I found the study I was looking for. Actually, it turned out to be a TED talk (I should have known) that mentions a few different studies:
The video’s only about 3 minutes long, so you probably have time to watch it (assuming you’re willing to give up something essential).
When I first saw this video, I was a little surprised, because you always hear that you should tell others your goals. But it also rang true. I had read that J.K. Rowling doesn’t talk about her work while she’s writing, because talking about it would sap her energy to actually write. And I’d heard another quip (possibly also from her) that all those people standing around at cocktail parties talking about the books they’re writing would be sitting at home typing if they were really writing books. [Update: I didn’t locate the source of the quip, but I did find this post which may be amusing to book-writing types.]
Some of us, however, can’t seem to do anything without talking about it, a lot. So I guess our kind will have to work around our talkativity handicap by doing as Mr. Sivers suggests, finding ways to talk about our goals that don’t replace the emotional satisfaction of the accomplishment. (But talking in general gives me emotional satisfaction. Oh, well. Maybe I just need a goal to talk a lot. Win/win.)
I was thinking about this TED talk in the context of New Year’s Resolutions, because I think it’s easy, especially during the winter holidays when we’re (ideally) off-duty from the daily grind, to picture our life as a blank canvas (a new year!) and then to paint that canvas with a beautiful image of all the ways we wish our lives were different: “This year I will be thin! Rich! Beautiful! Muscular! Organized! Educated! Even-tempered! Kind! Prompt! Well-traveled! Multilingual! Cultured!” and so on. Writing a tantalizing list of resolutions can become a pleasure in itself. Even without telling our goals, the emotional satisfaction of envisioning that radiant future can become a substitute for the joy of achieving the goals.
Then January comes, we return to our routines, and our lives are far from a blank canvas. Decisions we’ve already made, sometimes years earlier, continue to occupy nearly all our time and energy. I often use the word “triangulated” to describe my schedule, but I wasn’t sure I was using the word correctly, so I asked Dean and he said to triangulate is just to use known points to determine an unknown point. And that’s how most of our lives are–we have so many things we’re already committed to, that most of our “free time” is already allocated.
I think most of us also have an amazing capacity to underestimate the amount of time and energy that worthy goals really take. We can think it should take about an hour to get our kids to bed, but then one kid needs a drink, one has a temper tantrum, the first kid needs another drink and spills a cup of water on the carpet, another forgot to brush her teeth and discovers her electric toothbrush needs fresh batteries, the first kid needs yet another drink, another one just remembered she has homework, one wants to finish her chapter, the first one now needs to use the bathroom, and suddenly three hours have passed. (I think this is an accurate example even if you have just one kid. And it’s just one example of one type of task; I’m sure you can provide many examples from your own life.)
I also think that in any task, we tend to account only for the actual time spent physically working on something, and forget to allocate time for invisible things like mental preparation, pondering decisions, and taking breaks.
That doesn’t mean that all these things occupying our time aren’t very worthwhile; ideally they reflect our core wants and values. We’re already living our goals. But when there are things we’d still really like to change, our goals need to take into account the existing demands on our time. They can’t just be beautiful fantasies; they have to somehow fit into the (beautiful, meaningful, but tightly delineated) corner into which we’ve already painted ourselves.
(This Threadless Tee is one of my all-time favorites.)