Don't set your goals — set your goal! Studies show the power of focus

How do you move a Big Idea off your to-do list and onto your got-done list?

Series of photos shot in a little studio/workplace, where an Japanse artist and electrician/engineer...
visualspace/Getty Images

Everyone has a project that remains stuck on their to-do list, month-in, month-out, quarter after quarter. Year after year. It is often a project that seems great, maybe a little sensational, maybe a little counterintuitive, on paper. Call it a Big Idea Project, or BIP, for short.

The BIP is often beset with too many questions and imaginary hurdles. The BIP never feels essential, but could fundamentally improve the business. This BIP is too often victim of the status quo, in that what’s current is good enough (until it’s not, and by then, it’s too late). For entrepreneurs, freelancers, independent contractors and DIYers alike, it’s imperative that the BIP get off the to-do list, and get on the got-done list. So what’s the problem?

Too much planning

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” is a quote commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Most people would agree: having a plan makes your success much more likely. But a 2012 study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research offers a different way of looking at planning.

The authors of the study, Amy Dalton of Hong Kong University, and Stephen Spiller of UCLA, say that there’s real power in a single, unifying goal.

"Research has shown that forming specific plans for a single goal makes success more likely," they write in a statement released with the study, aptly titled “Too Much of a Good Thing.”

“Most of us, however, are juggling multiple goals in our lives and jobs and managing a busy schedule. We found that specific planning helped people who had a single goal on their to-do list, but not people with multiple goals.”

Dalton and Spiller explain this is likely because “planning reminds people of all the obstacles and constraints that stand in the way of achieving goals.” Obviously, people will continue having multiple goals. So what’s the solution? You could just make plans for a single goal at a time, but the pair also discovered an interesting mental phenomenon: thinking other people are juggling more goals than you makes your goals seem more manageable.

Perhaps author Henry Miller said it best: “Work on one thing at a time until finished.” The next question is: How do you start?

Present You vs. Future You

If you’re like a lot of people, you work much better when facing the pressure of a deadline. Something about a ticking clock just spurs some into action. According to research from the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, our perception of time plays a big factor here.

In the study, students were given a four-hour data entry assignment at the end of April. One group of the students had a deadline at the end of the month, while the others had to turn in their work at the beginning of May. The latter group experienced a barrier because of that difference in time.

"The key step in getting things done is getting started. If you never get started, you can't possibly finish," said Yanping Tu, who worked on the study. "But that urgency, that need to actually work on a task, happens when that task is seen as part of a person's present."

So, the bottom line from both studies is clear: plan to do one thing at a time and when in doubt, just get started. That’s when the BIP really begins.

Study abstract for “Too Much of a Good Thing”: Implementation intentions are specific plans regarding how, when, and where to pursue a goal (Gollwitzer). Forming implementation intentions for a single goal has been shown to facilitate goal achievement, but do such intentions benefit multiple goals? If so, people should form implementation intentions for all their goals, from eating healthily to tidying up. An investigation into this question suggests that the benefits of implemental planning for attaining a single goal do not typically extend to multiple goals. Instead, implemental planning draws attention to the difficulty of executing multiple goals, which undermines commitment to those goals relative to other desirable activities and thereby undermines goal success. Framing the execution of multiple goals as a manageable endeavor, however, reduces the perceived difficulty of multiple goal pursuit and helps consumers accomplish the various tasks they planned for. This research contributes to literature on goal management, goal specificity, the intention-behavior link, and planning.
Related Tags