Jonathan Tzou, head of growth at Complete, co-wrote this article.
Setting a goal is simple. Just say what you plan on doing and everything else falls into place.
It turns out that some methods of setting goals are better than others. And we have the research to prove it.
Here are the things you shouldn’t be doing when setting your sights on accomplishments.
1. Visualize the worst
The problem: It’s human nature to envision the most dreaded portions of a task before taking it on. The difficult parts begin filling the mind and often transform “hard work” into “procrastination” – a problem everyone’s experienced at some point.
The research: According to a cognitive study conducted by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeignarik, people who are interrupted mid-task are twice as likely to remember to finish said task. Kenneth McGraw conducted an orthogonal study to understand what would happen when people were promised unlimited time to complete a task and were cut short. McGraw found that among those who were interrupted mid-task and notified that time was up, 90 percent continued working on the task anyway.
The solution: Start on your tasks. We don’t care how. Take a step. Any step will do. Doing so not only will make the task more memorable in your mind, but also will result in a higher likelihood that you work on it – a win-win in our books.
The problem: People who fantasize by setting unrealistically high expectations generally see horrific results in completing their tasks. True story.
The research: Researchers from NYU and the University of Hamburg conducted a study on how people coped with various challenges, particularly pertaining to expectation vs. fantasy. They found that students who overly fantasized about high job prospects received significantly fewer job offers and earned less money. Similarly, those with crushes who overly fantasized about high relationship prospects were significantly less likely to enter intimate relationships.
Why? Higher expectations resulted in less effort. And we all know where less effort leads.
The solution: Visualizing goals is perfectly fine, but excessively fantasizing is a grave mistake. Instead of setting “goals” around lofty outcomes, work on tangible, actionable things that can affect the here and the now. Members of the community within social intentions app Complete do an exceptionally good job of keeping each other focused on doing the things that matter.
3. Prioritize ‘busy work’
The problem: Most people have the tendency to gravitate toward what we call “busy work" – work that makes you feel like you’re doing something impactful, when in reality what you’re doing is not impactful at all. It’s not entirely our fault, however; the brain is naturally wired to want to do busy work.
The research: According to a research study conducted at the University of Potsdam, four out of five students were far more inclined to do busy work when they weren’t reminded of the key objective at hand through verbal cues of certain key words. The moment the reminders stopped, students began avoiding the difficult primary objective and gravitated toward the menial, less impactful tasks that we know as “busy work.” No bueno.
The solution: In order to cross the chasm of busy work to meaningful work, you must find ways to remind yourself to do the work that makes the biggest difference. Focus on the outcome of said work and not the massive effort required to finish it. Do this, and watch your efficiency flourish.