The Danger of Setting Specific Goals

We’re told to make our goals specific, but is that smart?

First, let’s cover the positive aspect of being specific. The more specific your plan, the more intentional you are about doing it. Which one off these sounds more intentional to you?

  • Let’s go bowling sometime
  • Let’s go bowling at Valley Lanes at 3:30 PM this Tuesday

Specificity is a double-edged sword, though. In terms of our goals and ideas, the subconscious brain thinks, “What about everything else I want to do?” When you force yourself to exercise for an hour every day at 4 PM, you’re telling your brain to do something very specific for one hour at the cost of everything else you might prefer to do then. Your goal specificity is an intentional threat to your current way of living.

As you’re excited to make this positive life change, your subconscious reacts negatively. It thinks, “What’s wrong with the old routines that brought me rewards?!” You might respond by saying, “We could still do those things,” but your highly specific goal sends the opposite message.

Sometimes, it Pays to be Vague

We know it’s good to be intentional, but intentionality may also increase our resistance to improve our lives. If you didn’t really want to go bowling and someone said, “Let’s go bowling sometime,” you wouldn’t be too fearful because it lacks intention, but if they suggested a time and place, then you’d feel the pressure to go.

The brain shrugs off thoughts of “I should really start exercising more” because they’re weak and don’t amount to anything. So that sort of vague notion isn’t the answer, either. The answer is to combine intentionality and vagueness in a way that gets you started and doesn’t overly threaten your current way of living. Here are some examples.

Small goals at specific times: “I’ll walk to the end of my driveway at 3 PM every day.”

This is a highly intentional and specific goal, but it’s nonthreatening because of its size. This brings full intentionality without resistance, and it’s great! As I discuss in all of my books, it’s ideal to combine this mini habit with a willingness to do “bonus reps.”

Time-bound goals with a deadline: “I’ll walk briskly for one minute every day before bedtime.”

This is a specific goal with moderate and flexible intention. The deadline is risky because of how unspecific it is, but this risk is minimized by the small size of the goal. For example, if you put it off for the entire day, it’s still possible to accomplish the goal “at the buzzer” before you go to sleep. This is important because it enables you tremendous flexibility, which helps the subconscious feel in control and unthreatened by the change. This is the style that I first used to change my behavior with mini habits and it changed my life. I live a spontaneous lifestyle, so this strategy fit me well.

Vague goals at a specific time — “I’ll walk around a bit at 3 PM every day.”

This is one of the most underrated strategies of all time. People tend to think that they need ironclad, specific goal targets. Not true. I’ve had a lot of productive writing sessions because I decided “I’ll just write a little bit.” That thought is often my trump card when I feel resistance.

In this case, the specific time given adds all the intentionality you need to get started, but the vagueness of the goal prevents the subconscious brain from making a judgement on its threat level to your current lifestyle.

The Common Thread

You’ll notice that the common thread in these strategies is getting started. As I’ve said before, you’re most likely to do now what you just did. Life is a momentum game, in the short term and long term.

If you can always find a way to start, you won’t be stopped.

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