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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