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Setting Vague Goals Can Help You Keep Those New Year’s Resolutions

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Setting Vague Goals Can Help You Keep Those New Year’s Resolutions

New research says people are more likely to achieve a goal if it’s sketched out in vague terms than if it’s set in stone with a specific target.
Fireworks in Times Square
New Year's Eve celebrations at Times Square in New York, 2013 | Reuters/Zoran Milich

Want to lose weight in 2011? You’ve got a better chance of pulling it off if you tell yourself, “I’d like to slim down and maybe lose somewhere between 5 and 15 pounds this year” instead of, “I’d like to lose 12 pounds by July 4.”

In a paper to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, business school Professor Baba Shiv concludes that people are more likely to stay motivated and achieve a goal if it’s sketched out in vague terms than if it’s set in stone as a rigid or precise plan.

“For one to be successful, one needs to be motivated,” says Shiv, Stanford GSB Sanwa Bank, Limited, Professor of Marketing. He is coauthor of the paper "In Praise of Vagueness: Malleability of Vague Information as a Performance Booster" with Himanshu Mishra and Arul Mishra, both of the University of Utah. Presenting information in a vague way - for instance using numerical ranges or qualitative descriptions - “allows you to sample from the information that’s in your favor,” says Shiv, whose research includes studying people’s responses to incentives. “You’re sampling and can pick the part you want,” the part that seems achievable or encourages you to keep your expectations upbeat to stay on track, says Shiv.

By comparison, information presented in a more-precise form doesn’t let you view it in a rosy light and so can be discouraging. For instance, Shiv says, a coach could try to motivate a sprinter by reviewing all her past times, recorded down to the thousandths of a second. That would remind her of her good times but also the poor ones, potentially de-motivating her. Or, the coach could give the athlete less-precise but still-accurate qualitative information. “Good coaches get people not to focus on the times but on a dimension that is malleable,” says Shiv. “They’ll say, ‘You’re mentally tough.’ You can’t measure that.” The runner can then zero in on her mental strength to help her concentrate on her best past performances, boosting her motivation and ultimately improving her times. “She’s cherry-picking her memories, and that’s okay, because that’s allowing her to get motivated,” says Shiv.

Of course, Shiv isn’t saying there’s no place for precise information. A pilot needs exact data to monitor a plane’s location, direction, and fuel levels, for instance. But information meant to motivate is different, and people seeking motivation need the chance to focus on just the positive. When it comes to motivation, Shiv said, “negative information outweighs positive. If I give you five pieces of negative information and five pieces of positive information, the brain weighs the negative far more than the positive. It’s a survival mechanism. The brain weighs the negative to keep us secure.”

To determine how vague information affects expectations and performance, Shiv and his colleagues told 106 participants that one gram of cocoa can improve mental performance. Participants were each given an identical piece of candy but were told that it contained either one gram of cocoa or somewhere between 0.5 grams and 1.5 grams of cocoa. Later, on a test of mental acuity, those who had been given the more vague information performed better than the other group. That result suggests that when allowed to imagine they might have eaten more than just the minimum amount of cocoa to boost mental acuity, the participants had higher expectations of performance and so were more motivated during the test.

In another experiment, 39 participants were weighed over several weeks for individual scores on a fictional “Holistic Health Index.” The ideal score, they were told, lays in the 45-55 range. At each weighing, participants in one group were given their exact index score and told it exceeded the ideal. Those in the second group were also told they exceeded the ideal, but instead of exact scores they were given a range. By the end of the study, those in the second “vague” group had lost more weight - likely because they could focus on the lower number in the range, “making the goal of being in the ideal HHI range appear more achievable,” the authors write. In contrast, those who received precise scores didn’t “have the benefit of selectively focusing on favorable pieces of information” to stay motivated, the paper adds. In other words, they couldn’t dream as easily of getting into the ideal range.

The same ideas can apply in business, such as startups searching for the next big innovation or creative breakthrough. “With innovation, you have to be highly motivated because you’re dealing with uncertainty,” says Shiv. “You cannot say, ‘I want to have two specific innovations this quarter.’” The company would be better off framing goals using a range, such as to identify up to three innovations over the next few quarters. Along the way, Shiv says, if managers find themselves empty handed they can tell themselves, “On average, we want to have a couple of innovations, and if I work hard next quarter I’m sure I’ll find an innovation,” again helping them avoid getting discouraged.

Or, during performance reviews, a manager could comment in general terms to allow the employee to interpret the feedback in an upbeat way. “The manager might say, ‘You’re mentally tough; maybe you didn’t accomplish the target this time but you’re intellectually capable,’” says Shiv.

So, about that New Year’s resolution to shed pounds. Try to avoid a specific numerical target and don’t weigh yourself daily, since weight fluctuates day to day and you’re likely to dwell on every uptick and get discouraged enough to abandon healthful habits. To stay motivated, aim for a weight range and tell yourself you just want to slim down. “There’s always going to be setbacks,” says Shiv. “It’s never going to be good all the time. Cherry-picking the information you focus on is not always a bad thing.”

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