Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Dream global, act local

Achieve your goals by thinking big and acting specifically.
When you want to motivate someone to do something, you tell them to Dream Big, and to Reach for the Stars. That is, of course, important advice. It is hard to achieve greatness without ever dreaming of greatness. An important question, though, is how you should go about achieving that greatness after you have dreamed it?

An interesting new study in the November, 2008 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Linda Houser-Marko and Kennon Sheldon sheds some light on that question. The point out that there is lots of previous research (much of it by Dan Wegner and Robin Vallacher) that points out that people are able to identify the actions they are carrying out at a variety of different levels of generality. For example, imagine that you are talking on the phone in order to ask your friend whether you can borrow her car. If someone stopped you in the middle of the conversation and asked you what you were doing, you could say "begging for a car," or perhaps "asking a question" or even "speaking into the phone." The first of these is a very general statement of what you are doing. The last of these is a very specific action that is part of the more general action of begging for a car.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

When you dream big, you are usually thinking about a grand and general action. You might want to become a great musician, get a good grade in a class, or perhaps get a rewarding job, or even make the world a safer place. To carry out any of these big goals, you also need to carry out a series of smaller steps. For example, getting an A in a class might require studying a certain number of hours each week, or practicing skills from the class, or spending an amount of time writing.

When you are in the process of trying to achieve a big goal, how should you think about your actions?

Houser-Marko and Sheldon's data suggest that you should focus on the specific actions that are part of the broader goal. The reason why you should focus on actions, is that you may sometimes fail along the way toward trying to achieve the broader goal. For example, if you want to get an A in the class, you might set the goal of studying at least 10 hours a week for the class. Imagine you have a difficult week, or perhaps a strong temptation comes up. You might study only 6 hours for the class in one week. If you focus on the general goal of getting an A, then you will feel worse about this failure than if you focus just on the local goal of studying for 10 hours. The idea is that small failures along the way are more likely to be seen as chipping away at the possibility that you will achieve the broader goal when you focus only on that general goal than if you focus on the specific actions. If you start to feel bad about your prospects for success at the larger goal, you may give up altogether.

So, these findings suggest that when you dream, you should dream globally. Set your sights on high achievement. But when it comes time to actually achieve your goal, act locally. Find specific actions that will bring you toward your goal. Even if you stumble on the way to the goal, if you focus on the specific actions, you will not see your failure as a sign that you will not succeed at your dreams.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

more...

Subscribe to Ulterior Motives

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?