Goals: You’re Doing Them Wrong

In 2014, I set a goal to run the Istanbul Marathon. It was the trendy thing to do in Peace Corps Albania at the time, and after witnessing some of my colleagues successfully train for and compete in the race, I was inspired. And what was the first thing I did after I decided to follow in their footsteps (literally)? Why, I wrote a Facebook status announcing my endeavor to the world, of course. I received 37 likes and 8 comments in response praising my new aspiration.

I thought at the time, as I have in many other instances, that if my friends knew about my goal then they would motivate me and support me, but more importantly hold me accountable to it. “Hey Kate, aren’t you running a marathon later this year? How’s your training going?” And if I was slacking, that comment would convince me to pick up the pace. If I didn’t follow through with my goal that I had shared with everyone I knew, I would end up looking foolish. And at the same time, because my loved ones knew that I had undertaken something difficult, they would encourage me and help me to achieve it.


Lots of people publicize their goals with these same intentions and share (and over-share) the commitments they’ve taken on in order to motivate themselves. But does it actually work? Did I run that marathon? Nooooope.

Here are several reasons why relying on external social factors to achieve your goals isn’t effective:

  1. Nobody actually cares. It seems depressing at first, but it’s actually just an unspoken truth. The people in your life, while they may care about you in an “overall well-being” sense, don’t have time or energy to follow up with you about every little thing. Guess how many people asked me: “Why didn’t you run that marathon? You’re such a disappointment!!!” Exactly zero. People forget about stuff because they’re busy with their own stuff. For the most part, nobody is paying attention.
  2. The people closest to you will support you no matter what. The exception to #1 is your inner circle of friends and family. My loved ones were very supportive of me running that marathon. It’s nice to feel loved and supported, but assuming these relationships are healthy, these people are not going to bash you if you change your mind or don’t end up achieving your goal. If your goal is something like quitting smoking they might be more invested because your health is at stake and it’s gross to be around, but if it’s something like running a marathon, they’d probably be happy for you but that’s about it. If it’s a personal goal, the motivation has to be personal. Other people cannot give you near the same drive you can give yourself.
  3. Science. There have actually been studies done on this concept. (A fantastic TED talk about this research can be viewed here.) People who share their goals with other people end up less likely to accomplish them. Why? When I wrote that Facebook post, I received instant validation just for saying I was going to run a marathon without even lacing up my shoes. The approval I would have received from others at the finish line in Istanbul was already given to me before I accomplished the goal. The only thing left after receiving that validation was my own desire to accomplish the goal and my own drive that would earn me that medal. My own internal personal motivation–the same thing that still would have existed and been essential to my success if I hadn’t posted the status about my goal.

All this is not to say that external support can’t be very meaningful to people working toward a difficult goal. If you try and fail at something, it can be incredibly comforting to have a loved one comfort and encourage you when you’re down. A “buddy system” for a goal like losing weight or reading more books can actually be very helpful, and is backed by science as well. However, this only works when the parties involved have made an explicit agreement to keep each other accountable. Assuming that someone will keep you accountable is not enough, he or she has to share the same values and be working toward the same goal as you.

At the end of the day, I alone am left with the disappointment of not running that marathon and not getting in to Stanford Law School and not giving up Diet Coke. Other people might notice and might have opinions about it, but in reality they probably don’t because they’re busy worrying about themselves just like I am. At the end of the day, the people who love me still love me even as someone who can only bust out a measly 5K once a week, is not walking around wearing a monocle at an Ivy League institution, and perpetually craves aspartame. We should not rely on others to motivate us to attack our shortcomings and achieve what we want most. They can help, but only we can do these things.

So we should shut up about them and get to work.


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