Ep 215 – The Science of Goal Setting and Success

When it comes to setting and meeting goals, the way we perceive our plans, progress, and potential could be what’s impeding our success. We literally see ourselves as being closer to or farther away from a goal than we really are, which distracts from the original plan so that we either focus too heavily on a broad plan or, alternately, spend too much time working out the little details.

Episode 215: The Science of Goal Setting and Success with Emily Balcetis 

Social psychologist and New York University Associate Professor of Psychology Emily Balcetis’s new book Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See the World, shows us research-based evidence that there is power in these misperceptions and we can learn to use them to our advantage. I’m so pleased to have Emily with me today to talk about the science of goal setting and success. Emily walks us through the importance of goal setting and what makes some others great at meeting and surpassing goals and others fail. Emily has her new book out and I was drawn to the topic. I’m always focused on ways to improve my own personal and professional goals which why I wanted to learn about the why behind her writing this book and what she learned. 

Goal Setting and Success Rate Starts with Perception 

Emily has a TedX talk that is titled,” Why Some People Find Exercise Harder Than Others.” I personally struggle with regular exercise myself and I asked Emily about what her TedX talk has to do with success for people inside and outside of the gym. Emily says that as a motivation scientist, she was really interested in this topic. What makes people get to the gym and others struggle at the start. What she found in her research is that it all comes down to perception. People who struggled in finishing a race did so not because of their fitness level but because of how far they perceived them physically from reaching the finish line and accomplishing their goal. Emily says this is why breaking up larger goals into smaller ones is effective because people see the finish line as a shorter distance making them more likely to accomplish whatever they set out to do. I can totally relate to this idea, and it’s one of the reasons why I try to break up my exercise routine in five-minute increments instead of focusing on the entire 45-minute workout goal. I know that I can do 5 minutes and once I meet that goal, I move to the next five-minute goal. 

Emily shares that setting goals this way perceptual experience changes their psychological experience, it’s sort of like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The distance to victory is less making it easier to reach and obtain. This had me thinking about my goal-setting in an entirely different way.

Your Background Defines the Experience You Have

Emily says that our past experiences really shapes how we perceive the world. Her research shows the many idiosyncrasies and how we view at the world around us. She uses an example of that a picture she shows in the book. It’s a line drawing with two different ways to be interpreted. She says one of two ways that might be the head of a horse and the other the full body of a seal. She says when showed people the picture about 80 percent of people see the horse and 20 percent of people see the seal. Now, both people are right. Both interpretations are correct, but they’re really quite different. A horse looks nothing like a seal except for in this drawing. And so we might be inclined to call one of those a misperception or both of them a misperception.

This is such a great example by Emily that demonstrates how different we interpret the information, people, life and experiences around us. Your coworker sees the world completely different and only later do you realize they are seeing the picture as a seal when you see a horse. I love this example because I think it provides us insights into workplace experiences including culture, how others follow direction, and also lead and work within teams. The possibilities are endless here, but the most important thing is being aware that your experience isn’t everyone’s experience and use that as a starting point in understanding others.

Is Failure Really a Bad Thing?

Emily’s new book talks in great deal about setting goals and finding success, however, I find that I learn more from those moments where I don’t meet my goals or achieve that big audacious dream. Emily’s book talks about this too and encourages people to see failures as growth opportunities. She says that our culture makes failure seen as negative when it is an opportunity to grow and evolve for the next time. 

I think that's what was surprising to me, is that there are such benefits of accepting the possibility that we might fail. - Emily Balcentis #podcast #success #leadership Click To Tweet


It’s about that time of year when we start chastising ourselves for not making progress on our new year’s resolutions. But what if we simply took a step back and set new ones? Through the science of behavioral psychology, as it applies to goal setting and success, we can teach ourselves how to set better goals, learn how to visualize them, and make them manageable in our work and personal lives. I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to have Emily on the podcast today.

Connect with Emily Balcetis on Linkedin.



– Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See the World

– Ultimate Guide to Outcome Based Goal Setting

– TEDx | Why some people find exercise harder than others | Emily Balcetis (video)

– ER Doctor Multi-tasking study

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Learn more about Jessica Miller-Merrell, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource, and the host of the Workology Podcast. More of her blogs can be found here.


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