Being ambiguous is easy. Just nod meaningfully, pausing here and there to scrunch up your face. And if you wear glasses, the ear piece should migrate to your mouth at least once, then remove it to say something with a double negative, like: “It isn’t that I don’t disagree,” or “Wouldn’t not knowing be wonderful?”
Yes, it would(n’t). I think.
Specificity, on the other hand, is different. It takes courage. It’s fraught with risk, especially where personal goals are concerned. When you dare to be specific, you pave your very own thruway, complete with mile-markers against which you’ll inevitably be measured. Want to run a 6 minute mile? Me too! How about losing 13 pounds? When do we start?
As Associate Professor of Psychology Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., suggests: there’s no time like next Tuesday! And if not then, a few days after that. But definitely at some point, maybe.
While studies show goal setting invariably leads to positive outcomes, nailing down the details can be harder than it sounds. According to Pychyl, the reason we are specifics-averse varies:
But if my goals are blurry, I can bask in that non-judgmental space called ‘process’. Wherever I might be going, I’ll get there some day, much the way a listless boat eventually finds sand. Unfortunately for my rudderless schooner, research reveals it might be doomed to a life of endless wander.
Conversely, we know that specific commitments, whether successful or otherwise, can lead to stronger resolve, generating positive results. We are, after all, creatures of habit. Take Michael Phelps, for example: legend has it that in the first moments of the 2008 Beijing 200-meter butterfly Olympic final, Phelps’ goggles filled with water, rendering him blind. “No longer [could] he see the lines on the bottom of the pool,” writes Risë Rafterty, “guiding his direction, or the movements of his competitors, or how close he is to the wall in front of him.”
Thankfully, coach Bob Bowman forced Phelps to practice in the dark, occasionally blacking out his goggles so to encourage visualization—the exact number of strokes to reach the wall, the butterfly turn, dolphin kick. More than anything, Bowman was training Phelps to memorize specifics.
Okay, yes, we may be talking about exercise, but as noted by University of Rhode Island Professor and Stages of Change researcher James O. Prochaska, “Exercise spills over. There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.” Whatever the desired behavior—smoking cessation, social media restraint, dietary adjustments—successful goal attainment appears contagious.
Not long ago Stigma Expert Gretchen Grappone was kind enough to conduct a Stigma Awareness & Reduction training here at The Mental Health Center, and of the many messages she delivered, one stood out in particular. She told us that change is best achieved by focusing on behaviors rather than attitudes.
The concept was freeing. We need not fixate on the way we feel about something, we focus on the way we act. Studies show, she said, that attitudes follow behaviors more readily than the other way around. Rather than altering my mindset (which is constructed of decades of external influences and complex biological entanglements), all I need do is enact positive answers to specific questions: Will I jog that 2.34 mile loop today? Will I eat a banana instead of that red velvet chocolate chunk muffin? Will I reach out to a family member regardless of his personal struggles?
As for Phelps and his waterlogged goggles, not only did he take home a gold medal for the 2008 200-meter butterfly Olympic final but he also set a new World Record: 1:52.03.
That’s 76 strokes if you’re keeping track.
 Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist,54(7), 493-503. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.54.7.493
 Staw, B. M. (1981). The Escalation of Commitment to a Course of Action. The Academy of Management Review,6(4), 577. doi:10.2307/257636