Have you ever vowed to practice more? Told friends, teachers, or parents how you intended to practice more scales or do more slow practice this year?

Conventional wisdom suggests that stating your goals publicly is a good thing because it makes you accountable for your actions. If, for instance, you tell a friend that you are going to practice more, it would appear to put more pressure on you to follow through.

But do things really work that way? Does talking about your goals make you more likely to follow through?

As it turns out, you’re probably better off keeping your mouth shut.

A group of researchers conducted a series of studies to find out what happens when we make our intentions public.

There were three notable findings:

1. We make fewer attempts to act on our goals.

Meaning, you’ll probably make fewer attempts to practice sight reading if you tell your teacher about your plans, than if you keep it to yourself.

2. We spend less time working towards our goals.

Meaning, when you do get around to practicing your sight-reading, you’ll probably quit sooner if you talk about your plans to others, and work longer if you keep your goals private.

In one study for instance, thirty law students who expressed an intention to make the best possible use of educational opportunities in law were presented with a set of cases to solve. They were given 45 minutes to work on these cases, but told they could finish earlier if they wanted to.

Those students whose intentions were kept private worked 10% longer than those whose intentions were made public.

In another similar study with psychology students, those whose intentions were private worked 16% longer than those whose intentions were made public.

3. This discrepancy only applies if we are talking about activities that are tied to our identity goals.

Identity goals are goals about the kind of person we want to be, such as a musician, good parent, or fit/healthy individual.

So if becoming a musician isn’t all that important to you, or if being able to sight read well is not relevant to your future, whether you make your sight reading goals public or private won’t affect your behavior much.

Case in point, a group of psychology students were asked to analyze a videotaped therapy session. Some were aspiring clinical psychologists, for whom watching therapy sessions would be a valuable educational experience, while others planned on going into other areas of psychology (such as industrial or experimental psychology) where watching therapy sessions is less relevant to their careers.

Among those students who intended to go into non-clinical fields of psychology, it didn’t matter much whether their intention to study videotaped therapy sessions was made public or kept private. Both groups spent about the same amount of time analyzing the therapy sessions (30.68 minutes vs. 30.90 minutes).

There was, however, a pretty big disparity among the aspiring clinical psychologists. Those whose intentions to study therapy sessions were kept private worked 40% longer analyzing the videotaped therapy session, than those whose intentions were made public (39.17 minutes vs. 27.95 minutes).

Take action

Moral of the story? Set your goals and make your plans, but spend less time talking about them, and more energy actually carrying them out.

The one-sentence summary

“If A equals success, then the formula is A equals X plus Y and Z, with X being work, Y play, and Z keeping your mouth shut.”  ~Albert Einstein