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When setting goals, one style does not fit all purposes

Headshot of Scott Wallace

Scott Wallace

Have you ever resolved to lose weight or exercise more? To learn piano or become conversant in Spanish? To declutter your home or boost productivity at work?

Such intentions are as virtuous as they are, unfortunately, vulnerable to failure.

According to research by Scott Wallace, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, you can increase your odds of achieving personal goals by paying closer attention to the way you set those goals.

Specifically, Wallace’s study demonstrates that specific goals—dropping 15 pounds, running a marathon, closing 20 percent more sales—are increasingly motivating the closer you get to reaching the goal, but open-ended goals—losing weight, running more, increasing sales—offer more incentive during the initial stages.

In other words, open-ended goals are better at getting you started while specific goals are better at helping you finish.

“It’s useful to know the dynamics of when we become more or less motivated as we make progress toward a goal,” Wallace says. “If you think you’re going to run into trouble getting started and sticking with it, then a specific goal may not be the best way to motivate. But if you’re good at getting started but really want to push yourself, then a specific goal is the way to go.”

What’s my motivation?

Research on goal-setting has traditionally focused on the effects of specificity. A near consensus of that research concludes that precise goals—that are reasonably attainable—lead to better performance. This insight is generally believed to apply to goal-setting in every arena: work, school, sports, customer loyalty programs and all manner of personal resolutions.

In the real world, though, many of our goals tend to be more general, open-ended. But are these “do-your-best” goals good for anything?

Wallace and co-author Jordan Etkin of Duke University wanted to find out.

They designed five studies to measure motivations and progress toward goals of task performance, debt repayment and weight loss.

In one of the studies, for example, Wallace and Etkin gave students a series of paragraphs, each containing one spelling error. One group was challenged to correct ten sequential paragraphs. The other group was asked to correct as many misspellings as possible.

Unbeknownst to the study participants, the researchers inserted one flawless paragraph into each set, appearing either early or late in the exercise. Then they measured how long the students spent trying to find and correct the non-existent error—a revealing indicator of how and when the differing styles of goal-setting motivate grit.

The people assigned the open-ended goal (correct as many as possible) spent more time trying to correct the perfect paragraph when it appeared early in the exercise, but gave up quickly when it appeared late. On the other hand, those assigned the specific goal (correct 10 paragraphs) gave up quickly when the perfect paragraph appeared early but persisted when it appeared late.

Reference points

The reason for this discrepancy, Wallace explains, is that different styles of goals present us with different “reference points,” the term that psychologists use to describe the mental anchors we use to make judgments. Wherever this anchor sits in the process of goal pursuit becomes our moment of greatest motivation.

His study demonstrates that the timing of reference points is very different for specific versus open-ended goals. Motivation increases as you approach a specific goal because the reference point is the end goal itself. With an open-ended-goal, however, the reference point is at the beginning, so motivation is strongest initially and diminishes as you progress.

If you chart motivation over time on a graph, the curves for specific versus open-ended goals would run in opposite directions.

“This creates an interesting dynamic where not every sale you make in the month or every mile you run or every pound you lose feels equally important,” Wallace says.

Indeed, if you have the specific goal of shedding 15 pounds, the 13th and 14th pounds will mean a lot more than the first or second. But if your goal is simply to “lose some weight,” that first pound provides the biggest surge of inspiration, but every pound thereafter becomes decreasingly motivating.

Range goals

So, what to make of this information? Is it even possible to set both open-ended and specific goals to stay expand motivation from start to finish?

In a related study, Wallace has found some promise in the use of “range goals,” which set a split objective at a low and high end. Resolving to lose 10 to 20 pounds, for instance.

“Past research has found that people like range goals because they’re more flexible,” Wallace says.

But range goals appear to work best when they come with external incentives, such as in a work setting. It’s easy enough to adjust bonus pay in a cascading way, for instance, to motivate a 10-to-20 percent bump in productivity.

Improving the self

When it comes to self-improvement, where the rewards are generally internal, range goals are trickier to incentivize.

As a related alternative, Wallace suggests setting a “checkpoint” goal ahead of a specific end goal. This intermediate goal should provide initial motivation and prove fairly easy to achieve. It can help you discern whether the end goal looks realistic or needs to be re-calibrated. And it can provide a real confidence boost.

“Once you’ve achieved the low-bar goal, the higher goal won’t look so far away,” Wallace says. “When you’ve already made progress, the higher goal seems more accessible.”

He adds that whatever form of goal-setting you adopt, it pays to consider other contextual factors. How new or complicated is the activity? What is your own history with goal-setting? Do you tend to have more trouble starting or completing a goal? Do you tend to set too many goals? Are you managing your goals based on outcomes you want to achieve versus habits you wish to set?

“Reflecting on the objective and your own personality can help with choosing the right process,” Wallace says.

How Goal Specificity Shapes Motivation: A Reference Points Perspective” was published in the February 2018 Journal of Consumer Research.