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The Simple Science of Effective (and Ineffective) Goal Setting

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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  • Tania Dikova

    Wow, that is a full schedule 🙂
    Writing my schedule, I found where does all the time I don’t have goes 🙁 traveling. Should probably change the bus for a bike – 2 birds, 1 stone. It won’t probably save me a lot of time though.
    Thank you for the wonderful article. I have always wondered how you make it 🙂

    • Michael Matthews

      Hehe yeah I stay busy.

      That’s what most people realize–they have a LOT more time on their hands than they realize and they can easily free up quite a bit more if they’re willing to cut out random shit like TV watching, socializing, etc.

      I watch a TV show when I do cardio and see friends in the gym each morning and on Saturday. That’s enough “fun time” for me.

  • Luke Sfair

    Great article, like always!
    The form that you keep things equilibrate without losing your wife (and sanity) is praiseworthy! Hehe
    “Praise is reserved for dones, not going-to-dos”, it’s my quote of the week!!!

    Grande abraço!

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks man! 🙂

  • frametheory

    I lost 2 inches off my waist so far so the cut is going well. Im sticking to the meal plan and its going great. Im barely hungry, and when i do get hungry its right when Im about to have a meal so its perfect timing. Saying all this just to thank you for the info you put out Mike. Its working.

    When i hit the weights I always aim to beat my previous workout. Hope thats what Im suppose to do even though Im cutting.

    • Michael Matthews

      Great! Keep it up brother. Yup strive for progress when you’re cutting. Put those newbie gains to work!

  • Adele Frizzell

    Thank you for sharing your schedule, I’ve been wondering how you get it all done while managing to personally reply to emails and blog comments. As a fellow writer, I struggle with balancing social media and book writing. p.s. I like your idea of seeing if something fits your schedule before adding another goal. So many goals…so little time.

    • Michael Matthews

      YW and yeah following a tight schedule is the only way to do it or time just gets frittered away on relatively unimportant shit…

      I hear you. I wish I didn’t have to sleep!

  • the gazman

    i don’t think i could live on 6.5hrs sleep! how do you get the motivation to stick to such a busy plan? i would need some designated chill/tv time

    • Michael Matthews

      Haha I wake up naturally after 6 – 6.5 hours. My body just doesn’t need more. *shrug*

      IMO you just get used to whatever you’re currently doing and feel that’s what you “need.” For me, being less busy actually makes me feel bored. But if I were to sit around watching TV a few hours per day for long enough, I’d eventually get used to that and feel like I could never go back to being so busy…

    • Aankhen

      Yeah, I feel tired even after 9 hours. 🙁

      • Michael Matthews

        I would see a doc and get a basic blood panel done to see if you have a hormonal issue or severe micronutrient deficiency.

        • Aankhen

          I know I have some micronutrient deficincies that I’m trying to correct. I never realized that might be causing it. I’ll check it out. Thank you!

          • Michael Matthews

            Great, let me know!

  • Audrey

    So many good things in this article! And thanks for sharing your schedule Mike! I try to do the same thing- make a schedule of things I need to do (although mine isn’t as tight as yours). But I run into 2 big problems that result in me deviating from my schedule. One thing is that I have a hard time predicting when there is an ’emergency’ I need to attend to. Or even determining if it is an emergency. For example, family or friends will call or email me and there will be a situation. I like to help people when I can, so I usually drop everything and really dedicate my time to listen to them or respond to an email. Or I will have a ‘crisis’ that I may need help with (or I just need time to get back to a better mental state). I know I’m a really sensitive person (or maybe it just comes with being a female?). In any case, situations like that always take more time than anticipated and I end up getting off track.

    I also have a hard time staying mentally focused, since most of my work revolves around studying, reading, or writing. I want to keep working, but I feel like I have only so much brain power! I can’t figure out if I’m just pushing myself too hard (and what I’m trying to get done in 1 day is just unrealistic) or I actually could focus better and get more done.

    At the end of most days, I feel like I haven’t accomplished all that I wanted to, and that’s frustrating. 7-7.5 hrs of sleep for me is a must- so I don’t sacrifice sleep in order to get more done (wish I could, but I can’t). I don’t watch TV or really do any vegging so it’s not like that’s taking up any time. I wish I could relax sometimes, but that would take too much time, lol.

    • Audrey

      Oh, and I have another question- if you haven’t completed a particular task by the end of the designated time block, do you keep working on it or abandon ship and move on to the next task? That’s another thing I have a hard time with- figuring out when to call something done. I’m a very goal-oriented person, but achieving my goals is stressful to say the least.

      • Michael Matthews

        Most of my projects are long-term developments so I simply put in the time every day and move on to the next thing. Sometimes, though, certain things have to get done by a certain day/time and in that case I’ll have to cut into my writing time.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Audrey!

      Regarding deviating from a schedule, I’m very stingy with my time and my close friends are the same way. They’re very busy and just don’t have the time or inclination to chat. If there were a true emergency I would definitely be there to help, but that basically never happens. With anyone in my life. (To be honest if someone other than close friends or family became too much of a distraction I would get them out of my life.)

      My work is the same way: 100% mental. I find that regular exercise helps a ton with brain power. It takes a LOT to mentally fatigue me. I also work completely distraction-free and get quite a lot done in the time I have.

      Sleep is very important. I suppose I’m lucky that I don’t need much.

