by Danielle Keenan-Miller, Ph.D.
From an early age, we’re taught by parents and teachers to “try our best”, and many of us carry this lesson with us as we grow older. Intuitively, focusing on doing the best we can with the skills we have makes a lot of sense. The problem with trying your best, however, is that it can actually leads you to accomplish less and feel less satisfied than you would if you set a more concrete goal. In fact, the failure of “try your best” goals has been proven in studies of more than 40,000 people working on 88 different types of goals (1).
Why doesn’t it work to set out to just try your best? In over 400 studies of goal setting, it has repeatedly been found that people are most likely to accomplish goals that are specific and difficult (2). The vaguer the goal is, the less likely it is that the goal will be met (and is there anything more vague than “trying hard”?). It’s nearly impossible to know for sure whether or not you’re giving maximal effort, which makes it more difficult to get appropriate feedback about your performance, and makes it less likely that you’ll stay committed to your goal when the going gets tough. Even worse, setting a vague goal about trying your best also means you’re less likely to satisfied with your performance, no matter how well you do. Achievements only have a positive effect on mood and satisfaction if the goal is perceived as difficult (3).
However, there is some wisdom in the old “try your best” axiom-- in many situations, it’s more helpful to focus on the effort you expend than it is to focus on the accomplishment of a set outcome. Particularly when you’re in the early stages of learning a new skill, it is preferable to focus on a learning-based goal (e.g. I will identify complete all of the practice problems; I will research marketing strategies) rather than the performance outcome (I will get an A on my exam; I will increase my sales by 15%) (3). The key is to set up your effort-based goal in such a way that it is still specific, challenging, and measurable.
Whether you’re wanting to take steps towards improving your health, growing your business, or learning a new skill, take the time to start your journey of self-improvement off on the right foot by setting up a goal that will maximize your chance of success.
1 Locke, E.A. & Latham, G.P. (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 265-268.
2 Latham, G.P. & Locke, E.A. (1991). Self-regulation through goal setting. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Making, 50, 212-247.
3 Latham, G.P. & Locke. E.A. (2007). New developments in and directions for goal setting research. European Psychologist, 12, 290-300. Doi: 10.1027/1016-9040.12.4.290