New Insights on Goal Setting from Harvard & Wharton Psychologists

How To Improve Your Odds of Success by 8%+

Lewis Kallow
November 21, 2022
Meet Super Self, the free weekly newsletter that brings you the latest science for personal growth. A better you in just 5 minutes.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Today, we're discussing how you can increase your odds of success at just about anything in life by 8%+ with a simple framework.

All thanks to a new study from Harvard Business School & the Wharton School.

The most exciting collaboration since LEGO & Stranger Things.


​Featured Science

New Insights on Goal Setting from Harvard & Wharton Psychologists


🔷 Executive Summary
— The way you frame your goals will affect your likelihood of achieving them. In order to maximize your odds of success, you should balance how "granular" your goals are—how narrow you make them, with how "flexible" they are—how much leeway you give yourself.

⭐️ The Significance

There are still a lot of unresolved mysteries when it comes to the science of achieving goals.

But one thing that’s only getting clearer is the importance of breaking your goals down into small pieces.

In the past two years alone, we’ve seen evidence that breaking goals down into more “granular” subgoals can minimize procrastination and bolster motivation.

In one recent study, consumers were 45% more likely to sign up for a $35 a week saving program than an equivalent one for $150 a month.

Identical investment, different framing.

When framed as even more granular—$5 daily, there was a 400% increase relative to the monthly condition!

Whether it’s related to money, productivity, or health, studies find that we like our goals nice and small.

So, we can all agree that we need to break our goals down then?

Yes.

Ish.

The Granularity-Flexibility Tradeoff

Another factor that has jumped out as important over the past year or so is goal flexibility.

For example, having a goal to meditate every single day at 10 a.m. is pretty rigid.

A goal to meditate 5 times per week is more flexible.

Studies find that when we’re given more flexibility, we tend to get a boost in wellbeing because we feel as though we have more control over our schedule.

One study from Harvard last year found that aspiring gym goers worked out significantly more in the long run when they could choose any time of day to attend the gym versus a set two hour window.

Flexible goals also protect us from what some renegade scientist decided to call:

The What The Hell Effect

The What The Hell Effect is what happens when you get demotivated after a setback, throw your hands up in the air, and give up entirely.

Like if you screw up for the first time on a new diet and then proceed to drive up your blood sugar level as though it’s the next stock market rally.

Less flexible goals lead to more “goal violations” and thus more “what-the-hells.”

So, how do you set goals that are both granular and flexible? Is there a tradeoff? A sweet spot?

That’s exactly what today’s study sought to find out…

🧪 The Study

Researchers enlisted the help of 9,108 participants and gave them all the same goal:

  • To spend 200 hours volunteering at a national crisis counseling organization over the period of a year.

The twist is that they were broken into three separate groups, and each given the same goal but with a different framing:

  1. Volunteer 200 hours a year (least granular, most flexible)
  2. Volunteer 8 hours a fortnight (less granular, more flexible)
  3. Volunteer 4 hours a week (most granular, least flexible)

And then they let them duke it out in the name of charity for 12 weeks.

⚡️ The Findings

The first interesting finding is that the number of people who were on track to achieve their goal was quite low, confirming what we’ve all learned the hard way: achieving goals is tough work.

Granularity

Next, the importance of granularity was once again confirmed. The 4 hours per week group achieved an 8.4% increase in weekly volunteering compared to the 200 hours per year group.

Based on that 8% alone, the charity could equate an extra 19,900 hours of additional volunteering per year across all of its volunteers.

As individuals, that could equate to hundreds of extra hours of productive work, healthful habits, or even intentional leisure time.

Not to mention how small percentages can compound over time.

Flexibility

The group with the more flexible goal of 8 hours per fortnight did even better than the 4 hours per week group, clocking an extra 1-3% further increase in time spent.

Granularity had a bigger impact than flexibility in this case, although every little helps.

Finally, the weekly and fortnightly groups both exhibited a significant reduction in procrastination behavior, and were more consistent over the long-run.

💎 The Takeaway

The key takeaway is that the way you decide to frame your goals will affect your odds of achieving them.

If you’re procrastinating, try making your goal more granular by breaking it down into something smaller.

E.g. Write a chapter ⇒ outline section one.

E.g. 150 minutes of cardio per week ⇒ 20 minutes per day

If you feel like you’re failing or giving up, try giving yourself more breathing room.

E.g. Consume zero added sugar ⇒ Only allow added sugar 1 day per week.

E.g. Study every day at 9 a.m. ⇒ Study for 90 minutes per day.


Tweak these two dials until you get the results you’re looking for.

Whether you’re trying to get more work done, clean up your diet, or spend more time helping others, there are many factors that affect your odds of success. But by being mindful of the granularity-flexibility tradeoff, you’ll nudge those odds a little more in your favor.


Super Snippets

🌳 Trees of Life — A nonprofit has been planting trees in Portland, Oregon for thirty years. A total of 49,246 street trees have been planted and now a new study has found that nearby residents enjoyed a 20% reduction in their chances of dying from any cause as a result of the initiative.

Researchers took into account other factors like income and education and speculated that the effect might be driven by a drop in air & noise pollution.

