Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The "Boxed Set Approach" to Setting Goals

Writers often refer to life as a stream or a journey – a continuous, ever-changing flow of events. It’s poetic but doesn’t capture how the human mind construes the passage of time. Our natural inclination is to chunk our lives into episodes and seasons, rather like a DVD boxed set.

The “Boxed Set approach” is significant to goal setting because where we place the episode dividers affects the way we perceive our past and future selves. If we think of a future self as being in a completely different (DVD) Season, so to speak, we are more likely to think of that future self as more separate and distinct from the person we are now. This sense of distance is energizing because it makes visible the ground we’ve yet to cover.

This connects with a motivational phenomenon known as mental contrasting. Stated briefly, thinking about the contrast between where you’d like to be at and where you are tends to have a galvanizing effect on motivation, focusing your mind on what needs to be done to achieve your goals. Thinking this way, you’re more likely to book the gym sessions or rehearsal times, rather than making vague promises that you should exercise more or practice more often.

This suggests that if you want to re-ignite your hunger and focus for a given ambition, you should pay attention to any “temporal landmarks” between now and project completion time. You can use public events, birthdays, or simply a planned weekend away to help act as episode dividers in the path ahead.

Pin Your Goals to “Temporal Landmarks”

Think of it like this: today you’re only mid-way through Season One of your life whereas those episode dividers indicate your end goal is located all the way in Season Two. This goal-achieving version of you in Season Two is superior to Season One you, which is a good thing, but you’ve got to work hard through some important life episodes to get there.

If the flexibility is available to you, you could even assist this process by deliberately planning project completions or future aspirations for the other side of important dates. Arrange a book deadline for after your birthday or a weight-loss target for when you get back from a conference. The more episode markers between now and your completed aims, the greater the sense of distance between present and future selves, and the more motivated you will be.

If you want to re-ignite your hunger and focus for a given ambition, you should pay attention to any “temporal landmarks” between now and project completion time.

The psychologists Johanna Peetz and Anne Wilson illustrated this Boxed Set approach (my name for it) in a study they conducted in late Fall. They gave participants a timeline and asked them to rate their health and fitness today, and then their desired physical state in seven weeks time. For some, Christmas Day was marked prominently on the time line, creating an obvious episode divider between now and the self in seven weeks. As predicted, these participants tended to rate their current physical fitness as much poorer than their future self’s fitness, as compared with participants using a time line with Christmas unmarked.

A similar result was found when two new groups of participants described their physical health today and their desired fitness in six months time. Compared with the participants who used a mostly featureless calendar, those who were shown a calendar marked with public holidays and prominent weekends tended to rate their current self as having much poorer fitness in relation to their future self.

What’s more, in both the Christmas Day and Calendar experiments, the sense of greater discrepancy between current and future selves went hand in hand with far greater motivation to achieve the desired future self. And consistent with the mental contrasting phenomenon, this translated into real behavior at the lab – for instance, participants reminded of episode dividers between now and the future were more likely to take away fitness brochures on offer at the end of the study.

Other experiments showed the flexibility in this approach: participants’ birthdays, the birthdays of past Presidents, and Mothers Day all acted as effective episode dividers, so long as attention was drawn to them and they were located between the current self and an imagined future.

A note of caution before you start mapping out the episode guide for your future life: If your goals are daunting or unrealistic, seeing them lying ahead in a future Season could backfire, dimming your morale and encouraging you to procrastinate. Save this technique for when you’re confident this isn’t a risk.

One more thought: although they didn’t test this idea in their lab, Peetz and Wilson speculated that episode dividers could also be used to help how we feel about the past. Imagine you’re feeling hamstrung by recent failure. The Boxed Set approach says you should pay attention to significant dates and events between the failure and today. By highlighting those past dividers (“This time last year, I hadn’t received my promotion yet.”), you’ll find it easier to believe you’re about to start a new Season starring a new You.

How about you?

Have you seen success in dividing your life into a “Boxed Set?” How’d it work for you?

More insights on: Motivation

Christian Jarrett

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Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blogcontributor to New York, author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
load comments (7)
  • Aaron Morton

    An experiment was done where a group was asked to pick 3 films; one to watch now, another to watch in a day, and finally one to watch in 2 days. They found the further away the movie is to be watched (3 days time) the more hard hitting and ‘thought provoking the movie (think schindlers list).

    When the group was asked to choose again only this time to choose movies to watch now back to back, the ‘thought provoking’ films were 10 times less likely to be picked.

    The ‘self’ we are now is different to the one in the future. We tend to think more confidently in our future self ability to perform a task than our present self, hense the tendency to put things off till a later date, in the belief we’ll be more motivated later.

    This is one of the reasons why my future long term goals tend to stay abstract and keep specifically defining goals to more short term time frames (3-6 months) with plenty of feedback thrown in.

    Great article

    Aaron Morton

    • Christian Jarrett

      Thanks Aaron – sounds like a fascinating study. I find the effects you’re talking about can even play out overnight. For example, I usually overestimate my next morning self’s willingness to clear up!

      • Aaron Morton

        Most definitely Christian! I find that most on my daily to-do list; always end up with more than I am capable of doing in one day!!


  • davidangelo85

    Great article! Thanks for the insights.

  • Judy Adamson

    Really interesting!

    I think this probably explains why, when my family asked me, a couple of months ago, what I wanted to do for my 70th birthday, I replied, ‘Launch my new portfolio website’! And I did it, last Sunday, although getting to that point in time for my birthday took a gargantuan effort and there were many times I nearly gave up!

    I thought the timing was just a coincidence but I shall certainly use this boxed set approach to work towards my goals from now on!

  • Kevin Flynn

    This is such an amazing way to go about setting up goals in our lives. I appreciate this article a lot. I have such a hard time with setting up goals and following through because I write it down, and forget about it. Almost like the ink on paper will turn into my goals. But I believe I put it to the side, due to the fact that it is boring.

    This is a creative way to go about goal setting, and I truly believe it will allow more productivity out of us who follow it, or at least try to use it in our everyday lives.


  • Gtdagenda

    If you’d like a tool for setting your goals, you can use this web application:

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote and Google Calendar, and also comes with mobile version, and Android and iPhone apps.

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