Conventional wisdom says that if you have a goal, you should tell other people. First, so that they can support and encourage you. Second, so that they can keep you accountable and ensure you follow through.

It turns out, though, that conventional wisdom is wrong, and that if you tell someone else about your goal to lose 20 pounds, you’re actually less likely to achieve it.

Psychologists have been studying this phenomenon for almost a century, starting in the mid 1920s. Basically, you can tell someone that you plan to lose 20 pounds, and then your mind creates what’s called a social reality and you feel like you’re closer to reaching your goal. That sense of completion will give you some of the same satisfaction as if you had actually done it. And since you’ve already experienced the satisfaction, why go do it?


In a study done in 2009, When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap?, researchers gathered first and second year law students for an experiment and split the students into two groups. Then they asked the participants to write down what exactly they planned to do to become a jurist (for example, reading law periodicals every day), and how important it was to them that they do these things.

One group was then asked to tell the others what they were planning on doing to achieve their goal of becoming a jurist. The other group did not tell anyone about their plans. At the end, the researchers asked both groups to answer the question, “how much do you feel like a jurist right now?”

Unsurprisingly if you’ve been reading up to this point, the group who told the others about their behavioral plans said that they felt more like a jurist than the group who didn’t talk about their plans. Simply having others recognize their intentions was enough to make the participants feel closer to the identity goal.

So what should I do?

A few days ago I posted my own personal bucket list and I received a bigger response that I thought I would. I immediately thought about the social reality this created for me, and how my friends’ recognition of my goals gave me some of the satisfaction that actually doing my plans would give me. What, then, can I do to so that I don’t lose motivation due to my fake social reality?

If you insist on telling people your goals (like I already did), Derek Sivers advises to phrase it in a way that reminds your brain you have a lot of work to do. Instead of, “I’m going to run a marathon,” say, “I’m training for a marathon, so I need to run five times a week to get into shape.” Don’t give your brain the false sense of accomplishment that leads to less motivation!

Or just don’t tell anyone to begin with. Good luck goal crushing!

Penned on September 4, 2014 by Kevin Sweet