The Simple Science of Effective (and Ineffective) Goal Setting


Whether you realize it or not, your goal setting is either helping or hindering your ability to make things happen. Here’s what works best for me.


When you set a goal, what’s your first instinct?

If you’re like most people, it’s probably to start telling people about it, either to get motivated or admired or a bit of both. And you’re not alone: attend any type of social gathering or just scroll through your Facebook feed and chances are you’ll be inundated with prognostications of grandeur until your ears or eyes go numb.

Whether this impulse to talk ourselves and our dreams up is more a product of cultural influence or a manifestation of the innate human desire to be loved doesn’t really matter: the practical reality is it directly impedes our ability to actually make our goals a reality.

Yes, research has shown that merely discussing our goals can set us up for failure.

Interestingly enough, this bit of scientific wisdom dates back to the 1930s when W. Mahler concluded through his research that people that talk about their goals and intentions are less likely to actually achieve them.

This line of scientific inquiry was picked up in the 1980s by NYU professor of psychology Peter Gollwitzer, who published a paper on the subject several years ago.

















This study involved four tests conducted with 63 subjects and, like Mahler, Gollwitzer found that those who kept their intentions to themselves were more likely to bring them to fruition than those who told others and received acknowledgment or praise.

The reasoning for this is simple and agrees with my perception of myself, at least: by telling your goals to others and receiving acknowledgement, you’re given a premature sense of completion and satisfaction.

In effect you’re mentally “shortcutting” the work it should take to receive that acknowledgement, and this can take the wind out of your sails.

Hell, research shows you can even do this to yourself! Case in point: this study, which demonstrated that success on a sub-goal (eating healthily) can make you less likely to pursue the other-subgoals (going to the gym) required for the achievement of the overall goal (getting fit).

This is one of the reasons why I rarely talk about my goals and deliberately ignore chances to brag. Although I know for a fact that I can do whatever is necessary to see things through, I’d prefer to stay highly motivated throughout the process and not fight against flagging enthusiasm caused by blabbering about my future.

So what are we to do when someone asks what we’re up to or what’s on the horizon? Well, Gollwitzer has an answer that, interestingly enough, has always been my normal way of replying to such questions…

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How to Talk About Your Goals Without Sucking the Life Out of Them

While some people recommend that you simply never talk about your goals to preserve their vitality, but I find that advice a bit extreme. Are we to really do that with all people? Even close friends and family? And in all circumstances? Even networking events and business meetings?

Sure, we could, I guess, but I think the following from Gollwitzer’s paper is a much more practical approach:

“Third, recent research by Fishbach and her colleagues (Fishbach & Dhar, 2005; Koo & Fishbach, 2008) suggests that interpreting a behavioral performance in terms of indicating commitment to a goal enhances further goal striving, whereas conceiving of a performance in terms of progress toward a goal reduces further goal striving.

“This implies that a behavioral intention worded to indicate a strong commitment to the identity goal (e.g., ‘’I want to write a paper to become a great scientist’’) should be less negatively affected by social reality than a behavioral intention that implies progress toward the identity goal (e.g., ‘I intend to write a paper, as is done by great scientists’).”

That is, answer in such a way that indicates you’re working on it with no implication of having arrived or achieved anything.

  • “I’m working on losing 20 pounds” and not “I’ve joined a gym and go every morning!”
  • “I’d like my business to be profitable by the end of the year” and not “we’ve already made so-and-so much this year!”
  • “I want to become fluent in another language” and not “I’ve already put in 100 hours of language learning!”

You get the idea. Don’t go for approval. Go for a lukewarm response of “oh okay…cool.”

Similarly, do people a favor and don’t fawn over their goals and intentions. When people tell me about something they intend on doing or achieving, my response is usually along the lines of “that’s a good idea–do it.” Praise is reserved for dones, not going-to-dos.

There’s another reason why I don’t offer much information about my dreams and intentions: I really don’t care what people think about my desires and plans and whether or not I get recognized for achieving them.

As the old cliche goes, I do what I do because it’s what I like to do, not because of what it gets me financially, interpersonally, socially, or otherwise.

This attitude, which some people mistake for aloofness or elitism, gives me a huge advantage over others I know that are overly concerned with receiving praise and building reputation.

You see, when you let go of the need for external approval, you also let go of the need for external motivation. 

You don’t feel the need to turn to others for pep talks or write that status update about the latest development in your journey. You simply keep to yourself and do the work and eventually, one day, people start to notice that you’re actually making things happen.

So, that’s how I keep myself motivated and on-track, but that’s not all there is to effective goal setting…

Successful Goal Setting Requires Successful Scheduling

Many people make the fatal goal setting mistake of working out deadlines but not schedules.

That is, we often focus on the end result we want and when we want it by without really considering how much effort it will require and how we’re going to break that effort into a repeatable routine that will ultimately get us to where we want to be.

Then, when we don’t meet these arbitrary target dates, we often come down hard on ourselves as failures.

Well, this approach is backwards. How are we supposed to achieve something within a certain time frame without giving any thought as to how much work it will actually require and when we’re going to do that work?

When you want to achieve something, you should first think about schedule and then deadline.

You only get so many hours to do things every day and the better you organize and spend them, the more and bigger goals you can accomplish. For example, click on the following link to see my personal schedule I follow every day, every week:


This is the schedule that has enabled me to write 6 books in the last 2.5 years (with the 7th launching in about a week) and sell over 200,000 copies; build a blog that receives over 700,000 visits per month; launch Legion and make it profitable within 3 months; and accomplish other various “smaller” goals…without losing my wife, haha.

Sure, sometimes life gets in the way and I don’t have any choice but to deviate from my schedule, but that’s my life in a nutshell. And when things change, it usually means I play catch-up by sacrificing certain time slots for more important things that have to get done (for instance I may skip reading one night to make sure an article gets done on time).

As you can see, my schedule is pretty structured because it has to be for me to keep up with the amount of balls I’m juggling. If I just tried to wing it every day there’s no way I could keep all the balls in the air. A lifestyle like mine may not be for everyone but I love it. It gives me a very clear picture of what I need to do every day to achieve my goals.

Now, if I were to consider achieving another goal right now, I would first go to my schedule and see if there’s anywhere I can fit it in. For example, about seven months ago I decided to learn German but didn’t want to drop anything in my night routine to work it in.

Instead I found a series of courses (Pimsleur) that I could do while in the car, and it worked perfectly. I made it through all four of their courses in a few months. (Ironically, however, I didn’t learn as much of the language as I thought I would for the time spent!)

Focusing on my schedule helps me avoid committing to goals that I won’t be able to see through as well. It keeps my imagination in check and prevents me from spreading myself so thin that nothing gets done.


What did you think of these goal setting strategies? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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I'm Mike and I'm the creator of Muscle for Life and Legion Athletics, and I believe that EVERYONE can achieve the body of their dreams.

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