      • Audrey

        Thanks for the insight, I really appreciate it! I agree that exercise and sleep are really important for brain power. Do you think weights are more beneficial or cardio? Or equally beneficial? Is there anything else that you do to keep your brain consistently running on all cylinders? I think that’s the hardest thing- to maintain a consistent level of mental alertness and energy that lasts throughout the day and days to come. Some days (or parts of the day) I’ll be mentally alert and focused but inevitably I’ll become mentally fatigued at some point. I also think my emotions get the better of me sometimes making it impossible to concentrate.

        • Andrew

          Hi Audrey,
          I personally have found that Mike’s program of lifting heavy weights (4-6 reps for men) is
          just fantastic for giving my brain a rest.

          My work is 100% mental, and – like many – the work and work thoughts never really go away when I step out of the office. But when I need to focus on lifting a heavy set of weights, it’s literally the only task I can think of at that moment – it demands 100% attention and so it brings a welcome mental break from everything else (work, life etc).

          I found that slow, steady cardio just had the opposite effect. I would get bored with the task (running, cycling) and end up thinking too much about other things.

          So for me heavy weights are a pleasant escape!

          I could imagine that HIIT cardio would also occupy my mind like weights, because it needs 100% focus too, but I’m still finding my routine on HIIT so can’t vouch for that one yet.

          • Michael Matthews

            Thanks Andrew. I totally agree!

        • Michael Matthews

          For overall health weightlifting is more important but ideally you would do both.

          Eat nutritious foods and avoid sugar highs and lows and I supplement with good stuff like vitamin D, spirulina, fish oil, circumin, etc. All in all I’m just in VERY good physical health and that spills over to the mental side of things.

          • Audrey

            Thanks Mike & Andrew! I lift heavy as well (been doing Mike’s program for a year now) and that’s a good point that heavy lifting really demands your full attention (especially when you’re cutting!). I’ve definitely noticed improvements in my mental abilities since I’ve started the program. But I know I still have a ways to go since I was starting off very unhealthy (skinny fat to the extreme). I’ll look into the spirulina & circumin since I’m not currently taking those. Any additional tips on improving memory? (sorry if I’ve hijacked the original topic). I’m studying for a big exam right now so I’m trying to do everything possible to retain as much as I can. Eating nutrient dense foods, sleep, and lifting have definitely helped!

          • Michael Matthews

            That’s great. I’m glad to hear you’re doing well and hey we all have room for improvement.

            Regarding memory, hmm I’ve tried various nootropics and didn’t notice a difference in this regard. General brain health seems to be the big point and exercise and nutritious eating are the keys here.

          • Andrew

            Hi Audrey,
            I came back to my old Disqus discussion thread when I asked Mike a question last week. It sounds like we have had similar life-changing experiences following Mike’s books (I bought the second edition as well as the first too!) and have been getting great results from BLS for the last 18 months. I only now thought of a suggestion for your question about mental abilities…

            I learned how to do Transcendental Meditation (“TM”) about 4 months ago, and have been practicing it daily. It has been a really positive change. I’ve found it to help me think more clearly (less cluttered thoughts), feel better about accepting life’s ups and downs, and it has also given me more energy. Doing TM for 20 minutes before going to the gym was a revelation… talk about a pre-workout! I’m glad I took the leap (despite the “Woo-Woo” associations of meditation) and tried it. They have a free intro course/lecture in most places (see their website TM.org).

            Sorry this suggestion comes a little too late for your exam prep last year, but I’ve discovered TM only this year, and in any case it is a life-skill rather than a one-time exam cramming solution. I wish I had learned TM earlier (I am 42 yrs old), but glad I found it now…

            Hope this message reaches you, and that you are still going strong with the workouts. Best of luck!

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  • Brian

    Do you shower after the gym before heading to the office? Do you go to an office or a home office? I hit the gym in the morning then drive home for shower and breakfast…..then 45 minute commute to work….very inefficient. I see some guys showering at the gym but wonder what they do with the wet towels all day.

    • Michael Matthews

      I don’t shower, no. I just wash my face. Sounds gross, I know, but I don’t sweat very much in general and don’t smell, so I’m fine with it, haha.

      I go to an office. I would get too distracted by my wife and son at home. 🙂

      I would shower at the gym if I had to though and just bring the towel into work to dry. 🙂

  • Michael Matthews

    Thanks for stopping by and checking out my article! I hope you enjoyed it.

    Feel free to comment below if you have any questions. I do my best to check and reply to every comment left on my blog, so don’t be shy!

    Oh and if you like what I have to say, you should sign up for my free weekly newsletter! You’ll get awesome, science-based health and fitness tips, delicious “guilt-free” recipes, articles to keep you motivated, and much more!

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  • DK

    This is a brilliant article Mike. I can really relate to this. I am the type of person who would rather not discuss what I’m doing though…mainly because if I told someone that I was lifting it would probably be met with laughter. You can probably gather I’m a long way from my goal lol. But I would never be a “hey look at me” sort of guy anyway.
    This is the type of article that sets you apart from any other fitness related advice website.
    Keep them coming Mike!!!

    • I hear you brother! Glad you liked it. 🙂

      More articles coming soon!

  • Cole Lomas

    Hi Mike, what sort of programs do you use for organization of goals, information, research etc. Evernote, onenote, etc? Would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations on actual systems and process you use

    • Cole Lomas

      P.S I just opened up the schedule link you put in this article. That’s really awesome to see how someone successful goes about there week. Really helpful, thanks for that.

    • Hey hey,

      That might make for a good post/podcast, but I mainly use:

      Google Drive

      In terms of processes, again, that would need to be a post/podcast. I’ll make a note of it!

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