Back to the Future: Goal Setting by Personality Type

I’ve gotten a few requests for a post on how to set goals based on your personality type. It’s all well and good to read about how I set goals as a Type A extrovert—but what strategies can introverted and/or more laidback people pursue to help them accomplish their objectives? Fortunately or unfortunately, as I was preparing content for this post, Fast Company beat me to it with a fantastic piece on how different personality types can set (and achieve) their goals. The tl;dr version? Type B personalities do better with more specific, learning-based goals. When it comes to measuring progress, competitive Type As tend to use gamification apps like Habitica to stay on track. Conversely, Type B personalities are more likely to seek out a buddy or accountability coach to keep them motivated.

If it’s motivation you seek, Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework can shed some additional light on this common goal setting challenge. Rubin’s theory is that most people align to one of four major personality types: upholder, obliger, questioner, and rebel:

  • Upholders (like me) are intrinsically motivated to achieve their goals—to the point that they may not be flexible enough to adjust them, as needed.

  • Obligers are concerned with other people’s expectations for them. To ensure progress, they need to hold themselves accountable to their goals by involving other people. For example, if they are trying to work out more frequently, getting a workout partner will help them keep their commitment.

  • Questioners are unwilling to accept the status quo. They are highly logical and analytical and struggle with making decisions with imperfect information. To make progress, they need to set deadlines for themselves and learn to settle with “good enough.”

  • Rebels resist internal and external expectations. To make progress against their goals, rebels should focus on the joy of proving themselves or someone else wrong.

If you saw yourself in one of the above personality types, then by all means go ahead and adapt your goal setting strategy to align with your strengths and guard against your weaknesses. For example, as an upholder, I know I can sit down and bang out a goals list no problem. What’s even more twisted is that I enjoy it. But, in the past, I have had trouble accepting defeat. A goal I set could be too ambitious or may no longer be a priority, but I’m still determined to cross it off just because it’s on my list. To guard against this tendency, I hold weekly reviews to understand where I’m spending my time. This honest assessment helps me scrap those activities that may not support one of my stated priorities.

As I start to break into the business of accountability coaching, I’m seeing a few tendencies coming through with my “clients” that play into the goal setting debate:

  • One “client” knows what they want to achieve. Every three to six months, they get an impressive burst of energy, hold an intensive multi-hour planning session (often involving the purchase of a new planner or other fancy tool), set up a detailed list of goals and habits, and then proceed to do nothing about it.

  • Another “client” pledges to be at work at the crack of dawn every day, complete all assignments in record time, volunteer for extra work, and never make a mistake.

The problem with both of these approaches? Too elaborate. My advice was to keep it simple. Here are a few additional goal setting tips to keep in mind:

  • Limit your goals to no more than 2-3 at a time. This could be even less depending on your other commitments. if you are starting a new job, have kids, want to lose 30 pounds and—by the way—plan to redecorate your apartment, reduce your spending, and get promoted in the next year, something’s gotta give. Decide what you really want to do, and brutally cut everything else that doesn’t align. Consider any activity you accomplish beyond your goals as a bonus.

  • Avoid setting yourself up to fail. One of my clients stated that they wished to arrive at the office at 8am daily. The problem? They rarely make it in before 10am now and have kids that they need to get ready for school. My advice? The goal was unrealistic. Instead, I suggested blocking out the time in their calendar to show as unavailable until 10am. This reduces the likelihood of having a meeting scheduled in the morning, which often delayed their office arrival time. If they made it in before 10, suddenly they’ve exceeded their goal—instead of feeling guilty that they didn’t arrive at 8am for the rest of the day.

  • Scrap the tools. Shopping around for a fancy new tool is another way to procrastinate on making progress. Instead of ramping up the pressure to set goals for several hours, set a 15-minute phone timer once a week to review progress—using whatever is on hand. With only 15 minutes available, you won’t have time to look for anything nicer.

Back to the future

Back to the future

Another interesting theory from productivity expert Chris Bailey that I wholeheartedly endorse is that people who are more comfortable with their future selves do better at setting goals. Just as people who are more self-aware do better in their interactions with others, people who can imagine themselves in the future are happier to dedicate time in the present to benefit their future selves. After all, why spend your precious time in the present helping someone you don’t even know? Thinking about the future as a malleable environment that you can influence helps, as does spending some time getting to know future you. One cool way to do this that Bailey recommends is to write a letter to your future self.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve tried any of these goal setting tips and whether they’ve worked for you!