I’m a nail biter. I bite my fingernails. And 2011 will be the year I stop for good.
Wait a minute. Maybe I shouldn’t have posted that here.
This week, my CBC Radio technology column is all about goal-setting websites, and whether on not it’s a good idea to share you goals with others online. On one hand, sites like stickK.com, streak.ly, and 43things.com encourage us to share our goals and progress through Facebook and Twitter. But on the other hand, some research suggests that you’re more likely to achieve a private goal than a public one.
You can listen to my column below, or download the MP3. [audio:http://blip.tv/file/get/Dmisener-ShouldIPostMyGoalsOnline734.mp3]
I’m not usually a New Year’s resolution kind of guy. Like a lot of people, I have trouble committing to large, life-altering decisions drunkenly made a few minutes before midnight on December 31. That said, I do have a disgustingly bad habit of biting my fingernails, and I would really love for 2011 to be the year that I stop. Lucky for me, there’s no shortage of online tools that promise to help.
For example, stickK. It’s been around for a few years now, and it’s a goal-setting site with a twist. You sign up, and you create a goal, “Lose weight” or “Quit smoking.” Once you’ve created your goal, you can put in your credit card number and a dollar amount. That way, if you don’t meet your goal, your credit card gets charged. There’s a direct financial consequence if you don’t succeed. You can choose where the money goes: to a charity, or to a friend. If you really want to create a disincentive, you can tell the site to send the money to what they call an anti-charity (a charity you don’t like). Or an enemy.
Stickk.com was created by economists from Yale, and they claim that by putting money on the line, by having some skin in the game, you triple your chances at success.
Another goal-setting site is newcomer streak.ly, which is geared towards regular, ongoing, daily goals. The site lets you a list of things that you want to do every single day, like posting a photo to your blog, eating a proper breakfast every morning. The idea is that you go to the site every single day to report back on your progress. Every day you check in, your streak gets longer. So if I don’t bite my fingernails for a five days in a row, I have a five day streak. I like it because it’s very basic, very simple.
There are many other goal-setting sites: 43things.com, My50.com… the list goes on. And many of these sites feature integration with the social web. Stickk.com allows you invite your friends from Twitter and Facebook to follow along with your progress. Streak.ly lets you share your progress on Twitter. So every day I don’t bite my fingernails, I can send out a tweet that lets everyone know (though that may very well fall into the category of “too much information”).
A big part of what’s behind this socialization of goal-setting websites is the idea that making your goals public helps you achieve them. We’re often told that if you want to reach your goals, you should tell people what you want to achieve. But here’s the thing: some people argue that you’re more likely to achieve your goals if you keep your goals private.
Entrepreneur Derek Sivers argued this point in a recent TED talk called Keep your goals to yourself. In his notes to the presentation, Derek writes, “Announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed.”
Sivers’s primary source is a recent study [PDF] out of New York University by Peter Gollwitzer, which found that “when other people take notice of an individual’s identity-related behavioral intention, this gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity.”
To paraphrase Sivers, people confuse talking about a goal with actually working towards a goal. Psychologists call this “substitution,” where we substitute our real goal with talking about our goal, or tweeting about our goal, or posting a Facebook status update about our goal. And in Gollwitzer’s research, the premature sense of completely comes in when these substitute goals are recognized by others.
Over at the Freakonomics blog, Ian Ayres has an in-depth critique of Siver’s thesis and interpretation of Gollwitzer’s research, saying it’s “dangerous for Sivers to say that it is better to keep goals secret.” He cites stickK success stories like Andy Mayer’s:
Andy put $1,500 at risk and committed to lose a pound each week for 20 weeks. He also composed an email to send to his friends and family telling them about his weight loss commitment. “I had no trouble signing up for the contract. That was the easy part. The hardest part for me was telling people. . . . That e-mail sat open for several hours. It is one thing to enter into a contract where you and your spouse know what you are going to do, but I knew in my head that the social norming part – the social comparison part – the voyeuristic part was what was gonna make a difference.” Just before dinner, he sent the email and, true to form, Andy came through with flying colors. I caught up with him five months later when he was still riding the high that comes with successfully completing a difficult commitment – in Andy’s case losing just about exactly 10 percent of his body weight.
So there’s a real tension here. On one hand, there’s this research that suggests it might be a good idea to keep your goals to yourself. On the other hand, we have a bunch of goal-setting websites that encourage us to share our goals with our friends and family on social networking sites. And there are regular everyday people saying that they work.
Now, I’m not saying, “Don’t use goal-setting websites.” I’m saying, “Be thoughtful about what you share using these sites.” The good news is that many of these goal-setting websites work perfectly fine for setting and tracking goals, even without turning on the social features. If you’d prefer to be private, simply don’t click “Connect to Facebook” or “Tweet this.”
Whether you’re more likely to achieve your goals privately or publicly… that’s debatable. But I’m pretty sure that my friends on Twitter and Facebook would rather I keep them out of the loop when it comes to my ragged fingernails.