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When you should keep your goals to yourself

There’s a time for sharing your goals to help keep you accountable, and other times you’re better off keeping them to yourself. You just have to be strategic in your decision.

When you should keep your goals to yourself
[Photo: AndreyPopov/iStock]

Does sharing your goals help you make progress? Some research says yes, but there are also studies that say you’re way better off keeping them to yourself. Sharing your goals can reportedly be beneficial, and motivate you to create momentum. Of course, it can also be an impediment to taking action, give you a false sense of accomplishment, and make you less likely to follow through.

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So what on earth do you do when science doesn’t have a clear answer? You examine the particular goal you’re trying to accomplish, think about your personality and habits, and make a decision based on the specific circumstances. Don’t know where to start? Here are some guidelines.

Make your goals public if: you need (and thrive on) external accountability

Some of us find it difficult to motivate ourselves when we don’t have anyone to answer to. As psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo previously told Fast Company, if you fall into this category, you’re probably more likely to procrastinate and push that task to the next day, the next week, or the next month if you don’t tell anyone about your endeavors. However, when you announce that intention to others, you’ll be driven to action because you don’t want to look bad–saving face becomes your motivation to act.

This strategy works for those who respond well to meeting external expectations but struggle with making progress with their own personal resolutions. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How To Make Your Life Better, calls this tendency an “obliger.” Rubin tells Fast Company, “Obligers often think they need to move out of this tendency and become inner driven, but that’s not necessary…There are hundreds of ways to build outer accountability, and that’s what obligers need.”

Keep your goals quiet if: being accountable to someone doesn’t motivate you

Of course, not everyone works this way. Some people do not like being told what to do, and when someone tries to do just that, they’re compelled to do the opposite. This type of person is a rebel, and doesn’t respond to any sort of expectations (internal or external), according to Rubin. If you identify as a rebel, you probably won’t get much benefit by making your goals public. The only exception would be if you know for sure that everyone around you will say “you could never do that”–and you’ll be motivated to prove them wrong.

Make your goals public if: it would give you a sense of community, and that motivates you

Some goals are very difficult to do in a group, but others work well toward building a community. That’s why employees who are aware of the company’s goals and how their work fits into the bigger picture tend to be more engaged, and are more driven to meet their targets.

Non-work goals can also create this kind of camaraderie. For example, three friends who are in a quest to save money can get together and brainstorm outings that are within their budget. A group of roommates who committed to eating a healthier diet can take turns cooking and eat certain meals together. According to Lombardo, sharing your goals with others who are trying to do the same thing taps into our desire and need for social connection–something that all of us have.

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Keep your goals quiet if : it’s too closely tied to your identity

Some goals are deeply related to your identity, while other goals are more about progress. Examples of identity goals include being a great parent or being an inspirational leader. Progress goals, for example, might be mastering a complex piece on the piano, or solving a mathematical problem.

According to a 2009 study, sharing an identity goal can be detrimental to the goal seeker. This is because when an observer praises their goal (i.e., it’s so great that you’re trying to be a great parent!), their comments can make the goal setter feel like they’ve already achieved what they set out to do. As a result, they put less effort into doing the things that are necessary to achieve that identity goal. The researchers wrote, “Other people’s taking notice of one’s identity-relevant intentions apparently engenders a premature sense of completeness regarding the identity goal.”

Make your goals public if: there is a competitive element, and you’re driven by competition

Just as some of us crave being part of a supportive environment, others are driven by quantifying their progress and measuring it against others. In a 2016 study, participants were assigned to enter one of four different types of exercise classes: individual classes with no competition, individual classes with competition, group activities with no competition, and group activities without competition. The study found that those who took part in a competitive environment were more likely to attend to exercise than those who did not. The researchers concluded that “social comparison was more effective for increasing physical activity than social support and its effects did not depend on individual or team incentives.”

Keep your goals quiet if: you’re trying to accomplish something you’ve never done before

While competition can drive us, negative feedback can discourage us from persisting. We can all learn to be a little bit more thick-skinned, but there are circumstances where we might be more prone to succumb to those harsh criticisms, like when we set out to do something we’ve never tried before.

Take learning a new instrument or learning a coding language. Anyone who has tried to do either will tell you that they’re both very difficult endeavors for beginners. If you’re the type of person who often compares yourself with others (and feels bad when you perceive them to be better), making your goals public might not be such a great idea.

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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