The Ugly Truth You Need to Know About Goal Setting

Goal Commitment

In a previous post, I discussed the importance of seeing progress toward your goal, and how important it is to sustain your motivation. That post is predicated on the assumption that you are fully committed to your end goal, and you base your daily actions on it. In this post, I'm going to add onto that idea and discuss how your perception of goal commitment and goal progress can significantly affect your motivation to continue working toward that goal.

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When you have a long-term goal, it is often necessary to break it down into milestones that keep you pointed in the right direction. You may also have multiple, complementary efforts that all lead to the end goal. An example of this would be a weight-loss goal, where you would simultaneously need to eat healthy and exercise regularly to give yourself the best chance of success. Whatever the goal, your goal commitment is dependent on the way you frame the actions you take to achieve that goal.

Professors Eyelet Feshbach, PhD of The University of Chicago, Ying Zhang, PhD of the University of Texas at Austin, and Ravi Dhar, PhD of Yale University conducted research on goal commitment that was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In their research, they performed multiple studies that measured people's motivation to perform additional work toward an end goal, based on the success or failure of their efforts on an initial sub-goal. Psychologists and academics refer to an end goal as a superordinate goal (i.e. the opposite of a subordinate or sub-goal).

The studies included scenarios where the additional work was either a continuation of the original sub-goal or pursuit of a complementary one. Using our weight-loss goal example, if the original sub-goal was to exercise four times a week, the complementary sub-goal would be dieting, and vice versa.

Which path will you choose?

After success (or failure) on an initial sub-goal, your brain interprets that outcome as a sign of either your commitment to the end goal, or progress toward that goal. And how you interpret success or failure on a sub-goal is affected by where you focus your attention (i.e. the sub-goal or the superordinate goal). These goal commitment and progress mindsets are the two fundamental states that drive the different effects on motivation.

Before I go on, I should clarify that everything in this discussion is predicated on the idea that your level of motivation fluctuates according to the way your brain interprets the outcome of your efforts. When you are truly committed to something, motivation is not an issue. In those situations, you will not stop, regardless of any obstacles you may encounter. But in reality, there are very few things in life that most people are actually committed to, which is why so many “commitments” get broken (whether to ourselves or others).

When goal commitment is bad

What the researchers discovered is that, unless you perceive all of your sub-goals as supporting your commitment to a superordinate goal, sub-goals are "substitutable". In this context, substitutable means that when you have success on any sub-goal, your subconscious mind considers work on any other sub-goal (or even more work on the same sub-goal) unnecessary.

Going back to our weight-loss example, let’s say you had a sub-goal of working out four times this week. If you have a goal progress mindset and you accomplish that sub-goal, your subconscious mind says “cool, now I don’t have to eat healthy", and so your motivation to do so suffers accordingly. On the flip side, if you have a goal commitment mindset and experience that same initial success, your brain interprets the outcome as proof that you truly are committed, which reinforces your motivation for any sub-goal related to the end goal.

Now let’s consider a situation where you do not accomplish your sub-goal. If you have a goal progress mindset, when your brain recognizes your lack of progress, it responds by increasing your motivation to work even harder to compensate for your initial failure. With a goal commitment mindset, your brain interprets this failure as evidence that you really aren’t committed to the end goal after all, and so you lose motivation for any sub-goal related to it.

It's a Catch-22

So, the conundrum uncovered by this research is that initial success increases your motivation for subsequent work when you have a goal commitment mindset, but has the opposite effect when you experience initial failure. The same dichotomy is true for a goal progress mindset, except in reverse. So how do you make sure you don’t sabotage your motivation when you don’t know whether you will succeed or fail? There is no magic solution for this reality, but in general I believe that a bias toward a goal commitment mindset will yield the best results, for the following reasons.

  • It will help you to identify your most important tasks each day, by making sure they are in alignment with the end goal, which will keep you focused and make you more likely to succeed.
  • It will help you make smarter choices moment-by-moment each day when your end goal is top of mind, which will also make you more likely to succeed.
  • ​For certain kinds of end goals, you may be able to get away with not using sub-goals, just use daily actions (I talk about the idea of daily actions in another post). This won’t always be feasible, due to the size and complexity of some end goals. But if you can, you won’t have to worry about the downside of failing on a sub-goal, because you haven’t defined one.
  • ​You can identify a core value that drives your actions toward achievement of the goal. That way it is your self-identity, which doesn’t change, that drives your motivation toward the end goal, rather than relying on commitment to the goal itself.
  • ​You can consciously define sub-goals in a way that maximizes your chance of success.
  • It gives you flexibility, as your overall motivation for the end goal will provide motivation to start out with any of your sub-goals.

As I’ve discussed in another post, there is no magic bullet when it comes to motivation in general. Human beings are complex creatures with many factors influencing motivation, both internal and environmental. But hopefully this post helps you understand how the way you structure your goals can significantly impact your likelihood of achieving them.

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