Should You Keep Your Goals to Yourself?

I have always believed that you are more likely to accomplish big goals if you declare them publicly. My rationale has been that this creates the accountability you need to follow-through. But now I am not so sure.

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Derek Sivers makes a compelling case against going public with your goals in his short talk at the 2010 Ted Conference. (The talk is only a little over three minutes long.) His basic premise is this: telling someone your goals makes them less likely to happen.

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Why is this true? According to him, it is because you get the psychological satisfaction of accomplishing the goal without having to actually do the work. In other words, talking becomes a substitute for doing.

This goes against conventional goal-setting wisdom. However, Sivers cites the work of several psychologists, including Kurt Lewin, Wera Mahler, and Peter Gollwitzer. He then describes a fascinating study that Dr. Gollwitzer conducted in 2009.

In four separate tests, 163 people wrote down a personal goal. Half of them announced their commitment to their goal; half of them didn’t. Then they were given 45-minutes to work toward their goal but told that they could stop at any time.

Those who had kept their mouth shut, worked the entire 45 minutes. Afterward, they said they still had a lot of work to do in order to accomplish their goal. On the other hand, those who had gone public, stopped after 33 minutes (on average). They felt they were already close to accomplishing their goal and didn’t need to work the entire time.

I personally think Sivers’ premise makes sense for individuals. In fact, I am completely re-thinking this, since I took exactly the opposite point of view in an earlier post. I am going to experiment with a new goal I have created for myself but have not yet expressed publicly.

However, I wonder if Sivers’ philosophy makes sense for organizations. After all, as a leader, a big part of your job is to cast vision and create alignment around specific outcomes. How can you do this without going public?

Perhaps, the application is that you don’t share the goal with outsiders. Instead, you keep it between your teammates. As someone once said, “You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do,” so why announce it until you have accomplished it?

Honestly, I am not sure what to think about the organizational application. I am still mulling it over.

Question: What do you think? Should you go public with your goals or not?
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  • sg

    In trying to compare this to what will work in the enterprise, this study is fundamentally flawed. There is no jeopardy for not completing the task and no particular reward for getting it done (beyond self gratification, which is what the speaker suggests is achieved without actually doing the task by saying it out loud). In the work place public success brings kudos, promotion and financial reward, public failure brings shame, financial loss and potentially worse. I don’t think there can be a question about what works inside companies and it isn’t lots of people hiding and not communicating and hoping they do okay.

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  • sobaek

    I talked with my brother a couple of weeks ago about this, an we both exeriensed that if you tell people what you are going to do before you do it, you get the feeling that you already done it. A couple of weeks later i saw this tedtalk and got it confirmed.
    But I think that it is about how much and how detailed your reveal your goal. Example, if you say your are going to be a millionare, that will motivate you because people dont belive it and therefore you still got to prove you can. But if you reveal HOW your going to do it, and its a good stradegi, they will react positive and you will lose your drive and get sort of a bad feeling for teling you secret goal before it happen, cuz its still kind of a small reaction. But also becouse, now when you reach your goal, it wont be a suprise an therfore you wont get the same WOW reaction, as if they wearent expecting it of you.. 

    Sorry for my bad english, im from Denmark. Hope you get what I was trying to say :)

    • Barry Hill


      Which TED talk were you watching? Link please. Thank you!

  • tom rose

    Who cares what anyone THINKS.  Opinions are powerful influences on our behaviour, but they are often wildly incorrect. Opinion is only valuable if it is backed up by well designed experiments, quality reasoning, and sufficient data to show that the conclusions are not a statistical anomaly.

  • Joseph Allen

    I see the value in keeping your goals to yourself. I’d like to see a study that takes into account peoples reactions to the announced goals. I have a personal goal that most people seem to actively advise against. As a result I do not get the sense of satisfaction mentioned in the video. Personally it drives me to work harder and make sure I do exactly what I set out to do and disregard what people say. But my experience is anecdotal. A study that splits the “announced” group into two sections (positive and negative reactions from the public) and recorded the progress on their goal would reveal more interesting information.

  • Ginger Ging

    Notice that the experiment does not record how many members of either group actually reached their goals, but only how long they each worked towards it on one occasion and how close they felt to achieving their goal at the end of that particular session. To me the conclusion of the test seems rushed and, well, inconclusive…

  • Jason Wright

    I’m not sure if anyone else has mentioned this, but the study seemed to be on very short term goals. I wonder if there is a study done on telling people about long term goals and how that effect achieving them. Also, I’m curious if the people who told their goal actually accomplished more towards their goal in the allotted timeframe than those who didn’t tell and felt like they had a long ways to go still. One more thought on the topic, is that they told someone their goal and immediately started working on it. If they waited for the initial satisfaction of telling someone to wear off, I believe the accountability piece then would kick in to accomplish their goal