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 blog editor at the design collaboration platform InvisionApp.comcontributor to WIRED, and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
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