It’s an important topic that’s rarely, if ever discussed.
When setting a goal, is it better to aim for a certain number of quantifiable milestones or to aim for an amount of time?
Example: should you aim to run for three miles or 20 minutes?
The right answer depends on several factors that we’ll cover. I like to write for the “beginner” in a way that advanced achievers can benefit too. For example, Mini Habits can help the most undisciplined people turn their habits and life around, but the concepts can also help already-disciplined people take their success to the next level. With that said, the winner of these comparisons is based on this criteria: likelihood of action, incentive to perform, willpower impact, etc. In other words, it’s based more on helping you to run consistently than for you to increase your 100m dash time (which is a completely different challenge and strategy).
Does a time-based or quantity-based goal give you a better chance at success? Let’s find out!
When pursuing a goal, motivation is raised and lowered by different forces, one of which is the amount of pressure you feel to do something.
When you have a set quantity goal—say 25 push-ups, running one mile, writing 250 words, singing one song, etc—you’ll feel stronger pressure to meet that goal than a time-based goal. This is because it is a more specific target to reach and it can theoretically be accomplished in any moment. The specificity and increased tangibility creates a pressurized incentive to get it done now.
Time-based goals are not as clear. Running 20 minutes can be anything from brutal to easy because it depends on your intensity. Run four miles in 20 minutes and you’ll be exhausted. “Run” one mile in 20 minutes and it’s more like a leisure walk. And you know once you begin, it’s going to take 20 minutes no matter what you do. This flexibility and lessened immediacy of results takes the pressure off.
Protection From Intimidation
In the same way quantity-based goals motivate us with pressure, they can also demotivate us by intimidation. If your goal is to run five miles and you don’t have much energy, you’ll be intimidated by your goal. Even if you decide to take it slow, then it could take you an hour, which is a relatively significant time investment (and also intimidating). A 20-minute running goal can be intimidating too, but not as much considering you control your speed and distance, and you know the time investment in advance.
From these first two, we can see the basic reasons for setting time and quantity-based goals. Quantity-based goals are for when you want to control the amount of work you do. Time-based goals are for when you want to control the amount of time you work.
Time-based goals are going to be less intimidating simply because the amount of the work to be done is not defined and you only have to focus on the task for a predetermined number of minutes.
Not many things are more important than focusing, so it’s very beneficial to practice your focus skill. Not only does focusing improve our work, but it improves our play, too. Focusing is the ultimate life skill because it enhances your point of attention. Put simply, an unfocused mind can’t fully engage with its environment.
So which one of these is better for someone who wants to practice focusing?
It’s a bit tricky and situational, but overall, time-based goals are best-suited for focus training. This is because focusing is a function of time. You don’t focus on something in reps, but for an amount of time. It’s easy to focus on one thing in any instant (in any instant, we’re always focused on something). The more difficult task, and the value of focusing is when you focus on one thing for a longer amount of time.
In many cases, quantity-based goals train you to procrastinate. If your quantity-based goal intimidates you, you might start it and quickly find yourself distracted. We tend to do that when the task at hand gets difficult or the weight of the project is too much for us to handle.
So say your goal is to write 3,000 words today. You might start off with 100 words, run out of ideas, and crave a youtube video. I’ve done it too many times! Procrastination and distractions like this are auto-cooling mechanisms for your brain. If you do this repeatedly, you’re training yourself to procrastinate instead of making progress right now!
But if your goal is time-based, the opposite effect is typically achieved. When your goal is to write for 20 minutes, you can hold yourself to that, meaning that whenever you lose focus and do something else, you have to stop the timer. This makes you aware of when and how you lose focus; since the task is wholly time-based, it lacks the intimidating quantity-based pressure that drives people to procrastinate. Time-based goals work well when paired with a planned reward (e.g., 30 minutes of solid work earns you the right to watch 30 minutes of TV guilt-free!).
Key Variable: The Size Of Your Aim
Mini habits—or aiming for “stupid small” targets—is a monkey wrench into these calculations. Going from a 50 push-up aim to a one push-up aim changes everything. Though one push-up is quantity-based, the small size eliminates the typical intimidation of a quantity-based aim and gets you started. It also retains some of the beneficial pressure to complete a specific goal. This is why the one push-up challenge worked so well for me and eventually changed my exercise habits.
One reason that mini habits are such a game-changer is that they keep the strengths of quantity-based goals (pressure-driven motivation) while eliminating the weaknesses (they are UNintimidating). For this reason, I prefer quantity-based goals for mini habits. That’s a great combination to get you started.
- Practice mini habits: aim for quantity-based goals first, but time-based goals can work too. Minihabits.com has specific ideas for each.
- Lose focus easily: set time-based goals to practice focusing on one task at a time. This (like meditation) will strengthen your ability to focus over time.
- Do well under pressure: set quantity-based goals to make your targets tangible and add pressure to perform to a standard.
Overall Winner: Both
If you’re considering whether to set time- or quantity-based goals, it means you’re interested in setting goals and growing as a person, and that’s a great sign! Progress can be made with either option, as has been demonstrated by many people throughout time. You can use the guidelines here to figure out which type works better for you, but as always, experimentation is king. Try both out and see which one works better for you.
You don’t need to pick just one either. I use both strategies for different purposes and different goals.
Lastly, remember that the size of your goal matters more than the type of goal it is. Your goal’s size has the greatest impact on intimidation, motivation, momentum, and willpower. That’s not to say that time and quantity don’t matter, but that they’re secondary choices to the size of your goal.
The subscriber-only message on 11/18/14 expands upon this post! Join Deep Existence below to read the rest.
photo by ToniVC