SCIENCE OF GOALS

Are Video Games Really the Model for Successful Goal-Setting?

January 5, 2021



Ok, it’s the first full week of the New Year, so everybody is gearing up to make 2021 a banner year, both personally and professionally.  Good intentions…but picture this all-too-common scenario:

Jan 1, morning – You set a goal to read more books and get in the best shape of your life this year.

Jan 1, evening – You are glued to the couch eating takeout pizza and binge-watching episodes of The Queen’s Gambit.

Where did it all go off the tracks?

According to an article in The Conversation, the so-called common wisdom is to follow the SMART model which tells you to set specific goals, make the goals somewhat difficult and get regular feedback on progress.    Check, check and check.  If you’re wondering, SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound.  A common example is walking 10,000 steps a day.

But this advice is so 1990s.  Video games popularized this model which eventually led to the concept of gamification.

New, more modern research suggests that this system of SMART goal setting may not be the optimal way to do things.

Here’s what to do to kill it in 2021 with your goals, according to the latest scientific research.

Set “open” goals
Open goals are not specific and are exploratory.  The idea behind setting such goals is often “let’s see how well I can do.” 

Take some shots off your golf game.  For example, professional golfers in one study described performing at their best when aiming to “see how many under par I can get.”

Climbing Mount Everest.  One elite athlete interviewed in another study who was a Mount Everest climber described his approach as follows:

“I was just thinking, ‘Oh I’ll just see how it goes and take it as it comes.’ I climbed higher and higher and the climb had got more and more engrossing and difficult and all-encompassing really […] until I discovered that I’d climbed like 40 metres without consciously knowing what I was doing.”

Get rid of the feeling of failure.  A participant in follow-up studies said open goals “took away the trauma of failing.”  If you think about it, it makes total sense.  You set a goal of walking 10,000 steps or losing 5 pounds, or whatever, and miss the goal by a hair and feel like you’ve failed.  That’s not a positive mindset that can lead to a virtuous cycle of behavior.  It’s just depressing.

Doing something now versus planning to get something done in the future
Another important difference between open and SMART goals is the perspective – SMART goals are about identifying something in the future you want to achieve, not about what you are doing now.  And the more difficult the goal, the bigger the gap between where you are at right now and where you want to be.  So that means progress towards the goal will likely be slow, which is not that much fun.

On the other hand, the focus of open goals is on your starting point. “Let’s see how much weight I can lose.  Oh, I lost 1 pound this week, cool, let’s keep doing this.”  It’s subtle, but the different mindset makes you enjoy incremental progress and continue that positive behavior instead of failing to meet a lofty goal.


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