.
Unless You Talk to the Right People
All of which makes it sound like the best approach is to keep your goals to yourself.
But then there's this: A new set of studies reveal that people have greater goal commitment and performance when they tell their goal to someone they believe has higher status than themselves. According to Howard Klein, an Ohio State business professor:
Contrary to what you may have heard, in most cases you get more benefit from sharing your goal than if you don't -- as long as you share it with someone whose opinion you value.
You don't want them to think less of you because you didn't attain your goal.
While that appears to contradict the earlier study, it actually makes sense. Describe your goal to someone you perceive to be at -- or, while it sounds icky, below -- your "level" and you're much more likely to go into great detail. You'll naturally share your goal of becoming the next club tennis champion in much greater detail to your non-athlete neighbor than you will to, say, Serena.
Which means symbolic self creation won't be a factor. And neither will a heightened sense of completeness.
But "evaluation apprehension" will -- which is what you want. According to the researchers:
If you don't care about the opinion of whom you tell, it doesn't affect your desire to persist - which is really what goal commitment is all about.
You want to be dedicated and unwilling to give up on your goal, which is more likely when you share that goal with someone you look up to.
So What Should You Do?
Maybe the research on symbolic self creation speaks to you. Or maybe the research on evaluation apprehension makes more sense.
Luckily, you don't have to choose between them. You can incorporate pieces of both -- which means your likelihood of achieving a goal could be even greater.
So do this. Pick a goal. Then create a plan to achieve it. (Because plans are everything.)
1. Share your plan with anyone.
If, like many, you like to harness the support -- or the peer pressure -- of other people to help you stay on track, do it the right way. Don't talk about your goal.
Talk about your plan. Say: "I'm going to work on my business plan every night this week and have a great draft done by Sunday. Can I send it to you and get your feedback?"
That kind of peer pressure works.
It's hard for people to hold you accountable -- and, more importantly, for you to feel like they're holding you accountable -- when you just talk about a goal, especially one that might take months to accomplish. If they ask you how it's going, you can fudge. You can make excuses.
You can talk about how hard you're "trying."
But when you tell people your plan -- especially your short-term plan -- then, as Yoda says, "Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try."
You either did... or didn't.
2. Share your goal with people you respect.
As the researchers say, "The important thing is that you need to care about the opinion of who you are telling."
So if you want to share your goal with someone... share it with a person you admire. Tell someone you don't want to think less of you. Tell someone to whom you would hate to someday have to say, "I haven't actually started." Or, "I didn't get very far." Or, "I gave up."
That's creates an aspirational form of peer pressure; maybe you will feel that by accomplishing your goal, the person you respect will respect you more. (Hey, if it works...)
But most of all...
3. Don't focus on your goal. Focus on your plan.
The key is to create a plan to achieve your goal that guarantees a series of small improvements.
Usually that means that what you do won't be that different from what other successful people do. (Which is why one of the chapters in my book is called Do What the Pros Do: How to choose the right person to emulate, and how to connect with that person.)
Pick someone who has achieved something you want to achieve. Deconstruct his or her process.
Then follow it.
Along the way you might make small corrections as you learn what works best for you, but never start by doing what you want to do, or what feels good, or what you think might work. Do what you know will work.
Because if the plan you follow won't yield the small successes that keep you motivated and feeling good about yourself, you'll give up.
No matter who you told about your goal. And no matter what you told them about your goal.
Because goals are great... but plans are everything.