🌃 Dark Findings — Millions of cases of diabetes are now being attributed to light pollution. A new study using satellite imagery has tied artificial light exposure at night to impaired blood glucose control and an increased risk of diabetes. Those who were exposed to the 20% brightest levels of light had a 28% increased risk compared to those 20% who were exposed to the darkest.

Some cities are now so bright that they’re affecting the sleep of residents living hundreds of kilometers away. Time to invest in some good blackout curtains!

💊 Medication vs Meditation — A new randomized controlled trial published in JAMA Psychiatry found that meditation was just as effective for easing anxiety as a gold-standard medication: escitalopram. Over a period of 8 weeks, clinical experts noted a 30% drop in anxiety for participants who attended meditation classes and practiced at home for 45 minutes a day, the same drop observed for those who took the medication.

🧠 Unmotivated? Or Just Inflamed? — Neuroscientists discovered that an antioxidant known as “glutathione” plays a key role in our motivation levels. They found that people were more motivated to engage in effortful tasks when glutathione was elevated in brain scans.

Meanwhile, blocking “glutathione” lowered motivation levels in rats. When they gave the rats a supplement of “N-acetylcysteine”—which is needed for the production of glutathione—their motivation remained high.

These findings point to how antioxidant levels and inflammatory factors (stress, alcohol, smoking, etc) may have an impact on our motivation.

The lead researcher advised:

"N-acetylcysteine, the nutritional supplement that we gave in our study can also be synthesized in the body from its precursor cysteine. Cysteine is contained in 'high-protein foods', such as meat, chicken, fish or seafood. Other sources with lower content are eggs, whole-grain foods such as breads and cereals, and some vegetables such as broccoli, onions, and legumes.”

On that note...

🍳 Most Important Nutrient of the Day — A year-long study of 9,341 Australians found that those who consumed lower amounts of protein in their first meal went on to eat far more calories throughout the day. Those who ate a breakfast with at least 15-25% of calories from protein consumed less processed foods throughout the day and had a much lower total energy intake.

Professor Raubenheimer who led the experiment said he’d observed this effect across many previous studies and in a variety of countries including remote places such as the Himalayas. He argues that high-processed, low-protein foods are a major contributor to rising obesity levels.

Meanwhile...

🧭 State Your Purpose — People with the highest sense of purpose in life had a 21% lower risk of mortality compared to those with the lowest sense of purpose.

❗️"Everywhere Chemicals" — Researchers found yet another causal danger of phthalates—the toxic chemicals in everyday plastics and consumer products. Exposure was linked to uterine fibroids, the most common tumors in women.

👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 Födsel — A new study found that Swedish men and women actually had more children as their income increased, not less, contrary to popular beliefs on income and birth rates.

📲 Recommendation — This SMS based habit tracker that uses science-based principles has been helping me consume less added sugar over the past few weeks!


New & Noteworthy Content

📖 [NUTRITION]  This Is How To Have A Long Awesome Life  — Eric Barker

This article acts as a cheatsheet on the science of nutrition, and it seems pretty bang on when I think about how it stacks up with all the studies I’ve seen over the years. It helps that Barker is summarizing a book written by a Harvard Medical School professor.
8 minute read

📖 [TIME] —  How We Spend Our Time  — The Curiosity Chronicle

“Well how DEPRESSING.”

That’s how my close friend responded after I forwarded this one to her!

The data that Bloom shares certainly puts things in perspective.
​4 minute read

🎙 [DIET] — Dr. Chris Palmer: Diet & Nutrition for Mental Health — The Huberman Lab Podcast

This is one of those episodes I sent to every person I care about. Learning about the latest links between diet and various mental & physical health problems makes for essential listening.
​3 hour listen

🎙 [HAPPINESS] —  Science-Based Tools for Increasing Happiness  — The Huberman Lab Podcast

Two recs from Professor Huberman in one week. What do sunsets, eye contact, and gift-giving all have in common? They’re examples of evidence-backed tactics for becoming happier that were broken down in last week's episode.
​2 hour 20 minute listen

💡 Did you hear, read, or watch some inspiring content published in the last two weeks relevant to personal growth? Help me improve this section for everyone by letting me know!


Latest Book Release

Discipline Is Destiny: The Power of Self-Control

by Ryan Holiday


In his New York Times bestselling book Courage is Calling, author Ryan Holiday made the Stoic case for a bold and brave life. In this much-anticipated second book of his Stoic Virtue series, Holiday celebrates the awesome power of self-discipline and those who have seized it.

In Discipline is Destiny, Holiday draws on the stories of historical figures we can emulate as pillars of self-discipline, including Lou Gehrig, Queen Elizabeth II, boxer Floyd Patterson, Marcus Aurelius and writer Toni Morrison, as well as the cautionary tales of Napoleon, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Babe Ruth.

Through these engaging examples, Holiday teaches readers the power of self-discipline and balance, and cautions against the perils of extravagance and hedonism.


Quote Of The Week

“It is not enough to take steps which may someday lead to a goal; each step must be itself a goal and a step likewise.”

― Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe


Stay Super,

Lewis 🦸🏻‍♂️

P.s. I've heard that forwarding this issue to a friend who might enjoy it will give you seven years of good karma. Who knows, worth a shot.

Subscribe to Super Self

Free weekly newsletter bringing you the latest science for personal growth.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.