Welcome to the Get It Done Tiny Course: Goal Setting
In this module, you’ll learn how best to set goals and targets. This is the first of two videos in the module. After each video, there’ll be a short quiz. You’ll have to get most of the questions right to complete the module.
Goal Setting – Video 1
Welcome to the Get It Done tiny course. In this module, you’ll learn about the best practices for setting goals and targets. This is the first of two videos in the module. After each video, there’ll be a short quiz. You’ll have to get most of the questions right to complete the module.
The goals we set are powerful motivational tools. A goal doesn’t just point you in a specific direction; it also pulls you in that direction. So what is the optimal way to set a goal?
Rule #1: Set a goal, not a means. A powerful goal defines a desirable state, not the means to get there. No one likes to invest in a means. So, when dining out, you might not hesitate to order a $12 cocktail at a restaurant, but you’d think twice, and even drive around the block a few times, before paying the same amount for valet parking. You don’t like paying for parking because parking is, by definition, a means.
When setting goals, try to define the goal in terms of benefits rather than costs. It’s better to set your goal as “finding a job” rather than “applying for a job.” Finding a job is a desirable outcome; filling out applications is a costly means and feels like a chore.
Rule #2: Set abstract goals. If your goal is to find a new job, you could describe it as “exploring career opportunities” or as “reading job postings and submitting applications.” While these are two descriptions of the same goal, the abstract description—exploring career opportunities—is more motivating. It emphasizes the purpose behind your action.
But don’t make your goal so abstract that it becomes vague. Vague goals aren’t linked to a specific set of actions and are therefore difficult to pursue. “Explore new career opportunities,” for instance, is much more motivating than “be successful.”
Abstract goals should also not be fantasies. When we fantasize, we imagine what our lives will look like once we achieve our goal. We envision how great it will feel to wear that graduation gown or medal. But fantasizing doesn’t generate action. Fantasizing about graduating with honors won’t make you study harder.
Rule #3: Set “do” versus “not do” goals. Often, “do” goals work better. If you play a basketball game, setting your goal as winning the game—which is a “do” or an approach goal—is more enticing than setting your goal as not losing the game—which is a “do not” or avoidance goal.
The strongest case against setting do not goals comes from research on thought suppression. Suppression is notoriously hard to do. The more you’re determined to not think about something, like your ex, the more you’ll find yourself obsessing about it. The irony of this phenomenon is why it came to be called “ironic mental control.”
But note that do not goals are effective at creating a sense of urgency. Compare these statements: “I must prevent getting sick” versus “I want to be healthy.” The avoidance goal seems more urgent but less pleasant. So if you set your goal as “not losing,” you might believe it’s more urgent than if you set it as “winning.”
Now that you have completed the first video on setting goals, let’s see how much you’ve learned with a few questions. Good luck!
Take the Quiz
Goal-Setting – Video 2
Welcome to the second video on setting your goals. In the first video, you learned how to set effective goals. In this video, you’ll learn how to frame your goals with effective targets.
Put a number on your goal
Once you’ve set a goal, you need to decide on numerical targets: how much and how soon (for example, saving $10,000 within one year). Targets motivate us because they make it easier to monitor progress and because, once they’re set, we care deeply about meeting these exact numbers. If you set your target at saving $10,000, you’ll be disappointed if you “only” save $9,900. But saving $10,100 won’t make you much happier than saving exactly $10,000. Once a target has been set, you see anything below it as a loss, which you care deeply to avoid. In contrast, anything above the set target is a gain, which is nice to have but doesn’t seem necessary.
A numerical target runs the risk of undermining your motivation if it’s insufficiently ambitious—if you stop saving as soon as you hit your $10,000 target, for example. An effective target should therefore be challenging and somewhat optimistic. Indeed, when left to our own devices, we often set optimistic targets to challenge ourselves. You might plan to run a marathon in under four hours, even though you know that right now that is not achievable. But you do it because the target motivates you to train harder. When you challenge yourself, you choose to expect too much rather than too little.
A good target is also easy to measure. Consider the targets to excel at your new job, save enough for retirement, and get enough sleep. These targets are less motivating than completing a work project by the end of the week, saving $10,000 this year, or getting eight hours of sleep every night.
Effective targets are further actionable. Consider aiming to eat no more than 2,500 calories per day. For many, this is an optimistic goal with a precise measurement. Yet calories are hard to measure. When you look at a dessert, you may see chocolate, whipped cream, or caramel, but you don’t see calories. Instead of using calories, imagine a world in which food is labeled in terms of daily allowance—for example, a pasta dish could be labeled as 23 percent of your daily allowance. Or consider the traffic-light labeling system that tells you whether a food is good, mediocre, or bad. These labels could help you set targets that are more effective.
Finally, effective targets are self-set. Often, we rely on our boss, teacher, doctor, or trainer to set our targets. The risk is that we’re less committed to them. If your personal trainer asks for 10 more push-ups, you might sneakily try to do one or two fewer when she isn’t looking. But if you told yourself you’d do 10 push-ups, it would be harder to hide. When consulting the expert, ask for a set of options to choose from. This will allow you to own your target.
Beware of malicious goals
Setting goals that are too ambitious can cause you to stretch yourself too thin or work too hard. Recall that the first marathon runner was an Ancient Greek messenger who raced from the site of Marathon all the way to Athens to deliver the news of a Greek victory. After delivering his message, he collapsed and died. Realizing that your target is somewhat arbitrary is meant to motivate you and often the key to a healthy relationship with our goals.
Now that you know how to set effective targets, let’s test your expertise.
Take the Quiz
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