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You’re Probably Setting Goals for Yourself All Wrong

It's all about finding that difficulty sweet spot — and most of us go too easy on ourselves

One of the most enduring tenets of setting any kind of goal for yourself — Drop 10 pounds! Wear clean underwear at least twice a week! Stop getting hammered at work lunches! In front of your boss! — is that you have to make those goals somewhat attainable, or risk utter failure. But even knowing this makes it seem like we just need to make our goals easier so they aren’t so daunting, when in reality our success may hinge on setting a goal so it’s the right kind of daunting. In other words, easier might not always be better when it comes to getting it done.

At least, that’s what new research suggests about the relationship between setting goals and accomplishing them. At Harvard Business Review, a trio of business and marketing professors explain a recent paper they’ve written on how people think about goals and their difficulty, and how that very perception affects their ability to meet those goals.

They conducted a series of studies wherein participants were asked to rate how difficult various goals were, but also how appealing meeting the challenge of those goals were, too. The goal activities fell into a number of different types, involving sports, grade point averages, saving money and dropping a few pounds.

But the goal types divided everyone into five groups. The first group only had to maintain the status quo. The other four groups were assigned an improvement goal of small, moderate, large or very large improvement.

In general, everyone felt that a higher target was more difficult and a lower target was easier. But when they asked the participants who only had to attempt a status-quo goal, those subjects thought it was harder to maintain the status quo than to hit what they call a “small-increase” goal.

This doesn’t make any sense, right? At least, not at first glance — doing less always seems preferable. Say I like the weight I’m at, and I just want to maintain it over the holidays. Wouldn’t it seem far more appealing to stick with what I’m doing, even if it requires continuing to abstain from my favorite foods, than to increase my weight-loss goals by another five pounds?

Apparently not. What it came down to was the size of the gap between the baseline and the improvement. When that gap was small, it allowed the improvement-goal subjects to be more optimistic about their chances for pulling it off. But for those who had to maintain their recent performance — when there was no gap at all — all they could see was every reason that it would be really hard to pull off.

Basically, context matters, and for some reason, and our brains work best with a goal to shoot for that requires some action. Maintaining the status quo — Sell just as much as you did last month! Keep up all B’s this semester! — puzzles us and shifts our minds toward negativity.

So in that first study, the subjects only rate their own individual challenge: status quo or some form of improvement. But next, the researchers mixed things up, and had each subject compare how it felt to either maintain the status quo or to choose a modest improvement goal.

In this scenario, the subjects did see the small-increase goal as harder than maintaining the status quo. But here’s the catch: They still wanted to take on the improvement challenge anyway. The reason? The “participants anticipated greater satisfaction from achieving modest positive changes as opposed to maintaining the status quo,” the authors write.

This is just all a very business-science way of saying it feels better to do better than it does to do the same. Momentum is important in the psychology of personal betterment. Proof of this is that statistics show that some 92 percent of people never actually pull off their New Year’s Eve goals, likely a result quickly losing the motivation to do something you weren’t that keen on really doing anyway.

While a lot of the goal literature stresses how important it is that your goals are achievable, more nuanced goal advice includes how important it is to actually be excited about what you’re trying to achieve as one of the biggest metrics to succeeding. There absolutely must be a clear payoff you can visualize. Otherwise there’s no point.

We’ve all heard of the technique of slapping a picture of your dream home, or a beach vacation, or you at your high school weight, on a jar to incentivize the slog of getting there. This research demonstrates the same thing, just without needing a picture: We do need the carrot on a stick overhead as the lure to keep us trudging up that snowy hill, even if it’s just the feeling of excitement that comes with having done the thing we set out to do.

The authors of the paper use this research to suggest that managers should always be mindful of setting achievable improvement goals for their teams, even when times are tough. But applied to our personal lives, it just means there is a sweet spot with goal-setting that greatly increases our odds of making it happen.

It’s not that it has to be easy. In fact, it has to be just hard enough to be worth it.