January 22, 2011

"Keep goals vague and don't keep track of progress too frequently"

An article in The Stanford Daily, Keep goals vague, says GSB prof, reports on the work of business professor Baba Shiv. The article contains some counterintuitive recommendations. Here are a brief summary of what the article says:

Numerical ranges and vague deadlines are more effective at sustaining motivation than precise numbers and deadlines because they give people more psychological leeway. The individual desires a biased outcome. The brain functions on that which is favorable out of a desired range. But if the individual is forced to look at all the precise measures and information, then the brain will tend to focus on the negative. If people see their targets as spectrums, their minds will focus on the more easily attainable portions of those spectrums and they will perceive their goals as within reach, and they will stay motivated. By contrast, if they are reminded of their precise previous performances and told to shoot for precise improvements, they will tend to focus on the negative. That attitude will lead them to interpret any minor setbacks as discouragement or failure, and they will lose motivation. Frequent updates can only discourage. There is evidence that the more people keep track of their exact progress, the more likely they are to give up.


  1. There's a lot to this, I suspect, if only because it helps us compensate for the negatives of the earlier dogma of goal setting to make goals precise and realistic and give them deadlines. Those things make perfect sense if you ignore long term aspects of human motivation and the winding path we take to approach our long-term visions. I imagine this as somewhat akin to strategy vs. tactics. Your strategy has to be flexible and even vague in some ways to be able to handle changing circumstances without falling apart, your tactics should be more specific to accomplish objectives.

  2. I agree. The goals we set in sports are usually better to express in terms of "observable" progress instead of "measurable" as in the notorious SMART goal setting.


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